The Wonders of the Hydrogen Economy

This week I want to jump ahead about seventy years to a time when humanity has fully actualized the hydrogen revolution. It was a bumpy transition: making the hydrogen from natural gas at first—which, being both less efficient and more polluting—actually worsened climate change.1 But as the infrastructure developed, soon there were cars, trucks, buses, trains, and planes, even long-distance delivery drones all being powered by the magical gas of H2—drawn into the world by nothing but sunlight and solar panels.

Sure, we mined and covered over the remotest parts of our planet, speckled our shorelines and mountaintops with wind turbines, wiping out even more of Gaia’s diverse beauty in the process. And yes, these gains primarily benefited the shrinking consumer class (as more joined the ranks of the laboring poor or disaster-affected dislocated). And it’s true, the boon in new energy was used primarily to support our grand entrance into the #metaverse, but for those who fully embraced it, this was truly a golden age.

That is until strangely, it seemed that climate change worsened even further. We shrugged it off assuming it was part of the cleaner air that came with the decreased burning of fossil fuels and reduced global cooling that has so far masked the worst of global warming (though in truth these fuels were still being used in earnest at the renewables manufacturing plants and mining sites).

Even in 2021, scientists understood just how much dirty air helped mask the full warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions. As people shifted to renewables and hydrogen, some of that veil fell away. (Image from IPCC, Climate Change 2021 Summary for Policymakers, page 7)

What was stranger was it seemed the planet was drying even faster than old climate models predicted—and in even more locations. Until one scientist published a scientific study that hypothesized that a sizable percentage of the hydrogen (2+-0.5%) produced globally was regularly leaking—a smidge each time one of the millions of cars filled up, a bit when delivery tankers (trucks and ships) passed along their cargo, and the vast majority from leaking pipes. (Somehow our humble pipe technology has never been able to keep up with our civilizational ambitions—just ask the Romans.)

And those leaks, over the past five decades, have added up. Much of the hydrogen broke down quickly in the lower atmosphere, turning into water—adding a bit to the warming of the planet, but certainly not as much as the continued use of fossil fuels and reductions in particulate matter, which themselves had become minor compared to the positive feedback loops now playing out in earnest. 2

But some of the hydrogen made it all the way to the upper atmosphere. And some of that decided it had had enough of humanity’s hubris and headed out into space. Hydrogen, after all, is so light it can do that. So the scientist shared her findings and offered a warning as well: if we don’t move away from hydrogen, within a few hundred years Earth will be less of a blue planet. And if we keep on this trajectory for a few thousand years, Frank Herbert’s descendants (if they make it through the chaos) will be able to write future volumes of his Dune series about Earth.

The hydrogen must flow….straight into space. (Image from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) via The Criterion Collection)

Of course, like the Cassandras of times before—Thomas Malthus, Rachel Carson, William Vogt, Dana Meadows, and so on—the scientist, who unfortunately was actually named Cassandra Crist {awkward!} was ignored, laughed at, and of course sued by the many big dogs of the hydrogen economy for defamation (sadly the seamier sides of capitalism had not gone away in those seven decades). She fought on—content to being ripped apart as many of her heroes had and having long ago received tenure and sent her child off to college—but it was to no avail. Marketers, PR companies, and the rest forced the findings down down down, and just as with Svante Arrhenius, who first wrote about climate change in 1896, it was only much later that the next generation of scientists discovered her work.3

And no surprise, they didn’t get much further. Other than confirming her results and warning that the pace of hydrogen development has grown so significant that “Gaia has more like a thousand years before becoming Dune.”4

“You Maniacs! You dried it out! Ah, damn you! Gaia damn you all to hell!” (Butchered quotation and butchered image from Planet of the Apes.)

Development carried on, ecological changes continued, and another thirty years passed when the slow drying out of Gaia became unmistakable and the scientific community spoke up in a more unified voice. Of course, some of those scientists disappeared, and many were reassigned, and others quickly shut up. After all, humanity’s grand experiment with democracy and free speech had long been over.

But a vocal resistance did development, arguing against hydrogen—which, naturally, was reframed as being against modernity, civilization, and, why not, happiness. And so the resistance remained at the fringe, many figuratively flying up into the stratosphere and off into space. But a few, coalesced, formed water molecules and rained on the hydrogen party. And like the ancient wisdom says about water, over time it can wear down mountains.

Truthfully, that’s where we leave the story. It is unclear how those who fear the desiccation and death of the only living planet we’ve ever known will respond. Perhaps they’ll try to develop new aerosols that can be sprayed into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of hydrogen leakage (or other technologies—some have proposed hydrogen vacuums at every gas station, many have pushed for a renaissance in pipe design, etc.). Or perhaps they’ll lobby increasingly unresponsive governments in hope that they’ll lead the transition to a safer alternative. Or fight to slow down growth, arguing for leaving the hydrogen bonded to oxygen and pushing for no new hydrogen development. Or risk life and limb to resist or revolt. Or perhaps some other way will come to them. Only time will tell.

Not a Very Nice Story

The fight to dismantle the hydrogen economy carries on…

Of course, I hope that’s all fiction. As The Day After Tomorrow was with how fast temperatures will shift when thermohaline circulation stops, I hope my time frame for hydrogen loss is off by orders of magnitude. But as an allegory, this feels like it hits way too close to home. We’re at the same moment with fossil fuels: we might not act at all. We might pretend to act or act half-assedly (as we are now with the weak-kneed COP-driven climate agreements even as disasters rage around us). Or worse, people will build expensive (economically and ecologically speaking) carbon sequestration facilities, making a buck in the process but doing nothing to solve the problem. Or worse yet, we might start surrounding Gaia with space mirrors or a sulfur blanket. Or even worse, civil society might start taking sustainability seriously enough that the corporate-politico-industrial-complex reacts more aggressively, silencing it leaders with jail or violence as is common with political opponents in many countries today.

Frankly, right now, we’re still in the collective delusion stage, looking to stop methane leaks instead of rallying to rapidly rein in our growth. And we may never get beyond that (that is to say by choice rather than being driven to that end by the unravelling of the global economy triggered by a converging set of ecological, financial, and political meltdowns). But perhaps, if that collapse prevents the desertification of the Earth as we never develop a global hydrogen economy, maybe that’s a better end to the story after all.

Postscript

Normally I add links as I go, but in this case I’ll offer some reading recommendations. Most importantly, this article by Stephan Harding and Lynn Margulis on the role of life in keeping water on the planet.5 Or even just this Wikipedia article on atmospheric escape (of hydrogen). It’s not something I ever really considered until reading Harding and Margulis’ article. We worry so much about the carbon cycle and the effects of its disruption on life and vice versa that we have looked less at other central cycles like the water cycle. And we worry so much about turning the Earth into a hothouse that we don’t think about the fact that we lose 259 tons of hydrogen every day to space. To be fair, that, unlike climate change, is a natural process, and so shouldn’t be our primary worry. But if we actually create yet another technology to develop our best industrial selves—as the celebrants of the hydrogen economy promise—what could be the unforeseen consequences of that? I have no idea, but it’d be nice to go in with our eyes open this time and maybe even choose not to overdevelop this technology if the threat—to humanity and to life—promises to be greater than the benefit.

Endnotes

1) Here’s a quote from The New York Times, “[researchers] found that the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen [hydrogen made from natural gas] was more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat.”

2) Of course, leaders celebrated some of these as human triumphs: with the Arctic ice-free most of the year now, shipping has become a breeze, enabling distribution of the latest fads faster than ever.

3) Arrhenius actually predicted that if we double atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide global average temperatures will increase 4 degrees Celsius. Pretty spot on for 1896. So we can’t say no one warned us!

4) Star Wars and even Star Trek have been long forgotten in the genre of space opera, but somehow Dune has lived on.

5) We actually read this article for one of our Gaian book discussions. I invite you to join us sometime to discuss more eye-opening works!

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3 Responses

  1. wornsmooth

    Good article. It seems you try to make people understand by using narrative stories. It worked pretty well for 10s of thousands of years, so probably still does.
    I tend to be pessimistic regarding Humanity managing to maintain a natural death rate and still keep the comforts and conveniences of our industrial civilization. Hence I agree with the story of Hydrogen. We simply are so far into significant overshoot that it is an impossibility to avoid Gaia’s ‘market correction’. The best we can do is try to soften thermodynamic inevitability with conservation, cleaner energy, more labor intensive (vs chemical intensive) agronomy, etc. But there simply are too many of us to avoid the deeper pain that eventually some generation(s) will pay.
    I try not to be so negative, but I truly no longer see any easy off ramps for us.

  2. Erik Assadourian

    Thanks for your comment. I grapple with whether ‘not seeing any easy off ramps’ is really negative. By knowing this to be the case (knowing by data rather than by a gut sense) and recognizing its reality, is that negative or simply just accepting of this?

    It doesn’t mean you can’t try to change course, and soften the collapse, and increase odds of some surviving (and even thriving perhaps). I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up feeling like we’re being negative because we’re recognizing that we’re in a state of collapse. I always think of Joanna Macy’s words about being with a friend suffering a terminal disease: that isn’t a place to be all chipper and say things will be fine. But rather just to be present. Our unfailing sense of optimism may be a maladaptive quality at this point. Rather, we should be going forward eyes open into the challenging decades ahead. That may be far more healthy (mentally today) and increase the odds of a better outcome in the future.

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