Climate Change: Is Fusion Power Our Last Hope to Avoid Disaster?


It is the ultimate war against time. With Kyoto's agreements dissolved and emissions skyrocketing, global warming's consequences have reached our front door much faster than anyone expected. In many ways, the next 15 years will give humanity its first taste of a world held hostage by volatile climactic conditions.

As these first signs of the crisis emerge, the window to prevent a total system collapse will deteriorate rapidly. Unless carbon emissions peak by 2030, the world's temperature rise is likely to exceed 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit within 50 years. Outside of American borders, world leaders have begun to rally around novel approaches to climate control. Alongside carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes, the best chance for optimism may be nuclear fusion. America would be wise to invest in the technology before it is too late.

The ability of humans to adapt to conditions in a +3.6 degree world often cited as the crux between crisis and catastrophe is heavily debated. Countries like India and China, where economic growth has reached staggering rates, are deeply concerned about the devastating effects of severe warming on their impoverished populations. As primary drivers of the fossil fuel growth, many expect them to fully embrace green technology quite soon.

A frivolous claim? Humanity hopes not. A DARA report, issued last September, suggests that global warming, at its current rate, will cost India 5% of potential GDP output, while China's forfeiture will exceed 2% on the same indicator by 2030. The losses will come primarily from agriculture, expected to see a 10% drop in productivity when pre-industrial warming rises to +1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beyond the economic losses, DARA's report suggests 100 million people will die by 2030 as a result of drought, disease, crop failures and water shortage alone. 90 million of these excess deaths will come in the developing world. Barring the repercussions of extreme weather, this growing death rate will not be perceptible to those in the Western world who are aggravating climate change the most. More striking, perhaps, are estimates produced by experts like economist William Cline, who found that a 2.5% temperature increase would cost the United States only 6% of its agricultural yield, while India's would drop 38%.

The point is this: the two Asian powers risk imminent systemic collapses that will, in short time, become irreversible. For decades, the most fervent environmentalists have hoped that a marked lifestyle change across the industrialized would be the answer to a carbon-free world. But at this point, no pragmatist can argue that this alone will forestall the dangerous rises in temperature expected by late-century.

America's green agenda has been hampered by unwarranted skepticism; a poll released last week suggests that nearly 40% of Americans believe global warming is a government hoax. Even those in support of carbon reduction have declined to change their lifestyle habits enough to sustain a carbon-based economy. Ethical issues aside, the international community has desperately sought a self-sustaining energy source. But will a Holy Grail be found before it is too late?

The growing consensus is yes, but only if adequate structures are in place to utilize new technologies effectively. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), has operated under the radar since 2007. It is the world's greatest attempt to develop a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction, the same mechanism by which the Sun and all other stars are powered. A joint project between the EU, India, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the U.S., ITER's technology has been deemed the "perfect energy source."

ITER's operators expect to produce a self-sustaining nuclear fusion burn by 2027. Other green technologies must be in place to cap emission growth by 2030. If the downward trend is to continue, however, fusion is likely the best bet. Few countries have taken on the engineering initiatives needed to reliably convert and distribute the energy at a competitive price. Thus far, the U.S. has declined to take any action on fusion implementation. China, on the other hand, sees the risk of inaction as far greater.

Having already witnessed a man-made nuclear fusion reaction at Europe's experimental facility JET, the probability of harboring fusion power, is, quite literally, as sure as the sun shines. The only question remaining is when will it reach a competitive price? Complementing its massive initiatives in solar and wind energy, China has recently undertaken large-scale projects to implement fusion reactors by mid-century.

Dr. Steven Crowley, director of the UK's Culham Center for Fusion Energy, has stated that the engineering technology would come at an estimated cost of $200-$600 million annually. The investment is a small financial risk that will, in all likelihood, outperform any comparable energy investment.

Notwithstanding pro-human biases, adaptation measures may prove capable of mitigating the worst consequences of a 3.6 degree temperature rise. Past this threshold, positive feedback mechanisms could be aggravated enough to permanently destruct every climactic regularity known to man. It is time to fight risk with risk. If we continue in the sea of uncertainty, declining to pursue our best chance at sustainable energy, the developing world will surpass us. They cannot afford failure.