A portrait of George Rhee, a professor of physics and astronomy at UNLV.

Quick Take: The Numbers Tell the Story on Climate Change

UNLV physicist developed a calculator to compute the significance of using renewables in a warming world.

In the movie portrayal of the Titanic's journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the passengers aboard the ship don’t realize that something has gone horribly wrong until it’s too late.

George Rhee, a professor of physics and astronomy at UNLV, equates that fateful event to the present day and the potential consequences of failing to act on climate change in light of mounting evidence.

And he does so with numbers.

“I view renewable energy as a lifeboat,” Rhee said. “It’s way of saving lives. I think worldwide, climate change is a WWII type of problem, and it requires a WWII type of effort to solve it.”

Rhee is helping Nevada address the problem of climate change through an online calculator he created that determines the state’s total fossil fuel demand by 2050, based on a range of renewable energy options chosen by the user.

Rhee breaks down the significance of the calculator, how it works, who should use it and why.

Where did the idea come from? The idea was inspired by a similar calculator developed for the U.K. by David MacKay, a British physicist and mathematician. The driving force for me in creating the calculator is that I think climate change is real and that it’s man made. We all need to do our part to fix this problem. Nevada runs mostly on fossil fuels and this needs to change.

And the effects of climate change are becoming more visible. Anyone who doubts that can take a walk by Lake Mead and can see that year by year, or even, month by month, the water level in the lake going down. You can see the effects. We’re breaking temperature records in Nevada and Nevada is warming faster than the rest of the world.

What is the calculator? The calculator looks at a range of four options for each supply and demand choice, with the options going from business as usual, to the maximum that we could do. For example, in the nuclear energy category on the supply choice side, the first option I provide is that we never create a nuclear power plant in Nevada, because I don’t see us building one unless public opinion changes.

What’s the next step up from that? Going from not having a nuclear power plant, to having one.

The idea is to look at what resources we have to address climate change and switch to renewables in Nevada.

How do you use the calculator? The first step is to decide what your demand is going to be so that you can determine how much supply you’re going to need. What you want to do is reduce the demand in order to minimize the problem of switching to renewables.

Having one car with one person driving is one of the most inefficient ways of moving people around. Public transport is one way to reduce emissions. Another is to electrify transport. One option in the Nevada transport category is to electrify transportation completely by 2050. But if you have to electrify everything that’s not electric, we have to build even bigger solar plants.

If we work hard enough, we can solve this problem. It’s perfectly doable.

The calculator can become a conversation starter, especially with key Nevada stakeholders, Rhee says. We can’t just say no to everything and expect climate change to solve itself.

That’s the conversation that I’m trying to get started. People are very vocal at saying no. You want a wind farm? People say no. A solar plant? People say no. That’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem. We’ve got to get people to say yes.

The idea of the calculator was to give us a tool to look at our options so we can decide politically what we can do. We have the technology to do this, but do we have the political will to do this?

How do we solve climate change? It’s a quantitative problem. You pay a utility bill in your home, and you’re charged per kilowatt-hour of energy. The only way to solve this problem, is to be quantitative.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we reduce fossil consumption to essentially zero by 2050 to avoid two degrees of warming and associated climate disruption.

Achieving the target is not do or die. Four degrees of warming is much worse than two degrees of warming, so we shouldn’t quit if we don’t quite make it.

About Rhee: Rhee works in several fields of study including cosmology, extragalactic astronomy, and sustainable energy. He teaches a class — Physics for a Better Environment —where issues surrounding climate change and renewable energy are examined. The course is offered this spring.

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