The current fossil fuel-based energy system evolved gradually during the twentieth century as an offspring of the Industrial Revolution. The history of major human energy systems suggests that it may take almost as long to replace this system with the novel energy sources and distribution networks that future generations will need. This historic transition would be greatly facilitated if geoengineering options had been developed and evaluated to provide a safe breathing space in which large-scale substitution of energy sources could take place in a reasonably comfortable and efficient manner.
History teaches that long-range technological forecasting is often a fool's errand. Today, when science and technology are advancing at paces never seen before, it seems especially hazardous to predict over a half-century, let alone a full century, the nature and shape of future energy systems. For instance, less than a half-century ago, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion both seemed to occupy major positions in the early 21st-century global energy picture. But today nuclear fission labors under a cloud of geopolitical mistrust-problems of safety, cost and risks of proliferating nuclear weapons. On the other hand, nuclear fusion seems to have a perennially brilliant future that might never arrive.
As we are confronted by such uncertainties about the future, the economists among us will remind us that future returns-even seemingly certain ones-must be risk-weighted and then discounted to values of present-time, which is "where" we all live, work-and allocate resources. The practice of discounting is self-evidently rational for businesses or private-sector investors. In these terms, a geoengineering research and assessment program-or any long-range energy-related effort-whose perceived benefits might not materialize for a half-century or more may not be regarded as an attractive business investment. For policy decisions on such issues as climate change that can affect the future of a country, or of mankind, it may be useful to create a range of discounting calculations to better inform the decision process, while recognizing that "fat tails" of consequences versus likelihood distributions can render such calculations innately flimsy as decision aids. Thus, wider horizons may be appropriate, as one attempts to apply modern decision tools to problems of war and peace, religiously motivated terrorism, large-scale energy supply, climate change and the host of other painfully complex issues with which heads of state, governments and societies as a whole must grapple over the next several decades.
Fred C. Iklé is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was the undersecretary of defense for policy for President Ronald Reagan and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Lowell Wood is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and is affiliated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Intellectual Ventures, LLC.
1Paul J. Saunders & Vaughan C. Turekian, "Warming to Climate Change", The National Interest, No. 84 (Summer 2006), pp. 80.
2Sebastian Mallaby, "Climate Obstacles Ahead", The Washington Post, November 26, 2007, pp. A15.
3The costs of carbon emissions must become at least comparable to the present-day prices of fossil fuels themselves in order to price-ration the use of these fuels and thus attain the roughly five-fold emissions reductions over present levels needed to adequately curtail global warming, as predicted by current climate models. Indeed, since observed price-demand elasticities for transport fuels are of the order of 0.1-0.2, prices will have to rise by remarkably large factors in order to attain a five-fold drop in demand, especially as the world economy continues to expand.
4The current value of the incoming sunlight is approximately one-third. The other two-thirds of incoming sunlight is absorbed at or near the Earth's surface, and is subsequently re-radiated as thermal infrared radiation, roughly half during the daytime and half at night, for most of the inhabited regions of the Earth.Essay Types: Essay