Challenging the Doom Narrative on Climate Change
The story of climate change and its effects is one which has been heard universally. Many different variations of this story exist; however, one of these seems to be much more present than it should be within the general population. This being something I will call “The Doom Narrative”, in which it is believed that climate change is a force of nature which cannot be stopped and will cause the extinction of humanity. Many people see the lack of progressive government policies being made toward bettering the environment and oppressing the industries which cause these issues; they see that fossil fuel consumption is still very high and that these industries still prosper. The average global temperatures are already up 1.2 degrees Celsius, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to meet the 1.5-degree standards of the Paris agreement set a few years back. Many scientists have done experiments in the past on climate change models in which an accelerating rate of warming can be seen, creating the existence of a “point of no return” in which climate change is so accelerated that the fate of humanity is sealed no matter what we do. All the ideas listed above are what create and sustain the doom narrative; however, this story is just not what we should expect of our future, many of the predictions made by scientists are not relevant anymore as the progress made in the last decade cannot be ignored.
The doom narrative is a dangerous idea and could very significantly slow the progress we make towards a healthier planet earth if believed by too many. I intend to show why a more hopeful view of our future is not just wishful thinking but is essential to manifesting an effort for change.
Scientists from a decade ago believed that because of the accelerating rate of global warming earth would reach an average global temperature of 4-8 degrees Celsius above the average temperature before the industrial era by the year 2100. This number certainly sounds significant, but perhaps it is not clear what this would look like on a qualitative scale. Currently, the increase in average temperature is close to 1.2 degrees Celsius, which we notice is causing an increase in heatwaves, hurricanes, and forest fires all around the globe. At a 2 degree increase from before pre-industrial times, extreme weather events such as these become much more severe and common, heat waves become a yearly threat in certain parts of the world, and ecosystems begin to fail. After a 3-degree increase, the effects of climate change on human populations becomes much more severe, as some developing nations will become incapable of supporting their own populations needs and will begin to starve. Mass immigration will need to take place, heat waves will become a major risk to people’s health, and extreme weather is further amplified. Once the global temperatures exceed an average of 4 degrees, the apocalypse begins, ecosystems have completely collapsed, and nearly all animals, including us, will no longer survive on the hostile planet earth will have become. This is the worst-case scenario that scientists had assumed would come to be using their models from over a decade ago, however, enough progress has been made in the last 10 years that this is no longer the case. Even if our progress towards reducing the effects of climate change were to plateau, new models predict an earth which is within a range of the 3-degree average global temperature increase by 2100. This is huge news; humanity is no longer facing extinction. This scenario isn’t quite good enough however, an increase of 3 degrees is still quite tragic and there remains much to be done.
Significant progress is made through an accumulation of positive trends. To start off these compounding positives, technology which was thought to remain expensive quickly evolved making them much more comparable to the cost of energy production using non- renewable sources. Wind energy is 3 times cheaper than it was 10 years ago, and solar energy is over 10 times cheaper! Energy from renewable sources is now able to compete and even outperform all other methods of power production in terms of cost per Megawatt hour. For those who are curious, see above a chart of the evolution of many methods of power production’s costs per unit energy in MWHs. Where on the right in the key a number in % is given which represents the change in cost since the year 2009.
Renewable sources are finally more efficient than fossil fuel sources, this is great news, however, only about 11.2% of the worlds power comes from these renewable sources so it’s necessary to invest in constructing infrastructure to support larger magnitudes of renewable electric power. Construction is expensive, however, with more research these technologies will only become cheaper and cheaper. To go along with these advancements in renewable electric power production, batteries are becoming cheaper and more efficient with every passing year. In just the last 10 years battery costs are down by 60% and the price is sure to decrease further in the coming years. Inexpensive batteries are extremely important for the implementation of renewable sources of energy because if we were to rely significantly on solar and wind energy, we would need large battery storages to deliver power to cities while the generators are on downtime (such as during the nighttime, or when there is little wind). As well as this, battery prices directly correspond to the price of electric cars, which are a huge step forward for reducing greenhouse gas emission. As batteries get cheaper and better more and more people will be able to afford electric cars, and in the near future, buying an electric car will likely become financially beneficial.
Another positive is that the coal industry, which is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, is on the decline. Three-quarters of all planned coal plants have had their construction cancelled and 44 countries have committed to completely stop building them. Coal consumption has stopped increasing exponentially in developing nations such as China and India and is decreasing in nearly all developed countries around the world. See below a chart of the yearly coal consumption of certain countries as well as the whole of Europe in the last 50 years.
It is important to note that the greatest consumers of fossil fuels are the developing countries such as India and China who are undergoing a stage of development and economic growth. It was previously thought necessary for countries to need to burn more fossil fuels in order to improve their economy. However, this may not be the case anymore. The renewable energy generating infrastructure which is being refined by developed countries may improve quick enough so that future developing countries can take advantage of the new technology and may not need to go through this stage of increased fossil fuel burning in order to prosper.
Already, renewable sources are cheaper than burning fossil fuels, so once these renewable sources become much more accessible to developing nations, these nations will find it beneficial to take the renewable power generation path.
Scientists previously thought that even if we were to manage net-zero emissions before 2100 that global warming would continue for many decades and centuries to come, a conclusion based on models that were pessimistic in assuming that we would never manage to succeed in stopping the production of greenhouse gases. This conclusion is quite depressing, stories such as these make people believe that even if we were to succeed in getting our emissions down to nothing that the effects of climate change would still only get worse, and our efforts would be in vain. However, we now know that this is not true, new models suggest that once emissions are reduced to zero, we will begin to see the decline in global temperature within just a few years.This is great news; people should know that if an effort is made to have net-zero emissions that it will lead to a positive outcome even in the short term.
The earth is not doomed, and we humans do have a future here, however as it stands many people will still face the terrible consequences of climate change. We need to work on changing our future of a 3-degree increase in average temperature earth to something better. The doom narrative is dangerous because hopelessness is counterproductive, we need people to have the motivation to pressure politicians into pushing for net zero emissions and we need people to have the motivation to develop the skills necessary to make a difference, whether that be in engineering, science, or politics. There are no miracle fixes to our problem, change will only come from compounding positives and innovation is the key to make the small positive impacts which will drive the success of our climate change endeavors. Every reduction in carbon emissions no matter how small will buy us more time to go net-zero and finally see the earth return to its original state. Small changes such as the implementation of LED lights which are 10 times more efficient than incandescent lightbulbs, cargo ships moving at half speed to reduce fuel consumption, and the invention of CO2 efficient cement, steel, and electronics are all examples of small changes which do make a difference.
Among these small technological advancements, certain technologies have much greater potential in the mitigation of climate change if properly funded by governments and developed by engineers. A few that will be mentioned below are tidal power, carbon capture in industrial plants and straight air capture, as well as the solar canals being designed in California.
Tidal power generation is the process of converting the kinetic energy (energy from motion) from the water flow caused by tides and turning it into usable electricity by the method of rotating large turbines. Most often underwater barrages are built, which are a sort of underwater dam which concentrate the water flow through the turbines, however there are other ways of accessing tidal energy such as having water turbines (these resembling and functioning similarly to wind turbines) which capture the energy from ocean currents without the use of a barrage.
Water is nearly 1000 times denser than air so water can transfer much more energy into rotating these large turbines compared to wind, allowing for greater power generation. The benefit to tidal sources of energy is the extremely cheap and clean energy they provide once built. As well as this, compared to wind and solar power tidal energy generation is very consistent and reliable. The tides will always behave the way we predict them to without any uncertainty and are unchanging in their cyclic nature, unlike solar or wind power which depend heavily on the weather. As it stands there are very little tidal power stations around the world, the largest being the Sihwa tidal power station in South Korea which costed 298 million dollars to construct and can produce 550GWH annually, which is enough to power around 38000 American homes.
Energy experts speculate that if we were to harness tidal energy to its fullest the generated electricity could supply much of the global power demand. So then why haven’t we done this? Well, it just so happens that this method of generating power is very underdeveloped and therefore expensive, the energy generated from tidal plants is extremely cheap, however, building them is a much different story. As well as this the technology hasn’t been worked upon very much and is way behind solar and wind power in terms of testing and implementation. The infrastructure just seems too expensive to be worth it, however, the same was said about solar energy, and now, after many years of research and development solar energy now outclasses most other sources of energy in terms of price. For this reason, it is important for skilled engineers and scientists to make innovations to this developing technology to make it viable for worldwide power production.
Carbon capture is the process of separating carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and transferring it to storage locations such as underground rock formations where it can react with materials and create inert carbonate compounds which have no greenhouse gas effect on the planet. Currently it is somewhat expensive, however, due to carbon taxes being implemented in more and more countries, it may soon become a bad business decision not to use carbon capture to reduce emissions, considering that the cost of carbon capture will keep decreasing as it is further developed. This is good, because it allows us to reduce the harm caused by the combustion of fossil fuels while we prepare our infrastructure to support more and more renewable energy. More recently, the methods capturing carbon straight from the atmosphere do exist, but are even more expensive, costing around 600$ per ton of CO2. A good amount of this cost comes from the need to transport the carbon to a location where it can be properly stored. To combat this, teams of engineers from Columbia university are exploring ways to cut this cost in a creative manner. They’re trying to design a system which consists of rotating wind turbines generating energy for the carbon capture technology offshore, where it can then inject the carbon directly below in the rock formations of the deep ocean which cuts the cost of transportation on top of providing the plant with renewable energy. Currently, the largest direct air carbon capture plant in the world is found in Iceland. It began operation in 2021 and uses geothermal energy to power its system. The capture plant dissolves the carbon dioxide into water and pumps it into the volcanic basalt formations underground.
An example of a very innovative solution to a local environmental issue would be the solar canal system which is under development in California. Essentially, the goal of this project is to protect California’s 4000 miles of water canals using solar panels, which will shade the water below reducing evaporation. According to the engineers designing this project, the shading of the canals will save more than 65 billion gallons of water every year, which is enough to supply a population of over 2 million people. As well as this, the huge amount of solar panels will generate a significant amount of renewable energy without using up farmable land. As a bonus, the water can provide a cooling effect of up to 5.5 degrees Celsius for the solar panels, which will allow them to work much more efficiently.
It would seem that there is no single solution to climate change, however it is certain that the doom narrative is just fictional story of what is to come. The fact that bad news makes better headlines than good news likely explains why the doom narrative still exists, and why people do not know of the substantial progress we have made. There is no reason to believe climate change is a hopeless issue which will never be solved because this simply isn’t true. People need to believe that we have a future in order to push for changes that will better that future, and people need to have the capacity to innovate and come up with creative solutions to dampen the effects of climate change and buy us more time to fix the problem.
Cost of energy comparison graph taken from: https://www.lazard.com/media/451905/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-version-150-vf.pdf
Graph of coal production taken from: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/coal-consumption-by-country-terawatt-hours-twh?tab=chart&time=1975..latest&country=IND~USA~Europe~CHN~RUS~GBR
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- Lazard (2021): Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis - Version 15.0. Levelized Cost of Energy Comparison - Historical Utility-Scale Generation Comparison https://www.lazard.com/media/451905/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-version-150- vf.pdf
- Kurzgesagt- In a Nutshell, “We WILL Fix Climate Change”, uploaded to youtube (April 5, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxgMdjyw8uw&t=530s
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- Encyclopedia of Britannica. “Tidal Power”. Taken from: https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/tidal-power
- National Geographic. “Tidal energy” taken from nationalgeographic.org https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/tidal-energy/
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- (November 9 2021) “The CAT thermometer explained” Taken from: climateactiontracker.org - https://climateactiontracker.org/global/cat- thermometer/
- Ritchie, Hannah. June 4 2021.” The price of batteries has declined by 97% in the last three decades” taken from: ourworldindata.com- https://ourworldindata.org/battery-price- decline