Of Heat and Hydrogen

I'm not sure why Matt thinks liberals should stick to environmental arguments when advocating for an end to fossil fuels, nor why he thinks that it necessarily leads to hydrogen, but I have to disagree. Making the environmental case against carbon is only really convincing from a global warming standpoint, and the right's ability to demonize and confuse that case is considerable (for more on this, see Chris Mooney's piece in the new Mother Jones). Last week, Dennis Miller took over the Daily Show with one of his now-tiresome rants, which included a nice little line about how his grandchildren are hardy enough to deal with a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees.

Global warming, because it's complex, weird, and arguing for massive impacts stemming from minor climate changes, is hard to sell on its own. But even if we could, that doesn't make the case for hydrogen, mostly because hydrogen can't yet make the case for itself. As a fuel source, it's simply not technologically mature enough to compete with oil, natural gas, coal, or anything else, really. The fuel cells we've been able to create are failures in both the power production and cost containment departments, and few feel they'll be working for decades yet (and remember, they were supposed to be powering our cars five years ago).

Folks know, at some level, that there's a finite amount of oil in the world. And as prices at the pump shoot skyward, they're primed to believe that we're on the wrong end of the supply curve. Explaining that the costs are only going to get worse, and that the more we use the faster they'll do it, is a great, pocketbook-based argument for why we need to start transitioning off oil. And that's an important point as well; too much hero-worship of hydrogen isn't good. We're likely to need some time on natural gas to give hydrogen time to mature (not to mention that natty gas utilizes our existing oil infrastructure), and we should be investing in wind, solar, biomass, and other research in the hopes of finding other bits for our energy quilt. With oil running down as quickly as it is and hydrogen as far from market as it insists on currently being, any move from oil is going to be a patchwork of power sources and conservation strategies. Arguing for such a strange reformatting of our energy economy simply because the world is going to get a degree or two hotter is, I fear, an almost hopeless battle. Arguing for it because you're not going to be able to afford fuel otherwise (and if we don't the earth'll heat up and we're all doomed) hits with more force.

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