29 May 2010
Can We Save Ourselves From Global Warming?
I went to a public lecture by Professor John Beddington who is currently Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. He was lecturing on Climate Change as a University of York Biology lecture. And yesterday he was back in London attacking climate sceptics who mistake weather for climate change and so on.
I am slowly trying to understand the science in more detail, having understood the basics since I did science way back when, plus I have even set myself out on doing an Open University degree on Environmental Science/Studies to improve my understanding of these issues. So I guess I am now an advanced layman rather than much further on than that.
So what came out for me in his lecture was not whether or not climate change or global warming exists - it does and the science is clear, even if there are gaps in getting to a total understanding on the subject. We know that quantum physics works even though there are gaps, while we know that evolution occurs and that alternative routes co-exist with it, such as horizontal gene transfer. Gaps and alternatives do not necessarily negate the core scientific theory.
What struck me were 2 slides:
- One slide on annual deployment rates for alternatives, lower carbon emission energy sources. I didn't have time to take down all the data but it did include 32 new nuclear plants per annum, 215 million m2 of solar panels annually, 3750 offshore wind turbines every year etc etc. That's just an awesome task. It chimed with some thoughts in Stewart Brand's recent book "Whole Earth Discipline".
- His final slide - which Professor Beddington called The Perfect Storm, where he stated that we must not forget that there are more scientific issues impacting environmental issues than just climate change. He said that we have the interaction of the following - population growth and a population that will peak at 8-9 billion people, increased urbanisation and the fact that most people live in cities now and this will continue to increase, a lower relative number of poor in the world which will increase levels of consumption and (finally) climate change. Once again that's a tough set of environmental drivers to deal with.
For me, this begs the question whether you can marry up the economics that building all this new energy infrastructure requires with the fact that increases in population, urban living and consumption (as a by-product of reduced relative levels of poor) will demand ever greater levels of electricity and they want it now. Also, if we need these levels of deployment, we better get a shift on and start sorting it out really, really fast.
Which brings me on to nimbyism (the not-in-my-back-yard syndrome) - how will all these new alternative power sources be put into place within the UK's current planning regime. Nuclear power - which must be in the energy mix - is hated by people near proposed plants while even near us in Melmerby in North Yorkshire, people are already campaigning against a putative wind farm nearby (it's not even got further than a bit of scoping by a possible wind energy business). If we all go around saying, we need to sort out climate change but we ain't going to let you put your wind farm or nuclear plant next to us, we will never get off first base. To get this scale of change in the energy supply for the UK, and other countries, politicians will need to become heavy-handed and force through building, while also making the financial returns more pallatable for businesses as these new forms of energy do not have acceptable short term returns, rather a very long and dull economic return. This all chimes against my own views on liberalism - personal and economic freedom.
Good luck to you all - politicians and scientists. You have my full support, but it's going to be really hard to get this all done, especially when you have so many other shorter term demands on your empty pot of money.