After we reduced whale-burning and tree-burning by switching to fossil fuels, many of the whales and trees grew back over 100 years or so. New fossil fuels may take 100 million years — we must change. And, in changing, we will avoid the huge and rapidly growing damages from fossil-fueled climate change.
Fortunately, we really can build a sustainable energy system. In 2020, the International Energy Agency wrote that the best solar-energy schemes provide the “cheapest … electricity in history.” In the USA, the cheapest electricity to add to the grid is from renewables, wind as well as sun. This would remain true if all subsidies for renewables were removed without removing the larger subsidies for fossil fuels, which include allowing them to change the climate and make people sick from air pollution. Capturing just 0.01% of the solar energy reaching the top of the atmosphere, or 1% of the wind, would power all of humanity with room for growth.
It is a huge task to build a sustainable, reliable, affordable energy system to power everyone essentially forever. Decades will be required. But we now know we can, and we know that responding well to climate and energy can help the economy and employment, our health and national security, the environment and ethics.
You probably have a cell phone in your pocket. It is just a bit of sand, some organic matter, and the right rocks … plus science and engineering, design and marketing. Einstein is in your phone — without correcting for relativity, the GPS would go astray in about 2 minutes. But we know relativity, and quantum mechanics for the computer, and so much more. We can solve problems.
Energy and climate will be bigger challenges than cell phones, and require more of us working together, certainly including artists and communicators as well as policymakers and businesspeople, scientists and engineers. But we know we can do this. What a wonderful reason to teach!
Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.