Monday, March 8, 2010
The Global Warming Debate
Sunflowers near Chimoio in Mozambique. A perfect example of how to make energy from the sun.
That there is a debate about the nature and severity of Global Warming is good. It keeps everyone on their toes, and makes sure that issues and discrepancies are dealt with as they come up. That is is dominated on one side by pseudo-science, factions that are supported by shadowy "research groups" funded by oil companies, and marginal right-wing proponents that shout loudly with few scientific facts is irrelevant. This debate needs to be played out in the public sphere and mind. Sadly, the whole point of the debate sometimes gets lost.
The main questions seem to be, are humans having an impact on the Earth's climate? Even from some of the more denialist camps, there is some acceptance that this is so. If you fart in a room too much, it does get a bit smelly. It is a direct human impact on the environment. So everyone can agree that at least on this very personal level direct impacts are not just possible but to be expected.
So, by throwing out billions of tons of pollutants like carbon dioxide and that oh-so-smelly gas methane, and cutting down the forests that remove these pollutants, most kindergarten classes would grasp the idea that we are indeed having an impact on our closed system (a much larger room, but finite still). The question is then, what impact are we having, and what impacts can we possibly avoid?
The Earth is a very complex system. Predicting the weather is only about 72% accurate, and that is on a day-to-day basis. A committed reader of this blog may have noticed that I have always stayed away from the term Global Warming, preferring the term Climate Change.
Some of the loudest denialist arguments come from people who suggest that change is the norm for our climate, so why bother changing our behavior? For the last ten thousand years, called the Holocene period, the Earth's crazy climactic behaviour mollified, and has remained within certain parameters that have allowed a stable climate, and many would suggest that it is this stability that allowed our civilization to develop. Before this short little period, things were rather unsavoury. Ice ages, mega-storms and floods, oceans rising and falling, droughts, -pretty much every one of them would spell doom for our way of life. So that sort of change should really be avoided.
So we have gotten a reprieve. So what has made our current system so stable? The truth is we don't know. What we do know is that with the loss of arctic sea ice, the melting of Greenland and other well-documented facts, things are headed for a change. Did we cause this? Scientists, thousands of them, believe we have had a hand in it. Do you need to prove that you can smell up a room?
Climate campaigners have proven that the Earth's climate is changing, and fought from a fringe movement in the 1970s and 80s. They have sharpened their tools by fighting congressmen like James Inhofe. He loves to burst the bubble of the climate change debate, but it's hard to take a man seriously who, according to PBS, has taken more than $572,000 in campaign contributions from big oil companies. That is more than most spokespeople get paid.
I am sure genuine believers exist on both sides, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, changing our behaviour to account for our role in climate change is pretty reasonable even if climate change is not the huge bugbear that many of us believe it to be.
Stop CO2 and other pollutants getting into the atmosphere, use fancy new technology to generate power, plant trees to help clean the air, make cleaner running cars so our kids have better air to breathe and our cities are not health hazards. These are do-able and when scaled up, create a lot of high-end jobs for an economy like the United Sates'. Our kids would be happier, and history will judge us well. Critics say it will cost money. Investing in our better future seems to be money well spent.
The downside of doing nothing, is not sustainable, and I don't mean just environmentally. Our ability to produce food and continue to live at the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to will both diminish. As we run out of oil, and we have not created these very green solutions to replace our energy needs, prices will go up, economies will suffer. Gradually at first. It could be called a recession. But a return to previous prosperity will not happen. My friend Paolo Bacigalupi, a futurist who's book The Windup Girl was chosen last year by Time Magazine as one of the best book of the year calls it a "Contraction". Business as usual becomes like a funeral dirge, driven by buy-out politics supported by the stranglehold of big energy companies and the politicians in their pockets.
The world is changing, China is rising, at the expense of her environment and politics. The only way the western world can succeed in stopping a contraction is to counter with another expansion. It makes health sense, it makes business sense, and it may even help slow Global Climate Change.
If some of the more dire climate predictions are right, a hollow "I told you so" by scientists and researchers will not cut it, but if they are wrong, and we have made a transition out of our coal and oil powered world, energizing our economy while finding a way to live in balance with our planet, then we all win.
Last week I was sitting with some friends who work in sustainable agriculture and green fuels. They were approached by an American industrialist, who is ready to spend one billion dollars supporting green industries like theirs. He made his money is gas and oil in the USA, and over drinks they asked him why he was changing his tack. "I am tired of my young daughter telling me what a big ugly polluter I am, how I am part of the problem, I have to get her off my back!". We are borrowing this place from our kids, and arguments about Global Warming aside, it's time we started acting like it.