Seeing solutions on climate and energy

#ClimateEdNowSolving the twin problems of climate and energy could make humans energy-rich for the first time in history, giving us the power to build a better life for everyone, while preserving much of Earth for other species and avoiding the dire damages of climate change. Building this better future requires teachers empowering students to realize the possibilities while avoiding the perils.

Getting energy right really matters. A human diet of 2000 calories per day gives just enough energy to keep an old 100-watt light bulb burning through the day. We support our well-being by getting something else to do most of our work. Worldwide, our average energy use is about 25 times as much as we generate internally, and 100 times as much in the USA: heating and cooling, plowing and harvesting, and so much more.

Our history could be told through our energy use: finding something to burn, suffering pollution and other problems while burning far faster than nature makes more, generating troubles including intrusive governments and perhaps even wars when the inevitable scarcity arrives, then finding something else to burn and repeating. For example, in 1620 the Pilgrims found Cape Cod “… so goodly a Land, and wooded to the brinke of the sea,” but by 1695, the town of Eastham had banned logging even on private property because of the ravages of deforestation. Much of the wood was used to boil seawater for salt to pack cod for trade; the solution was windmills pumping seawater into solar drying troughs. In the mid-1800s, Thoreau wrote that on the Cape “Many get all their fuel from the beach,” so no driftwood might mean no hot dinner.

I live in Pennsylvania — “Penn’s woods.” When early European settlers arrived in North America, a squirrel could have climbed a tree on the Atlantic coast and stayed aloft to the Mississippi. By the late 19th century, Joseph Rothrock, the first state forester of Pennsylvania, wrote about the “Pennsylvania Desert” — virtually all of the trees had been cut. Many fueled iron furnaces, including the one that helped fund the founding of my university. Each of the dozens of furnaces and forges in Pennsylvania needed roughly a square mile of trees per year, a tall order indeed. Meanwhile, as many as 10,000 sailors were trying to kill all of the whales they could, cooking them for lamp oil and other products.

Fortunately, we really can build a sustainable energy system.

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.

Richard B. Alley
Short Bio

Richard Alley (PhD 1987 Wisconsin; Evan Pugh University Professor, Geosciences, Penn State) studies the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets to help predict future climate and sea-level changes. He has been honored for research, teaching, and service. He participated in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (co-recipient, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize), and provided requested advice to high government officials from both major political parties. He has authored or coauthored over 300 refereed scientific papers.  He was presenter for the PBS TV miniseries Earth: The Operators’ Manual, based on his book. His popular account of climate change and ice cores, The Two-Mile Time Machine, was Phi Beta Kappa’s science book of the year. He is happily married with two grown daughters, one stay-at-home cat, a bicycle, and a pair of soccer cleats.