Buddy, can you spare a watt

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

We’ve all got a lot to learn about energy and climate.

That’s the take home capsule I got from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s recent conference in Santa Fe on Energy for the 21st Century.

It was a fascinating event, as much for what it was as for what it was not. That’s why I’m still thinking about it.

Last week, Science magazine had a letter from several people who were chairs of some of the 57 sessions at the Copenhagen Climate Congress, a major 3-day international meeting in March with more than 2,000 scientists.

The chairs were disappointed that the magazine’s coverage – a story titled “Projections of Climate Change go from Bad to Worse, Scientists Report” – had missed an even greater share of the conference that had to do with new research on interactions between climate and human society.

Some 50 percent of the papers given, they said, had to do with “new insights about governance, adaptation, communication, behavior, resilience, innovation and culture.”

That’s the part that was not just missing in the coverage of our local conference. It was missing period.

Granted, the much more modest conference held here was about energy, and especially energy science and technology, as our global system enters an era of climate crunch.

As many people are becoming aware, apart from our ordinary day-to-day difficulties punctuated by an increasing number of climate-related disasters and other complications, we are now going to have to deal with decades of deferred maintenance on a planet that may be spinning out of control.

It has taken at least several decades now and much redundant confirmation for the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming to reach bonding strength in the scientific community where these kinds of things are understood.

Within the body politic, where understanding is not a particularly useful value, the realization is even fresher.

Nobody at this conference, unlike a LANL conference only a few years ago, felt obliged to make the case for global cooling or waste any more time trying to unravel the basic assumption that manmade climate change was coming, ready or not.

Meanwhile, there are  more than a dozen different kinds of energy technologies competing with the hydrocarbon gang of fossil fuels. In this corner, solar and wind in that. From hydrological and tidal to geo, from biofuels to hydrogen to nuclear, each contender comes with an entourage of bickering alternatives.

There are compelling reasons that the world is exactly where it is now. None of the changes that may be required will be easy, and there is good reason to believe they are impossible.

Many proposed changes are visibly counterproductive but fiercely defended by powerful interests, like corn-based ethanol and king coal.

The same political and economic assumptions and institutionalized cons that got us into this mess are at work, whether they are trying to get us deeper in or trying to get us out.

Energy efficiency makes some people feel claustrophobic, fears that are heightened by energy companies, whose only comparable interest would be to restrict supply in order to increase demand.

In fact, energy efficiency must be seen as a bridging strategy, far more important than almost anything else we can do right now to buy time so we can get to the real relief of carbon-neutral and carbon free solutions on the other side.

The International Panel on Climate Change, that has patiently constructed the case for climate-driven scenarios of the future, has not only spelled out how much time and at what pace we have to start getting our act together, but they have also figured out the sectors where the greatest efficiencies can be found, starting with buildings, transport and industry.

The LANL conference was heavy on long-term research that we can only hope will be all grown up and waiting for us a few more decades from now. And the presentations were light on adapting to the inconvenience and disruptions without which we will never get there.

But without immersive exposure to the diversity of this subject and the fragility of arguments about it, I don’t know how public opinion would know the difference between good work and bad.