Triumph of the tree huggers

Triumph of the tree-huggersOne can't help being astonished at how the climate’s changed on global warming in the past six months. It’s gone from an idea which may have some future relevance to something which is already happening around us; from a topic for tree huggers to one of significant electoral importance; from something warranting a small, somewhat irrelevant, government office to an issue capable of consuming billions of dollars and occupying whole ministries.

That change is not only happening in Australia. All over the world, governments are having epiphanies over climate change. In Australia, it’s the long drought in the south-east highlighted by bushfires of terrifying intensity. In India, there have been problems with the monsoon; in China dust storms and air pollution. In North America, freakish warm weather in winter and a hurricane of devastating force. In Europe, the hottest ever summers, floods and a winter storm powerful enough to shut down the German rail network.

Even though events of similar intensity have occurred in the past, the panoply of such happenings, one after another, gives people the impression that somehow things have changed. And the most obvious explanation is that a rise in the planet’s average temperature is affecting the frequency of extreme events.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that these happenings are exposing just how little we know of the intricate physical, chemical and biological relationships which govern our world. Take the melting of the polar ice caps. It’s happening at more than double the predicted rate, US researchers have found. The glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland are marching into the sea faster than forecast because nobody had taken account of the fact that melting ice could create a film of water underneath the river of ice to lubricate its progress.

Clearly, global warming is capable of throwing up unexpected results. The problem is that we have enormous resources invested in cites, agriculture, communications, transport corridors, recreational facilities and the like, all of it predicated on our climate staying the same as it has for centuries.

So what do we do? There appear to be two basic strategies. One is to try to stem the tide by dealing with the cause of the problem and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is the Kyoto approach based around greater efficiency of energy use, employing renewable and carbon-free technologies and fitting in with nature. The other strategy is to do what has proved so successful in the past—use technology to reshape the world to our own ends and alleviate the difficulties caused by climate. One problem with this latter course is that we don’t yet know enough about the way the world works to be sure of success.

The conservative governments of the US and Australia have tended towards the technological fix, because they view it as the least disruptive to life as they know it. After all, both countries have grown their economies on cheap energy and rampant consumerism.

And so the Howard government has initiated exploration of nuclear power and the capture and storage of carbon emissions as significant policy items, and the US is beginning to talk of giant mirrors in space to limit incoming sunlight. But these responses may well be outflanked.

Triumph of the tree-huggersWorking with nature is likely to be the quicker and more flexible response. As the chief scientist, Jim Peacock, pointed out, one the weaknesses of the Switkowski report on uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy is its optimistic 10 to 15-year estimate of how long it would take to build the first nuclear power plants in Australia. Realistically, Peacock argues, we don’t have the trained workforce and institutions to do things that quickly. And as this summer’s water crisis has shown, time is not on our side.

In contrast, energy efficiency can make an important difference, in some cases almost instantly, and certainly within a couple of years. Small-scale decentralised renewable technologies can be adding to our power supply pretty quickly too. It is already the case that more electricity is produced worldwide from renewable sources than from nuclear power. The concern is that the large amounts of capital that would be gobbled up in establishing a nuclear power industry may preclude development of cleaner and cheaper alternatives.

Coping with climate change is likely to demand a judicious mix of working with nature and technological fixes. As Brad Page, the CEO of the Energy Supply Association of Australia, remarked recently, no single technology can deliver all the answers needed. It’s about time the Australian government started being a bit more even-handed in its consideration of, and investment in, the solutions.



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