The fundamental (and somewhat existential) source of climate change – and how we might overcome it

With the news that this past July was the hottest month on earth since record keeping 140 years ago, satellite images of the Amazon and State of California burning, the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida, carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere rising again to near record levels after a brief leveling, and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s stirring call to action while staring down both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, climate change has been a hot topic in 2019. While the scientific community remains nearly 100% aligned that global warming is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, a relatively small, yet powerful, group of naysayers fights the science. Who are these very powerful people, and why do they fight? One common characteristic – they are mostly baby boomers = the generation of Americans with an insatiable appetite for consumption and a strong resistance to change.

Fig, 1 – US Household Wealth Distribution

First a disclosure – I am a boomer. Baby boomers are defined as the generation of individuals born just after the end of World War II, from 1946 through 1964. That would put us between 55 and 73 years old this year. As of 2016, this generation has over 74 million members and makes up 22.9% of the population of the United States. (Note that President Trump at 73 years old falls into this generation.). Further, I am a conservative white male, and while I don’t feel excessively wealthy, I am certainly better off than most. I own a nice home, my wife and I go on far too many vacations, we own two new cars, and we spend an inordinate amount of money on cafe lattes at Starbucks. I am a registered Republican, and, until recently, believed strongly that the fiscal conservatism and pro-market focus of the Republican Party outweighed their anachronistic social beliefs. Worse yet, I owe my standard of living to fossil fuels, having spent over 40 years working in oil and gas and power generation. I would likely not be as well off as I am today without this country’s, and this world’s, need for fossil fuel.

I do not feel guilty for where I am or how I got here. Fossil fuels have been critical for economic growth and improving the life of the average American. However, I am ready to admit that the world is changing. The damage to the planet from the burning of fossil fuels is irrefutable. Fortunately, renewable sources of energy are now viable and cost effective alternatives with new onshore wind and solar developments less expensive than running existing coal plants. How quickly America adopts these alternatives will be critical to how the world looks in the future. But change inevitably generates resistance, and the larger the change, the larger the resistance. Let’s take a look at the baby boomer generation, the group that has, or believes it has, the most to lose from this change.

Baby Boomers possess about 54% of all US household wealth and 57% of affluent household wealth (see Fig. 1), account for 42% of consumer spending, buy more cars than any other age demographic, account for 80% of all spending on luxury travel, and earn 47% of all income in the United States (see MarketingCharts,com and Basically, baby boomers control about two times the wealth in this country as compared to their percentage of the population. On the flip side, 45% of baby boomers have no retirement savings, and of the 55% who have some retirement savings 28% have less than $100,000. The bottom line – baby boomers have made and continue to make a lot of money, but spend it. And what do they like? Big cars, big houses, expensive vacations, cruises, beef, single-use packaging, etc., all of which generate a large carbon footprint. In a very interesting analogy, physicist Geoffery West points out that the average lifestyle in America (counting food, transportation, computers, air conditioning, etc) requires more watts to support than what is required by a blue whale. If baby boomers require about twice the average, we’re talking about 150 million blue whale equivalents in the US.

Demographically, baby boomers are 72% white, compared with 50% of all births last year. Politically, they are quite conservative with the difference in percentage between those identifying themselves as conservative vs liberal at approximately 23% (see Fig. 2). And Republicans are much more likely to be the naysayers mentioned above than Democrats.

Fig. 2 – Trend in Conservatives Minus Liberals

Although not a one-to-one relationship, there is certainly a correlation between “old white Republicans” who spend lots of money and deny climate change and baby boomers.

Mea culpa. What have I done to impact climate change? Not as much as I could, but I’m moving in the right direction. In addition to trying to inform the public with my OWOE website and blogs, I am professionally involved in some cutting edge technology developments to reduce the cost of renewable energy, I have traded in one gas powered vehicle for a Tesla (please see my blog), and I am contemplating installing rooftop solar panels on my house.

Now the good news. Baby boomers have a built-in sunset provision. The Paris Agreement of 2015 attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a balance by 2050 and limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 deg Celsius. Of course, by 2050 the baby boomers will lie between 86 and 104 years old. That means that the vast majority of us will be either dead or in a rest home, both of which result in a very low carbon footprint (and one of which will eventually result in some carbon returned to the earth). In fact, if you do some simple math and assume that each baby boomer will be replaced by one average next-gen consumer when he/she dies, even with no other reductions in average carbon dioxide emissions due to technology improvements or behavior, and ignore population increase, US carbon dioxide emissions will drop approximately 20% and be at about the 1970s level by 2050 (see Fig. 3). Which means that one strategy that could be very effective is simply to wait us out. OK, boomer. Couple this with a continuation of the rapid improvement in renewable energy technology and the tendency of younger generations to adopt new technologies more quickly and, maybe, humanity has a chance.

Fig.3 – Trend in US CO2 Energy Related Emissions and extrapolation for passing of baby boomers