11 July 2008

Global warming: wrong and right approaches

Anthropogenic global warming is a serious danger*, and we need to be taking serious action to combat it. The problem is that the strategies which are absorbing most of our attention are precisely those which are least likely to be effective.

Nagging people about taking the bus more often and about what kind of light bulbs they're using is only going to have the most marginal, indeed negligible, effect on climate change. The car culture is an integral part of American culture. A car gets you where you're going more quickly, more conveniently, and more comfortably than any imaginable form of mass transit (or even a bicycle). Barring a totalitarian state, Americans will not reduce their driving substantially -- not substantially enough to have a real impact on global warming.

There are also a few billion people in China, India, Russia, Brazil,
et cetera who would very much like to have something like the standard of living that even poor Americans take for granted -- and they don't define that standard of living in the "correct" way that the arugula-latté, communitarian-"sustainability" set wants everyone to do. Noble self-denial doesn't even have much appeal in Appalachia or Detroit, never mind Wuhan or Uttar Pradesh. In the next couple of decades the number of cars in use worldwide will increase dramatically, and most of that increase will happen outside the Western nations.

Rather than nagging American suburbanites to reduce their real standard of living, or Indian slumdwellers to refrain from trying to improve theirs, we should be focusing on the power which has actually enabled us to solve problem after problem for more than a century: our power of technology.

First, we can have our cake and eat it too. It shouldn't be beyond human ingenuity to develop cars which equal present-day cars in performance but don't emit carbon dioxide. This could be done either by developing equally-efficient non-fossil-based fuels, or by developing batteries capable of delivering the same performance at a reasonable cost and weight (thus enabling cars to be run with energy generated in fixed power plants, whether hydroelectric or nuclear or whatever).

Second, we need to focus on developing technology to remove the accumulated carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere on a large scale. For millions of years there was a balance between the emission of carbon dioxide from the lungs of animals and its absorption by plants. This balance has been thrown hopelessly out of whack by intensive human fossil-fuel usage, and the problem is now being exacerbated by deforestation. Most of today's deforestation is going on in Third World countries; tragic though this is for a variety of reasons, there isn't anything we can realistically do to stop it, short of invading and occupying most of Africa, South America, and Indonesia and imposing conservationist policies by force, which is never going to happen in the real world. But it should not be beyond our ingenuity to develop technology capable of converting carbon dioxide back into free oxygen and sequesterable carbon, even on a huge scale. Yes, it would mean humanity taking control of our planet's climate, rather than leaving it to nature. But, in fact, we took control of the climate when we committed ourselves to the industrial revolution. The difference is that it will now be conscious control, conscious management.

Just look at the last 150 years. Inventing machines that do what we want is a lot easier than trying to force people to want things they don't really want.

Nagging people about how much they drive makes the naggers feel virtuous, but it won't work. Where global warming is concerned, we need to do what works. We owe our precious planet no less.

*If you're a denialist and feel an urge to regurgitate the usual denialist talking points in the comments, please refrain. They're debunked here, if anyone's interested; and I reserve the right to use comment moderation to avoid getting bogged down in pointless nonsense.


Blogger Mary Ellen said...

My husband is a research scientist who works on developing catalyst which give higher quality, more efficient and clean fuel for the oil companies. Right now, he is in Kyoto,Japan, after being invited to give a talk on his research. We have talked often about how it's possible to have cars that are more fuel efficient, and other forms of energy and I have to tell you, it's so disheartening when I hear about all the research that has been developed, but the oil companies bury it because it's not to their advantage to sell less fuel.

We do have the ingenuity to develop cars that can run without fuel, but until the oil companies are no longer entangled in our government, it's not going to happen.

11 July, 2008 13:53  
Blogger Rita said...

It is true, idealistic pathos in itself will not have any effect on climate change, & you are right in saying, "Where global warming is concerned, we need to do what works". On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with trying ones individual best not to exploit ones natural resources in ones own sphere of influence how ever limited it might be. Personally, I feel some individual responsibility for my environment & it is my wish to not exploit natural resources & I would like to have a positive impact on global warming as much as it is possible & reasonable & I don't feel the least bit guilty imploring (or nagging) other people to do the same. Actually, I will go so far as to say it is commendable to have this attitude,
"idealistic" as it may seem to some.

12 July, 2008 16:01  

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