The Cost of Climate Change

Reader Contribution by Richard Hilderman and Ph.D.
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This year the United States had unprecedented triple-digit heat, devastating droughts, deadly tornadoes, massive river flooding and a billion dollar blizzard. Then last month an unusual hurricane caused flooding in Vermont and other areas of the Northeast. So far this year total weather losses are more than 35 billion dollars, and this figure does not include the losses from Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Lee. 

As our planet continues to warm through our use of fossil fuel, we will see an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events along with the increasing loss of lives and cost to repair the damage.  Do we want to continue paying for these spiraling weather related losses? This spiraling cost alone should be sufficient justification for us to convert to a non-carbon basis renewable energy infrastructure.  Some people argue that converting to a non-carbon base energy source will hurt the economy. This simply isn’t true because a new workforce will be necessary to develop and maintain the solar panels, wind turbines, etc that are required for the new energy sources. An example of a successful conversion to a renewable energy source is Iceland, which has a wealth of geothermal power. According to Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, Iceland was once the poorest country in Europe. Today Iceland is one of the world’s richest countries on per-capita basis partially due to its conversion from fossil fuel to a geothermal energy source. In Iceland today about 90 percent of the homes are heated with thermal energy and the country has essentially eliminated the use of coal for home heating.

The United States has sufficient wind, solar and geothermal energy to allow a conversion from a fossil fuel to a non-carbon base energy infrastructure. As Lester Brown points out in his book Plan B 4.0, the National Renewable Energy Lab has shown the United States has enough land based wind energy to satisfy our national electricity needs several times over. Furthermore, there is enough offshore wind capacity along the East Coast to supply sufficient power for all the major metropolitans on the East Coast. Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines similar to the assembly lines used by the automobile industry. This would be a good way to utilized idle automobile plants and put the skilled auto workers back to work.

Energy from the sun can be harnessed with solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal collectors. Solar PV cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar thermal collectors can be used to concentrate sunlight on water to produce steam and generate electricity. Solar energy could supply the planet’s entire energy requirement!

The potential of geothermal energy to provide electricity to heat homes and supply heat for industry is vast. An interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers assembled in 2006 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to assess the United States geothermal electrical generating potential. The development of geothermal energy will use the latest technology including the techology developed by oil companies for drilling and oil recovery. This technology involves drilling down to the hot rock layer, fracturing the rock and pumping water into the cracked rock and then removing the heated water to drive steam turbines.  The MIT team estimates that with this technology the United States has enough geothermal energy to meet its energy needs 2,000 times over! To fully utilize this energy source the MIT team estimates the government and industry must invest about 1 billion dollars in geothermal research and development which is about the cost of one coal-fired electrical plant [The Future of Geothermal Energy: Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) on the United States in the 21st Century]!  Should new electrical generating plants be coal-fired or renewable energy plants?  Since this technology is similar to what the oil industry is currently using, it would be very easy for oil industry workers to make the transition to geothermal energy jobs.

Clearly the United States has more than sufficient natural resources to convert to a non-carbon base renewable energy. Many people believe that the cost of developing a non-carbon based renewable energy infrastructure outweigh the benefits of making these changes. If we agree with this assessment then we need to accept the fact that continued use of fossil fuel will increase the frequency of extreme weather events and thus increase the cost of repairing the damage.

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