Storming piece by Mike McCarthy, the Independent’s environment editor, in Monday’s issue of the paper, pointing out that the gap between the action that we’re taking to curb human-caused global warming and greenhouse gas emission is falling far behind the action we need to take. Our actions are on a bicycle and greenhouse emissions are in a car, and we’re pedalling uphill and into the wind.
Some of it makes for depressing reading, if you’re in the mood to be depressed. (Note it’s behind a paywall..)
this problem, potentially the gravest [that] human society has ever faced, is simply not going to be solved… We promise, but we simply cannot get a handle on [tackling climate change]. It is as if willing-minded countries and their politicians have been swept along by the war-rhetoric of fighting climate change (Tony Blair being the most egregious example), and been prepared to make the gestures, but have not really understood or been prepared to take on board the full implications. Societies everywhere seem just too wedded to dependence on carbon, especially in areas like motor transport and aviation. Programmes to cut emissions are everywhere failing.
Projects like Kyoto, wind power, wave power, solar power are just tinkering at the edges; they barely make the tiniest bite into emissions. What we really need, he points out, is a ‘Manhattan Project’ for our future energy needs: a really concentrated effort that recognises that time is not on our side, and that we need to find a solution, where the politicians simply hand over the task to the scientists and engineers and stay the hell out of it.
The first solution is obvious: fission power. Nuclear power stations make a huge contribution to our energy needs, and we know how to build them in huge numbers. Many scientists, especially those concerned about climate change, think we should focus on fission as a short-term response and phase out carbon-based forms of electricity generation as fast as possible. Yes, you can quote terrorist threats. But the threat of millions of people being displaced from their countries by rising sea levels will be a lot more inexorable than any theoretical risk from terrorists. I’m really not worried about Al-Q’aida, not nearly as much as I am about the longer-term effects of global warming and what sort of world it means we’re leaving to our children.
The second solution, which people are working on – but grossly underfunded, with insufficient political will – is fusion power. The ITER scheme is intended to create a fusion reactor, perhaps in France or in Japan, that will prove the concept. The trouble is that controlling fusion is tricky. Well, so was nuclear fission in the 1940s, but the American team managed it.
The trouble is that we have the old “frog in a saucepan” problem. Put a frog into hot water and it jumps out. Put it into lukewarm water and warm it gradually, and it lets itself be boiled alive.
I’m also reminded of Neil Postman book I read years ago called “Amusing Ourselves To Death”. It was a long polemic about how US TV had turned into absolute crap, not reporting real news and instead focussing on trivia that would attract attention, yet mean nothing.
That was published, as I recall, 30-odd years ago. It’s just as true now; but the infection has spread across the Atlantic too. It’s made even worse by mendacious idiots who wouldn’t know a scientific proof if it ran over their foot, but have a platform with huge leverage on government actions.
Sure, I’m guilty too of not doing enough, and of getting distracted by trivia. (Hell, look at the content of this blog.) Then again I don’t take many plane trips, don’t travel far by car, recycle where I can. But the point is that this is, to reiterate, just tinkering at the edges. We really need a concerted effort, throwing serious resources behind an attempt to solve the gap between clean energy supply and all energy demand. Fusion and fission are the only ones that have the slightest chance – unless something like zero-point energy turns out to be useful. So, two Manhattan Projects, in competition.