My Pragmatic Take on Global Warming

Let me start off by saying I believe global warming to be true. I don’t care who sent what email about fudging the numbers in one report. I don’t care about statisticians fiddling with their data for dramatic effect during Al Gore’s power point presentations. I understand enough science to agree that greenhouse gases capture more of the sun’s energy. I also understand enough history to know humanity has had a profound impact on our planet.

Did you ever wonder why Iraq was once called the Fertile Crescent? Because ten thousand years ago it wasn’t a desert. Primitive agriculture ruined the top soil. That, and it was an area vulnerable to desertification.

Why does Lebanon revere cedar trees? Because it used to have forests of them like the redwoods of California. The Phoenician galleys made out of those timber sailed as far as Britain, and even circumnavigated Africa under Egyptian orders. Those forests are gone now. So are the forests of Northern Europe. So are the great White Pine and Red Pine forests of Canada. We’re doing it today with the rain forests.

Acid rain poisoned lakes all over the world. DDT pesticide got into the food chain, and it’s taken decades to get out. CFCs burned a hole in the ozone layer. The fallout from Chernobyl circled the Earth. We’ve swept the oceans clean of most fish. Tuna and cod are approaching a point of no return. When you see all those ways we have devastated the planet, how can anyone say that our cars and power plants aren’t capable of putting enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to change the way the world works?

BUT
I must also admit that global warming and cooling is a natural process. Our climate is not, and has never been, static. Mankind can and is aggravating the situation, but the idea that if we just scale back to the level of pollution we were putting out in 1990 worldwide we will have the climate of 1990 forever is laughable. The people who believe that just want to believe in a happy ending. Reality doesn’t always have one.

Ten thousand years ago where I’m sitting right now was under two kilometers of ice. Ten thousand years is the blink of an eye in geological terms. Earth has been much warmer and much colder than it is today. Even within recorded history we had a Medieval Warm Period that allowed agriculture in Greenland, and a Little Ice Age that saw Washington’s Army deal with snowfall in Valley Forge that even my grandparents’ home in Muskoka cannot match today.

When we talk about Global Warming as something that can be fixed, we’re deluding ourselves. That’s not to say that it isn’t something that can be dealt with. What we do has an impact throughout the world, and there are things we can do to make sure our planet continues to be able to support us without worldwide famines and dramatic population crashes. Let’s talk about those.

First let’s all agree that our reliance on fossil fuels has to end. In very simple, very practical terms, you just cannot get an infinite supply of something out of a limited resource. With better geological surveying and extraction techniques we very well might be able to sustain this current way of life for another generation or two. I can’t speak with great authority on that, but it doesn’t seem too far a stretch to say we can go on for a little while longer doing what we’re doing. It will produce more greenhouse gas and create great wealth for some undesirable governments, but it can be done. Then what?

We need to harness infinite energy sources. We need to make electricity so cheap that we give it away for free as a government service, paid for strictly through taxes to maintain and advance infrastructure rather than in a metered system. If we can make energy that cheap, then we can do just about anything without oil and coal.

Solar energy is a nice idea, and we’re getting better at it, and it will work in a lot of places where it hasn’t been tried, but it’s no silver bullet.

Wind power and tidal power are the same idea. Lots of energy can be harnessed from the wind and tides in the right places and under the right conditions, but in a lot of places you would need to keep a regular power station running to supplement and support those alternative energy sources. Does that mean we should stop? No, but it means we shouldn’t put all of our eggs into that basket.

Hydro stations on rivers and geothermal heating for houses are also good, clean ideas, and much more can be done, but, again, that’s not really the total solution.

Nuclear power has some dangers to it, and produces waste we don’t know how to deal with. I’m in favour of it in the hands of responsible governments with the money to make it safe, but it’s never going to be a worldwide long-term solution, if only because then we’re relying upon worldwide stocks of uranium instead of worldwide stocks of coal and petroleum. If every city in the world was powered by nuclear power, how long would our uranium stocks last? Even if it’s a century or two, that’s no better than what oil and coal has done for us, and we’ll still have to bury the radioactive waste until we figure out how to deal with it. Plus, I think a lot of nations would abuse nuclear power to create nuclear weapons.

No, the silver bullet really is fusion power. Oh, I know we’ve thrown billions into it and decades. I’m suggesting we throw billions and decades more. We’re going to get it right one day. I have no doubt about it. It will be clean and it will be limitless, and the future will both thank us for the investment and pity us for twiddling our thumbs as long as we have.

The reason we don’t have working fusion powerplants now is the same reason people don’t build particle accelerators: The science bores laymen, so politicians don’t line up behind it. Then lobbyists come in and make other options more attractive. Ethanol is the biggest joke in the Green Energy universe: It takes almost as much oil to produce as gasoline, and in the end it’s only an additive to compliment and mitigate the current problem. Even biodiesel isn’t clean and green and infinite. Yet their lobbyists are supported by tax-paying farmers who vote, so Ethanol gets the go ahead, and fusion gets thrown a small-scale experiment every decade or so somewhere in the world, and when it doesn’t work people shrug their shoulders because they never expected it to.

Global warming, whether sped up or slowed down, is going to change coastlines and spread deserts. We have to accept that. That means the miracle mankind needs is going to be desalinization technology. Right now Persian Gulf countries get their drinking water by distilling sea water using oil. They are literally burning oil to create heat to make steam out of sea water, and that steam is condensed into drinking water. In the future we’re going to need a lot more drinking water in a lot more places for both agriculture and human consumption. We need clean, renewable desalinization. Fusion power can give that to us.

We can build fusion powerplants all over the world. Fusion doesn’t produce nuclear waste, which means it also doesn’t produce plutonium for atom bombs. It has been argued that if a fusion generator ever went out of control, it would devastate the surrounding area: So does a fire at an oil refinery, or an oil tanker spill, or a coal mine explosion. The hard truth is that nothing is without risk, and the fact that fusion will be a complicated apparatus requiring careful monitoring and control to work is something to be celebrated: It’s complexity makes it safer than our current options: To work it has to be carefully monitored.

Let’s imagine we have fusion plants all over the world. Do you know how cheap electricity will be? Everything will run on electricity: Cars, planes, trains, pumps. Electricity has already revolutionized the world: Imagine what unlimited amounts of it would do. Imagine if we figure out how Tesla was transmitting electricity without power lines? Just imagine.

As long as we’re talking about the better future we will build in spite of global warming, let’s talk about aqua culture. Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean, and yet we haven’t really moved past the hunter-gatherer stage of utilizing that vastness. Oh, we’ve gotten quite good at trawling, but that’s not what I’m talking about. In Argentina and the Great Plains men saw a prairie and turned it into a pasture that has made beef something everyone expects to be able to get for next to nothing.

Why hasn’t someone figured out how to turn the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Indian Ocean into one giant aquatic ranch? We run experiments. We set up small scale operations to cultivate salmon or mussels or Mahi Mahi. That’s to compare a little girl’s vegetable garden out back to the vast wheat fields of Saskatchewan. We can feed the world a thousand times over if we can get aquaculture right. We’ve already devastated the oceans as it is: Their pristine form –if that ever existed– has now been hopelessly marred by our activities. Why not rebuild them in such a way that we get renewable, cheap, sustainable harvests of carbohydrates and protein forever?

Now let’s take a look at desertification. The Sahara is growing. People are suffering. The Great Plains of North America and the Steppes of Central Asia could easily go the same way. Climate change will alter precipitation, and if you get too many dust bowls in a row the breadbaskets of the world become just sand and dust. It can be combated, though. Cheap desalinization is a game changer. So is a knowledge of ecology. If you plant dune grasses, you cement a dune. If you plant sage brush, that dune becomes a hill. Do it to the next dune, and the next. We have the science already. We lack the will, because we lack the necessity.

The future is coming. Global Warming is a real thing, which, ironically, might even lead to another Ice Age if the models about what happens to the Gulf Stream when the Greenland Ice Sheet melts are accurate. The fact is, there is going to be some changes. We have to deal with them, but I do not despair in that knowledge. No one is saying the planet is going to be uninhabitable. It will just be different. We have the tools to shape that world into a better place, and for those who say that’s wrong, I would point out we’ve been wrong for thousands of years now. It’s a fact. We already do it. Let’s get organized.

Fusion power is the silver bullet. Figure out that, and everything else will become easier. They’re talking about emission reductions in Cophenhagen right now, and I’m all for it. It’s a good exercise in governments getting together to solve world problems. My fear is that they’re concentrating too much on an unattainable past, and not enough on the future.

Cutting our emissions won’t save us from the fact that our climate is a fickle beast. It just means we’ll have less to do with its mood. We should be getting ready for what’s coming at the same time that we try to mend our fences.

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2 Responses to My Pragmatic Take on Global Warming

  1. Salem says:

    The points on Iraq and Lebanon made me think of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. If you haven’t already read it, might be something you’d enjoy. Was the basis of the Massey Lectures a couple of years ago and I reviewed it for Literary Review of Canada.

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