Earlier this month, 13 US government agencies (NOAA, NASA, DOE, etc.) concluded that climate change is real and caused mainly by human activity.
There is no question that this is happening…
The only question now is: what do we do about it?
This post looks at four options:
- Pass government legislation that incentivizes carbon abatement.
- Drive mass adoption of solar energy and battery technology.
- Adapt ourselves and our civilization to the changing climate.
- Invest in geo-scale engineering projects.
Let’s dive in.
1. Government Regulation and Top-Down Incentives
We’ve seen many government debates, laws passed, and treaties signed. We’ve heard a lot about the efficacy of cap and trade, taxing carbon, and other regulations that incentivize carbon abatement.
While we should rally behind policies that can assist in slowing the rise of global temperatures, forgive me if I don’t depend on this option to handle the problem.
Many special interests and scientifically ignorant members of the electorate make this option unlikely and risky to baseline as our primary strategy.
The time for radical action is now.
2. Make Renewables So Cheap They Kill Fossil Fuels
Society faced a similar environmental crisis 120 years ago…
At the end of the 19th century, London was becoming uninhabitable because of the accumulation of horse manure.
As citizens moved from the rural countryside to the urban cities, they brought with them their motive force, the horse, and the piles of horse manure piled up rapidly, bringing disease. People were absolutely panicked. Because of their anchoring bias, they couldn’t imagine any other possible solutions. No one had any idea that a disruptive technology—the automobile—was coming.
What is today’s equivalent transformative technology? Clearly, it’s the mass adoption of renewable energy: solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear.
Let’s look at solar alone. Few people have any idea that 8,000 times more energy from the sun hits the surface of the earth in a day than we consume as a human race.
All the energy we could ever need is literally raining down from above. A squanderable abundance of energy.
These staggering numbers in combination with an exponential decline in photovoltaic solar energy costs (dollar-per-watt price of solar cells) put us on track to meet between 50 percent and 100 percent of the world’s energy production from solar (and other renewables) in the next 20 years.
Even better, the poorest countries in the world are the sunniest.
At the same time that renewable energy sources are on the rise, the demise of the internal combustion car is synergistically bringing about the end of the era of fossil fuels.
India, France, Britain, and Norway plan to completely ditch gas and diesel cars in favor of cleaner electric vehicles in the coming decades. At least 10 other countries (including China and India) have set sales targets for electric cars.
In the last year alone, every manufacturer has announced aggressive plans for electric vehicles. Ford, for example, is investing $4.5 billion in electric cars, adding 13 electric cars and hybrids by 2020, making more than 40 percent of its lines electrified.
An EV market of two models in 2010 has climbed to more than 25 models today.
At the same time, many automotive companies (e.g., Volvo) have announced they’re phasing out their internal combustion cars altogether.
Batteries: It’s next reasonable to ask whether the required battery technology will advance fast enough to give us the storage capacity needed for an “all-electric economy.” However, battery performance pricing ($/kWh) is dropping faster than even the optimists projected.
The bottom line: Our second option for combating climate change is to make renewable energy so cheap, such a no-brainer, that fossil fuels disappear for the same reason the Stone Age vanished: Not for a lack of stones, but for a 10x better option.
Abundance-minded entrepreneurs have the option to make solar and renewables easier, cheaper, and better, putting the petroleum, natural gas, and coal industries out of business.
3. Adapting to a Warmer World
The Earth’s environment has been continuously changing for more than four billion years.
When life first emerged on Earth, our atmosphere was a deadly combination of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane. Then, about three billion years ago, a poisonous and corrosive gas called oxygen came about from a process called “photosynthesis,” a process that transformed the climate and killed many of the existing life forms.
Ultimately life, whether it is microbial or homo sapiens, changes the environment. Our challenge today is the speed with which humanity’s use of fossil fuels has destabilized our ecosystem.
So, the question is, in parallel with items 1, 2, and 4 in this post, do we accelerate our efforts to adapt to these changes as well?
One such example comes from China, where a team of scientists have successfully modified rice to grow in saltwater, which will allow them to feed their populace as sea levels rise. Cornell University projects that 2 billion people—around 20% of the world’s population—are at risk of being displaced by rising sea levels.
4. Geoscale Engineering: A Solution in Space
I recently had a conversation with a billionaire friend of mine from Silicon Valley who is committing his wealth and intellect to solving our climate problem. He’s tired of all the inaction and sees the climate crisis as one of humanity’s greatest existential threats today.
One solution that I discussed with him that I find compelling and elegant is called a “sunshade.”
Imagine a large, deployable mega-structure that sits between the earth and sun, and blocks out very small (<0.1 percent) (variable) fraction of the photons coming from the sun to the earth.
The preferred location for such a sunshade is near the Earth-Sun inner Lagrange point (L1) in an orbit with the same 1-year period as the Earth, and in-line with the sun at a distance ≥ 1,500,000 kilometers from Earth.
While researching the idea, I found three well documented write-ups:
- In 1989, James Early (from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) proposed putting a giant, 2000 km-wide glass deflector at L1.
- A 1992 NASA report suggested lifting 55,000 “solar sails” into orbit at L1, each with an area of 100 km2, blocking about 1 percent of sunlight.
- In 2007, Roger Angel (an astronomer from the University of Arizona), suggested creating a “cloud” of tiny sunshades at L1, each weighing about 1.2 grams and measuring 60 centimeters in diameter.
All of these proposals have their respective limitations, whether it’s cost, technical feasibility, and so on.
Roger Angel’s solution, which proposed millions of micro-shades rather than one large, expensive structure, has various pros and cons. It’s estimated that his concept could be developed and deployed in 25 years at a cost of a few trillion dollars, <0.5 percent of the world’s GDP over that time.
This is just one example of many geoscale engineering projects worth exploring.
Others (which I don’t like as much, because they may not be as easily reversible and controllable) include documented ideas like seeding our oceans with iron to increase the growth of plankton, or deliberately injecting the stratosphere with sulphur compounds to increase the Earth’s reflectivity.
Clearly, I can’t put forth this option without acknowledging that we can’t fully know the secondary effects of these efforts. As Jim Haywood, professor of Atmospheric Science at University of Exeter said in an interview, “…there’s a healthy fear surrounding a technique that, without being hyperbolic, would aim to hack the planet’s climate and block out the sun.”
We can either wait for climate change to continue to decimate elements of our society, or we can begin focusing aggressively on solutions.
Given our access to exponential technologies, I am far more hopeful about our ability to address the climate crisis today, rather than 50, or even 20, years ago.
We can fix the problem—we just need to focus our intellect, resources, and technology, and focus it fast.
Over the next decade, as climate change becomes more devastating and visible, great thinkers and entrepreneurs will emerge with even more surprising solutions to help tackle this grand challenge.
As I have often said, the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.