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Published: March 2009

Paths to the Future

Windmills in Spain
Essay by Bill McKibben
Photograph by Robert Kakarigi

I’m writing these words on a computer powered by the solar panels on the roof of my house—that’s the good news. We’re learning, as we’ve seen in these pages, some new ways that we might power our lives. But might is the operative word. It’s not going to be easy, and however well we manage the transition away from oil and coal and gas, the world we create won’t be the same. To understand why, consider the intrinsic merits of fossil fuel: It’s easy to get at (just stick a drill in the ground, or, tragically, blow the top off a West Virginia mountain), easy to transport, and incredibly rich in power. One barrel of oil, for instance, contains about 5.8 million Btu, or the equivalent of the force exerted by a peasant working 3,625 hours on a farm. That would be, oh, about 15 months’ worth of work in the fields. Fossil fuel is magical stuff.

Renewable energy, by contrast, is certainly plentiful. In any given hour, more energy from the sun reaches Earth than is used by the whole human population in any given year. The trouble, of course, is that it’s the very opposite of coal or oil. Instead of being concentrated, it’s diffused. There’s a little bit everywhere, except at night, when there isn’t any at all. The same with wind and with many other alternatives. This doesn’t necessarily make them impractical. We may be out of silver bullets, but perhaps we’ve got enough silver buckshot. Still, it’s very hard to see quite how we’ll power the world we’re used to living in. Look at the whole apparatus of our society as you head to work or school today: the thrumming of the engine in your car, the whir of the machine that makes your coffee (not to mention the ship that carries the coffee to our shores and the roaster that makes it taste good and the machine that washes your cup). All of them depend primarily on the burning of the barrels and lumps of ancient biology now running short and threatening to wreck our climate.

We’ve somehow got to transform all that so that the ultimate power comes from somewhere else—and we have to do it without breaking the planet’s economy. Money, in fact, becomes almost as important as Btu in these calculations. If we can’t do it at a reasonable cost, it’s unlikely that we’ll do it at all, both because we’ll run out of cash and because we’ll run out of politicians willing to vote for expensive projects.

There are, happily, some real possibilities. To start with, we waste a lot of energy: The average American uses twice as much as the average western European, even though our standard of living is no higher. The Belgians don’t have a secret technology; they merely have a region that, because fuel prices have been high for 50 years, learned how to economize. Some of the difference is technological—building codes call for more insulation, and cars are held to higher mileage standards. But much of it is behavioral—people have learned to take the train instead of drive, to travel on the schedule of their community, not just their own whim. Some of that will be hard to translate back onto our shores; our suburban sprawl is a machine for burning energy. But there’s plenty we can do, beginning with replacing those incandescent lightbulbs. Why not buy a hybrid car or, better yet, one of the new plug-in hybrids soon to be on the market? Efficient appliances pay back in no time. If you take the commuter train, you can read a book on your way to work. In a strange way, the good news is that we’re so energy obese that cutting the first, say, 20 percent won’t be tough at all. It’ll be like losing weight by cutting your hair.

After that, though, things get harder. Trade-offs start emerging. Some are huge: How much risk will you put up with from a nuclear power plant? Others are aesthetic: Community resistance to windmills on a nearby ridge or shoal seems to be diminishing as the new energy calculus gets clearer. And some trade-offs are very personal: Would you be willing to eat a lot less meat? (By some measures, livestock production accounts for as much greenhouse gas as driving.) Or might you change your diet to eat close to home, forgoing those January strawberries from across the globe? Oh, and that overseas vacation? The jet to get you there will almost certainly burn more fuel than anything else you do all year.

The truth is, though, that none of these individual choices will add up fast enough to materially affect the amount of carbon in the atmosphere or the amount of oil left in the big fields of the Middle East. There simply aren’t enough people paying real attention. The momentum of our economy is too strong, especially since we need change to come so quickly. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 alongside Al Gore, said recently that unless fundamental shifts were under way by 2012, the feedback loops driving climate change would take on an irrevocable life of their own. In the United States, 2012 means this President, most of these senators. It means us.

Given that time frame, only two things could radically change our trajectory. One is a World War IIā€“scale commitment to technological change—almost literally as during World War II, in fact, except that this time instead of Detroit automakers shifting to tank and plane production, they start building plug-in hybrid cars and locomotive engines. And change wouldn’t stop at the factories. If we’re going to electrify the country’s vehicle fleet, as Al Gore has proposed, we’ll need a massively revamped transmission grid, one capable of bringing solar power from the desert Southwest and wind energy from the nation’s midsection. It’s not like the Apollo program, which focused all our technological prowess on three men. This is more like getting everyone to the moon. One bonus: This huge undertaking is the most promising stimulus for a limping economy. And it mostly has to be done at home. No one is going to put a house on a boat and send it to China to get insulated. Solar panels mean guys with hammers up on roofs.

Boosting technological investment is only half the answer. We also need to fix the set of economic incentives that drives our energy system, so that capitalism can go to work helping us solve the problem. Until now, free markets have made the problem worse, not better. That's because they get no signal about carbon: Since there’s no cost to pour it into the atmosphere, there’s no way for markets to work their magic. But an international treaty that capped the amount of carbon we could emit would, in effect, put a price on CO2, one high enough to reflect the damage it’s doing. (Some experts have called for an oil depletion tax on every barrel of oil as well, using the funds to prepare us for the post-petroleum future.) Both candidates for President last fall supported some form of a cap on carbon emissions, which would have the effect of driving up the price of coal and gas and oil and hence driving down demand. We know this strategy works. It’s why when oil prices spiked last year Americans suddenly started driving less almost for the first time in our history. But it’s also politically painful, especially in the current economic downturn. To give it any chance of passage, you’d need to figure out how to rebate directly to taxpayers the money you collected from selling the permits to pollute, a strategy that President Obama embraced in his campaign.

So far we’ve been talking mostly about the West. But if you think the prospect of a new energy system is economically painful here, imagine how all these equations look to, say, the Chinese. They’ve just now begun industrializing, and the main fuel they have to drive their quest for modernization is coal. It’s plentiful and relatively cheap—maybe a few cents a kilowatt-hour for them to mine and burn. If you travel in China, you see endless new gleaming silver towers holding up the transmission lines that dip and swoop like the Great Wall across the countryside. All that coal burning is producing endless sulfur and soot, which makes the average Chinese city a gray and sunless place. That’s a price they’ve been willing to pay, just as we were willing to pay it at a similar point in our history.

That two-new-coal-plants-every-week pace, though, is also producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. In 2006 China passed the U.S. as the biggest emitter of CO2 on Earth. There are four times as many Chinese as Americans, of course, and they’re using their energy to pull people out of poverty, not to build a new round of suburban starter castles for entry-level monarchs. They’re building easier lives the same way we did, and in fact they’re probably paying more attention to the environment along the way. (The Chinese lead the world in renewable energy deployment, largely because they’ve put millions of solar hot-water-heaters on urban rooftops.) So on moral grounds, we can’t call them out. But the atmosphere doesn’t care much about morality, only carbon. Somehow we have to strike a deal—with China and with the rest of the developing world. A deal that helps them afford the price of the new energy we need for them to use if the world is not going to fall over the cliff of peak oil or watch temperatures soar past the breaking point. By ourselves we can’t solve either problem: They don’t call it “global” warming for nothing.

The best prospect for such a pact—and hence the last best chance for really changing our energy future—may come later this year in Denmark. Diplomats from around the globe will meet in Copenhagen in the fall to agree on a new treaty that will replace the expiring Kyoto accords. It will attempt to sharply reduce fossil-fuel use in the developed world and funnel resources from rich countries to poor ones so that they can develop without burning their mountains of cheap coal. Call it a Marshall Plan for energy, with the same mix of generosity and practicality. The Chinese have suggested that one percent of our GDP might be the place to start. That will be a tough number to sell to American voters.

But then, this whole package of challenges adds up to the toughest thing humans have ever attempted. And part of the trouble is that we come at it with so much momentum: Energy use continues to shoot upward even as it becomes clear that we must dramatically change course. Delay of even a few years will be catastrophic. It’s a timed test, where at some point in the not too distant future we’ll have to put our pencils down and simply live with the answers we’ve come up with. And since nature doesn’t grade on a curve, it will require every bit of ingenuity—technological, economic, and social—that we can muster.

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