The future-blind v. the realists

Mark Jones jones118 at
Sun Jun 18 04:35:12 MDT 2000

Whatever the future-blind may think, it is not just one or two deranged
Marxists who fear for the future. Even by-nature optimists (see below) have
reason to doubt.

This is because the radical disequilibria which have evolved in late
capitalism both internally and in its external balance with nature, clearly
threaten the whole human project, and the next 50 years will surely be
decisive in determining the outcome of current processes of anthropogenic
climate-forcing and of fossil energy-depletion. These crises are already
with us, although public perception is both delayed and clouded by a
psychological unwillingness to face the known facts. Since business-as-usual
is probably the one option not on offer, I propose to embark on radical and
imaginative speculations about the possible alternatives.

In a review of a recent work on climate change, physicist Marty Hoffert
argued in much the same way, writing:

"A different kind of question is whether the future evolution of human
society is predictable. What will population, GDP, global energy consumption
and carbon intensity (the ratio of CO2 emitted to energy produced) be over
the next hundred years? Without these quantities one cannot estimate
emissions through the causal chain. They are typically modeled in integrated
assessments by either exogenously specifying them, or by computing them from
models of economic growth, investment and energy prices vs. fossil fuel
reserves in a market economy. Most of these models, as well as IPCC
'business as usual' scenarios, show continued economic growth and a
transition to coal as a primary energy source over the next century. Carbon
dioxide from fossil fuel burning is the most radiatively important of the
greenhouse gases emitted by human activity, and the one with the longest
lifetime in the atmosphere. The stabilization of CO2 at levels developed in
IPCC scenarios poses  a fundamental challenge to the present fossil fuel
dominated energy systems. Conspicuously missing from the … IPCC reports thus
far, is a quantitative analysis of the amount and timing of
carbon-emission-free power required to meet the economic goals of IPCC
scenarios for various CO2 concentration targets.  An analysis of primary
power levels needed from nonfossil energy sources for the IPCC 'business as.
Usual'  IS92a scenarios and for stabilization of atmospheric CO2 at 750
through 350 ppm according to  paths proposed by Wigley, Richels and Edmonds
(the WRE 350 though 750 scenarios) was recently published by this reviewer
and colleagues Hoffert et . al., 1998 . Our results show that 100-300% of
current total energy production, 85% of which comes from fossil fuels, will
have to be produced by carbon-emission-free energy sources by the year 2050
to meet these goals. There is a limit to how much improvements in 'energy
efficiency' alone can do. Our analysis incorporates the IPCC assumption of
an unprecedented century-long sustained improvement of 1% per year in the
ability of the world economy to convert energy use into GDP. This factor
includes improvements in primary-to-end-use energy efficiency and the
likelihood that postindustrial economies will grow in non-energy intensive
sectors like services. The implied transition in the world energy system to
get 100-300% of present total energy consumption from non-CO2 emitting
sources 50 years hence is mind-boggling. To put this in perspective,
consider that Enrico Fermi's 'atomic pile', the first nuclear reactor in
1943, is more distant in the past than the year 2050 is in the future, and
nuclear power is still less than 5% of the global energy supply. On the
positive side, a response to the challenge of global climate change through
the development of carbon-free energy technologies-renewables, space solar
power and fusion, and even fission if problems of radioactive waste
disposal, weapons proliferation and inadequate supplies of uranium-235 can
be overcome-could stimulate technological innovation and entirely new
industries of the 21st century, as World War II and the Cold war did in the
20th century. Apparently, anthropogenic climate change as a source of
economic growth in 'green technologies' is not a perspective considered very
seriously by the IPCC. Perhaps this is the result of assuming that the
technologies of the next century will be essentially those of today, but
more cost-effective. It is as if a group of scientists in the 19th century
predicted more aerodynamically efficient sailing ships, regarding the
steamship as the outermost limit of technology and relegating commercial
aviation to the nethermost reaches of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Of course,
events proved Verne and Wells much nearer the mark than the expert
scientists of the day. Prediction can be daunting. As Arthur C. Clarke,
science fiction author and inventor of the modern communications satellite,
has observed, ''the future is not what it used to be.'' He also said, ''any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.''
[Elsevier, Global and Planetary Change 21 1999 237-240].

Hoffert's 'realist-optimism' about the future may be right in general and is
intuitively appealing but the crucial problem is that today, all the
indicators are set a different way: no great new Manhattan Projects for
renewables are contemplated, Kyoto is a dead letter, and the main tasks of
policy are to keep gasoline pump-prices as low as possible and keep the
carbon pouring from the smokestacks. Fifty years (assuming we have that
long) is simply too short a time to do what would need to be done to achieve
a smooth transition to a sustainable (and more human?) life world. So there
is a need for a different and more gritty kind of realism.

Mark Jones

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