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University of Utah professor Tim Garrett says conservation is futile

Although he continues to ride a bike or bus to work, line-dry family clothing and use a push lawn mower, University of Utah professor Tim Garrett believes humans can't really affect climate change.

Instead, he says the Earth's course will run along a "predetermined trajectory."

He doesn't see the major cause of global warming being stabilized any other way than if the increasing flow of carbon-dioxide emissions ultimately collapses the world's economy or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day. Nuclear plants, which produce one gigawatt of continuous power, would be necessary to compensate for the increasing growth in energy consumption around the world, said Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the U.

Although it "feels good to conserve energy," he said, "there shouldn't be any pretense that it will make a difference."

These views, both radical and controversial, will be published this week in Climate Change, an online academic journal edited by renowned Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. Other research journals declined to publish Garrett's research.

Garrett believes current options to potentially avert climate change — increased energy efficiencies, reduced population growth and a switch to power sources that don't emit carbon dioxide, as well as underground storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning — are "not meaningful."

"Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic," Garrett said. "Changes in population and standard of living are only a function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option." Some economists are critical of his approach, but his solution is targeted to solve economic issues as "physics problems," looking at civilization as one big problem instead of calculating individual problems based on population growth, increasing energy efficiency and other things.

"I end up with a global economic growth model different than they have," he said. Garrett treats civilization as a "heat engine" that "consumes energy and does 'work' in the form of economic production, which then spurs it to consume more energy," he said.

"Economists think you need population and standard of living to estimate productivity," Garrett said. "In my model, all you need to know is how fast energy consumption is rising."

It's like a child who "grows by consuming food, and when the child grows, it is able to consume more food, which enables it to grow more," he said, adding that when the food supply runs short, the child will stop growing and eventually die.

"If society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming," he said, adding that it would be "too bad" if civilization pursued avenues for climate change that ultimately backfired. "Ultimately, it's not clear that policy decisions have the capacity to change the future course of civilization."