Separating myth from reality on climate change

By Scott Condon for Aspen Daily News – originally published on January 9, 2024.

Carbon offsets for air travel, carbon capture and storage in wells drilled far underground, heat pumps for heating and cooling of buildings and replacing fossil fuel burners with electric vehicles.

What’s real and what’s hype in the battle to save the planet from climate change? Joseph Romm is coming to Aspen to help those interested sort it out. And he said we all have skin in the game.

“People have to understand climate change simply because it’s going to have a very big impact on their lives and the lives of their children. It’s not going to go away,” said Romm, a senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media.

Romm will speak at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Limelight Hotel as part of the Aspen U speaker series hosted by Aspen Skiing Co. The title of his presentation is “Dangerous Climate Myths vs. Real Solutions.”

He was invited by Skico Senior Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler, who despite a good sense of humor has little tolerance for B.S. when it comes to acting on climate change. He thinks Romm is the right person to cut through the B.S.

“It’s gotten pretty clear that climate change now threatens everything we care about,” Schendler said in an email. “But what has become confusing is what exactly we ought to do about it. And the answers have become corrupted by convenience and money.”

Romm has put decades into researching some proposed solutions. He will share what’s real and scalable versus what’s “vaporware,” Schendler said.

Romm has 10 books on climate change, clean energy and communications. He was named a “Hero of the Environment” and “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger” by Time magazine in 2009. Romm holds a PhD in physics from MIT and he has connections to the Roaring Fork Valley. He was a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute from 1991 to 1993 and co-authored the 1994RMI report “Greening the Building and the Bottom Line: Increasing Productivity Through Energy-Efficient Design.”

Despite the impressive pedigree, Romm has an easy way with words and brings climate science to a level a layperson can understand. He told the Aspen Daily News on Friday that his job is to look at “practical considerations of things that may seem good on paper but what would it be like in the real world? I kind of kick their tires and look under the hood.”

On carbon capture, for example, he said there is “nothing terribly wrong with it.” But so far, the economics of capturing carbon from a coal plant, for example, just haven’t proven economic because of the need to build vast, unpopular pipelines to deliver the carbon to a place where it can be safely stored. The expense of capturing the carbon at the plants is also prohibitive.

“If you look at the history of carbon capture and storage, it’s been a spectacular failure,” Romm said.

He is also “annoyed” that much of the carbon captured thus far has been crammed into mostly depleted wells to squeeze the remaining oil from them.

“Are you really permanently storing CO2 if you’re using that CO2 to squeeze out oil that you’re going to burn to produce more CO2?” Romm asked. “That’s not my idea of a climate solution.”

What the countries collectively need, he said, is a World War II-scale effort where all players realize “we win this fight or we’re in very big trouble.”

“We are at the point where we’re starting to get serious about climate change, but we should have been serious two decades ago,” Romm said.

Among the people who research the problem and solutions, he said the path forward is “pretty well understood.”

“The most straightforward thing to do is to decarbonize the electric grid, to shift the electric grid to carbon-free technologies,” Romm said. “Indeed, this country has been doing that. It’s been replacing coal plants pretty steadily for 10, 15 years with gas plants and renewables. Gas plants are not zero carbon. What we really need to do is have a zero-carbon grid. That is phase one. And phase two is to electrify as much of the economy as possible so it can run on a carbon-free grid. The obvious way to decarbonize the transportation sector is electric vehicles.”

He is optimistic about the possibilities though he said scaling up solar or wind to the level needed to prevent reaching the tipping point on global warming won’t be easy. There are no slam dunks but the necessary effort is obvious. He said it will take 20 to 30 years to switch most of the economy to renewable energy sources. The efficiency of electric vehicles, he argued, will make them the ultimate winner in the marketplace.

“The point is, we are in the process of developing and introducing technologies that replace fossil fuel use combustion with an electric device,” he said. “So the two-fold kind of strategy that we need to pursue for the next 20-plus years is (to) build as many carbon-free sources of electricity to replace fossil fuel sources on the grid and develop and deploy all of these electric technologies.”

The doors open at the Limelight at 5:30 p.m. so attendees can grab a beverage at the bar if they so desire. Seating is limited. Romm said the presentation will be time well spent.

“I think everybody needs to be informed on this subject because it’s going to increasingly affect all of us,” he said. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand the solutions to climate change, which are the real ones and which are the overhyped ones. I think if people want to stay on top of that, this is going to be a good speech.”