In the 1980s entrepreneurs masquerading as ethicists convinced the Colorado Supreme Court that lawyers should attend continuing legal education (CLE) seminars. They created an industry for bloviation that takes boredom to a new level. The Internet is a great innovation, but in facilitating on-line attendance of CLEs it reaches its pinnacle. You can log on and do something useful while listening to a useless CLE.
But, on occasion a conference is so promising I attend in person. In mid-April I attended the Martz Spring Symposium at the University of Colorado Law School on Natural Resources, Energy, and Public Lands: What Happens Next? I am going to focus on the climate change portions.
Let me make the required homage. I accept that climate is changing. I accept human activity is a decisive factor. And I accept we as a society should pursue public policy to address the change. My heresy is I do not mind debating any of that or more importantly “what” public policy we should pursue.
The symposium began with a debate between a conservative professor, Steven Hayward, and a former Obama climate appointee in the State Department, Karen Fiorini. The Oxford Style debate was: “The US Should Remain a Party to the Paris Climate Agreement”. Hayward took the “No” position and Fiorini the “Yes” position.
Hayward began by essentially agreeing with my homage and saying the Paris Agreement was nonbinding and merely a reason for bureaucrats to have discussions. Fiorini was openly taken aback and acknowledged that she had expected Hayward to deny the science of climate change. But she quickly recovered and after admitting Hayward’s characterization was correct argued the Paris Agreement still had value. Discussions and exchange of ideas are important, US industry supports participating in those discussions, and our allies want us at the table. Why anger these important constituencies?
After a few exchanges Hayward let slip that he honestly did not care because the agreement was so weak staying or going changed nothing. But, he also said we should focus on new technologies that allow us to actually meet the challenge.
This is the dirty truth of climate change. None of the existing technologies have any hope of keeping temperatures below the two degrees the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) tells us is necessary to avoid the worst effects.
And that set the tone for the next day’s discussions. Not “you’re a anti-capitalist dreamer” vs. “you’re a climate denier”. Instead an actual balanced discussion of the science and where it needs to innovate to meet the challenge. The most interesting panel came in the dreaded 3:30 afternoon session on energy and electricity systems. So interesting, I did not need my usual 3:30 CLE double espresso to stay awake.
The panel discussed storage technology, grid design, wind and solar, nuclear, carbon capture, and every conceivable innovation coming.
The most refreshing commentary came from the NERL (National Energy Renewable Laboratory) representative. He argued forcefully that we should seize on the shale revolution to lower carbon via natural gas to supplement existing and emerging low carbon technologies. Use the tools we have now to make progress, while recognizing we only meet the two degree challenge with future technologies.
Some of the panelists predicted innovation in wind and solar would become dominant, but they were not insistent. If modular nuclear systems or carbon capture or more likely combinations of all, became the scientific answer they were willing to accept it. They pointed out that sixty percent of all non-carbon electricity production today is nuclear. The NERL representative made the same point I have made before about storage – lithium ion chemistry is not the long term answer. I learned as a director of a battery company that it is just not stable, but he promised that new advanced storage chemistries were coming.
It is not wind and solar versus fossil fuels. It is what works. We can do this. We can overcome climate change if we can overcome conservative and progressive ideologies that are the primary obstacles. And we need to fully fund NERL and its clear eyed focus on innovation not ideology as the answer.