Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. Our civilization has built untold wealth upon 200 years of frantic burning of coal, oil, and gas. Its heat has lifted our species from cold, hunger, ignorance, premature death, and poverty. In a single century routine famine went from a near universal to practically unknown.
And yet, burning fossilized carbon carries a hidden cumulative cost, and the bill is coming due. Burning coal and oil turns fossil carbon into CO2 gas which accumulates in the atmosphere far faster than natural processes, such as weathering and plants, can take it back out. Atmospheric CO2, now 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, drives the greenhouse effect and gradually increases Earth’s temperature, sea level, and climatic extremes. But these gradual increases result in enormous effects. Every year, temperatures hit all-time highs and lows, the coast alternately bakes and floods, and unseasonal weather harms crops and ecosystems. 1 1 For up to date reports, see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, specifically the most recent synthesis report as of this writing. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote
Our options seem bleak.
We can do nothing, and keep on burning fossil fuels until they run out, trying to adapt as climatic forces wipe our civilization from the Earth. There will be all manner of apocalyptic signs: crops failing, extreme floods and fires, mass casualty heat waves, and runaway destabilization of ice sheets raising sea levels. 2 2 See here for a list of possible consequences according to the European Commission. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote It is hard to say what will be left after the oceans rise 10 m or so, but for the survivors, it will be a hard life among the ruins of a broken world, with hunger and violence a certainty. It is difficult to imagine how civilization could be rebuilt if the lower rungs of industrial energy, mineral ores, coal, and oil, are depleted. We can’t go directly from campfires to nuclear fission, bypassing fossil fuels. Our industrial capacity might be a one-hit wonder if we pull the ladder up behind us. In this scenario, human beings probably aren’t made extinct, but they are reduced to pre-civilizational subsistence forever.
The alternative is even worse. What if, we are sometimes asked, we simply stopped using oil? Prosecuted oil company CEOs? Grounded our global fleet of aircraft? I can forgive the pure-hearted idealism of these slogans only because our society is so wealthy that many have the luxury of forgetting from whence it springs. Look at your surroundings, everything is built on oil! Your food, your water, clothing, medicine, furnishings, houses, cars, careers, are all made from, or powered by, oil. Every prosperous nation is built on oil. The populace is sensitive to variations in its price, willing to depose entire governments when they fail to secure it. To cut oil use by 95%, the price must be increased by at least a factor of five, which would capture the externalities of CO2 emissions. 3 3 Via permanent carbon capture and sequestration. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Such a high price would also condemn half the world’s population to death by starvation and almost all the rest to grinding, eternal poverty. People aren’t idiots and understably resist policies that so drastically restrict fuel supply, so the only way to enforce such a dire outcome is through overwhelming and continuing violence against the populace, or perhaps through catastrophic nuclear war. I’m going to say something that shouldn’t be radical: this is a horrible idea.
The first outcome is the default, since the second requires a supervillain to actively will the deaths of billions of people. Our ongoing failure to drastically reduce fossil fuel usage is not only due to a politically impossible coordination problem, but also the lack of any good alternatives. Prosecuting oil CEOs won’t reduce our hunger for oil. Political processes function to ensure a dependable supply of cheap energy, and any leader who fails in this most basic mandate will not last long. Oil is the spice of our time and the spice must flow.
It is not possible to reduce our dependence on oil unless we can find a better, cheaper, more plentiful supply of energy. This third potential outcome looked hopeless as recently as a decade ago, but now looks inevitable to those working at technology’s vanguard. The key technology, cheap solar photovoltaic (PV) power, seems obvious in retrospect.
The industrial revolution was kicked off when we discovered how to create mechanical work from rocks (coal), bypassing animal muscle as the primary industrial energy source. Later we found ways to convert between heat-derived mechanical force (steam engines) and electricity. Thus, there is a rough hierarchy of energy by utility and ease of interconversion: heat, steam, mechanical motion, electricity, and chemical fuel. Solar is steadily ascending this ladder as the default source of energy for particular applications.
In 2012, solar PV first beat coal on electricity cost, with little fanfare. 4 4 See this TED talk by Ramez Naam. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote With the release of the Tesla Model 3 in 2016, solar power and batteries became more efficient at producing mechanical power (i.e. driving a car on the highway) than internal combustion engines. By 2021, solar electric power ran through heating elements edged out coal as the cheapest way to make heat in early markets.
There are even more ambitious possibilities than solar, such as producing synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. The process works by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and combining it with water and energy which results in natural gas. 5 5 This process is like photosynthesis in overdrive: capture CO2 from the air, combine it with electrolytically produced green hydrogen, and output synthetic hydrocarbons. This process has been performed by humans for nearly a century, but using solar power allows the end-product to compete with fossil fuels in price, enabling it to scale. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Natural gas (CH4) is the simplest molecule in a family of chemically reduced carbon compounds which include hydrocarbons, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, starches, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Using technology first developed more than a century ago, it’s possible to freely convert between these compounds. This isn’t nanotechnology, just synthetic chemistry.
Cheap energy is the basis for exponentially increasing material wealth. Solar PV is the abundant energy source we’ve been looking for—more stuff, more cheaply, and no new carbon. Best of all, we’ve already locked in this future. Solar is already cheap enough to continually blast open huge new markets—the trend is unstoppable. We just need to let capitalism run on autopilot. The major constraint on global solar deployment, going forward, is the rate at which we can ramp up mass production. The same unstoppable market forces now apply also to batteries, vehicle and home electrification, and solar synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. The tech is basically there, we just need to ramp up production with an urgency borne on the wings of desperation for the fate of our children and our planet.
Decreasing the demand for energy means a variety of unpleasant reductions: austerity, artificial scarcity, and efficiency initiatives. These solutions are morally attractive but slow and ultimately counterproductive. Our salvation relies on increasing the supply of energy. There is no way to get to the required 20x reduction in fossil fuel use while preserving even a modicum of prosperity.
Instead, a fleet of new technologies powered by the sun are already displacing legacy energy sources with clean and abundant energy. At the current breakneck pace of new green energy development, a regular internal combustion engine vehicle sold this year will run on synthetic fuel before the end of its natural working life. This is happening fast!
Such innovations make continued economic growth possible, due to abundant cheap energy, and sustainable, due to low carbon emissions. It future-proofs our prosperity. But the world is in a bad place due to the 20th century’s CO2 emissions, so two additional interventions are required to minimize climate-induced destruction and loss of life between now and 2050.
The first is dealing with legacy CO2. Two teratons of excess CO2 was emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which took us from 280 ppm to 420 ppm. 350 ppm is a good goal, since pre-industrial CO2 levels were unfavorable for plants and caused excessively cold winters, and cold kills more than heat. To hit our goal, we need to quickly and permanently sequester one teraton of excess CO2 in the atmosphere. By far the cheapest way to do this is through enhanced weathering—mechanically grinding up a volcanic mountain somewhere in warm shallow seas and sluicing the resulting rock flour into the ocean to absorb CO2 and sink to the bottom.
Simultaneously, while we build solar arrays and grind up mountains, we need to stop the planet from melting by using stratospheric SO2 injection. This process allows us to precisely reflect some of the sun’s heat by injecting additional clouds into the upper atmosphere, a process that occurs naturally through volcanic eruptions. Atmospheric SO2 is naturally temporary, since it rains itself out after about a year. In fact, since regulations drastically reduced SO2 emissions in 2020, ocean temperatures have increased markedly. SO2 emissions from coal and bunker fuel were masking the full effects of greenhouse gasses! 6 6 See NASA’s reporting on the reduction, and this article which discusses increased ocean warming since. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Loading up enormous balloons with a buoyant mixture of SO2 and H2 is so cheap it can be done on a volunteer basis by a small club of enthusiasts with modest resources. 7 7 Nephew Jonathan also has ideas. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote
Can the fate of the world be turned for the better through such discrete, personalized efforts? Should it? I think it already has: we are already climate engineers. Humans have significantly changed the surface of the Earth since the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. Fleeing from our collective responsibility to continue to cultivate our planet does not obviate that responsibility. Ours is the first generation where most people not only do not farm, they do not even know any farmers. We are the first generation to feel squeamish about humanity’s symbiotic relationship with the soil. Our forebears solved famine but gave us too much CO2. We will solve the CO2 problem and bequeath durable wealth to our descendants.
Geoengineering and the development of abundant green energy does not require melting the icecaps or self-sabotaging ourselves through global genocide. Nor does it require the major industrialized nations to perform unilateral economic suicide, write trillion dollar checks every year, or using any other form of centralized market distortion. We just need continued innovation and deployment.
Burning rocks made us rich. Clean and abundant energy sources are making us titans. It turns out that creating material abundance means solving climate change as a first step. We were never going to solve problems of scarcity, such as poverty, with a scarce resource like fossil fuels. Now we have multiple new energy sources coming online, and cheap solar is already here. Abundance is something that we have to build from an imperfect world.
10,000 generations of humans have lived and died to get us to where we are today. The most recent 10 generations burned fossil fuels to build our towering edifice of science and technology, leaving us with a few outstanding externalities to address. Our generation gets to build AGI and live with trillions of non-human and hybrid intelligences—our first fellow sentients since the extinction of Neanderthals. Our generation gets to travel to other planets. Our generation will likely get functional immortality.
But first we need to beat climate change by satisfying our every material need using converted sunlight.
Unfortunately, these advances do not occur on their own. Already, the primary constraint to solving climate change is not physics. It’s not the ever-increasing rate at which we can convert the crust into solar panels. What is slowing us down? Three generations who grew up in the shadow of WW2 have learned to live (mostly) in peace but have largely forgotten how to do bold things cheaply and quickly. Our ongoing demographic transition requires more labor-saving innovation than ever, but we seem to spend most of our time arguing about how to divide a stagnant pool of resources. Furthermore, such arguments are usually won by established interest groups who do not want change. Institutional inertia is the predictable result of such deliberative processes, even when they’re well intentioned.
We need to stop permitting delays. We can’t lobotomize ourselves and just let the future happen. The single biggest obstacle to ramping up solar energy and stopping fossil fuel extraction is regulatory restraints, some ironically driven by environmental protection regulations! It is virtuous to build new stuff, deploy technology, and manufacture the future, and we should build a culture that celebrates these values. If we want a future of radical abundance and reduced environmental impact, all we have to do is build it.