Joe Romm’s predictions of triumph & apocalypse in energy & climate
by Allen Best
Joe Romm passed through Denver last week, painting apocalyptic pictures and trumpeting alternative energy triumphs with equal gusto. He’s a physicist, with a Ph.D from MIT, who now makes his living writing the influential blog ClimateProgress.org about all matters climate and energy. He also has a new book out: “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
In his hour-long presentation to the Wirth Chair Sustainability Awards Luncheon, Romm was full of bold pronouncements. “ The future is pretty clear,” he said. “I can’t tell you the timing of everything that will happen, but I can tell you everything that will happen.”
The changing climate poses the “greatest existential threat to the American way of life, to you,” he said. “The fact that we are not talking about it every day is a great moral failure of every leader in the country.”
From the worst of times, Romm pivoted quickly to the best of times. Renewable energy, he said, has arrived on the simple premise of cheaper cost. The issue of variability “has essentially been solved.” Solar power is incredibly cheap, and at least 100 businesses in Colorado alone are trying to shift heaviest demands to the daytime, when the sun is shining. Energy storage is coming along.
Then there’s energy efficiency. “I feel obligated to say that Amory and Hunter Lovins were right: energy demand has been flat for a decade even though GDP (gross domestic product) has increased since the crash,” he said, while nodding at Hunter Lovins, who was sitting in the back of the room.
As for coal and natural gas, they will begin their terminal decline in less than a decade. “There’s no golden age of gas coming,” he said. “The world passed that by. Natural gas, he went on to say, won’t disappear. “It’s just not the future. The future is carbon-free power.”
Oil lasts a little longer, he predicted. “Oil I think will begin its terminal decline by 2030.”
And as for nuclear, can it hasten us quicker to a low-carbon future? Not as Romm sees it. “The problem with nuclear is that its cost curve goes in the wrong direction. We would need a breakthrough and a price on carbon dioxide to save the nuclear industry.”
Romm lived in Colorado in the early 1990s, apprenticing at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which had been founded a decade earlier by the Lovinses. The campus then was officially Old Snowmass, not far from Aspen. He lived in Basalt. From there he went on to become a principal deputy assistant for energy efficiency in the Clinton administration. He praised former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who had a stint under Clinton as secretary of energy, calling him “one of the great, great public servants.”
As for Washington D.C. culture? Politics, he says, comes from the Greek word meaning poly, or many, and ticks: small bloodsucking insects.
Avoiding catastrophic climate change in the next 10 to 25 years “will become the organizing principle for humanity,” he said. “It will become the organizing principle for all great universities, all great institutions that are involved in any way, shape or form with energy, water, agriculture, because of what we face if we don’t take action.”
Then Romm ticked off the latest evidence: temperatures “going through the roof,” with every year setting a new global record, extreme weather, and rising sea levels.
“The only reason people can afford to live near the coast is $1.2 trillion in flood insurance courtesy of all of the taxpayers.” The next hurricane will require an other bailout—but, he added, “I don’t know how many bailouts there will be, but we will eventually pull the plug.”
Ocean-front locations will become inhabitable. A 30-year mortgage on a sea-side home in Florida will be impossible to get. That, he said, will likely occur in the mid-2020s.
But there’s grim news, too, in the Southwest and beyond: desertification. Minus 3 on the Palmer Drought Index was normal during the 8 years of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Now, it’s becoming permanent.
This will create new domestic immigrants fleeing rising seas and desertification. “No moral society would come anywhere near this,” he said. “I think we will get desperate in 10 years. We are serious in this decade – finally.”
Looking at the evidence, Bill Gates told The Atlantic last year that we need “energy miracles.” Romm insists we have miracles to celebrate. “Jesus Christ, the price of solar has come down by a factor of 150 in a quarter-century, and the deployment has gone up 115,000 times,” he said. “How much more miracle do we need?”
Romm then moved through the list of improved technology:
- Unsubsidized wind electricity at 3 cents a kilowatt hour.
- Energy efficient LED lights, which had 1 percent of the market in 2010, now have 28 percent world market share and will totally dominate sales by 2025.
- A “battery deployment miracle,” that includes electric vehicles. From very few EVs a few years ago, there are now 500,000. And China, as it did with solar panels, is betting big on EVs. “They are in the process of taking over this market.”
- Electric vehicles will soon make gasoline irrelevant in the urban drive cycle. This includes diesel buses. Tesla’s super-fast charging stations of today will become the norm. Wal-Mart will get in on the act. Recharging a car won’t be much different than filling up with gas today. Go inside, do your business, get a drink – and you’re set to go.
This, he said, was proof that it was game over, that the new energy future has arrived. Not that everybody has realized it. “It’s going to take awhile for the game-over nature of this to trickle in on everybody.”
Will this energy transition now underway happen fast enough to avoid catastrophe? Romm wasn’t quite so bold about that. “It’s up to the politicians,” he said, but then added: It will happen simply because of the price of renewables and because of the commitment of the world’s nations at Paris last decade.
Of course, what if we’re too slow to grasp the danger? That’s not a theoretical question. Romm painted a fascinating idea that was new to me. We have atmospheric concentrations edging above 400 parts per million. But indoors, concentrations are always higher because of human breathing.
“You’ve all been in crowded meeting rooms. It gets stuff and unproductive as the day goes along, and you think it’s because the speaker was dull or the topic was dull, and may well have been. But it’s a fact if the matter that you can get to 1,000 parts per million (of C02), which is pretty standard,” he said.
Airplane cabins get to 1,500 ppm, he added, based on his testing during flights.
Researchers have established a correlation between low test scores and high C02 levels in classrooms, with the worst occurring in Texas, where C02 levels in classrooms have been measured at 2,000 ppm, he said.
“So you’re gong to see an explosion in green building,” he predicted, with greater attention to moderating indoor C02 levels.
After Romm wrapped up his sprint through climate and energy, former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, the namesake for the event, asked Romm one question: What would he tell the next president about what national policy should be about fracking?
Romm paused for a moment, then shot out: “We should just stop the whole damn thing.” We don’t need natural gas produced by fracking technology, he said, and it’s not very good for the climate, because of the leaked methane, a powerful if short-lived greenhouse gas.
“Fracking is doing nothing good for the climate and generally it’s just not the future.”
If you want to see and hear Romm’s full presentation, Martin Voelker of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society taped it and you can find that presentation here. Slides from Romm’s presentation courtesy of Joe Romm via Martin Voelker.