Saving the Planet: Just Like Cleaning Our Room

By Julio Friedmann

When I think about the climate and the atmosphere and the harsh mathematics of greenhouse gas accumulations, I have good days and bad days.

On the bad days, I think about how hard it is to get my young children to clean their rooms.

At heart, people don't like to clean their rooms. It takes time and effort away from fun things and doesn't change the functionality of the room (still has a floor, bed, dressers, door, etc. even when unkempt or unclean). Barring filth and contagion, cleaning the room is a drag.

In a similar vein, people who are sick don't take their medicine. People who are too heavy won't diet and exercise (this includes me). People who know smoking is bad for you smoke. Changing human behavior, even for near-term tangible benefits, can be very hard.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is much harder.


As discussed in my first blog entry, the benefits of reduce emissions and clean energy, no matter how vital and real, are hard to see. They occur in the future, typically are costly, are globally dispersed, and are hotly contested. While the possible, even likely loss of polar ecosystems and Himalayan glaciers is frightening to those who study and understand them, few actually understand the potential impacts and even fewer have seen these things.

On my darker days, I have three extra worries.

The monsters behind the door. This is what Princeton climate ecologist Steve Pacala calls the non-linear, high-impact responses to climate change. These include rapid methane losses from the arctic which super accelerate climate change or ocean acidification, which can crash the marine food chain (by some estimates, around 2030). The potential impacts from these events could be staggering, including wide-spread disease, realignment of rain and wind systems world-wide, and permanent loss of key ecosystems.

Scale-up issues. Every energy technology we have scaled up has problems and unintended consequences. Recently, we saw that with the 2007 ethanol push. The drive to corn ethanol helped create a food crisis world-wide, and ended up increasing global CO2 emissions when soy farmers started plowing under rain forest to grow more soy (what economists euphemistically call "leakage"). It's reasonable to imagine that scale up of wind, clean-coal, biofuels, and solar may also have perverse consequences yet to be mapped.


The REALLY inconvenient truth: This is that the technology options we have today aren't as good as they need to be. A famous study by McKinsey's Global Institute helps illustrate the many options we have and their relative impacts and costs (including some low cost options in efficiency). This study changed the debate about the value and costs of abatement. However, by the authors' own admission if one does everything on the chart, we're still short -- we need an extra 9 gigatons of CO2 equivalent abatement each year! In their report and their charts (see below), one finds place-holders for things that don't exist yet or dramatic change in human behavior.


While none of this is encouraging, the need and urgency remain. As a globe and as social animals, we are required to begin tackling these issues. Moving forward with purpose requires massive scale-up and coordination, which will come with failures, dead-ends, and painful choices. It also requires a sustained effort over several decades. None of this is easy, and none of this is comforting.

The good news? At some point, everyone has to clean their room, because it's their room, and the only room they've got.

Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.