In Part 1 and Part 2 of this story, we have been sharing with you the contents of a discussion between professor and scientist Vaclav Smil and David Marchese of the New York Times Magazine. At the end of Part 2, Smil suggested that the human brain is simply not wired to react to distant threats, like long-term climate change. Marchese then asked Smil, “I wonder if you and I might just have different ideas about human behavior. Isn’t it in our nature to help our children survive? I eat much less meat than I used to. I’m moving into a new house and looking at solar panels and heat pumps. These aren’t things I was thinking about until climate change caused a social tipping point. So am I naïve, or are you pessimistic?”
“Yes and no. It depends. Also, there is nothing wrong with the heat pump, but proper insulation, that’s much better in the long run. The point is that we are being greedy, we are wasting yet improving our efficiencies at the same time. This is where I become unpalatable to the media because I do not have one message like ‘everything is getting better.’ I see it as checkered.
“People do sacrifice for our children, take the right steps. But the same people who will buy a solar panel and heat pump will buy an SUV. People will stop eating meat, then fly for a vacation in Toscana. We are messy, hard-to-define individuals. We are subject to fashions and whims — this is the beauty of humanity.
“Most of us are trying to do the right things with climate, but it is difficult when you have to move on the energy front, food front, materials front. People have to realize that this problem is unprecedented because of the numbers — billions of everything — and the pressure of acting rapidly as we never acted before. This doesn’t make it hopeless, but it makes it excruciatingly more difficult.”
“I cannot tell you that we don’t have a problem because we do have a problem. But I cannot tell you it’s the end of the world by next Monday because it is not the end of the world by next Monday. What’s the point of you pressing me to belong to one of these groups? We have a problem; it will be difficult to solve. Even more difficult than people think.”
“Does your understanding of the science around energy and climate change compel you in any particularly political directions?, Machese asked.
“No. I used to live in the westernmost part of the evil empire, what’s now the Czech Republic. They forever turned me off any stupid politics because they politicized everything. So it is now, unfortunately, in the West. Everything’s politics. No it is not!
You can be on this side or that side, but the real world works on the basis of natural law and thermodynamics and energy conversions, and the fact is if I want to smelt my steel, I need a certain amount of carbon or hydrogen to do it. The Red Book of Mao or Putin’s speeches or Donald Trump is no help in that. We need less politics to solve our problems. We need to look at the realities of life and to see how we can practically affect them.”
Marchese then delved into the war on Ukraine. “What are the implications for natural gas of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the United States banned Russian oil. Might an effect of the war be speeding up the transition away from natural gas?”
“No, not at first. It’s the quantities and how embedded it is. Germany just struck a massive agreement with the United Arab Emirates for liquid hydrogen. Germany has been successful in replacing a large share of electricity generation with wind and solar. For 2021, Germany provided a little more than 41 percent of its electricity via renewable energy sources.
“However, if you would switch on your satellites and look at the German autobahn right now, there are millions of cars moving down the autobahn at unlimited speed. That’s burning crude oil right, left and center. Famous German industries which make glass and plastics and chemicals are running on natural gas. You need gas for processing.
“Yes, Ukraine will make people rethink strategically, but at the same time they cannot move rapidly. Germany is a nation of some 83 million people. If half of them are using natural gas for heating, you just cannot rip up those natural gas furnaces and replace them in a year.” [Note: Bill McKibben agrees but thinks a lot more could be done to get heat pumps installed in German homes before next winter.]
Marchese then asked Vaclav Smil about the impact of natural gas on climate. “But is there a viable path built on burning natural gas that gets us to a future of less warming?”
“This is one thing that caused tremendous misunderstanding: You can produce natural gas in the right way. Unfortunately there are too many places around the world where we produce natural gas in the wrong way. Your plumbing is too loose, your pipelines are too leaky and you have unwanted emissions of methane.
“However, if I produce natural gas in the right way, as in most cases in the U.S., then I’m obtaining it without these fugitive emissions. If I were in charge of the planet, the most practical thing to do to reduce the emissions during the last 20 years would have been to rapidly close down as many coal-fired power plants as possible and replace their generation with combined cycle 60 percent+ efficient natural gas plants. This would have saved billions and billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the last two decades.”
“You’ve talked elsewhere about how the real challenge in decarbonizing is in the developing world, where countries will rely on burning carbon as they try to ramp up building their infrastructure. Is there an argument to be made, though, that countries developing new infrastructure have incentives to orient themselves toward renewables?”
“The more photovoltaics the better (for the climate). However, to have photovoltaics on a large scale, you have to have interconnections. If the country doesn’t have any grid or has a weak national grid, how will you distribute electricity? Countries need electricity for giant plants, for making chemicals, processing foods, making textiles. So you have to have photovoltaics on a large scale, which means a big electric grid. As I say, even the U.S. has a poor active grid.
“An electricity distribution network that is able to respond dynamically and proactively to changing conditions and energy demands and adapt to the latest communication technology … putting a photovoltaic panel on a roof is very easy. Developing a system around photovoltaics for the whole country — very difficult. No country in the world today runs itself on pure photovoltaics.
“Not today. Maybe tomorrow,” Marchese said.
“Not tomorrow. Again, it’s the scale. You see, you have almost become a victim. It’s inevitable because you are living in it, you are soaked in it, you are in New York City — this pushing people to one side or the other. We don’t need pushing to the sides. What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle. Because only from that middle will come the solutions.
“Solutions never come from extremes. It’s also irresponsible to state the problem in ways where, when you look closer, it’s not like that. There are these billions of people who want to burn more fossil fuel. There is very little you can do about that. They will burn it unless you give them something different. But who will give them something different? You have to recognize the realities of the world, and the realities of the world tend to be unpleasant, discouraging and depressing.”
The Climate Takeaway
Well, that was not the uplifting climate message we who write about such things and care about the Earth want to hear. Now we want to hear from our readers. Is Vaclav Smil a realist or is he Eeyore, the character in the Winnie The Pooh books who always sees the world in dark, apocalyptic terms? You have to be impressed with the clarity of Smil’s vision even if you don’t care for his message. Allow us to leave you with these thoughts from Carl Sagan:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner … on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that.”
The takeaway might be this. No one really cares whether we live or die. We either figure this out or simply cease to exist. The Earth will continue its journey around the sun for a few billion more years whether there are humans living on it or not. We really need to get over ourselves and our firm belief that it’s all about us. If you think that, there’s a very good chance you are not paying close enough attention to the world around you.
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