Unlikely Source Throws Cold Water on Climate Catastrophism

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The Biden administration wants America to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve "net-zero" by 2050. Other advanced nations have similar goals. They all need a bucket of cold water in the face.

The New York Times Company is as unlikely a source of that icy bucket as you can imagine. Call it Climate Alarmism Central.

But last month, it dashed that bucket of cold water in the face of millions of climate alarmists. In New York Times Magazine it published an interview with Vaclav Smil, probably the world's greatest expert on energy-where it comes from, how we harness it, what it costs, and why it costs what it does.

Smil's new book, "How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going," to be released May occasioned the interview.

The April 22 article "This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real" is delightful to read. (For climate realists!) Author David Marchese squirms to escape the implications of everything Smil says. He tries desperately to get Smil to agree that climate change is a looming catastrophe and we simply must act now to avert it by replacing fossil-fuel energy with wind, solar, and other "renewable" sources.

But Smil won't take the bait. He says, in sum: such emissions cuts "are unrealistic." They don't take into account the vast scale of the energy needed to serve even the basic needs of the world's roughly 8 billion people-food, clothing, shelter, transportation, protection from cold and heat, and all the industry that makes those things. And they don't consider what's necessary to produce and distribute all that energy. He later explains, "People have to realize that this problem is unprecedented because of the numbers-billions of everything-and the pressure of acting rapidly as we never acted before. This doesn't make it hopeless, but it makes it excruciatingly more difficult."

Marchese persists: "But aren't goals necessary for orienting our actions?" Smil parries, "What's the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? ... It's misleading and doesn't serve any use because we will not achieve it, and then people say, What's the point? I'm all for goals but for strict realism in setting them."

Marchese tries again: "but aren't there credible pathways to decarbonizing the grid?" A swing and a miss. Smil replies: "Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent. Can you tell me how you'd go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I'm sorry, the reality is what it is."

And again: we're "facing an imminent catastrophe in climate change." Really? Smil: "For more than 30 years, global warming has been making headlines. We've been aware of this for 30 years, on a planetary scale - all these I.P.C.C. meetings. Our emissions have been going up steadily every year. So here's the question: Why haven't we done anything? I could give you a list of things we could do but we haven't done. Why do we keep saying it's a catastrophic problem but do nothing about it?" I.e., the world isn't buying what the catastrophists are selling.

The interview continues, and again and again Smil brings Marchese back to reality-or at least he tries to.

Real people don't rank hypothetical risks far in the future above real risks today. Real people "are messy, hard-to-define individuals. We are subject to fashions and whims-this is the beauty of humanity. Most of us are trying to do the right things with climate, but it is difficult when you have to move on the energy front, food front, materials front."

"Do you think we are facing a civilizational threat in climate change?" Marchese asks. "I cannot tell you it's the end of the world by next Monday because it is not the end of the world by next Monday. What's the point of you pressing me to belong to one of these groups? We have a problem; it will be difficult to solve. Even more difficult than people think."

Smil points out that developing countries all need to increase, not decrease, their use of fossil fuels to build their infrastructures. Marchese asks, "Is there an argument to be made, though, that countries developing new infrastructure have incentives to orient themselves toward renewables?" He later adds, "No today. Maybe tomorrow." Smil replies, "Putting a photovoltaic panel on a roof is very easy. Developing a system around photovoltaics for the whole country - very difficult. No country in the world today runs itself on pure photovoltaics," and "Not tomorrow. Again, it's the scale."

And then there's Smil's parting thought: "There are these billions of people who want to burn more fossil fuel

There is very little you can do about that. They will burn it unless you give them something different. But who will give them something different? You have to recognize the realities of the world, and the realities of the world tend to be unpleasant, discouraging and depressing."

We could sum up Smil's message in the words of Thomas Robert Malthus 200 years ago: "What cannot be done, will not be done."