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This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real

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 your new book 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 COP26, 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 sequestering so rapidly on such a scale? 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 more S.U.V.s, 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 76 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.

You know Pascal’s wager? 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 waste too much food. 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 “leading climate catastrophist.” 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 if we put our minds into it. 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.

Does your understanding of the science around energy and climate change compel you in any particularly political directions? No. I used to live in the westernmost part of the evil empire, what’s now the Czech Republic. They forever turned me off any stupid politics because they politicized everything. So it is now, unfortunately, in the West. Everything’s politics. No it is not! You can be on this side or that side, but the real world works on the basis of natural law and thermodynamics and energy conversions, and the fact is if I want to smelt my steel, I need a certain amount of carbon or hydrogen to do it. The Red Book of Mao or Putin’s speeches or Donald Trump is no help in that. We need less politics to solve our problems. We need to look at the realities of life and to see how we can practically affect them.

So, practically speaking, what are the implications for natural gas of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the United States banned Russian oil. Might an effect of the war be speeding up the transition away from natural gas? No, not at first. It’s the quantities and how embedded it is. Germany just struck a massive agreement with the United Arab Emirates for liquid hydrogen. Germany has been successful in replacing a large share of electricity generation with wind and solar. However, if you would switch on your satellites and look at the German autobahn right now, there are millions of cars moving down the autobahn at unlimited speed. That’s burning crude oil right, left and center. Famous German industries which make glass and plastics and chemicals are running on natural gas. You need gas for processing. Yes, Ukraine will make people rethink strategically, but at the same time they cannot move rapidly. Germany is a nation of some 83 million people. If half of them are using natural gas for heating, you just cannot rip up those natural gas furnaces and replace them in a year.

But is there a viable path built on burning natural gas that gets us to a future of less warming? This is one thing that caused tremendous misunderstanding: You can produce natural gas in the right way. Unfortunately there are too many places around the world where we produce natural gas in the wrong way. Your plumbing is too loose, your pipelines are too leaky and you have unwanted emissions of methane. However, if I produce natural gas in the right way, as in most cases in the U.S., then I’m obtaining it without these fugitive emissions. If I were in charge of the planet: The most practical thing to do to reduce the emissions during the last 20 years would have been to rapidly close down as many coal-fired power plants as possible and replace their generation with combined-cycle 60-percent-plus-efficient natural gas plants. This would have saved billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the last two decades.

You’ve talked elsewhere about how the real challenge in decarbonizing is in the developing world, where countries will rely on burning carbon as they try to ramp up building their infrastructure. Is there an argument to be made, though, that countries developing new infrastructure have incentives to orient themselves toward renewables? There are real-world examples: Indonesia has made a commitment to electric vehicles; Thailand is investing in solar energy. The more photovoltaics the better. However, to have photovoltaics on a large scale, you have to have interconnections. If the country doesn’t have any grid or has a weak national grid, how will you distribute electricity? Countries need electricity for giant plants, for making chemicals, processing foods, making textiles. So you have to have photovoltaics on a large scale, which means a big electric grid. As I say, even the U.S. has a poor active grid. So forget about Nigeria. Putting a photovoltaic panel on a roof is very easy. Developing a system around photovoltaics for the whole country — very difficult. No country in the world today runs itself on pure photovoltaics.

Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Not tomorrow. Again, it’s the scale. You see, you have almost become a victim. It’s inevitable because you are living in it, you are soaked in it, you are in New York City — this pushing people to one side or the other. We don’t need pushing to the sides. What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle. Because only from that middle will come the solutions. Solutions never come from extremes. It’s also irresponsible to state the problem in ways where, when you look closer, it’s not like that. There are these billions of people who want to burn more fossil fuel. There is very little you can do about that. They will burn it unless you give them something different. But who will give them something different? You have to recognize the realities of the world, and the realities of the world tend to be unpleasant, discouraging and depressing.


This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Opening illustration: Source photograph by David Lipnowski

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Neal Stephenson about portraying a utopian future, Laurie Santos about happiness and Christopher Walken about acting.

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