The baseline, 227 parts per million was pre-industrial; the ascent tracks the industrial and agricultural revolutions. The content: carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere.
The trap: “CO2 and other greenhouse gases act like a blanket, absorbing infrared radiation and preventing it from escaping into outer space.”
Let me stop there. The disputes largely involve what comes next; those nagging assumptions. And what is truly unfortunate is we can’t use our common sense or experiences to assess the assumptions. So let me begin with some assertions.
University of Hawaii researchers have theorized that Bitcoin could be responsible for greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to propel climate change past 2°C, or 3.6°F, above pre industrial levels within just the next 11 to 22 years. Other researchers criticized the conclusions citing flawed assumptions.
And that, of course, is the overarching problem—variability is confusing both researchers and the public. As Axios noted: “The high energy costs and climate impact of Bitcoin mining is a legitimate ongoing concern, but specific predictions are only as good as the assumptions they’re based on, and those assumptions — of rates of technology adoption, sources of energy, and efficiency of the applications — are very hard to nail accurately.”
Ah yes, the nail. An oft cited aphorism insists that those who hammer should measure twice and nail once. Since climate change research and associated conclusions border on the existential, “measuring twice” to reach exacting conclusions are essential. And the measurements must deal with the real world.
I don’t know enough about the demand-side of cryptocurrencies to measure the mining threat, but I do know that societal sacrifice is not a 21st Century characteristic. Can we imagine any voluntary retreat in our self-regarding world from crypto-mining because of climate threats?
We fought two wars in this century after extraordinary personal and immediate sacrifices on 9/11/01. The wars were funded by debt. President George W. Bush and the Congress asked soldiers to sacrifice, but not the public. We were not taxed to fund the wars.
We are now in a climate-induced war. The rhetorical bombs are most often aimed at fossil fuel companies. We seem to forget that fossil fuels have lifted people from poverty and underwritten prosperity. I say this not to glorify petroleum, but to state fact. Also petroleum products are essential in an acceptable transition.
Let me turn briefly to a personal experience. I was in Rwanda to look at refugee camps in 2002. All the cooking was being done with wood-based fuel and the interior pollution was suffocating and forests were being decimated. There is now a transition to LNG (liquefied natural gas), a much cleaner fuel. So, are persons migrating to LNG and their suppliers the problem? Of course not, so let’s turn back to the financial industry.
In a Wired article, “One Day, the Stock Market Could Eat the Power Grid,” the author, concerned about power usage, observed: “High-frequency trading shops are basically in the business of taking electricity as an input and producing money as an output; then they use some of their profits to buy more hardware in order to take in more electricity, so that they can make more money, and on it goes.”
What actions should the White House and Congress take on the demand-side? As you are rolling that question around in your mind keep one fact in your analysis—transforming energy’s supply-side will be vastly more complicated and costly than even the most realistic believe.
This very moment is proving the weakness of supply-side assumptions. For example, did Germany anticipate that abandoning nuclear power generation would increase dramatically its coal usage? Did politicians anticipate drawing on the strategic oil reserve to tamp down gas prices while the climate change conference was going on in Scotland?
Only Covid developments seem to command more news coverage than climate change. How have we done on the Covid front where those nagging assumptions, at least to me, seem easier?
In recent coverage of climate change, the word “transition” often describes our challenge; the public has yet to see a concrete transition plan. How will our path to alternative sources of energy unfold, over what time and at how much cost? And what can we do voluntarily to help? And shouldn’t Washington’s legislative actions be stripped out of the pending omnibus bill so voters can hear the Committee and Floor debate?
One final point. Advocacy’s final act should be in the hearing rooms and chambers of the Congress, not the back rooms. The Congress at any given point is a mix of Republicans and Democrats. If the advocates are overwhelmingly Democrats; well that equation brings to mind the parts per million problems we are currently facing. And to those who are inclined to attack my suggestion that bi-partisanship become part of the equation let me remind you—democracy is often messy. The greatest threat to democracy is giving up on it. The world watches.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.