"And that's the bad news. Because it's fossil energy," Nobel laureate physicist and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steve Chu told fellow scientists Monday at Stanford University.
Left to their present course, industrialized and developing nations are planning to burn vast quantities of fossil fuels, driven increasingly to carbon-rich coal by high oil and gas prices.
China alone is building the equivalent of a Manhattan every year and a large coal-fired power plant every week. It consumed more coal last year than the United States, Russia and India combined. "China is a coal economy. You don't change that overnight," said Doug Ogden, director of the China Sustainable Energy program for the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation.
That's likely to push the chemistry of the atmosphere past a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations and toward to a quadrupling, trapping more heat at the Earth's surface and pushing average temperatures from an increase of a few degrees to an increase of 15 degrees or more.
People hear about uncertainty in climate change, Chu said, and "the public assumes, 'Well, maybe it's not true.'"
In fact, he said, "the spread is between bad and very, very bad.
What exactly to do about the planet's energy and climate dilemma has biologists, physicists, geologists and economist assembled this week for a conference held by Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Program, and sponsored by Toyota and General Electric, as well as ExxonMobile and well-servicing giant Schlumberger.
Avoiding significantly more warming means drastically cutting releases of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Energy analysts John Ziagos and Gene Berry at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory set off to find out what that might mean just for the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Putting the rest of the nation on California's low-carbon diet could mean replacing the entire U.S. vehicle fleet with hydrogen cars and trucks, capturing carbon dioxide from all fossil-fuel power plants and building 300 nuclear power stations, Ziagos said.
That's building a half dozen nuclear plants every year.
Moving to this "massively carbonless" future by 2050 also would mean boosting the efficiency of electricity production by 50 percent, covering North Dakota in wind turbines and installing at least 500 square feet of solar panels for every man, woman and child, he said.
That takes time.
"If we're going to reach that, we're going to have to turn around soon," Ziagos said. "If we expect to achieve these reductions, our emissions have to peak in 2010."
There's a debate among various carbon-free energy sources: nuclear versus capture of carbon from coal-fired power plants and biofuels versus better fuel economy.
"The bottom line is we need to do it all," Ziagos said, "and we need to get started right away."
Chu is calling for his lab's scientists to fail, or at least risk failure, by moving out of their career research and into advanced solar and bioenergy research.
Those scientists will attack the toughest pieces of energy problems, the likeliest "showstoppers," as Chu put it, so that "they're going to fail often, but you're also going to fail fast."