Drifting Toward the Energy Future

If the people expecting the world to end when the Mayan calendar does on Dec. 21 are right, then we probably don’t need an energy policy. But NASA has an ironclad case that they’re wrong, and not many people seem to be taking the doomsayers seriously. Just about everyone is doing their holiday shopping as usual.

Perhaps not coincidentally, NASA also has a pretty ironclad case that the world’s climate is changing, but people are going about business as usual there, too.  Yes, there are doubters, but surveys from multiple sources show most Americans seem convinced of the reality of global warming. The COP18 climate conference earlier this month, the latest in a long series of international negotiations, produced little of significance. Just a couple of months ago, the International Energy Agency warned again that the world is “locking in” an energy system that will make it all but impossible to limit rising global temperatures.

The risk we face is neither lack of knowledge  nor sudden disaster. It’s drift.

The world’s energy system is changing, in major ways. Oil and natural gas production is surging, and so are renewables, on track to become the world’s second-largest source of electricity by 2015, according to the IEA. North America may even become self-sufficient in energy for the first time in decades. But fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source into the foreseeable future, and world temperatures will continue to rise.

Those trends show we can drift into change. Markets and individuals will make decisions, for good or ill. Some people argue that the government shouldn’t be “picking winners and losers” in energy, and that’s fine as far as it goes. But winners and losers will be chosen. And one of the fundamental issues is that we’re aren’t drifting fast enough into the energy future. Demand will continue rising sharply. Much of the world’s energy supply will remain in unstable regions. The climate will continue to get warmer.

Nor are we dealing frankly and intelligently with the tradeoffs that come with these changes. The controversy over fracking, which lies behind growing oil and gas production, is just one example. The benefits of energy security and replacing climate-damaging coal plants with cleaner natural gas are attractive, but unless we think carefully about how to manage this powerful new technology, it may come at a risk of groundwater contamination and other hazards. Another example are the decisions in Japan and Germany to back away from nuclear power. After Fukushima, the risks of nuclear power are pretty evident, but it is one of the very few energy forms that’s up and running that doesn’t contribute to global warming. If we back away from it, we need to accept the the tradeoff of increased dependence on fossil fuels, because renewables are not ready to pick up the slack.

The truth is that despite the promise of renewable energy, we need to get through the transition period, and it’s one that will take at least a couple of decades.  There are tradeoffs, and  we have to accept the risks and consequences of our choices. That’s the discussion we never have.

If the world was going to end on Dec. 21, we wouldn’t have any decisions to make. But we’re  still going to be here on Dec. 22. And the planet is still going to be drifting toward an energy future that most of us won’t like. The only way of changing that is to start making the hard bargains about what sources of energy we’re going to use, what we’re willing to pay for them, and what environmental consequences we’re willing to live with.