The latest news about climate change is so alarming (the right wing would say alarmist) as to make many people want to plant their aching heads in the sand. Some scientists using advanced computer models now argue that if we want to stop the Earth from warming, the amount of carbon we should be emitting is ... none. None? As in, zero? As in, shutting down the global industrial economy? After all, global energy demand is expected to accelerate until at least 2020. Yet attempts even to slow the rate of increase of carbon emissions have paralyzed world politics for more than a decade.
Faced with the choice between planetary disaster and the end of modern life as we know it, most of us feel powerless to do much more than change our lightbulbs and hope that some unseen genius somewhere figures this out before we sizzle. But many touted new energy technologies turn out to have fatal detractions, starting with the fact that ethanol production is gobbling up global food supplies.
We can and must conserve vastly more. A McKinsey & Co. study calculates that investing $170 billion per year in energy-saving technologies would generate $900 billion in savings by 2020 -- a 17% return on investment. Still, Americans have a cultural predisposition to yearn for a scientific paradigm shift that will usher in a new era of cheap energy and save the planet too. So here is one scenario to root for: genetically engineered bacteria that eat carbon dioxide and excrete biofuels.