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Growing Smaller: Can we limit population growth without causing climate change?
An examination of a six step thesis:
- Historically, even if economic growth and falling population may be correlated, was the first a precondition for the second?
2. Even if it was, was rising energy a pre-condition for economic growth?
3. If so, is the present any different from the past?
4. Even if it is not, is clean energy available to satisfy rising energy demand on the needed timetable so that we can contain population at or below 9 billion?
5. If not, can we hope to avoid ongoing carbon output and the associated global warming without implementing draconian social policies?
6. If not, then, have we any hope of cleaning up the mess we will have created?
When it comes to climate change, are we doomed? Go ahead and get rid of one of your cars, change your light bulbs and heat your house less. It may make you feel good but it will make almost no difference. The reason why is that those of us who have the luxury to cut back are only 15% of the world’s population. However much we cut back is not going to offset the rest of the world’s rising energy consumption now and in the future. That is the problem. Well, what if we say no more energy for anyone unless it is green?
This book considers a counter-argument to this idea that runs as follows: without rising energy consumption now, there can be no economic growth now, and with no economic growth now, world population is going to explode – to 15 billion people by the end of the century. Wealth and smaller family size go hand in hand. So let there be green energy now! But the problem with that is that there simply is no way to grow green energy at a fast enough rate to keep up with demand. The price of stabilizing population at 9 billion people means we are bound to break safe levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere if we have not done so already. Nor do we avoid the problem by postponing economic growth. That simply creates a world of 15 or more billion, and their energy demand will be even harder to satisfy with green energy. The logic of this argument leads to an inevitable conclusion: to avoid doom we have to recognize that we need to develop technology to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere in the future.
I lead the reader through an evaluation of this argument and then examine the prospects for the technology of carbon capture from the air. Although there is consensus that current technology does not allow this to be done effectively at the scale required, I ask what it is going to take to address the problem. This challenge calls for a breed of speculative scientific thinking that rarely takes place in public. I pursue it by engaging in conversation with well-known scientists who are “big thinkers”.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Here is a nightmare scenario - what if population size is inversely related to economic well-being? And, what if without rising energy consumption now there can be no economic growth now? Then world population is going to explode. At current rates of reproduction, more than 15 billion people by the end of the century according to UN projections! You may think green energy can solve the problem of energy demand. But what if there is no way to supply green energy on the timetable needed to fuel economic growth. Then, absent draconian social policies, the price of stabilizing population at (only!) 9 billion people means we are bound to break safe levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere if we have not done so already. Nor do we avoid the problem by postponing economic growth. That simply creates a world of 15 or more billion, and their energy demand will be even harder to satisfy with green energy. If this argument can withstand scrutiny, it leads to an inevitable conclusion: to avoid doom we have to recognize that we need to develop technology to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere in the future. That turns out to be a daunting task, at least based on our exploratory efforts to date. So we should hope this argument is flawed in some way. But is it? And if so, where? I am a philosopher not a scientist. All I bring to the table is skepticism. For the rest I must rely on the expertise of others. So my quest to answer these questions is not one I can hope to succeed at on my own. Instead the challenge is to find those who can help shed light on them. What follows is an account of my attempt to meet that challenge.
Chapter One: What Does History Tells Us? In this chapter I examine the claims that historically, contra Malthus, population growth has been inversely related to economic wealth, above a certain range and that, historically, economic growth has been related energy growth. But even if these relations hold historically, I go on to ask if there a causal connection. Was economic growth a precondition for falling family size? And was energy growth a precondition for economic growth? Location: England.
Chapter Two: Does the Present Mirror History? Here I pose the question of whether both of these relations still hold today especially in the light of the perceived importance of women’s control of reproduction. Canvassing recent discussions of climate change, I show how this question has been systematically ignored by those advocating “limits” on growth. In contrast, I use United Nations projections to show that the hope to control the population at 9 billion in this century sets a timetable for economic growth and with it energy growth. Locations: Mexico, Africa.
Chapter Three: Can Clean Energy Satisfy Demand? In this chapter I examine whether or not the growth of clean energy can be expected to conform to this timetable. Canvassing recent discussions of clean energy, I show how the timetable for its supply has been systematically ignored by those arguing for a fossil fuel free economy. But absent an adequate supply of clean energy, I argue that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 can be expected to rise well above prescribed safe levels if population is to be contained at 9 billion. Location: China.
Chapter Four: Hard Choices and the Carbon Calculus. In this chapter I argue that the only way to reduce those levels will be via air capture of that CO2 unless we accept universal restrictions on family size or curtail efforts to prevent pandemics which I argue is unlikely on political grounds if not moral grounds. Locations: China, Africa.
Chapter Five: Can We Put Things Right (with current technology)? In this chapter I review three current prototypes for small scale (artificial and biological based) air capture but why most scientists think they can’t be implemented at the needed scale. I then examine whether the efficiency of current (sorbent and algae) technology can be improved to work at the needed scale. Locations: California, New York, Arizona.
Chapter Six: Dreaming of a Solution. Finally, I examine the potential for new approaches to the problem of carbon capture from the air at the needed scale. Content of this chapter will not be will not be available until interviews take place. But in general terms they can be expected to fall into two groups: physical processes that not only bind carbon dioxide but use it to generate new iterations of the process, and biological process that are engineered de novo.
Appendix: A non-technical account of some key calculations used in the argument.
Prospective Interviewees listed by chapter:
Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics, UCDavis (1).
Graham Zabel, MSc Demography/Energy Economics, London School of Economics (1).
William Murdoch, Charles A. Storke II Professor of Population Ecology at the UCSanta Barbara (2).
David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge (3).
Christopher Jones, New Vision Professor of Chemistry, Georgia Tech (5).
Stephen Mayfield, John Dove Isaacs Chair of Natural Philosophy, Professor, Section of MolecularBiology, UCSD (5).
Surya Prakash, George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and Professor of Chemistry, USC (5).
Jennifer Wilcox, Assistant Professor, Department of Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford (5).
Brian Greene, Professor of Physics & Mathematics, Columbia University (6). (http://www.briangreene.org/)
Freeman Dyson, Professor of Physics Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Studies (6).
David Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, Harvard (6).
Klaus Lackner, Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel Professor of Geophysics Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia (6).
Lee Smolin, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (6). (http://leesmolin.com/)
Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer, J. Craig Venter Institute (6).