Innovation, Adaptation and Mitigation

On June 23, 1988, James Hansen testified before a Senate committee saying that man made global climate change had begun. Two months later a member of the Bush family was nominated as Republican candidate for president and a huge earthquake in Nepal killed over 1,000 people. The U.S. Drought of 1988 caused big crop damage in many states, impacted many portions of the United States and caused around $60 billion in damage. Multiple regions suffered in the conditions. Heat waves caused 4,800 to 17,000 excess deaths while scorching many areas of the United States. Is history a cycle, a circle or a spiral?

Of course, virtually nobody was on the internet, virtually nobody had a mobile phone, there was no Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, so we’re making more of Hansen’s testimony today than we did at the time.

There have been a lot of changes in the past 27 years.

At the time, 35% of American homes did not have air conditioning. By 2005 only 15% did not. By 2009, 97% of homes in the South had an air conditioner.


Of course, air conditioning has changed as well.


The average energy consumption per household in 1988 was 89.6 million BTUs per year. By 2013 that had climbed to 99 mbtu per home. Homes are bigger, they have more appliances and we are enough richer to turn on the A/C and the heat more frequently.

The Department of Energy projects that average household consumption of energy will decline to 75 mbtus by 2040. This is despite their prediction that new housing will be bigger, that more homes will be built in the South and that we will be considerably wealthier by 2040 than we are today.

That’s a heavy burden to place on our capacity to innovate. Programs like Energy Star have been in existence for quite some time now. Air conditioners, washing machines, dishwashers and even computers are far more energy efficient than previous models.

But it hasn’t stopped us from using more energy per household.

America’s overall energy consumption has declined. Our overall consumption per person has declined. We’ve done very well in many different aspects of CO2 emissions, energy production and energy consumption.

But ambitious plans for further falls in consumption and emissions do not seem to be based on careful analysis of consumer behavior. Americans like being comfortable. They like using the appliances they have.

I believe in our power to innovate new and improved technologies. But what the data suggests is that the EPA, our President and our current crop of energy analysts are counting on our ability to innovate new Americans instead.

Improvements in energy efficiency may not slow down climate change, but they can help us adapt to it when and if it comes, especially if it comes with lower sensitivity. But real reductions in emissions–enough to make a dent in climate change will require a new ‘us.’

I wish them luck with that. Jimmy Carter tried it and it cost him the presidency. Subsequent holders of the office have made fewer demands of citizens.

The world overall doesn’t want to be exactly like Americans. But they do want to have access to the same level of energy. If we are serious about emitting less CO2–if we are serious about consuming less energy–then we are going to have to change what people consider to be comfort, to be enough.

I think that is a far more difficult task than inventing more efficient gadgetry.


2 responses to “Innovation, Adaptation and Mitigation

  1. Your assumption seems to be that limiting American power use will manage the climate. What is the mechanism for this? The premise that mitigation strategies will work- and are even feasible- seems to be lacking in data based support.

    • I believe the point is that the politically correct assumption, one being used in California and New York for example, is that limiting American power use will manage the climate. Advocates of that policy don’t care that there is no data based support. Our host is rightfully pointing out that in order for even that flawed logic to work, people in the developed world will have to change what they think is comfortable. In addition, that makes developed world leaders arguing that those without electricity should not have access to fossil fuels an even more difficult sell.

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