I don't agree with everything that scientist Vaclav Smil says here, but it's refreshing to hear from someone who has the confidence to call BS on the delusional. Speaking one's mind .....there is hope.
This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real
By David Marches
The “really” in the title of Vaclav Smil’s newest book, “How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going,” is doing some heavy lifting. Implicit in the renowned energy scientist’s usage is the idea that most of us are uninformed or just plain wrong about the fundamentals of the global economy. He aims to correct that — to recenter materials rather than electronic flows of data as the bedrock of modern life — largely through examining what he calls the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics and ammonia. (The production and use of all four currently requires burning huge amounts of fossil carbon.) Which brings us back to that “really.” In the context of Smil’s book, which will be published May 10, the word is also a rebuke to those calling for rapid decarbonization in order to combat global warming. “I am not talking about what could be done,” says Smil, who is 78 and who counts Bill Gates among his many devotees. “I’m looking at the world as it is.”
One of the fundamental arguments in
1Smil, a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba, has published more than 40 books on an impressively broad array of topics. They include “Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities”; “Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years”; and “The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change.”
is that in order to have a serious discussion about an energy transition that gets us away from burning fossil carbon, we need a shared acknowledgment of the material realities of the world. Which is to say, an acknowledgment that our current way of life is dependent on burning that fossil carbon. But do you believe decarbonization should be the goal? And if rapid decarbonization isn’t feasible, then what’s the best way to stop heating the planet? The most important thing to understand is the scale. An energy transition affecting a country of one million people is very different from a transition affecting a nation of more than one billion. It is one thing to invest a few billion dollars, another to find one trillion. This is where we are in terms of global civilization: This transition has to happen on a billion and trillion scales. Now, according to
2The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow last fall.
we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable because there’s just eight years left, and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic. Now, to answer your question. If you assume that carbon dioxide is our deadliest problem, then of course we should decarbonize totally. But people say by 2050 — they call it “net” carbon emissions. The I.P.C.C., they don’t say zero, they say “net zero.” Leaving that cushion — one billion, five billion, 10 billion tons of CO2 we will still be emitting but taking care of by carbon sequestration. Is it realistic that we’ll be
3Especially considering that we have yet to develop a widespread and widely agreed upon method of carbon sequestration.
People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem. Decarbonization by 2030? Really?
I understand the problem of setting difficult goals, but aren’t goals necessary for orienting our actions? What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional. We are forging ahead with
4On average, S.U.V.s in the United States put out 14 percent more carbon dioxide than small passenger cars. Additionally, the International Energy Agency released a study in 2019 that found S.U.V.s to have been more responsible for increasing carbon emissions over the previous decade than heavy industry, trucks, aviation and shipping.
we are building bigger houses, we want to invent new techniques to make more steel. But do we need all that more and bigger? I’m not against setting a goal. I’m all for realistic goals. I will not yield on this point. It’s misleading and doesn’t serve any use because we will not achieve it, and then people say, What’s the point? I’m all for goals but for strict realism in setting them.
When you talk about S.U.V.s and building bigger houses, you’re really talking about people’s consumption choices. Do you think changing those is an easier goal than decarbonizing? Well, we changed people’s consumption by letting them have their S.U.V.s. We can change people the other way. We could say, To save the planet people should drive smaller cars. If you drive a smaller car, you get a rebate. If you drive an S.U.V., you pay a surcharge. There are many ways to go around bringing rational goals. You don’t have to invent new things to solve these problems. This promise of inventions — 3-D printing! Houses will be printed! Cars will be printed! Have you seen any printed houses and cars? We live in this world of exaggerated promises and delusional pop science. I’m trying to bring it onto some modest track of reality and common sense. The official goal in the U.S. is complete decarbonization of electricity generation by 2035. That’s Biden’s program: zero-carbon electricity in 2035. The country doesn’t have a national grid! How will you decarbonize and run the country by wind and solar without a national grid? And what will it take to build a national grid in a NIMBY society like the U.S.?
That I don’t know, but aren’t there credible pathways to decarbonizing the grid? Mark Jacobson at Stanford has said we have most of the technology we need to produce America’s power renewably and keep the grid secure and stable by 2035. Or what about the example of countries like Norway or Namibia that are producing a vast majority of their energy from renewables? Check the China statistics. The country is adding, every year, gigawatts of new coal-fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to
5In 2000, Germany began its Energiewende policy, an attempt to decarbonize the country’s primary energy supply. At the time, fossil fuels accounted for nearly 84 percent of that supply. By 2020, that share had decreased by only about 8 percent.
Can you tell me how you’d go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I’m sorry, the reality is what it is.
6Which, roughly speaking, is the argument proposed by the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal that belief in God is a good bet because the potential benefits far outweigh any drawbacks.
Yes, of course.
Couldn’t we think about the problem of decarbonization in similar terms? Like, yes, maybe all the effort to transition to renewables won’t work, but the potential upside is enormous. Why not operate according to that logic? This is the misunderstanding people have: that we’ve been slothful and neglectful and doing nothing. True, we have too many S.U.V.s and build too many big houses and
7U.S. food waste has been estimated to total between 30 and 40 percent of our entire food supply.
But at the same time we are constantly transitioning and innovating. We went from coal to oil to natural gas, and then as we were moving into natural gas we moved into nuclear electricity, and we started building lots of large hydro, and they do not emit any carbon dioxide directly. So we’ve been transitioning to lower-carbon sources or noncarbon sources for decades. Moreover, we’ve been making our burning of carbon much more efficient. We are constantly transitioning to more efficient, more effective and less environmentally harmful things. So, yes, we’ve been wasteful, but our engineers are not asleep. Even those S.U.V.s, as wasteful as they are, are getting better than they were 10 years ago. The world is constantly improving.
Vaclav Smil teaching at the University of Manitoba, whose faculty he joined in 1972. University of Manitoba
Even though we’re constantly improving, we’re also facing an imminent catastrophe in climate change. I wonder if that makes it hard for people to internalize the improvement. This is also making me think of a paper you wrote about the future of natural gas in which you referred to Bill McKibben as America’s
8That was in a paper published by a nonprofit arm of the Spain-based natural gas and electricity company Naturgy, in which Smil took aim at the climate activist McKibben’s contention that moving from coal to natural gas was tantamount to breaking “our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.”
Is he wrong? What is “imminent”? In science you have to be careful with your words. We’ve had these problems ever since we started to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. We haven’t bothered to do anything about it. There is no excuse for that. We could have chosen a different path. But this is not our only imminent and global problem. About one billion people are either undernourished or malnourished. The fact of possible nuclear war these days. Remember what they used to say about Gerald Ford? He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. This is the problem of society today. We cannot do three things at the same time. So who decides what is imminent?
That’s not quite an answer to the question. I may have used the word “imminent” coarsely, but what about the word “catastrophe”? For more than 30 years, global warming has been making headlines. We’ve been aware of this for 30 years, on a planetary scale — all these I.P.C.C. meetings. Our emissions have been going up steadily every year. So here’s the question: Why haven’t we done anything? I could give you a list of things we could do but we haven’t done. Why do we keep saying it’s a catastrophic problem but do nothing about it?
Because of systemic and institutional inertia combined with vested interests working against change. But you aren’t suggesting that because we haven’t done enough in the past, then we don’t need to do something in the future? No. I’m just telling you that this is a totally unprecedented problem, and people don’t realize how difficult it will be to deal with. You don’t have to have 200 countries to sign on the dotted line to reduce emissions. But you have to have at least all the big emitters: China, the United States, India, Russia. What are the chances today of Russia, China and the U.S. signing on the dotted line as to the actual reduction of emissions by 2030? Also please notice that the Paris agreement has no legally binding language. In an ideal world, we could cut our emissions
9In Smil’s view, that means, as he told me, “doing things on the margins” — i.e., with far greater efficiency and less waste than we do them now.
But the point is it has to be done by all these actors in concert. Are we going to come together and make that global compact to make it work? That’s the question.
So how do you understand the risk of climate change? Are we just screwed? The key to understanding risk — forget about climate change — is very simple. It’s discounting the future. People will eat pork bellies and drink a liter of alcohol every day because the joy of eating pork belly and drinking surpasses the possible bad payoff 30 years down the road. Suppose we start investing like crazy and start bringing down the carbon as rapidly as possible. The first beneficiaries will be people living in the 2070s because of what’s already in the system. The temperature will keep rising even as we are reducing these emissions. So you are asking people now to make quote-unquote sacrifices while the first benefits will accrue to their children and the real benefits will accrue to their grandchildren. You have to redo the basic human wiring in the brain to change this risk analysis and say, I value 2055 or 2060 as much as I value tomorrow. None of us is wired to think that way.
I wonder if you and I might just have different ideas about human behavior. Isn’t it in our nature to help our children survive? Or, I don’t know, I eat much less meat than I used to; I’m moving into a new house and looking at solar panels and heat pumps. These aren’t things I was thinking about until climate change caused a social tipping point. So am I naïve, or are you pessimistic? Yes and no. It depends. Also, there is nothing wrong with the heat pump, but proper insulation, that’s much better in the long run. The point is that we are being greedy, we are wasting yet improving our efficiencies at the same time. This is where I become unpalatable to the media because I do not have one message like “everything is getting better.” I see it as checkered. People do sacrifice for our children, take the right steps. But the same people who will buy a solar panel and heat pump will buy an S.U.V. People will stop eating meat, then fly for a vacation in Toscana. We are messy, hard-to-define individuals. We are subject to fashions and whims — this is the beauty of humanity. Most of us are trying to do the right things with climate, but it is difficult when you have to move on the energy front, food front, materials front. People have to realize that this problem is unprecedented because of the numbers — billions of everything — and the pressure of acting rapidly as we never acted before. This doesn’t make it hopeless, but it makes it excruciatingly more difficult.
Smil speaking at a conference in Madrid in 2019. Fundación Naturgy
Do you think we are facing a civilizational threat in climate change? I cannot answer that question without having the threat defined. What does it mean? You’ve seen it with Covid: Was Covid an unprecedented catastrophe, as many people portrayed it? Or was it nothing, as other people portrayed it? Anti-lockdown, anti-mask people would say, Oh, it’s another flu. Clearly it was not another flu. But you know as well that it was not an unprecedented catastrophe. What do you want me to say? I cannot tell you that we don’t have a problem because we do have a problem. But I cannot tell you it’s the end of the world by next Monday because it is not the end of the world by next Monday. What’s the point of you pressing me to belong to one of these groups? We have a problem; it will be difficult to solve. Even more difficult than people think.................................
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