Conversion Infrastructure — The Only Viable Solution to Climate Change
How to make life better for everyone and solve climate change
The solution to climate change is simple and easy to understand — we must stop burning stuff. The complex difficulty is how to do that on a mass, systemic scale that includes everyone. While many activists promote their favorite solutions — organic farming and simple living, sending more people to colonize the moon, or even just stop producing oil — none of these are practical solutions because they will be resisted by huge numbers of people. Climate change will not be solved by forcing people into lifestyles or locations they do not want. Just look at the enormous resistance to simple mask-wearing and vaccines in response to the COVID pandemic and you can see what I mean. Radical challenges to lifestyle, investments, and location of residence to solve climate change will be resisted until people see a new direction as better for them and their lives.
Get Consumers on Board
We need a solution that can be accepted by people as an improvement in their lives. Technology becomes widely adopted only when nearly everyone views it as an improvement, at least over time. The i-pod’s “a thousand songs in your pocket” provided people with things they wanted, and therefore became nearly universally embraced. The telephone, electricity, and Internet service were similarly embraced. The automobile and the personal computer were, too. All of them made life better for millions and millions of people. That’s why they embraced them.
To solve climate change, we will need the same wide-scale adoption driven by improvement in people’s lives. We need better ways to meet their needs than the current method of burning stuff. We get transportation, heat, air conditioning, cooking, hot water, and more by burning stuff. We burn gasoline, natural gas, propane, diesel, oil, coal, wood, garbage, and just about anything else we see as waste to generate heat and create energy. Either the heat applies to our indoor environs directly, such as with furnaces and hot water heaters, or it comes to us in the form of electricity after the burning fuel boils water to create steam that turns the great turbines of electric generation plants. The resulting electricity is then distributed over the grid and converted again to power for cars, heaters, stoves, etc.
All of the heat and energy we need, in all the applications mentioned as well as industrial applications, can come from electricity. Why is this important? Because electricity can be generated from burning stuff, but it can also come from conversion — of sunlight, wind, tides, rivers, and more. Conversion technologies do not burn anything so there is no carbon or other gases emitted from the generation of energy. They simply convert natural energy like sunlight or wind into electricity. No burning at all.
Conversion technologies are scaling up. Solar panels are improving, wind turbines are improving, and we are finding ways to use them in industrial as well as consumer scale applications. There are challenges, to be sure, particularly with storing or distributing electricity so it can be used at times when the sun is not out or the wind is not blowing. But increasingly, these are technical questions that we can solve.
The solution to climate change, then, is to continue expanding the conversion energy economy and to build infrastructure and products that will use it. Electric vehicles that work better than our current vehicles in every way and every application are essential. Electric furnaces, boilers, or heat exchangers, electric water heaters, and electric industrial machinery. The infrastructure to use them is just as important — EV charging stations that work as well as gasoline fill-ups, electric stoves that are better than gas, and the storage and distribution technology that will ensure reliable supply at all times — all these are essential to achieving the mass-scale adoption that is needed.
Get Industrial Producers on Board
Consumer choices are only one part of the equation, however. The production side also has to be turned into something that workers, managers, and investors favor and benefit from — especially those who are deep into careers, ways of life, and investments in oil exploration, refining facilities, and so on. As much as climate activists may not care for these players, they must be included in the “everyone has to benefit” pool I mentioned previously. It has to be good for everyone. So, how do we do this?
The country needs to invest green energy infrastructure into the areas currently serving and dominated by the oil, gas, and fossil fuel industries. West Virginia can become home to steel, electronics, or solar panel manufacturing, and the wages can outpace that of the coal miners while investment returns surpass those of mine owners. Louisiana and Texas can focus refinery activities on plastics feedstocks, including those needed for 3D printing, and the remainder of their industrial capacity can be converted to conversion equipment and renewable energy production. North Dakota’s fields hosting oil rigs can also host enormous solar arrays and wind farms. Where the capacity and expertise can be developed within the existing companies present in these locations, utilize that. Where it can’t, buy them out.
Let me return to the original thought. The world needs everyone to participate in the solution to climate change. For most people, however, its costs live in a distant future and they are faced with the urgencies of today or the long-term investments of yesterday. They will not participate until such participation is a more compelling way to meet those short-term needs than their current practices and investments show. These people are not evil; they are doing the best that they can. Society has failed to remake the value proposition for people, and until we do, we cannot get the masses on board to drive the change we need. Protests and activism are good to bring attention, but we need solutions more than we need attention. Conflict and denigration of the other side do not help. We need to make good climate behavior and choices make people’s lives better, not worse, from their perspective. Therein lies the only way climate disaster will be avoided.
We need a postcapitalist world to emerge. If you would like to know more about that, check out my book Speculations on Postcapitalism.