Economist Vaclav Smil says transitions to new energy sources take many decades, despite panic over climate change

Has anyone else noticed the recent onslaught of shrill rallying cries for climate change action, including President Obama’s Tuesday Alaska speech? I have a bit of advice for the prophets of doom: Take a deep breath and slow down.

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President Barack Obama during his recent tour of Alaska.

“We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair,” is how Barack Obama expressed his frustration while in the most northerly state for a three-day climate change summit. The rest of the speech continued in the same dour tone and can be found here.

Eco-activist Bill McKibben of 350.org was happy to hear with the climate change rhetoric, but took the President to task with this tweet: “It’s literally painful to hear Obama’s powerful words from Alaska and know that they’re so cheapened by his decision to let Shell drill.”

I’m sure it was, for McKibben.

For the rest of us, the reminder about Obama’s decision to let Royal Dutch Shell drill in the Chukchi Sea is an example of how the pragmatism required by real life tempers our idealism.

America does not need Arctic oil and gas. The Alberta oil sands contain 168 billion barrels of recoverable oil, more than enough to supplement USA domestic production for many decades. And whatever environmental challenges the oil sands present, they pale in comparison to the threat of an oil spill in the fragile and daunting Arctic marine ecosystem.

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Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.

But America is keenly interested in Arctic geopolitics and competing claims to sovereignty by other countries, including Canada and Russia. Warmer temperatures and melting sea ice are opening new trade and transportations routes, as well as access to potentially huge petroleum and mineral reserves.

The Arctic is a political hotspot now and for the foreseeable future. The US strengthens its claims by establishing drilling operations and putting more icebreakers – which Obama promised at the conference – on patrol in the region.

But the Arctic isn’t the only place Obama has made compromises.

He announced the final rules for the Clean Power Plan – designed to wean American off coal-fired power generation – a few months ago, yet inextricably is also allowing the construction of West Coast coal export terminals.

How is the fight against global climate change advanced if America reduces coal consumption but exports that coal to Asia, which is building coal power plants with wild abandon?

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Prof. Vaclav Smil.

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. But coal exports do provide a cushion for coal ming companies, which are reeling from low prices and lost markets, and miners, who vote.

My point is that Obama is indulging in the same pragmatic compromise practiced by all businesses and consumers.

For instance, I’d love to drive a Tesla S or a Nissan Leaf, but those futuristic electric vehicles are out of my budget. As they are for most car buyers, judging by the tepid EV sales numbers to date. So we drive our 2003 four cylinder Toyota and dream of a greener future.

But the dampening effect of modest budgets and expensive, immature green technology is not a bad thing. On the contrary, the global economy is operating pretty much as it should.

In an American Energy News column, noted economist Vaclav Smil described the Renewable Energy Revolution as a “crawl.” He noted that too many modern observers have been misled by the example of electronics, in which advances have followed Moore’s law — the now 50-year-old prediction that the number of components on a microchip will double every 18 months.

“But the fundamental physical realities that determine progress of energy systems do not behave that way: they are improving steadily, but far more slowly,” Smil wrote.

He suggests the transition to cleaner sources of energy will take many decades, though just how many is difficult to predict. My best guess is that the G7 commitment to “decarbonize” the global economy by 2100 is probably optimistic.

America cannot escape the limitations of technological change and economics. In fact, the consequences of transitioning to an economy based on renewables and other cleaner sources of energy are so profound that we need to avoid mistakes as much as possible. Getting the technology or the policy wrong could make things much worse, not better.

Which is why President Obama might do well to ramp down the wild-eyed climate change rhetoric and do a better job of selling – and implementing – important policy initiatives like the Clean Power Plan.

“Better to get it right than get it fast” should be his new rallying cry.