Thursday, January 27, 2005

Climate Fiction?
Two weeks ago I posted some comments concerning Michael Crichton's latest novel, "State of Fear" (see posting of January 11.) One of the scientific papers cited by Dr. Crichton in support of his novel's arguments against climate change and the global response to it was by Dr. Gregory Benford, a physicist who is also a noted author of thrillers and award-winning science fiction. Now he and one of his collaborators have weighed in with an editorial in the San Diego Union, rebutting Dr. Crichton's interpretation of their peer-reviewed paper in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The editorial by Drs. Benford and Hoffert is worth reading for its contribution to the controversy over the Crichton novel, but the source article struck me as much more interesting. If you are willing to tolerate a fair number of chemical equations (or like me, actually enjoy them), you will find it a fascinating overview of the relationship between energy and climate today, and as it might be in the decades ahead.

Dr. Benford and his collaborators discuss the evidence for a man-made greenhouse effect and the magnitude of the challenge it poses. They also show just how difficult it will be to avert its consequences. Along the way, they provide an excellent survey of the long-term prospects for renewable energy, including land- and space-based solar power, for nuclear power, and for truly clean fossil fuel use. Nor do they think small, covering every option I've ever heard of that could meet our energy needs, while stabilizing global warming. This includes strategies as exotic as using nuclear fusion to breed fuel for lots of new fission reactors.

Their conclusions are simultaneously sobering and optimistic, focusing on the need for major research and development efforts in a number of areas to make sure that we can actually produce greenhouse-free energy on a massive scale in the future, rather than merely having many interesting but unproven ideas in the laboratory or on paper. To this I would add something that they only hint at: we will also need an awful lot of fossil fuels to get us to the point of such a transition without putting the global economy into a nosedive that would hit developing countries hardest.

Unfortunately, the latter sounds a lot like what the opponents of climate change are saying, too. The trick--and the opportunity--is to tie the first proposition to the second. We could, for example, link drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) with doubling the research budget for renewable energy and nuclear fusion, funded by a surtax on ANWR oil. This kind of thing would have every vested interest on both sides howling, but it might just offer a workable pathway between irresponsible myopia toward the future and an impractical disregard for the needs of the present.

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