From 1980–2023 (as of August 8, 2023), there have been 363 confirmed weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each that affected the United States. These events included 30 drought events, 41 flooding events, 9 freeze events, 180 severe storm events, 60 tropical cyclone events, 21 wildfire events, and 22 winter storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 15,971 people and had significant economic effects.

In 2023 thus far the U.S. has been struck with a record-breaking 23 separate weather and climate disasters each with losses exceeding $1 billion. With approximately four months still left in the year, 2023 has already surpassed the previous record of 22 events seen in all of 2020. For the majority of us, the effects of man-made climate change are undeniable, as are the financial and human costs.

As a curious layperson, I decided to explore the problem and well-known solutions. According to the Global Carbon Project, the United States is the world’s second-largest carbon dioxide emitter, after China, and 5th in per capita emissions. The United States is responsible for 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions, with each person contributing 15.74 tons on average. Although the government has reduced its reliance on coal recently, crude oil and natural gas remain the significant sources of energy consumption and greenhouse gases.

Transportation and Power Stations are not the only contributors to Global warming, and not all greenhouse gases are equal. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) was developed to allow comparisons of the global warming impacts of different gases. Precisely, it measures how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide. The larger the GWP, the more that a given gas warms the Earth compared to carbon dioxide over that time period. Let’s start with carbon dioxide emissions, which represent most greenhouse gases caused by humans; it is not the most potent, but carbon dioxide has a half-life of about 120 years, methane’s half-life is 10.5 years, and nitrous oxide’s is 132 years. However, due to its structure, methane traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than carbon dioxide, making it 80 times more harmful during its atmospheric lifespan. While we measure known methane sources, we have no idea how much is being released by the melting glaciers and permafrost.

Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector

U.S. DOE Critical Materials Assessment

Well-known Approaches that Theoretically Scale

  • We can consider placing an upper limit on the amount of carbon dioxide we will allow ourselves to emit into the atmosphere within a given timeframe. Not a proven tactic globally after 25 years of International negotiations, nor are carbon offsets or credits.
  • We can hold corporations to climate goals. Not likely; just look at Shell’s plan to quietly end the world’s biggest corporate plan to develop carbon offsets.
  • We can also improve our monitoring of the planet and detection of the most harmful greenhouse gases to capture, fine polluters, or stop them with judicial oversight and criminal enforcement.
  • We can build massive Carbon Dioxide or Direct Air Capture and storage systems. Sure, given enough time and capital, but what about the other greenhouse gases? To hit its net zero targets, the world relies on a controversial technology pioneered by the fossil fuel industry that will cost $4.5 trillion this decade.
  • We can drive electric vehicles instead of those that burn fossil fuels. In 2022, about 134.55 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline were consumed in the United States, an average of about 369 million gallons per day. Sure, EVs will help, but EVs are not 100% green and still have a carbon footprint from the fuel required to charge batteries, along with an environmental impact cost of the chemicals for the batteries. More importantly, at the current rate of 3.2% per year or 442,000 EVs out of the 13.75 million car and light truck vehicles manufactured in 2022, it is nowhere near the scale we require. In perspective, there are now 1.7 million EVs on the road in the U.S. compared to 285 million gasoline-powered vehicles. It also does not address the other 5% of transportation vehicles responsible for 25% of transportation emissions better served by hydrogen-powered engines. Biden calling for half of all new vehicle sales to be EVs by 2030 doesn’t cut it. In my opinion, the EV industry and our government also missed a significant opportunity to accelerate consumer adoption by providing standardized removable batteries that could be swapped out with precharged batteries at any updated gas station in just minutes in lieu of building thousands of charging stations where you can wait 6-12 hours to charge your vehicle.
  • We can switch to renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind) to power our homes and buildings, thus emitting far fewer heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.Sure, this also helps, but consider the horrible economics, efficiency, and insufficient materials on the planet for the batteries required to store the power until it’s needed because reliance on renewable generation alone is an incomplete solution for grid-supplied energy. We will require multitudes of large MegaWatt storage systems or Pumped Hydro Storage and a D.C, grid. The sun is also not renewable. It will eventually sputter out in an estimated 7-8 billion years, unlike the billions of batteries and solar panels that require periodic replacement.

Renewable Energy Storage Global Warning Potential
  • We could improve mass transit instead of driving our own cars. We have been working to expand mass transit outside of our metropolitan cities since the seventies. This is a complicated and complex opportunity we have yet to solve. We may be better off leaning into the four-day workweek and work-from-home initiatives.
  • We can switch to renewable energy sources such as geothermal or hydro, where we have lakes, rivers, and can build damns. Sounds reasonable if we can do it without destroying fisheries, marshlands, or environmental ecosystems.
  • We can conserve energy by better insulating our homes and buildings, replacing windows and doors, investing in heat pumps, and replacing older appliances with more energy-efficient models, including gas stoves, water heaters, and HVAC systems.
  • We can support more local businesses that use and promote sustainable, climate-smart practices like those listed above. Sure, in theory, but most consumers will not educate themselves or make the tradeoff unless the product or service is taxed or incentivized; please see our history on Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and/or single-use plastics.
  • We can draw down carbon by planting trees and stop cutting down our forests.
  • One of my most hopeful technology-driven approaches is the reinvention of 1960/70 nuclear fission technology from TerraPower, as it uses a Natrium reactor that reuses spent uranium materials, of which we have 88,000 metric tons of. Has no chance of a meltdown and is more environmentally friendly regarding water resources and harmful emissions. Once proven, it could safely and cost-effectively be used for new U.S. power plants until nuclear fusion proves feasible to replace all existing power plants. My optimism about TerraPower is, in part, due to Bill Gates fantastic team of scientists and engineers and the fact that the U.S. government was not willing to allow them to export the technology to China. Approval to build the first Natrium reactor was granted for Wyoming. Multiple companies are looking to re-engineer nuclear fission and find a breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology, so keep a hopeful eye on this space.
  • I am unaware of any significant initiatives that scale in the agriculture, petrochemicals, or industrial/construction industries, but I will post any updates when I find some.