Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gobbling our way to utopia--a Carbon Based original

     Back in 1567, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a satirical allegory called the Land of Cockaigne, also known as Schlaraffenland.  The painting depicts a clerk, a farmer, and a soldier sprawled on the ground, stupefied with gluttony. Above their heads, a table bends under the weight of a half-gobbled feast.  The tools of their trades lie unused beside them.

    Nearby, a knight lies slackjawed in a lean-to roofed with pies, apparently waiting for one of them to slide into his mouth.   In the background a man has found his way to Cockaigne by eating a tunnel through a cloud-like giant pudding.  For the orally inclined, that's a favorite path to bliss.

    An egg with a spoon in it jogs from one sleeping figure to another.  Behind the tree, a cooked pheasant lays itself upon a silver platter, and a roasted pig runs about with a carving knife strapped to its flanks. In this enchanted land of consequence-free feasting, food eagerly searches for eaters.

    We live in a climate Schlaraffenland today, peopled by hearty eaters who don't want to believe the truth about our relentless appetite for energy.   Many understand the potential for decades of horrible impacts from atmospheric greenhouse gas., and they want a different, better future. But they want it without interrupting the flow of tasty pies.

    I often entertain two fantasies about how to save ourselves, one technical, one political.

    In the technotopian vision, some genius creates a form of energy superior to fossil fuels, an improvement as dramatic as kerosene's advance over whale oil in the 1860s.  The transition to the new energy regime happens in a matter of a few years, and the might of the fossil fuel industry wilts before the new energy's economic advantage.  The electricity generation business steadily abandons coal and natural gas.  Electric cars replace the petroleum fleet.   Upgraded dwellings draw on the electrical grid only occasionally. An abundance of clean energy ends pollution and cuts greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

    Some visionaries even propose using the abundance of energy in this scenario to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, so we can eliminate the decades of impacts that already burden the climate system.

    We need such solutions today, or a decade ago, but in fact they are some distance in the future, if they are even possible. Our grid is built to deal with uninterrupted base load power generation, and most utilities must struggle to exploit fluctuating sources like wind and solar.   What's more, energy consumers lack the education and willingness (and spare time) to make decisions about energy consumption based on real-time monitoring.   Even more fundamentally, no renewable options currently have the energy density that makes petroleum so well-suited for transportation.

    Energy economist Vaclav Smil warns us that energy transitions usually take 50 years, at least. It's a slow process with plenty of missteps. As for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, it would require an enormous amount of energy.

    The political fantasy of avoiding climate impacts sometimes feels even more unreal than the technical one.  Our dream is to devise governing structures that are equal to our climate challenge.  The fossil fuel industry uses its vast lobbying might to promote green energy, instead of blocking it. Sound leadership nurtures a large variety of renewable energy options until the best ones emerge. As a society, we avoid splitting into a small factions of puritanical scolds versus everyone else.

    Local governments steer development away from coastlines and floodplains, and invest heavily in infrastructure improvements, so that roads and bridges can withstand stormier and wetter conditions. We bury our power lines, so that blackouts and other outages are much reduced, and we're better able to weather natural disasters.

    Far-seeing leaders reshape our usage of land, energy and other species in a comprehensive way, and diligently plug loopholes and exceptions. We also cultivate the ability to alter course when needed, so that unforeseen consequences do not trip us.  

    I hear you groaning out there. To take the necessary steps would be almost impossible for a sound democracy that functions well; attempting the same task with our current hobbled, corrupt, dolt-ridden Congress is ludicrous.

    The problem wouldn't disappear even if we could magically replace today's crop of intransigent politicians with a more reality-based crowd. As economist Martin Weitzman notes, in a democracy, the most enlightened elected officials face an impossible task.  As a society, we must aggressively tax carbon to create strong incentives for renewable energy.    This results in much pain spread among a large number of constituents. These aggrieved citizens can easily unite to defeat the very long-term-oriented climate action party.

    Had we started climate action decades ago, the compromises that were politically possible then might have gradually steered our overall energy trajectory to a safer path.  Unfortunately, we have delayed well past the point that such compromises will begin to address the emergency. Given today's climate conditions, such politically doable measures won't be nearly enough to hold global temperatures below the 2 degree threshold urged by the IPCC.

    Fantasies are so seductive because they promise a happy ending without strain. 

You'll find Bruegel's 1567 painting in the Alte Pinakotek in Munich

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