The basic understanding of global warming is quite old and uncontroversial. While CO2’s relative warming is lower than water vapor, its persistence within the atmosphere due to the carbon cycle means that it behaves as a forcing rather than a feedback. Human economic activity overwhelms the natural cycle by about 80 times, leading to a significant thickening of the GHG insulating blanket- much like the insulation in the roof of a home. Increased insulation increases the energy retained by the climate system, which in turn implies an average global temperature increase. This is not in the least controversial within scientific community.
The problems arise when we try to discuss how to respond to this problem. Maintaining our economy, which sustains our quality of life, is critical, but our reliance on fossil fuels is failing us. We are currently in a precarious transition to unconventional fossil resources, which entails a significant cost increase, and consequently a lowering of available energy. This loss of wealth is being felt by everyone around the globe, whether it is the stuttering of investor markets or the nations that have already plunged into darkness. Hope in renewable technologies is misplaced due to their intermittency and low energy density, which only gets worse as they are scaled. On a large scale, the effective power density of wind turbine farms appears to struggle just above 1 watt/m^2. Solar also looks to have problems encountering resource limitations beyond 1 TWe. Intermittency requires redundancy in energy farms and transmission, not to mention storage on the scale of gigawatt-weeks. These kinds of “solutions” are not: economic, environmentally responsible, or sustainable. Efforts to promote this type of technology as a viable response to global warming is in equal parts tragedy and farce, and I think this accounts for the “proxy battle” that is occurring within our culture over the scientific legitimacy of global warming.
We cannot solve the emission problem without a technological solution that improves the economy. There remains quite a bit of hope in nuclear energy as development of this technology has largely stalled for the past few decades. There are efforts underway to bring about a renaissance, but public support is required. Currently, one of the most promising designs solves the problem with decay heat and drastically improves the economics with high quality process heat. It is felt that if a machine like the Integrated Molten Salt Reactor were mass produced, it would drastically drive down energy costs:
Of course, improving tar sands production will lower emissions, but it is still carbon-positive. It has been suggested within the scientific community that this type of machine would be suitable for ammonia synthesis on a large scale, which, if coupled with a direct ammonia fuel cell, has the potential to revolutionize transportation.