I read with bemusement Peter Wirth’s commentary “NY Already Has Vaccine for Climate Change: Renewable energy” (April 21, 2020). Why? It is scientifically impossible for renewable energy to be delivered at a global scale any time soon to make a meaningful difference in future climate disruption. Science precludes it, even if it “feels” we should be able to go green.
First, the area needed to use solar and wind farms to power a city is about the area of the city itself. The area to power New York state? About Onondaga County. To power the United States? The entire state of Nevada or more. For the world? “Solarstan,” a country the size of Mexico, hundreds of thousands of square miles. Even if countries could find the square miles to cover with solar and wind farms, to support the technology humanity still would need to find up to 10 times more rare elements than we mine every year. Where would these come from? Rock with low concentrations of rare elements surrounds parts of the Adirondack Mountains. Would New York citizens allow it to be strip-mined out to support global green energy?
And consider this: If today we instantly stopped burning fossil fuels around the world, a hotter earth would remain for thousands of years. It would that long for “Mother Nature” to get the carbon cycle back into balance before humans started to burn fossil fuels and continental forests. We need to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and this would take more energy still, or equally large areas of land as for the solar and wind, covered with rapidly growing biomass. Because of these global scientific limitations, natural gas and oil inherently will remain the largest part of the world’s energy portfolio for the foreseeable future. New York state would be remiss to exclude it. But I do agree with Wirth that going locally green as much as possible can generate jobs and make energy cheaper. I support doing it as best it can be done.
Could the world go green another way? Yes. If the environmental movement joined hands with the modern modular nuclear industry (far safer), together they probably could generate sufficient political clout to counter the hydrocarbon industry and maybe even get the federal government involved. Optimally, only a few reactor designs would have to selected to avoid expensive regulatory delays and take advantage of the economies of scale. Much like in the airline industry.
Short of using all green energy, including modern nuclear, humanity will have an uncomfortable and expensive future designing GMO crops to tolerate droughts, moving fresh water over large distances (e.g. Great Lakes to the American Southwest), and buttressing our coast as best we can with large constructed wetlands and more traditional engineered infrastructure against extreme flooding.
Donald I. Siegel, of Syracuse, is president of the Geological Society of America and Emeritus Professor Earth Sciences at Syracuse University.
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