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Some Americans want to address a fundamental problem in fighting climate change. It's the problem of how to imagine solutions vast enough to make a difference. It is easy to dismiss almost any climate plan as too small or unworkable. Some experts are trying to think bigger about the future, as we will hear over the next few days from NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I went looking for people who mapped out this zero-carbon world, and I found them in Silicon Valley.
This is quite a beautiful spot.
SILA KILICCOTE: It is OK. Hi.
CHARLES: Good to meet you. Dan Charles.
KILICCOTE: Good to meet you too.
CHARLES: Sila Kiliccote is an engineer. From her back deck high in the hills, you look out over Cupertino, Calif. Through the mist, you can sometimes see Apple's big, circular headquarters. It is a long way from Istanbul in Turkey, where she grew up. It's a great place to dream the future.
KILICCOTE: Let's go in.
CHARLES: Sure. Sounds good.
KILICCOTE: And maybe you'd like some coffee.
CHARLES: Her coffee machine is powered by solar panels on the roof. So is her laptop, her Wi-Fi.
KILICCOTE: Everything's on electricity in this house most of the time.
CHARLES: Electricity from renewable sources. It's here, and it is the key to the future. Last year, Kiliccote quit her job at Stanford University and launched a startup, eIQ Mobility, helping companies electrify entire fleets of vehicles, like delivery vans.
KILICCOTE: In order to have impact, timely impact, I figured that I need to leave the research and really focus on impactful things that I want to do, and fast.
CHARLES: It has to happen really fast. Scientists say to keep climate change from getting really bad, the world has to bring greenhouse emissions practically to zero by 2050 - to zero. It is a giant leap, but Sila Kiliccote and I are going to take that leap. With her solar panels on the roof, her electric car in the garage, we start imagining that it is 2050, and it's really happened. We've stopped climate change.
Any sense of how we did it?
CHARLES: Siliccote (ph) says we electrified everything. Electric cars came first. That was actually pretty easy.
KILICCOTE: By 2025, the battery technology got cheaper.
CHARLES: Electric cars were no longer more expensive.
KILICCOTE: At that point, there was a massive shift to electric vehicles because they were quieter, and they were cleaner and less maintenance costs. No oil change - yippee, you know?
CHARLES: Heating and cooling in homes and office buildings went electric. People ripped out their gas furnaces, replaced them with heat pumps. So of course, we needed way more electricity right when we were shutting down the power plants that burned gas and coal. Replacing them took a huge expansion of solar and wind farms. Today, in 2050, they cover millions of acres, 10 times more than back in 2019.
This happened all over the world. Huge transmission lines now carry power back and forth between North and South America. Europe is connected to solar installations in the Sahara, which means sub-Saharan Africa now has cheap power for the first time.
KILICCOTE: It just changed Africa, actually fueled the economies in Africa.
CHARLES: And we store that electricity so it's always there when we need it with batteries and lots of other things too. Cities use extra power to heat up giant tanks of water that heat buildings later. Down in the valley at Stanford University, the director of the university's Climate and Energy Project, Sally Benson, is so ready to imagine this world of 2050, it's a little startling.
SALLY BENSON: I regularly take a helicopter, electric helicopter, from here to San Francisco.
CHARLES: You can run a helicopter on batteries?
BENSON: Oh, yes. Yes, of - oh, God, that happened such a long time ago. Yeah, that happened in the '30s. Yeah, that was great.
CHARLES: She means the 2030s. Like I said, she's in total future mode. But she says, even in this all-electric world, there were some holdouts, things that were hard to electrify. Some big steel and cement plants still are burning coal and natural gas. But they also had to build new plants that capture carbon dioxide from their furnaces and put it back underground.
BENSON: We just kind of had to bite the bullet and said, OK, if you're making cement or steel, you're capturing and sequestering that CO2. In some cases, we actually had to say, we're not going to make those things here anymore.
CHARLES: Big long-distance freight trucks were another problem.
BENSON: They're really heavy, and batteries are really heavy. And if you have to put a whole bunch of batteries on a truck, it's going to be inefficient.
CHARLES: Here, I have to admit this picture of a world without climate change does get a little fuzzy. Different people see slightly different things. Some people see electric highways with wires running overhead and trucks tapping into the power in those wires the way electric trains do.
Others see trucks running on hydrogen fuel. We make the hydrogen using solar power. But Sally Benson says really the hardest part of this journey was not finding technical solutions. They existed. The hardest part was handling the social disruption.
BENSON: The transformations required were so profound that it really needed to be a collective effort.
CHARLES: Entire industries died. Others were born. People didn't know what would happen. They were scared. The change only happened when people were convinced they weren't getting ignored and left behind. It was the political challenge of a generation. Now, in 2050, there is a sense of accomplishment.
Are there children who look around at all the old buildings and say, what are those things they call chimneys? What were they for?
BENSON: They do. You know, it's like a historical artifact. But, you know, they find it very touching. They are really appreciative because they're living in a world where they don't need to worry about climate change anymore.
CHARLES: It wasn't easy, and it wasn't free, Benson says. But it was absolutely worth it. The air is so much cleaner. Cities are quieter. And we're not heating up the planet anymore. Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIFTY EARTH'S "PINECREST")
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