Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water may be the most depressing book on global warming I’ve ever read.

He writes of a “Planetary Purgatory” [UPDATE – by the 22nd Century], where sea level rises 20 feet, many coastal cities are subject to such frequent hurricanes they are abandoned, and most of the Greenland ice mass melts. What are today considered heat waves become normal summers, with more and more forest and agricultural land lost to fire and drought.

Here’s the really bad news: this is not what Romm is trying to avoid, but what he hopes to settle for.

Hell and High WaterRomm fears worse “purgatory” scenarios than this, but even more, he fears “hell and high water,” where we end up with sea level rises of 40 to 80 feet. This, along with mega-hurricanes, would require us to triage coastal cities, abandoning most of them. Inland agricultural areas would end up in a permanent state of drought; fire would be ubiquitous.

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He spends little time considering how to reduce losses below the “purgatory” level. Deniers and Delayers, who he compares to Neville Chamberlain and Herbert Hoover, are likely to prevent the U.S. from doing anything about the problem in the near future. Even if politics shifts slightly left in 2009, they are likely to have enough influence to prevent real (as opposed to symbolic) action from taking place. China already uses U.S. inaction as an excuse for greatly increasing its emissions, planning a new a coal plant every week for decades. The U.S., in turn, will use this as further excuse for inaction.

In essence, the U.S. and China have a mutual suicide pact, and look likely to take the rest of world along with them.

To reverse this fully, to produce actual emission cuts, would require a massive program whereby the U.S. and China deployed new infrastructure on a scale comparable to war mobilization — instituting massive efficiency improvements and shutting down existing power plants to replace them low-carbon electricity generators.

The problem is not just new emissions, but historical emissions. Rich nations, especially the U.S. and Britain, are responsible for the creating the problem, since they produced the most. Even after China catches up with the U.S. in absolute output, they will produce much less per capita than we do. As Romm implies, but does not explicitly state, China is not going to pay to clean up the rich world’s mess; neither is the rest of developing world. And worldwide emissions reductions could only happen through a deal where the rich nations cut their own emissions at their own expense and paid the poorer nations to cut theirs as well.

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This is what Romm thinks is politically impossible. My fear is that he is right. He was acting assistant secretary for the Department of Energy in the mid-90s, served as special assistant for international security to Peter Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and consulted extensively with some of the nation’s largest corporations on emissions reductions. He is a physicist, and businessman, and political insider. He is resigned to what he thinks is inevitable and simply hopes to avoid worse. My hope is that a lifetime spent in insider elite politics causes him to underestimate what a bottom-up grassroots movement can accomplish.

What does Romm think politically possible?

Basically he hopes to adapt the Pacala and Socolow wedges (PDF) to keep emissions from rising further than they already have. The wedges he favors include:

  1. A massive performance-based efficiency program for homes, commercial buildings, and new construction.
  2. A massive effort to boost the efficiency of heavy industry and expand the use of cogeneration (combined heat and power).
  3. Capture the CO2 from 800 large new coal plants and store it underground. (He admits this is tricky. We can’t do it right away. Among the old wells and mines useful for storage, we would have to identify the ones where CO2 would be absolutely secure, since even 1% per year leakage would eliminate most of the value of sequestration. The success of CO2 injection for gas and oil recovery is not the same thing; in this case, no one cares about 1% per year loss. I suspect depending on sequestration is part of way to keep any deal with China inexpensive. A U.S. subsidy for emissions sequestration in new Chinese coal-based power would cost little.)
  4. Build one million large wind turbines (or the equivalent in renewables like solar power).
  5. Build 700 large new nuclear power plants while shutting down no old ones. (Note: this is not quite as pro-nuclear as it seems. He thinks nuclear power should have to compete with Price-Anderson and a price on carbon as the sole subsidy.)
  6. Require every car to have an average fuel economy of 60 mpg.
  7. Enable every car to run on electricity for short distances (requiring another half-million large wind turbines) before reverting to biofuels (requiring one-twelfth the world’s cropland).
  8. Stop all tropical deforestation, while doubling the rate of new tree planting. (Note that there are real questions whether doubling tree planting would accomplish what he thinks it would.)

Politically, even this requires we give up our anti-government fetish. Not only does Romm want to put a price on carbon (via emissions trading), he wants rule- or quantity-based regulations for buildings, industrial infrastructure, and transportation. He sees only two paths to this: Either conservatives begin to understand the seriousness of global warming and give up their prejudices against regulation and government intervention in the economy, or a massive grassroots movement on climate change emerges.

He hopes for a massive single-issue movement. This is where his big political mistake lies — you can’t get as large a grassroots movement around global warming as even the changes Romm thinks possible require. While global warming is already causing a great deal of suffering, the worst consequences (especially in the U.S.) will only start hitting ten to twenty years from now. It is almost impossible to build a grassroots movement on the scale Romm wants to stop changes 20 years away.

A better answer is for a climate coalition to build itself within a larger progressive movement. The Iraq war is far from the first time our oversized military has had its foot on the world’s neck. Nor is it the only way we push other nations around, even today, usually at high cost to our own people. Labor rights, women’s rights, and racial equality are on the decline; there’s pushback against GLBT and the disabled. Today there are new bipartisan attempts to destroy social security and a lack of serious efforts to establish universal health care.

The same conservatives who oppose doing anything about global warming are on the wrong side on these issues as well. The same “centrists” who either go along with them or oppose them weakly are the same ones who will support symbolic rather than substantive action against climate chaos.

A coalition that supported real action on global warming, as part of movement that supported real solutions on these other issues too, would have a much better chance of winning than a single-issue group. It would have a broader base and could offer more immediate relief from problems; because global warming wouldn’t be its only or even main issue, it would produce quicker results in the lives of ordinary people.

Yes, this is low probability. But so is a successful grassroots single-issue campaign that can win even the changes Romm wants. It’s as much a “political improbability” as Romm’s own plan, and no more an “impractical impossibility.” And as he says: “occasionally political realities can change fast.”

Technically, Romm is sound. There are problems in two of his wedges — nuclear power and sequestration — but he acknowledges them frankly.

The wedges I would propose against Romm’s are the following:

  1. A massive performance-based efficiency program for homes, commercial buildings, and new construction. Add some public subsidies, raising taxes and using some of the revenues to encourage meeting the standards.
  2. A massive effort to boost the efficiency of heavy industry. Part of this is lowering the material intensity of consumer goods — for example, substituting straw board for particle board — thus reducing embedded energy in manufacturing before the first BTU was saved in any factory. We should also seek to substitute low-carbon electricity for direct fueling whenever possible.
  3. Since electricity can be produced by low-carbon means such as wind turbines, we can’t afford to waste scarce biofuels on electricity generation. Thus, it is essential that cogeneration be adopted only to the extent that the fuels would already have been burned for industrial purposes, and that no or few emissions are needed to produce the electricity.
  4. Phase out carbon-emitting power plants over the course of twenty years, replacing them completely with wind, sun, and existing hydropower. China has significant wind resources and significant deserts for solar power. The U.S. will have to subsidize the difference between the cost of these and the cost of new coal plants, plus the cost of shutting existing coal plants down. Since China suffers huge health costs from coal, the cost can probably be kept to $50 to $100 billion per year.
  5. Build no new nuclear power plants, while shutting down old ones as their lifespan ends. Use the money saved to implement more efficiency and renewable energy than nuclear power would have provided.
  6. Require every car to have an average fuel economy of 75 mpg. Make large investments in electrically driven mass transit.
  7. Enable every car to run on electricity for short distances — at least 60 or 70 miles (requiring more renewable energy) — before reverting to biofuels (requiring one-twelfth the world’s cropland, or possibly some of the worlds rangeland). Note that a great deal of the world’s grain is used to raise animals. We could convert some of this to a combination of biofuels and production of vegetable protein for humans, thus not reducing world food production at all.
  8. Convert all major row crops to low-input no-till, and possibly incorporate charcoal fertilizer as well (or allow equivalent or better permaculture improvements that cultivate soil), thus converting agriculture to a minor carbon sink instead of a carbon source.
  9. Replace most freight ton-miles shipped by truck with freight ton-miles shipped by rail, using trucks only for the first and last 50 miles. Also, increase truck fuel efficiency per ton miles with a combination of various existing technologies, and also by allowing large trucks carrying more freight at a time — to the extent this can be done safely.
  10. Stop all tropical deforestation. Stop deforestation period. Stop logging old-growth and second-growth forests (other than real thinning to prevent fires, as opposed to the clear-cutting we sometimes call thinning). Substitute waste straw from no-till for manufactured woods and alter construction methods to minimize wood use, substituting things like super-adobe and low-carbon cements. (There are forms of cement that can replace Portland cement; also, carbon from Portland cement manufacture can be sequestered right in the concrete made from it. This latter technique requires manufacturing bricks and prefab slabs on the site where the cement is made.)