Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.”
Marshall is taking time off for the holidays. This column is a reprint.
Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: email@example.com.
RALEIGH – We all know that humanity must ban fossil fuels if we are going to avoid a global catastrophe. And the ban needs to happen on a rapid timeline, for example by 2030.
The reason we must ban fossil fuels is because humanity must stop emitting new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Humanity has already added something close to two trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere via the fossil fuels we have burned in the past. Humanity is currently adding about 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Each new ton makes our planet a little warmer. We cannot afford to add any more.
Unfortunately, humanity as a whole is currently showing few signs of curtailing fossil fuel consumption. Yes, some developed countries are deploying solar panels and wind turbines, and yes some electric cars are being sold. But fossil fuel consumption overall is not declining. And there is nothing happening in terms of a global ban on fossil fuels, nor an active timeline for such a ban.
In addition, humanity is currently allowing fossil fuel companies to rake in obscene profits:
- Big Oil rakes in record profit haul of nearly $200 billion, fueling calls for higher taxes: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/08/big-oil-rakes-in-record-annual-profit-fueling-calls-for-higher-taxes.html)
- Big Oil companies doubled profits in 2022: https://www.miamitimesonline.com/business/big-oil-companies-doubled-profits-in-2022/article_68de2e44-bdd5-11ed-aa88-f79a9521d55d.html)
- Why are BP, Shell, and other oil giants making so much money right now?: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-64583982)
The irresponsibility and absurdity of these profits is difficult to comprehend. Corporations and their shareholders are enriching themselves while actively destroying our planet.
Therefore, the question becomes: is there any catastrophe large enough to spark worldwide action against fossil fuels? Is there anything bad enough that it would wake humanity up so that we ban fossil fuels once and for all? Here are several possibilities for consideration, even though they are horrible to think about.
Catastrophe #1 – A Deadly Heat Wave in a Place Like India
Remember last spring when India was roasting in a terrible heat wave? According to this article, temperatures rose as high as 113 degrees F in India and 121 degrees F in Pakistan. A portion of the wheat crop was destroyed when it shriveled in the field. See this video for details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5E4bFAF3hZc
The video discusses the idea of the “human survival limit”. If temperatures in a heat wave rise high enough, no amount of sweating helps. The human body cannot dissipate heat and the temperatures are fatal.
The problem this year is that India just experienced an extremely hot February. This article says:
“India is likely to face a blistering summer after recording its hottest February since 1901, its weather department has said. Average maximum temperature was 29.5C in February, the highest since India started keeping proper weather records. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has also forecast ‘enhanced probability’ of heatwaves between March and May.”
If 100,000 or one million people die in a heat wave, would it be enough to cause humanity to ban fossil fuels?
Catastrophe #2 – Severe Drought Causing Cities to Fail and Crop Failures
Everyone has heard about the severe drought in the American Southwest. What if a major city like Las Vegas runs out of water?
Now parts of Europe are experiencing the same kind of thing. This video paints the picture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_ThAkEtHoA
Effects of the drought include:
- Rivers drying up
- Crops reduced
- Wildfires increase
- Water rationing
If drought causes a major city to collapse, with a mass exodus of people who have nothing to drink, would this be enough to wake up humanity so that we ban fossil fuels?
Similarly, if drought causes crop failures severe enough to kill millions with starvation, would this be enough to wake up humanity so that we ban fossil fuels?
Catastrophe #3 – Collapse of the Amazon Rainforest
If the rain were to stop in the Amazon rainforest so that the forest dies and turns into grassland or desert, would it be enough? This video describes what is happening now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CR5xL9WoVm8
This article describes what is possible in this terrible scenario:
“With enough time and forest losses, scientists say, large swaths of the Amazon could fall into an unstoppable spiral that would transform them from lush rainforest into grassy savanna. The global implications would be profound. The loss of the rainforest would cause a large-scale drying across the region. The circulation of the atmosphere could change in response, altering weather patterns around the world. And the Amazon has the potential to pour some 90 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the forest dies off, the equivalent of several years of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.”
The other problem is that the collapse of the rainforest is irreversible. There is a double whammy here that makes humanity look both evil and idiotic:
- Fossil fuels cause climate change which damages the rainforest, yet humanity will not ban fossil fuels.
- Meanwhile there are a million people who are rapaciously burning down and cutting down the rainforest, yet humanity will not stop them either.
These two forces combined will cause the rainforest to collapse, with profound negative effects around the world.
When the rainforest does irreversibly collapse, will it be enough to cause humanity to ban fossil fuels?
How Would Humanity Ban Fossil Fuels?
Humanity, if we were responsible stewards of our ecosystem, could ban fossil fuels now. The deadline for the ban might be 2030. Or humanity can wait for one of the three dire catastrophes (or several others) to occur and use the crisis to spur a ban on fossil fuels. Either way, fossil fuels must be banned.
So, the question becomes: how can we ban fossil fuels on planet Earth by 2030? The short answer comes in six parts:
- Global leaders would unite to declare a global ban on fossil fuels by 2030.
- Global leaders would allocate several trillion dollars to fund the ban.
- All coal-fired, natural-gas-fired, and oil-fired power plants would be phased out over, say, five years. They would be replaced by solar, wind and geothermal sources plus batteries. We would spend the money necessary to rapidly fund the conversion. [The natural gas power plants might also switch over to synthetic natural gas]
- Many parts of the economy are currently powered by natural gas, including home heating, water heating, cooking, and industrial heating applications. Synthetic natural gas plants could produce synthetic natural gas from sunlight. We would spend the money necessary to rapidly build out the synthetic natural gas plants at sufficient scale.
- Many parts of our transportation infrastructure (including cars, trucks, ships, trains, airplanes, along with nearly all agricultural vehicles) currently use liquid fossil fuels. Some of this could be converted to electric vehicles. The rest could switch over to using synthetic liquid fuels derived from sunlight. We would spend the money necessary to rapidly build out the electric vehicles and the synthetic fuel plants at sufficient scale.
- In any cases where a quick switch from fossil fuels cannot happen, we would apply a fee, for example a fee of $1.50 for every gallon of gasoline. The $1.50 would fund immediate extraction of the carbon dioxide created by the fossil fuel back out of the atmosphere.
If humanity does not take these steps, we eventually face an existential threat. There will be so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that global heating destroys human civilization and the ecosystem as a whole. This video can help you understand this scenario: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWoiBpfvdx0
How can humanity as a species look at this existential threat and ignore it? How do we keep burning fossil fuels when a relatively straightforward alternative is available? Hopefully we come to our senses before it is too late and ban fossil fuels.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5E4bFAF3hZc – World Bank: India could experience heat waves beyond human survival limits
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_ThAkEtHoA – France ‘could be on verge of water crisis’, minister warns – BBC News
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CR5xL9WoVm8 – How the Amazon has started to heat the planet
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWoiBpfvdx0 – Climate Change: What Happens If The World Warms Up By 5°C?