Three-year-old research by two Princeton University professors given new life in the climate change-focused October issue of National Geographic Magazine (NGM) gives hope that with a technology explosion in the next 50 years, the world can start getting its arms around the global climate change conundrum. And part of the answer may lie in replacing most of the current coal-fired electric generation with a combination of natural gas and carbon sequestration.

To the question of whether the problem is correctable, the Princeton researchers, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, answer a qualified yes, but it won’t come from a single solution; it will take many. They hypothesize 15 “stabilization wedges” in their paper originally published in Science in 2004. NGM called the work “some of the best assessments of the possibilities” for curbing the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Contrary to those who think of something akin to the Manhattan Project that spawned the atomic bomb in the 1940s or the Apollo program sending Americans to the moon in the late 1960s, global warming and carbon mitigation need a commitment to take “what we already know how to do and somehow spread it into every corner of our economies, and indeed our most basic activities,” NGM said. “It’s as if NASA’s goal was to put all of us on the moon.”

Existing technology, applied in massive, targeted doses in the 15 areas (wedges) that Pacala and Socolow see as increasing annual carbon emissions by 1 billion tons, will be enough to halt the GHG emissions increases over the next 50 years, they said. But entirely new technology — the researchers call it “revolutionary” — will be needed to actually begin to reduce carbon production in the second half of this century.

Immediately, the world can (a) substitute gas-fired electric generation for coal-fired plants, while capturing and storing the carbon dioxide (CO2); (b) double the number of nuclear power plants; (c) install 100 times more wind turbines; (d) double the average gas mileage of motor vehicles from 30 miles per gallon (mpg) to 60 mpg; and (e) replace petroleum fuels with 34 million bbl/d of ethanol, about 50 times current production and requiring one-sixth of the world’s cropland.

The Princeton researchers don’t pretend any of this is easy, but they think it can be done.

On the other hand, NGM‘s report by long-time environmental leader/writer Bill McKibben, author of the current book Fight Global Warming Now, concluded that in the end “global warming presents the greatest test we humans have yet faced. Are we ready to change, in dramatic and prolonged ways, in order to offer a workable future to subsequent generations and diverse forms of life?”

The key, McKibben and NGM stressed, is that the nation and the world, for that matter, must move “quickly and decisively.” It is still not clear if society is up to the challenge.

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