Beyond Which Lie Dragons
On climate change, energy superabundance, and electric airplanes
I continue to be impressed by the caliber of responses to this Substack. Reader Matt Frost sent me a piece he wrote for THE NEW ATLANTIS in 2019 entitled “After Climate Despair,” and it may be one of the best longform pieces I’ve ever read on climate change.
Below are a few excerpts.
Regarding the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, which described mitigation pathways that would limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius:
The pathways that would limit warming to below 1.5 degrees are extremely ambitious: “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide…would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.” In other words, to reach the IPCC target, the world would have to cut its carbon emissions in half over the next decade and eliminate them entirely in a generation.
Some news sources portrayed 2030 as an official deadline for avoiding climate catastrophe. It is worth noting that the report’s lead author, Myles Allen, has warned against this interpretation: “Please stop saying something globally bad is going to happen in 2030. Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters, but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond which lie climate dragons.”
On austerity vs. abundance:
What should motivate our response to climate change is what got us into this mess in the first place: our desire for the abundance that energy technology affords. Energy is the commodity that allows us to protect ourselves from the ravages of nature and to live distinctly human lives, and many of the benefits we enjoy today were made possible by the exploitation of fossil energy. Our children should enjoy greater energy abundance than us, not less.
But the mainstream climate establishment — the government officials, researchers, advocates, and journalists who sustain the consensus agenda represented by the IPCC — is bent on austerity. They demand that we ration fossil energy consumption until zero-emission sources like wind and solar replace the fossil share of the global energy budget.
Discussions about climate change are also riddled with population anxiety. Lugubrious climate dread appears both as the idea that we should not inflict any more humans on this dying world and that we should not inflict this dying world on any more humans. For the most part, we no longer suffer from feverish speculation about runaway global population growth, since the population may peak anyway by the end of the century. Yet we still hear the old Malthusian idea that our limited energy resources will only be enough for everyone if there are fewer people to whom they must be handed out. Because the climate establishment views energy consumption as the problem, energy consumers must be on the negative side of the ledger — even if their welfare, or their grandchildren’s welfare, is supposed to be the good being protected.
Our mission must be to provide future generations with better technological alternatives than the ones currently on offer, which range from prohibitively expensive (like BECCS1) to wildly reckless (like pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block sunlight). We owe our descendants progress toward the long-deferred dream of energy “too cheap to meter,” as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, famously said in 1954. We owe them the tools with which to dispose of the waste carbon they will inherit. We owe them a better sentimental investment than morbid despair about the future they will occupy.
The policy measures we pursue in the near term should express the ethos of abundance and continuity. They should avoid emission cuts today that might limit wealth and technology options tomorrow. And they should set us up to take the best advantage of whatever breakthroughs, technological or political, we might be fortunate enough to see in the coming years.
Matt also sent over the link to a policy paper on energy superabundance, produced by Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado at Utah State’s Center for Growth and Opportunity, which begins with the full Lewis Strauss quote mentioned above:
“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matter of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours.”
—Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman,
United States Atomic Energy Commission,1954
Aviation Impacts of Energy Superabundance
As the dad of an aviator (here’s both of us in the sky last year), I was immediately drawn to a passage on electric airplanes.
The authors write:
Modern air travel has become increasingly inconvenient. Between long security lines, lengthy boarding periods for large planes, and sprawling airports, city pairs that are between 100 and 500 miles apart often have similar door-to-door travel times by car as by plane. The travel-time stagnation that has occurred in this distance range creates a gap in the market that could be addressed by 6- to 19-passenger electric planes.
Electric planes can dramatically reduce door-to-door time by flying out of general aviation airports. Although the United States has over 18,000 landing facilities, 70 percent of domestic air travelers pass through fewer than 35 airports. Only 22 percent of the population lives within 30 minutes of a major hub airport, while 94 percent lives within 30 minutes of a small community airport. Exploiting the long tail of airports in the United States would expand point-to-point service options, reducing door-to-door travel times for regional travel.
It never really occurred to me that electric planes, used in the decentralized fashion described above, could have such dynamic utility.
The authors also go into the potential promise of “Vertical Takeoff and Landing Taxis,” i.e., VTOL aircraft, which require landing space similar to a large helipad. “While a dense city can support several helipads,” the authors write, “it may not make sense to devote the space for enough of them to make VTOL aircraft a practical means of transport within cities. They could make sense for suburbs, exurbs, and bedroom communities.”
According to Vernon and Dourado, the potential transportation implications of energy superabundance also include the optimization of hyperloops, supersonic flight, suborbital point-to-point travel, electric/autonomous trucks, etc.
They add that, while cheap electricity or electrofuels paired with today’s energy density may give us more trucks, tunnels, short-haul drones, and possibly airships, the implications of access to cheaper electricity and higher energy densities (e.g., from portable nuclear reactor technologies) might be profound.
“Cheap and dense energy technologies would cause technologies like heavy-lift VTOL drones to eat the other modes,” the authors write. “There would be swarms of VTOL drones carrying around packages, containers, and truck trailers.”
The paper ends with a call to action amid the bureaucratic stasis that makes building and innovating a struggle:
To achieve this level of energy abundance, we need to remove the obstacles to building in the physical world. Power plants and transmission lines continue to be plagued by red tape from environmental review requirements, the siting process, and veto players at the local, state, and federal levels. Transportation infrastructure that is needed to allow us to step into our newfound energy prosperity suffers from similar issues. Smart policies like congestion taxes that could increase throughput and therefore increase demand for transportation languish because of a lack of political will. A high-speed tunnel that would connect DC and Baltimore in 15 minutes is languishing in environmental review. New aircraft types face regulatory obstacles at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was spun off from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1975. In the entire history of the agency since then, it has never approved a reactor license from start to finish, from initial application to beginning of operations. Without reform, the obstacles to miniaturizing nuclear technology to achieve a portable source of high-density power are significant.
In short, under business-as-usual, many of the possibilities we have laid out in this paper won’t happen for a long time. If we want them, we will have to seize them.
The entire paper is available here.
Sending my thanks to Matt and others who’ve been forwarding so many interesting links lately.