The blizzard last week hit parts of El Paso County hard. Fortunately, our county roads folks were out here, even in far eastern El Paso County, moving six-foot drifts across roads so people could get out to go to work, to the doctor, and so on. As I was thankful for those workers and their equipment, it also made me think about how the dealing with the blizzard relates to climate change.
At this point, only diesel can power the kinds of vehicles that can push snow the way we need it done. At this point, most of us heat our houses with propane. What would we need to not use fossil fuels in getting through the winter, let alone blizzards?
Simply put, we would need technology to run large pieces of equipment from another fuel besides petroleum products. We would need to convert all of our propane heaters, stoves and so on to either another liquid non-petroleum fuel, or to electric, assuming the grid will become all low-carbon sources in a number of years. Someone has to invent no-carbon liquid fuels that will work in our existing appliances, or everyone has to buy new appliances.
That’s a pretty major kind of transition, that affects every building, residential or commercial, and every owner. But it all hangs on new technologies. Some folks demonize the oil and gas industry- but it’s hard for me to demonize people I depend on to heat my house and provide fuel to clear my roads- let alone all the other uses. In fact, I look with gratitude on their work. Are we planning to hate on these folks for the next 20 years or so while we continue to use their products?
The most recent report by the IPCC on keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees includes scenarios with both carbon capture and storage (CCS) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Without those technologies, it is very unlikely that we would keep to 1.5 degrees. CCS requires technology improvement, and BECCS requires both technology improvement and land use changes. Since most large landowners are farmers or ranchers, these technologies need to be ground-tested and somehow paid for. Each country needs to figure it out, but each land use change has its own environmental impacts, and some are near impossible (like afforestation of the prairie). Scientists and others have spent years debating the pros and cons of different kinds of bioenergy, for example.
While some have suggested a Green New Deal, I would suggest instead a Green Manhattan Project. Right now, billions of dollars are spent by the feds on scientific research directed at predicting climate impacts and refining climate models. What if those were simply switched over to focusing on a stream of technical innovations linked through to economic and practical feasibility? We could also consider the land grant model of research, education and extension, so that technologies are funded with design considerations all the way along of what will work in practice. The Manhattan Project didn’t work based on our current random investigator-initiated research grants, but rather on determining a course of action, finding the best technological bets, and the best researchers and technologists, and simply going for it.
According to Matthew Nisbet of Northwestern University, in a study of philanthropic funding for climate change from 2011 to 2015, 19 grant makers spent 556 million dollars, mostly on communication, and of that, only about 10 million on low-carbon energy technologies.
We get what we pay for. I can’t get on the internet without reading about climate change, or reading a new research report on sea levels, or possible climate impacts on beer production.
What we’re jointly not investing in sufficiently and in an organized way, like the Manhattan project, are the required technologies to transition. No one is against technology, and I can’t see it as a partisan issue. Successful CCS may mean that we are not done with fossil fuels quite yet, and that the transition to new power sources for snowplows and graders and home heating can take place simply as old equipment wears out.
For now, though, I am thankful for all the oil and gas workers, the propane folks, Mountain View Electrical Association employees, and the El Paso County roads workers.
Sharon Friedman worked in climate change for the U.S. Forest Service and is the editor of The Smokey Wire, providing community sourced and supported news about the National Forests.