The following chart from http://www.agorafinancial.com/5min/ is worth several thousand words. The control of our energy future is now out of our hands (with combustion based sources) but can come back into our hands with increased nuclear and alternative energy sources. The "Third World" has become the leading demand driver for energy. This lead is likely to expand dramatically in the coming decade. In this situation the energy producer will be king; the energy importer will be the serf.
I know some will say that we control our energy destiny if we use more coal, but can we live with the air pollution or the cost of cleaning up the emissions? And natural gas has a limited time horizon between a couple and several decades. Hopefully the sun will shine forever, winds will always blow (although wind patterns may be changing), the tides will always flow, gravity will continue to operate and geothermal sources will remain virtually inexhaustible.
An article by Keith Johnson in the Wall Street Journal June 22 discusses the high cost and limited effectiveness of efforts to get "clean" coal facilities. (http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/06/19/cleaner-coal-fixing-existing-plants-is-crucial-mit-says/) A recent symposium on the subject at MIT addressed the problem. From the WSJ article:
"That (burning coal cleanly) might just be doable, but won’t be a slam dunk. The economics are still miserable. Retrofitting existing coal plants is at least as costly—if not more—than building new ones. No government has yet worked out just how to store carbon dioxide once it’s been captured."
There are those who will say that proves we can't afford to clean up the coal burning process because our economy is too fragile. There are those who will say we can't afford to burn coal in the way we have because the environment (and our future living conditions) are too fragile. I am in the camp that believes we will not have a more robust economic future, as well as a healthier population, unless we move away from combustion based energy production. This will not happen overnight, but it must get well underway in the coming decade.
In a related news item, a recent article in Business Week (sorry, my link no longer works) discusses the problems of patents interfering with innovation in new energy source development if new discoveries are not shared. If energy innovations are not developed because they offer no short-term advantage to the patent owner, the longer term benefit may be lost. I'm thinking particularly of alternative energy patents acquired by oil companies who do not pursue implementation because they can get a better return over the next one or two years by not investing in the new technology.
There is also a problem, more easily solved, with patents held by smaller companies with insufficient capital resources to pursue implementation.
Just to keep the debate open, how about a new Norwegian report that indicates that particulates in the atmosphere may have a greater cooling effect on the atmosphere (and hence the earth) than previously recognized. According to this report, "tougher pollution laws might lead to faster global warming than expected by the UN panel of climate scientists." The report suggests that if particulate pollutants decline sufficiently, the heating effects could be greater than the reduced effects from lowering carbon dioxide.