Energy transition needs to tackle climate change
Record-breaking weather events are becoming more common, costly and extreme. These extreme weather events don’t just destroy lives and homes. There is little talk of how they could disrupt the deployment of renewable energy infrastructure, which is critical to preventing climate conditions from getting worse.
This feedback loop—greenhouse gas emissions leading to more extreme weather, hindering progress in clean energy infrastructure and causing more emissions—is rarely factored into energy transition and disaster management plans.In a recently published opinion piece Environmental Studies: Climate, we discuss how the expected increase in extreme events affects measures to evolve from the current fossil fuel-based energy sector to a more sustainable one. We also offer some potential solutions.
As an example of how climate change can delay the energy transition, imagine trying to decarbonize West Coast cities. The best wind resources are in the Midwest, so you need to build transmission lines in very active fire zones to get to West Coast cities. In addition, the Midwest is prone to damaging floods that could worsen with warming, so some disruptions need to be overcome at the same time—plus the political challenges of delaying large federal infrastructure projects.
In another scenario, imagine a hurricane that wiped out oil production on the Gulf Coast; the resulting impact on the energy system could lead to efforts to keep fossil fuels cheap as a quick and easy solution during recovery. We are now seeing a similar situation: With the Ukrainian crisis disrupting gas supplies, Germany is focused on keeping gas prices low and essentially offering a huge stimulus package for fossil fuels.
Why haven’t we discussed the impact of climate change on the energy transition? Infrastructure planners in certain sectors sometimes do not consider the full risk from extreme climates. Even in academia, experts who focus on financing and engineering renewable energy are different from those who focus on extreme weather forecasting and impacts, and the two groups are often not in the same room.
In our paper, we propose three approaches to overcome these challenges and break the feedback loop.
One solution is to integrate climate adaptation into strategies to reduce carbon emissions, including the deployment of renewable energy. Improving the resiliency of these systems may also make them more cost-effective in the long run.
A policy to fund the deployment of decentralized equipment comes months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and caused power outages Solar based power system Specifically designed to be stowed away during a hurricane to avoid being blown away. This is a great example of how transitions can be designed to accommodate extreme climate events.
The second solution is for governments to respond well to disasters and communicate their strategies. Political opposition to funding renewable energy can result when communities feel they are not being properly supported in the disaster recovery process.We saw this in February 2021 cold snap in texas. Snow, ice and cold temperatures cause natural gas power plants to fail. Lack of heating and water has disrupted the lives of many, and as discontent over preparedness and response has grown, the blame has shifted to frozen wind and solar equipment — although there’s no evidence they’re faulty.
To avoid such conflicts in the future, both energy transition and disaster response require adequate funding. There are many promising ways to do this, including taxing carbon. Not only does this incentivize the economy to move away from fossil fuels, but dividends can be used to prepare for disasters and help those displaced by the energy transition, as well as other measures that enhance equity and increase public acceptance of carbon taxes.
The third solution we propose is to support research and communication to improve climate literacy, future prediction of extreme weather, and preparation for the complex interactions of multiple extreme events. Students need to understand climate trends and impacts before making career choices, which they notice when they become urban planners or engineers, for example. Preparedness teams need realistic estimates of future extreme events traditionally underestimated by climate models.
We also need better coordination between academic silos. More than ever, the methods and insights of climate scientists, engineers and urban sociologists need to come together to address the full scale of the climate crisis and all the elements that are taking place. Our goal is to draw attention to this need, and the need for funding for this kind of interdisciplinary work.
This is one of the areas where Columbia Climate School offers potential. One of the main goals of the school is to bring together different types of specialists into the same classroom and community, to develop scientists and practitioners across disciplines. Bringing disciplines together requires work, and school members hold leadership accountable for addressing these interdisciplinary needs.
The climate crisis touches all disciplines. By teaching all aspects of the problem together, we will achieve better results.
Corey Lesk is a postdoctoral researcher at the Neukom Institute and Department of Geography at Dartmouth College. Previously, he was a graduate student at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at the Columbia Climate Institute.
Kai Kornhuber is an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia Climate Institute, an adjunct associate research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Senior Fellow of the German Council for Foreign Relations.