Copyright © 2011 by the American Solar Energy Society Inc. All rights reserved.
China and others, as we are already doing. This is clearly
true, but the main reason our competitors around the world
have moved aggressively into the clean-energy arena is that
they recognize that climate change demands it.
2. If we don’t openly accept the problem of climate
change, we won’t deploy clean energy in the fastest and most
effective way needed to address it.
Any of our top climate scientists will tell you that the
climate change problem is enormous. To save the oceans,
polar ice sheets and remaining glaciers we have to come
very close to eliminating all carbon emissions in just the
next three or four decades. This is at a time when hundreds
of millions of people in China and India are striving to
achieve a much higher standard of living and have a tremendous thirst for energy.
Many people argue that addressing climate change will
require an effort on the scale of our unprecedented manufacturing expansion during World War II. The other benefits of renewable energy simply do not demand the same
degree of urgency or the same scale of effort as climate
change. Only by exerting an all-out effort focused on drastically reducing carbon emissions do we have a reasonable
chance of solving this problem in time. Creating jobs and
achieving energy security isn’t enough. If we don’t achieve
the much tougher job of saving the ice sheets, we will incur
enormous financial and environmental costs.
How we deploy clean energy is as important as how
quickly we do it. Perhaps the best example of doing renewable energy the wrong way is our current production of
biofuels. For political reasons, a great deal of government
support goes to corn-based ethanol. Yet compared to gasoline, corn-based ethanol saves very little carbon emissions.
Demand for biodiesel fuel in Europe has directly resulted
in the destruction of millions of acres of carbon-absorbing
rainforest to make way for profitable oil palm plantations,
with a resulting increase in net atmospheric carbon. Another example is our choice of solar technologies: Thin-film
PV has a significantly more favorable carbon footprint
than crystalline silicon. The life-cycle carbon emissions of
a concentrating solar power plant are significantly lower if
the molten salt used for thermal storage is mined instead
Because wind and solar are variable resources, utilities
must incorporate other means to provide back-up electric-
ity, and how this is done greatly impacts total carbon emis-
sions. Shale gas has been widely embraced as a plentiful
bridge fuel that can help enable renewable deployment.
But new studies suggest the current practices used to cap-
ture this gas have a much larger-than-expected greenhouse
footprint, because methane is released during the hydrau-
lic fracturing process. Only by carefully accounting for all
greenhouse gas emissions of our renewable energy and effi-
ciency options can we be assured of effectively addressing
climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions must
be the clear focus of our energy policy. And when we focus
on addressing climate change, all of those other advantages
we talk about will result.
A relentless misinformation campaign has so swayed
public opinion that even politicians who believe
the science are now loath to discuss it.
During a recent family vacation, it struck me as we
toured Washington, D.C., that there has never been a major
issue — slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor, civil rights
— that did not require people to stand up for what was right
in the face of withering criticism or worse. Climate change
is no different. But it is a scientific fact that by suddenly
releasing into the atmosphere carbon that nature took millions of years to sequester in the earth, we are dangerously
and dramatically changing our planet. We are causing our
climate to markedly depart from the stable temperatures
and sea levels of the last 8,000 years. That stability allowed
human civilization to develop, and all life on our planet has
adapted to it.
There is no question that powerful forces will continue
an aggressive campaign, resisting every effort to address
climate change. So it is important for those who believe
in science to have the courage to speak out. To that end,
I urge readers of SOLAR TODAY to become familiar with
the arguments and study the excellent website skeptical
science.com, run by Australian physicist John Cook. He
even provides a free smart phone app, allowing instant
access to the latest scientific information. Also, I cover
many of the arguments in a video presentation available at
When you speak up you can expect to be ridiculed. But
that is no reason not to get the facts out. Only by speaking
frankly about climate change can we spur national action
aggressive enough to tackle this enormous problem. Not to
do so is to let our children down. As the American environmentalist David Brower said, “We don’t inherit the Earth
from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” ST
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