The United States is well on its way to an energy economy based on renewables rather than fossil fuels, but it's not quite fast enough to avoid significant climate-change consequences, and so a price or tax on the burning of carbon is justified, and also doable in a market framework, according to climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann.
Mann made his comments in a recent exclusive interview with The Lakeland Times. Mann, the Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, has written several books, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars" and "Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change."
While the transition to an economy based on renewable energy is accelerating, Mann said it probably isn't enough to curb fossil-fuel emissions to the limits needed to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius in coming years. Most scientists believe 2 degrees Celsius defines the threshold for truly dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in climate, Mann said.
But Mann says there are ways to price or tax carbon without causing severe economic downturns - for instance, a revenue-neutral carbon tax - and he also disputes arguments made by some critics that the infrastructure of the renewable energy sector isn't yet strong enough to produce a economically viable alternative model of energy delivery.
Over at Stanford
Mann, first and foremost a climate scientist, readily admits he's not an expert in the economics of climate-change policy, but he said he's a believer in the work of Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, who has developed a state-by-state plan to convert the U.S. to 100-percent clean, renewable energy by 2050.
"There are a lot of claims that go back and forth when it comes to the public discourse over the issues of renewable energy and the cost of the transition to renewable energy," Mann said. "That's not my area of expertise, but I do try to keep up with the state of our understanding on those issues, and I put a lot of stock in the group at Stanford led by Mark Jacobson. They address those sorts of questions. They ask and try to answer those kinds of questions in a rigorous scientific framework, and they have published in the peer-reviewed literature."
Mann says Jacobson and his colleagues have demonstrated a viable path where the nation could meet projected energy demands in 2050 entirely through renewables and increases in energy efficiency.
In particular, Jacobson and company developed 50 individual state plans that call for aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways we currently consume energy. They say the conversion is both technically and economically possible through the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies.
"The main barriers are social, political, and getting industries to change," Jacobson last summer upon the publication of his study in Energy and Environmental Sciences. "One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible. By showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large-scale transformation."
For each sector, Jacobson and colleagues analyzed the amount and source of the fuel consumed right now, including coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and renewables, and then they calculated the fuel demands if all fuel usage were replaced with electricity.
That would be difficult but possible, Jacobson argued, if existing technologies were fully integrated.
"When we did this across all 50 states, we saw a 39-percent reduction in total end-use power demand by the year 2050," Jacobson said last summer. The savings came not only from replacing current sources and uses of combustion energy with electricity but also efficiency improvements to infrastructure.
Mann says that last element - energy efficiency - is a key component of the transition.
"We should never forget about the importance of increased energy efficiency because that's a big part of how California has brought down its carbon emissions so dramatically, as well as a transition toward renewables," he said. "There's a lot of solar, there's a lot of electric vehicles out in California now. There's a lot of wind. If you drive from the Bay Area to the east, you'll cross wind farms, and so, the fact is that we are already making that transition and that's just in the market."
The other important point about Jacobson's article, Mann said, is that it's based on simple economies of scale, given current technology.
"It doesn't require any technological innovation," he said. "It doesn't require any magical development. It's based on existing technology and scaling up that existing technology. And obviously, if you put a price on the emission of carbon, that will increase the rate of that transition."
The market is already moving in that direction, Mann said.
"In the U.S., up to 17, 18, 19 percent of our power generation is from renewables," he said. "California is closer to 30 percent. Texas I think is in that ballpark as well. They have the luxury of a lot of wind. And if you look at the sale of electric vehicles across the country, all that stuff right now is on an exponential curve."
What was true a few years ago - that the infrastructure of the renewable energy sector isn't mature enough to provide for an economically feasible transition - is no longer true, Mann said.
"A few years ago you could say, 'Look, renewables will barely make a dent if you look at the percentage that they contribute to our current energy usage,'" Mann said. "That was true a few years ago. It's not true now, and if you look at what's happening with PV solar, photovoltaic cells are coming down at a rate now where you can actually project - you extend that out - and in the next 10 years solar becomes not only competitive, but it will outcompete fossil fuel in terms of how much energy you can get on a cost basis, the price per watt of power generated."
Across the world right now, Mann said we see that transition underway. But there's a big 'but' involved in that statement.
"The transition as it is currently taking place won't quite be enough to keep the warming below 2 degrees Celsius," he said. And, again, he emphasizes, 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold for truly dangerous and potentially irreversible changes in climate.
"So we are on the right path, but we're just not moving fast enough along that path to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit," Mann said. "And this is where the argument comes in that you have to provide a price on carbon because you have to internalize the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels. It's doing damage to our economy. Food, water, health, national security - across the board there are very real damages arising from climate change."
Mann says that price on carbon could be provided through market mechanisms, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
"If you're a conservative and you don't like taxation in general, then make it revenue neutral and say, 'We'll introduce this carbon tax, and we'll tax the things we don't want to see more of and we'll reduce the taxes on income or something else,'" Mann said. "But that's the argument, that we need to internalize that cost in the energy marketplace, and, if we can do that, then the transition happens even faster."
Other forms of energy
Mann says other forms of energy besides renewables should be part of the debate as well. For instance, he says nuclear power should be on the table, though he himself is agnostic about it.
"I was trained as a physicist, and I remember very much the cold fusion debate (nuclear fusion at or near room temperature, which would have simplified the production of nuclear power, a still unachieved and mostly abandoned theory of nuclear research) that was happening during my physics studies in graduate school, and we were all thinking, 'Wouldn't that be great if cold fusion were real,'" Mann said. "We'd all love a simple solution to the problem, and nuclear at some level might appear to provide that, but of course it comes with all sorts of risks of its own."
Take the disaster at Fukushima, for instance, triggered by a tsunami in 2011.
"Fukushima you can look at in terms of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist," Mann said. "If you are a pessimist, you will say, 'Well these are the sorts of disasters we will see more of if we go whole-hog on nuclear.' There are others who would say that that was a very specific set of circumstances and that most nuclear power plants aren't in the vicinity where they would be subject to a tsunami."
Mann said his view is that nuclear power should be discussed.
"Let's put it on the table," he said. "That's part of the worthy debate - the worthy debate about what sort of price do we put on carbon and how do we do it. And I think conservatives have very valid views about how we should go about that. They should be at the table along with others who believe in cap-and-trade systems when it comes to renewable energy."
Again, Mann said, everything should be on the table, from renewables to nuclear. And he said the idea of more conventional nuclear fusion reactors should be part of the discussion, too, though that pursuit has been fraught with its own scientific problems, if not as gigantic as the idea of cold fusion.
"Historically, they haven't been able to get past the break-even point where you get more energy out than you put in," Mann said. "Obviously it's not useful. Now, they have designed fusion reactors that are large enough and because of the design they exceed 'Q-greater-than-1,' which means you get more energy out than you put in. A Q of 10, it turns out - that's 10 times as much energy out as you put in - is what the industry has often said would be necessary for them to be commercially viable, for them to be competitive, and they think that they are getting there."
Mann said he recently toured a plasma lab at Princeton and they made a convincing case that fusion could be reality 10 years down the road.
"That should be on the table, too, and so that's an honest debate," Mann said. "Whether climate change is real, whether it is human-caused, in my view isn't an honest debate. What we should do about it is an honest debate, and as a scientist I view my role to, once again, inform that debate, not try to prescribe it."
Those prescriptions, whatever they may be, have to address various pollutants, not just carbon dioxide emissions. One of those is methane, the dangers of which Mann says are real.
But there's not just one source of methane emission into the atmosphere and that clouds the issue, Mann says.
"We appear to be seeing an increase in methane," Mann said. "The problem is, we're not absolutely sure where it's coming from."
On the one hand, he says, it gets very complicated because the public discourse often conflates two entirely different things.
"The only commonality is they both involve methane," he said. "One of these is natural gas and fracking. There's what we call fugitive methane emissions. When you crack up the Earth to try and get at the natural gas that's trapped within, some of that gas is going to escape into the atmosphere. Natural gas is mostly methane, so some of that methane we know is escaping into the atmosphere."
Mann says methane is extremely potent, about 10 times more so than carbon dioxide.
"But it depends on the time scale as well because CO2, when you emit it, is around for centuries, whereas methane tends to be taken out of the atmosphere fairly quickly," he said. "So if you look at over a 20-year time frame, methane is almost 100 times as potent. One methane molecule is almost 100 times more potent than a CO2 molecule. But 100 years down the road the CO2 starts to become more important."
Carbon dioxide is present in much higher concentrations than methane, Mann said, though one methane molecule is a more potent absorber of heat.
"There just isn't nearly as much methane in the atmosphere as there is CO2, more than a factor of 10 smaller," Mann said. "So you can see how it gets complicated."
It gets even more complicated, Mann says, because in addition to the question of how much methane gas is leaking into the atmosphere from fracking and natural gas recovery, there's another issue entirely, which Mann says has to do with so-called climate feedback.
"A feedback in this context is an amplifying factor," Mann said. "An amplifying factor, where, as we warm the planet, and we warm the tundra in the Arctic, there's a fair amount of methane that's sort of frozen and trapped in the coastal shelves of the Arctic Ocean, in the permafrost of the Arctic, and we know from the paleoclimate record that that methane can be potentially mobilized into the atmosphere if you start to melt."
Mann says scientists have seen that happen in the geological record, cases where there were large sudden releases of methane into the atmosphere because of warmth.
"So, one of the concerns has to do with these so-called methane feedbacks, where we may be, through the warming of the Arctic, we may be causing methane to escape into the atmosphere and that's very different," Mann said. "That isn't human-produced methane, it's methane that was within the climate system that gets released when you warm."
A catastrophist catastrophe
There are intense debates within the scientific community about both fugitive emissions and climate feedbacks, Mann said.
"There are some scientists who say the amount of fugitive methane from fracking is quite high, there are others who say it is very low, and many of them appear to have conflicts of interest on one side or the other, so it is very difficult to navigate that territory scientifically," he said. "But there is potentially even greater debate within the scientific community about just how much methane hydrate, this frozen methane, could be mobilized through warming."
And that's where some of the doomsdayers, or catastrophists, as Mann called them, come into play, he said.
"This is where you get some of the catastrophists, who will say (things) based on one study that has shown methane escaping from the Arctic into the atmosphere, just one data point, and often it will be a data point, but we have no context," Mann said. "We don't know if this is a recent phenomenon, or if we are just getting better at measuring this background that's been happening for centuries."
Yes, Mann said, there are measurements that show methane coming out of the Arctic permafrost, but does it represent an acceleration from the natural background?
"In my view, some of the doomsdayers will point to a data point and say it proves we're on the verge of runaway methane feedback, and I just don't think that there's evidence for that yet," he said. "So I remain a bit of a skeptic, as do many of my scientific colleagues, that these methane feedbacks are likely to substantially amplify the warming of the planet, in the near term anyway."
At the end of the day, Mann says, there are many issues to be debated about what to do about climate change - cap-and-trade, market approaches, nuclear power, the role of fracking and natural gas recovery, and many other possible approaches and positions. But the key, he said, is to focus on the real debate of what to do about climate change, not whether there is human-driven climate change.
"At the risk of sounding like a broken record, in my view there is a worthy debate to be had, and conservatives and progressives should both be at the table," he said. "They should have an equal role in this debate about what to do about climate change. That's a good-faith debate, and it would be wonderful if we could move to having those questions being vigorously debated on the floor of the U.S. Congress rather than what the Congress is currently doing, which is debating whether or not climate change exists. We have to get past that fake debate about whether we have a problem, so we can get on to the worthy debate of what to do about it."
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