Not so long ago WUWT ran a piece by a guest contributor about how the Chinese were buying up tracts of Australian farming land, and that suggested to him that the Chinese were worried more about cooling than warming. I didn’t think much of the post, and nor did some others, the chief point being that the Chinese have so much money in their reserves that buying up land almost anywhere is a decent investment.
As so often in these websites, the comments section moved into more interesting matters, and drew what I thought was a marvellous long post from a commenter called ‘rgbatduke’, which is worth reading in its entirety. ‘Rgb’ is at Duke University in North Carolina, and I read with interest everything he writes, because it seems sensible to me and he writes well.
He began his essay with an explanation of how he had renovated his house to make his use of energy more efficient. If he had $20,000 lying around he would invest in solar energy as well, but he wouldn’t borrow the money, because the rate of return would be too low. Now read on.
I’m not contemplating solar on my house to save the world, because I am not convinced it needs saving. I’m contemplating solar on my house because it is a decent investment, just as were my high-efficiency furnaces. My house is easily $2000-3000/year cheaper to run than it was with the old furnaces, cheap windows, etc, and I’ll recover a bunch of the capital investment if/when I sell on top of that as I sell the savings to the next owners. In the next couple of decades, the economics of doing this will be overwhelming — reasonably efficient solar cells are (IMO) likely to go down to less than $0.25/watt within 20 years, and the electronics required to use them efficiently are getting cheaper as well. There isn’t any need for carbon trading to make that happen, and very little that the government does (but fund research into better solar technology) will make it go faster or slower than it already is.
The same thing is true for things like improved batteries — everybody knows there are billions on the table for better batteries. There is fame, fortune, Nobel prizes for the inventor of a high-energy density super battery, especially one that can be mass produced cheaply without using e.g. rare earths or exotic, toxic and scarce elements… There are non-battery ideas that might eventually prove to be cost-effective. Carbon trading and panic won’t make the search go any faster, but the day that somebody perfects e.g. a zinc-oxide battery that is rechargeable 1000 times without significant degradation and that can hold energy at anything like the energy density of gasoline, the battery will be put to immediate use in a dozen venues all of which will drop fossil fuel consumption — buffering large scale solar, electric cars, buffering non solar resources (just as important for keeping the costs of building new plants down) and hey, maybe we can build a laptop that actually runs for days per charge instead of hours per charge…
We have learned nothing from the incredible discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries. People always make predictions as if the technology and economy they had yesterday is the technology that will be dominant in 20 years, and then wonder why catastrophic predictions made on the basis of that technology or economy fail. The population bomb was defused by the green revolution. Widespread stories of “the end of oil” proved premature. The cold war continued right up to the day it more or less abruptly ended. My cell phone would have been classified as an “armament” by the US government a mere twenty years ago, and my laptop would have been worth a billion dollars twenty five years ago — people would have killed to possess it, governments would have fought wars to keep it out of “the wrong hands” with its dual core gigaflop scale CPUs, its terabyte scale storage, its gigabytes of RAM, its uber-fast network.
In twenty years we may have stopped burning energy that is currently being utterly wasted. Smart lights that only turn on when there is somebody there to use the light. AC that knows when you are home and adjusts accordingly. A smart energy grid. LED based light instead of hot filament based light. Cars that store and recover most of their kinetic energy when braking. We don’t really need additional incentive to develop these things — energy is expensive and is the fundamental scarce resource so it is always going to be to our advantage to make it as cheap as possible to enable us to accomplish “anything”. We won’t do it to avoid the spectre of an ill-defined global catastrophe. We’ll do it for the same reason we do many things — to make money, or spend less money, so we have more money to use on the things we want to use money for.
No idea, no technology before its time, to be sure, but understand — the technologies that will be available in twenty years are hardly imaginable today! At least if the future is anything like the present or the past. Not even (most) science fiction authors foresaw the internet. I’ve been a computer geek more or less my whole life, but have had a hard time seeing more than five years into the future of computing along the way (and five years is a lot, in the computing business!).
Here is one lesson I learned, repeatedly, the hard way, from computing. If what you want to do is barely possible, at enormous expense, today, just wait. In a year, two years, ten years, you can do it cheaply. I’ve run code at enormous expense and difficulty on supercomputers or huge distributed parallel compute clusters — back in the 90?s — that my current aging laptop could complete in half the time. Cars that once upon a time were lucky to come with a seat belt now come with seat belts with shoulder harnesses, air bags, antilock brakes and positraction systems, and more. Central air furnaces used to be 30-50% efficient — most of the energy you bought went straight up the flue. My furnaces now are between 90 and 95% efficient — their exhaust is barely warm, and most of the energy I buy to heat my home ends up in my house and stays there for much longer.
I don’t know, precisely, how things will change to defeat CAGW if the hypothesis proves to be true and the climate eventually shows signs of continuing heating at a rate that might be catastrophic. I do, however, have a lot of faith that technologies that we can barely imagine today will render the whole question moot long before we reach any sort of catastrophic point if the hypothesis itself isn’t just plain false. Those technologies will all be sensible things to pursue independent of the possibility of catastrophe and need no further motivation than the enrichment of their developers (including e.g. the US government and people as funded by public money) to happen. I’m all for research. Not so much for subsidy of immature technologies to somebody’s direct enrichment when that somebody is not me.
I agree. It’s a great exposition, isn’t it.