Climate activists who assign significance to the year 2030, claiming that we have a decade to address climate change, do a disservice to our cause.
Their assertion is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report that found that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050” for global warming to be limited to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
This will undoubtedly be unpopular with my fellow climate activists, but there is no chance we will achieve that. Global population and economic growth and their related energy consumption will make it impossible.
In fact, 2030 will just be another year in a long-term trend. For that reason, the IPCC’s reports from last year are more informative. Average global temperature, even if the Paris Agreement is implemented, will increase 5.2 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. And sea levels will rise around 43 inches in the same timeframe.
That is our current destiny. And there is almost nothing we can do about it within the next 10 years. But if we think about our climate change challenge over a longer period of time, there is reason to be hopeful. We can transform the global energy economy over decades. And we have experience doing just that.
In October 1973, almost 50 years ago, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) launched an oil embargo against the United States and other countries. Oil prices quadrupled, and the United States began a 50-year period in which our energy policy aimed to address and prevent energy scarcity. We worked to diversify our sources of imported oil by encouraging production in the North Sea, Latin America, Alaska, and elsewhere. We developed, with varying success, synthetic and agriculturally derived fuels. We researched and deployed geothermal, nuclear, solar, wind, new drilling techniques, and other sources of energy. And we imposed efficiency requirements on everything from cars to light bulbs.
And then, sometime during the last decade, our energy scarcity was replaced by energy abundance. Oil, natural gas, and electricity prices fell. We became a net oil exporter. Electricity from natural gas, solar, and wind became so inexpensive that it began to displace our baseload power from coal and nuclear plants. And those efficiency requirements no longer deterred us from driving SUVs.
But the fear of scarcity still sets the tone among our political leaders whose energy policy instincts are still to encourage even more diversity and to reduce prices further by subsidizing an array of energy fuels and technologies. Subsidies are now so prevalent that they are essential for energy sources to be competitive, and, in some cases, we now have negative costs for energy.
Today, we have the opportunity to do and the need for a complete shift in our energy strategy. Our fear of energy scarcity needs to be replaced by an awareness of energy externalities—the consequences of our energy production. It requires a completely different policy framework than we are used to. We need to spend the next 50 years addressing energy externalities, principally the emission of greenhouse gases and the resulting climate change.
The 50 years in which we pursued policies to respond to energy scarcity was not easy. The government made some smart and some miserable investments, and, as a result, some of our regulations were ineffective and costly, prices rose and fell, and commercial interests battled. But we also learned valuable lessons: regulations are often court-bound, locking in technologies and slowing change; subsidies are effective but are unaffordable at the scale necessary; and well-designed markets are more powerful than government policies, which is why a carbon tax is the best way to address climate change.
Fortunately, we no longer need to fear energy scarcity. However, we now need to deal with energy’s climate consequences. And our best step forward is accepting that we are not on the verge of solving climate change and, instead, recognize that addressing it will require decades, not just one, of commitment strengthened by a fundamental shift in our energy priorities.