Too Late to Purge Us from the Earth

By Scott Montgomery - 02 January 2024
Too Late to Purge Us from the Earth

Scott Montgomery starts off GP's 2024 with an optimistic take on humanity's ability to overcome existential challenges.

In a recent talk about global energy to a group of elderly, retired college faculty, I spoke about a number of issues—impacts of the Ukraine war, Europe’s energy crisis, the role of the U.S., among others. Their questions, however, were about climate and the future. No irony here; people late in life care deeply about the decades ahead. They have invested a great deal—children, grandchildren, publications, help for younger colleagues and students.

Having deep roots in times to come is today often a cause for deep worry, even despair. My host for the talk, who is over 90, sent a message of thanks afterward, blunted by the words: “I wish I were as optimistic as you about coping with climate change. So many feedback loops look negative—lost ice in the Arctic, thawing permafrost releasing both CO2 and methane as its organic load decays, thawing of methane ice on the continental shelves as the oceans warm…” The list of omens, true to the newest report of the IPCC, went on. In his final lines, my host regretted the state of the world but admitted: “Rather wish I could stick around to see how things turn out, but I know I’ll be checking out soon...” I wrote back:

These comments might help explain why I continue to have hope for the future. I wouldn’t call them optimistic—they’re far from sanguine about what we face. Nor are they the last word, on anything. They do come from decades of observations, scientific study, research, and thought, conversations, debates, questions from people like yourself, and, not least, teaching and writing. This makes them informed, I think, but nothing more.  

First, what you say about how things look is true, except that the status mundi is now beyond hope. The data can be overwhelming, I admit. But it tends to be offered without the needed context of human capability. Nature, true enough, doesn’t much care about us: the old Jewish saying applies: “Man struggles, God laughs.” Yet humanity has a certain existential sense of humor, too. By any reckoning, our candle should have been snuffed long ago. We and our evolutionary ancestors have repeatedly survived massive climatic swings—temperature increases of >120C taking place within a few centuries, even decades—over the past 800k years.

This may be a cliché. But it underlines something less often discussed: the degree to which we have become afraid of ourselves, intimidated by our capacity for global damage presumably beyond repair. The trauma has given rise to self-hatred, shown for example, by the idea that the Earth can only “carry” around 1–2 billion people sustainably, a reckoning that claims 75% of humanity should not be alive. Such ideas give energy to the calculus of despair. The ideology of human beings as a plague upon all life, the enemy of Gaia itself, is not new but more widespread than in the past.  

Fear adds to our trials regarding climate change. It can be counter-productive in nuanced ways. Consider the technology of atmospheric carbon removal, e.g. Direct Air Capture (DAC), now in a larval stage. This overall approach has been marginalized and even demonized as a strategy to “short-cut” reducing emissions and protect fossil fuel use. Yet such an approach offers the very real possibility of accelerating reductions and even reversing global warming. Any rational view (like the IPCC) considers it as a necessary, inevitable area of R&D. This is because even if zero emissions are achieved by 2050, the climate will remain at similar temperatures and sea level will continue to rise for centuries: the “cure” is to pull carbon from the atmosphere.  

Another example is the refusal by many to newly evaluate nuclear power in terms of decarbonization and proven risk. Nuclear has trade-offs, just as all sources do—consider the volume of waste from solar panels—but safety isn’t one of them (its  death-risk is less than that for wind turbines). Meanwhile, it generates more electricity per km2 than any other source, with the smallest environmental footprint. Costs are high upfront, yet new nuclear plants will last 80 years, equal to three generations of solar or wind installations.

These are among the simple facts that are eloquent for using all proven non-carbon sources. Yet bad information and angst over radiation, as a deadly embodiment of a modern world haunted by invisible evils, persist. 

All of these hurdles would seem to support your feeling that future times are end times. Yet, the IPCC now strongly favors—and insists that nations do too—the approaches of carbon removal. The U.S. has dedicated $billions to related technologies as part of its recent Bipartisan Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction acts. At the same time, awareness has been steadily rising about nuclear and its advantages; dozens of nations now have programs underway to support their first nuclear plants, with government and corporate entities interested in small modular and micro-reactors. This is real progress. It has not been easy, but it has happened. Could a single, big accident kill it in midstream? Possibly. But Fukushima has shown it will return, and grow.

Resistance will remain. There is an unwillingness to accept the full complement of options that can help us deal with the climate threat. The issue faces problems on both ends of the political spectrum: the right, which tends to deny its gravity; and the left, which prefers prohibition (of fossil fuels).

But this situation will improve. What Churchill once said about the U.S. may be relevant: “The Americans always do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all other means.” It was not very long ago that the political right, in herd fashion, denied even the reality of climate change. Their resistance has more recently retreated to bad economics (we can’t afford to change) and conspiracy theories (liberals will take away your gas stove and diesel truck). This retreat is itself a mark of progress. Could it be reversed by a new Trump (or similarly venal) presidency? Yes, but not entirely and not for long.

At the level of arm-waving, the world is too rich, too full of smart people, and the science and impacts of climate change are too clear and too grim for advances not to happen. The dedicated science and engineering going into new, non-carbon technologies is remarkable, even spectacular—advanced batteries, solar panels, fission reactors, fusion reactors, hydrogen production and use, fuel cells, efficiency gains, innovative turbines, carbon-based materials, bioplastics, cooling systems, and more. Thousands of ideas will among these domains will fail; hundreds will succeed.

I say this also recognizing the geopolitical problems we face. I mean the rise of illiberalism on every side, in western-style democracies and in autocracies in many parts of the world. These facts also stand in the way of genuine commitment to action on emissions. But I would point to Gen-Z, which takes climate change seriously, as a likely opponent to stasis and to far-right efforts denying the need for government action.

A good deal does have to change for energy to shift from carbon to non-carbon. This will take more time than is commonly appreciated, more time than “we have,” in today’s parlance. But it was always going to be so. Carbon energy—biomass (including wood), coal, oil, gas, and their many derivatives—permeate the lives of every society, every ethnic group, every individual on Earth. In my experience, very few people actually understand how thoroughly penetrative these sources are in our existence and imagination. They have not merely built the 20th and 21st century world; they are of its flesh, blood, and bone.

I have come to share the perception that, by trying to deal with the problem using existing forms of capitalism, market forces and incentives, we will not get particularly far. They fail before our eyes. The COP meetings, too, though they seek new norms of thought and discourse, are more symbol than deed. Yes, symbols have power, but they are a needed ingredient, not a solution. Meanwhile, as Einstein astutely observed, "you can't solve a problem using the same means that created it." However evident, this will need to be re-discovered. Consider how many years will be needed before gasoline vehicles are virtually gone from the roads, replaced by EVs, transformed into symbols of an era thankfully in the rearview mirror. Dealing with the climate problem requires profound changes in thinking that even many experts are not ready to accept.

Before these do happen, humanity will suffer significantly, perhaps even severely, from climate impacts to come. The worst damage and loss will be selective, but only partly so. Wealthy nations are not being spared. Still, the utter ruin of modern life or the last act of homo sapiens are no more in the cards than a “green utopia,” whatever that might mean.

There is a great deal more to say about all of this, of course. While I can’t deny the logic to your own position, I think it is too late to purge the Earth of human beings: we have too much scientific and technological capability. We have set in motion too many forces working for favorable ends, and the impacts now occurring are too serious to keep this moving forward. In the end, finding reasons to reject a worldview of failure and darkness is itself part of progress. Incredible or unlikely as it may seem, humanity will gain a degree of control over the Earth’s climate in this century and will steer it to the greater benefit of the biome.



Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

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