Human carbon output will eventually peak and decline. That may be a tough reality to accept during a week when Portland roasts at a mind-boggling 114 degrees, but that time is coming. At some point over the next three decades or so, carbon output will not just decline, but collapse. When that time comes, humanity will wake up to a strange new power over our planet with no clue how to use it.
Coal is already dying. Natural gas is next. Exelon, America’s largest producer of natural gas-based electricity, is also already its largest carbon-free energy producer. It appears likely that the peak US natural gas consumption is already behind us, with other countries following soon. Global demand for oil appears to have reached its peak in 2019. Oil companies are scrambling to rebrand themselves as energy companies, not to protect themselves from regulation but to retain their ability to attract investment and talent.
Carbon energy is dying mostly from innovation in renewables that render old energy sources vastly more expensive than new alternatives. Compounding the trend is a shift in wealth toward less energy-dependent industries along with a long-term collapse in global population growth, especially in the developed world, where populations are entering a phase of absolute decline. Unfortunately, collective political action has played almost no part in the end of fossil fuels, leaving us entering this phase about 15-20 years too late to prevent permanent changes to our planet. A post-carbon age looms in our near future.
Picture a time perhaps 40 to 60 years in our future. Carbon fuels have been abandoned. Atmospheric carbon levels have been in sustained decline for many years. Now, humans are beginning to notice a new climate change, a shift back toward a cooler planet. Not everyone is happy. What happens next?
For the first time in our history, humans will have acquired a remarkable power. We will have our collective hand on the planet’s thermostat. Continue to let atmospheric carbon levels drop, and the planet will enter a new phase of environmental disruption as the wrenching adaptations of global warming become the wrenching adaptations of global cooling. Or, we could open up the methane wells to achieve some compromise temperature. Humans will have to reach some form of agreement on where to set the planet’s median temperature.
Remember, by the time we confront this possibility, Miami Island will be (at best) a charming new tropical Venice. And Venice will be an attractive site for snorkeling. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers will be gone, along with the communities and species that depended on them. Same for many of India’s Himalayan glaciers. There will be no Great Barrier Reef to save.
Returning to an earlier global climate won’t necessarily bring those glaciers back. Even if it were possible to restore some parts of the planet to their pre-warming conditions over a very long time horizon, what are the odds people will have the patience to sustain that journey. Yesterday’s coral reefs and ice packs may be gone, but creating conditions for their return would mean killing off the reefs then forming in new places. How will Russians and Canadians feel about abandoning their sunny new farmland and vacation sites so that long-abandoned lands in Iraq, Australia and Nigeria can become inhabitable again? If wars over oil seemed awful, wait till we see wars over temperature.
While we made jokes about Al Gore, our opportunity to prevent a global catastrophe slipped away. Pure happenstance is likely to end our dependence on fossil fuel much sooner than most people expect, preserving our capacity to carry on life with a semblance of normalcy into the indefinite future. But our world will be changed. Like Adam and Eve in the Biblical myth, our failure will bestow on us a terrible gift of power and cast us from a garden we didn’t even recognize.
Global warming will place in our hands the power to set Earth’s thermostat, while giving us no tools to use this power deliberately. It would be wise to begin thinking of ways to tame this frightening responsibility.
In order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period, well, say, a thousand years , but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow?Mikhail Bulgokov, The Master and Margarita