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Neuroscientist; Professor, University of Washington; Author, Global Fever
Professor, The University of Washington School of Medicine; Author, A Brain For All Seasons

The Climate Optimist

Mention global warming at a seasonal social gathering and see what happens, now that skepticism has turned into concern and sorrow. They will assume that you're a pessimist about our prospects. "Not really," I protest. That earns me a quizzical look.

"Wait a minute," she says. "If you're an optimist, why do you look so worried?"

"So you think it's easy, being an optimist?"

Many scientists look worried these days. We've had a steady diet of bad news coming from climate scientists and biologists. To become even a guarded optimist, you have to think hard.

First, I reflected, the history of science and medicine shows that, once you mechanistically understand what's what, you can approach all sorts of seemingly unsolvable problems. I'm optimistic that we will learn how to stabilize climate.

Unfortunately the window of opportunity is closing. Fifty years have now passed since the first unequivocal scientific warnings of an insulating blanket of CO2 forming around the planet. Politicians apparently decided to wait until something big went wrong.

It has. We have already entered the period of consequences. Climate scientists have long been worried about their children's future. Now they are also worried about their own.

Our Faustian bargain over fossil fuels has come due. Dr. Faustus had 24 years of party-now, pay-later—and indeed, it's exactly 24 years since Ronald Reagan axed the U.S. budget for exploring alternative fuels. This led to doubling our use of cheap coal, the worst of the fossil fuels. They're planning, under business as usual, to re-double coal burning by 2030—even though we can now see the high cost of low price.

The devil's helpers may not have come to take us away, but killer heat waves have started, along with some major complications from global warming. We're already seeing droughts that just won't quit. Deserts keep expanding. Oceans keep acidifying. Greenland keeps melting. Dwindling resources keep triggering genocidal wars with neighbors (think Darfur). Extreme weather keeps trashing the place.

All of them will get worse before they get better.

Worse, tipping points can lead to irreversible demolition derbies. Should another big El Niño occur and last twice as long as in 1983 or 1998, the profound drought could burn down the rain forests in Southeast Asia and the Amazon—and half of all species could go extinct, just within a year or two.

Time has become so short that we must turn around the CO2 situation within a decade to avoid saddling our children with the irreversible consequences of a runaway warming. That means not waiting for a better deal on some post-Kyoto treaty. It means immediately scaling up technologies that we know will work, not waiting for something better that could take decades to debug.

This isn't optional. It is something that we simply have to do. The time for talk is past.

"I see why you're worried," she says. "But what's your optimistic scenario for dealing with this fossil fuel fiasco?"

For starters, I think it likely that the leaders of the major religious groups will soon come to see climate change as a serious failure of stewardship. And once they see our present fossil fuel use as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations, their arguments will trump the talk-endlessly-to-buy-time business objections— just as such moral arguments did when ending slavery in the 19th century.

Second, the developed nations are fully capable of kick-starting our response to global warming with present technology—enough to achieve, within ten years, a substantial reduction in their own fossil fuel uses. How?

Wind farmers will prosper as pastures grow modern windmills to keep the cows company.

Giant parking lots, already denuded of trees, are perfect places for acres of solar paneling. Drivers will love the shaded parking spaces they create.

The Carbon Tax will replace most of those deducted from paychecks and create a big wave of retrofitting homes and businesses.

Big brightly lit grocery stores with giant parking lots will compete poorly with warehouses that deliver web and phone orders within the hour, like pizza. Smaller neighborhood grocery stores will once again do a big walk-in business and they will compete with the warehouses by offering "green bicycle" delivery.

High-speed toll gates will become the norm on commuter highways. (Yes, I know, but remember that the paycheck was just enriched by eliminating withholding for income tax.)

Speed limits will be lowered to 50 mph (80 kmh) for fuel efficiency and, as in 1973, drivers will marvel at how smoothly the traffic flows. Double taxes will apply to vehicles with worse-than-average fossil fuel consumption, reducing the number of oversized vehicles with poor streamlining. Hybrids and all-electric cars will begin to dominate new car sales.

A firm, fast schedule will be established for retiring or retrofitting existing coal plants. My bet is that adding nuclear power plants—France gets 78% of its electricity that way, New Jersey 52%—will prove safer, cheaper, and faster than fixing coal.

On the quarter-century time scale, let us assume that the new rapid transit systems will reduce car commuting by half. The transition to electric and hydrogen vehicles will shift transportation's energy demands to greener sources, including biofuels, geothermal, tidal, and wave generation.

The highly efficient binding energy extractors (BEEs, the fourth-generation nuclear power plants) will be running on the spent fuel of the earlier generations.

The low-loss DC transmission lines will allow, via cables under the Bering Strait, solar-generated electricity to flow from the bright side to the dark side of the earth.

And in this 25-year time frame, we ought to see some important new technology making a difference, not just improvements in what we already use. For example, we might encourage rapid adaptation of the whale's favorite food, the tiny phytoplankton which provide half of the oxygen we breathe as they separate the C from the CO2.

Since the shell-forming plankton sink to the ocean bottom when they die, their carbon is taken out of circulation for millions of years. Forests can burn down, releasing their stored carbon in a week, but limestone is forever. If shell-forming plankton could thrive in warmer waters with some selective breeding or a genetic tweak, their numbers might double and start taking our excess CO2 out of circulation.

But even if we invent—and debug—such things tomorrow, it can take several decades before an invention makes a dent in our urgent problem. And all this assumes no bad surprises, such as the next supersized El Niño killing off the Amazon and, once we lack all those trees, increasing the rate of warming by half.

By mid-century, let us suppose that we have begun extracting more CO2 from the atmosphere than we add.

This will only happen if the technology of the developed world has become good enough to compensate for what's still going on in the overstressed nations that are too disorganized to get their energy act together.

When CO2 levels fall enough to counter the delayed warming from past excesses, we will begin to see a reversal of droughts and violent weather— though the rise in sea level will likely continue, a reminder to future generations of our 20th-century Faustian bargain.

As Samuel Johnson said in 1777, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

We need to turn on a dime—by which I mean, close to what we saw in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

From a standing start in late 1941, the automakers converted—in a matter of months, not years—more than 1,000 automobile plants across thirty-one states... In one year, General Motors developed, tooled, and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft... GM also produced the amphibious 'duck'—a watertight steel hull enclosing a GM six-wheel, 2.5 ton truck that was adaptable to land or water. GM's duck `was designed, tested, built, and off the line in ninety days'... Ford turned out one B-24 [a bomber] every 63 minutes....
— Jack Doyle, Taken for a Ride, 2000

Now there's a source of optimism: we did it before. Indeed, GM currently needs a new purpose in life (and I'd suggest repurposing the manned space program as well). All of that talent is badly needed.

With great challenges come great opportunities and I'm an optimist about our ability to respond with innovation. Countries that innovate early will have an economic edge over the laggards.

Our present civilization is like a magnificent cathedral, back before flying buttresses were retrofitted to stabilize the walls. Civilization now needs a retrofit for stabilizing its foundations. It will be a large undertaking, not unlike those that once went into building pyramids and cathedrals. I'm optimistic that the younger generation can create a better civilization during the major makeover—provided that those currently in the leadership can stop this runaway coal train, real fast.

Climate change is a challenge to the scientists but I suspect that the political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It's going to be like herding stray cats, and the political leaders who can do it will be remembered as the same kind of geniuses who pulled off the American Revolution.