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Carbon Blindness
Alex Steffen, 5 Oct 06

For those of us who have spent years warning that climate change is a problem of the highest magnitude, these are gratifying days. Politicians, business leaders, labor unionists, celebrities and religious figures all seem, finally, to be listening to the science and beginning to hear its meaning: we must change, dramatically, at once.

This is a Very Good Thing. At the same time, I am beginning to have misgivings about some of the debate emerging around climate change -- and perhaps not in the direction you might think.

We still have much convincing to do, and a lot of denial to brush aside, to get action commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. But that is not what is beginning to worry me. What has begun to set off my inner alarm bells is a new meme emerging from the ranks of the newly-converted: fight climate change at all costs.

Now, just in case I have to say it again: climate change is real; it is here; it is part of a looming crisis which presents a greated threat to our civilization than anything we have ever faced; and we need to act decisively and immediately to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses. It is, indeed, time to get real.

What is worrysome, though, is the idea, which one is beginning to hear all over the political map, that climate change trumps every other environmental issue, or, even more, that climate change is not an environmental issue at all. These arguments usually precede a call for some action which reduces carbon output but has other demonstrably negative environmental impacts, whether that's damming a river for hydropower, launching into a massive nuclear energy program or seeding the ocean to produce a plankton bloom.

The climate crisis we face will not be bested through the kind of thinking that got us into the problem in the first place: because, seen with any degree of rationality, the climate crisis cannot be distinguished from the overall planetary crisis of environmental degredation, massive poverty, conflict and inequity of which it is a part.

I am pro-technofix. I believe that climate change can only be contained through ingenuity and innovation. But innovating to solve the wrong problem usually fails as a strategy, and the problem we have today, I believe, is not that our climate is changing, per se, but that we have created an unsustainable civilization which is deeply instable.

Therefore our task is not just to reduce our carbon emissions, but to do it in the context of a renewed and restored international order; not just to grow a more efficient economy, but a more dynamically fair one as well; not just to stave off the worst effects of cooking the planet but to protect and promote the health of ecosystems around the world; not just to fear runaway global warming but to move strongly towards a civilization which doesn't destroy nature and people's lives to generate fleeting advantages for a tiny fraction of a percentage of the world's population. This, I am sure, is an all-or-nothing fight, because all these issues -- climate, biodiversity, population, poverty, conflict, public health, toxics, terrorism -- are all bound together and part of the same fabric.

To think otherwise is to suffer from a carbon blindness which could lead us actions which undermine the future, taken in the name of the future itself.

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In light of this post, you might find George Monbiot's recent commentary in New Scientist interesting.

He dismisses the recent trend to microgeneration of wind and solar power as being faddish and counterproductive in the long term.

I don't mind a bit of healthy criticism in the interests of 'getting it right', and Monbiot does have a few fair points, but I do feel he's protesting a bit much. What do you think?

Another area where this 'carbon blinkered' attitude is being heard is in the push to go nuclear. Far better than coal, perhaps. But is it neutral?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 5 Oct 06

The Apocalypse has Four Horsemen: climate change, habitat destruction, industrial agriculture, and poverty. Each Horseman holds a whip called Growth in his hand. None can be stopped unless all are stopped.

Posted by: David Foley on 5 Oct 06

Nice post, Alex. I totally agree.

Posted by: Jon Foley on 5 Oct 06

Nukes vs. PV+energy storage vs "clean coal" I think that'll be the battle of the future.

This much is obvious to me... though I'm afraid that even leaders like Gore have given this one up to the "clean coal" & nuke crowds.

We can't let policy makers ignore the fact that clean coal must work for 1000 years & who will police it?

And nukes last forever & fail every so often... sometimes with catastrophic consequences. If we roll it out as our clean energy solution.. be prepared to x off parts of the world, slowly but surely.

Then there is PV & Batteries. To me, obviously the energy source of the future.

But are we investing in them enough? 2007 year 148 million into PV. Thats not much at all. Not near enough.

I'd say we should focus at least 10 billion a year on cutting edge PV & storage tech. Anything less is foolish. (just the extreme notion of flooding our upper atmospher with sulver dioxide every two years... something I'm sure we'll end up doing, is going to cost 25 billion a year)


Posted by: Matt on 5 Oct 06

Matt, why do you think there is 1,000 years of coal, and that nukes will last forever?

My calculations indicate that if we aggressively replace declining petroleum with coal, and if energy use continues to grow even moderately, we're going to reach "Peak Coal" within the lifetime of today's children!

And "Peak Uranium" is not that far off, either. No one -- not even the lauded French Super Phoenix -- is re-using plutonium from fast breeders. Nuclear is, for the foreseeable future, unsustainable.

We have a budget. It's the amount of sun that falls on the earth, and the amount of minerals that are in the ground. We are using them like a college student who got hold of dad's credit card. Very soon now, we're going to be presented with a very big bill, and the bank isn't going to give us any more stored sunlight.

Posted by: Jan Steinman on 5 Oct 06

Hi Jan -

Sorry to not make myself clear. I didn't mean that we've got 1000 years of coal.

I was referring to the fact that any carbon sequestration must stay in the ground for 1000 years with a 0.1% leakage rate. If not, we've got the same problem as just burning the coal directly.

I agree... another problem with nukes & coal is that they aren't even sustainable.

Truly, when you take that into account, along with the uncertainly of carbon sequestration, and the risk of nuclear melt-down & the certainty of nuclear power plants needing to be replaced / rehauled every 50 years or so... then you come to a 100% conclusion.

The only way to power our planet is going to be from Photovoltaics & energy storage.

Plenty of us on the blogosphere understand this. & yet.. the next generation of US leaders don't see it. Gore & Clinton believe that we need "clean coal" McCain thinks we need more nukes.

Nobody is talking about serious, heavy duty PV / energy storage research.

Why are we spending so little on PV R&D?

How can we wake up decision makers to this reality?

Here is a great lecture... the best I've found so far, in describing in very real & understandable terms what situation we are in & how solar energy is really the only feasible way to generate carbon-free energy for our planet.

Posted by: Matt on 5 Oct 06

Matt - "Leaders" like Gore? Since when has Gore lead any sort of environmental policy? Certainly not when he was an elected leader. You give the man too much credit. None of his notions are his own and his track record is far from deserving of accolades.

Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 5 Oct 06

The recent "I'm a hip kid and I say coal will be clean and last forever" commercials on TV lately are really getting on my nerves. While progress is being made in the debate, you're right that there is a long road ahead to get people to change lifestyles. We've managed to get people to grasp global warming, now we have to impress on the world the ideas of Peak Oil and sustainability. There's a long road ahead.

Posted by: PeakEngineer on 6 Oct 06

I have been encouraged to see very strong statements both from MIT and Caltech on the overwhelming imortance of energy-environment- global warming as THE problem for this globe, and further, that solar, not coal, and not nuclear, is the solution.

What is a little disappointing to me is the frequent omission of two perfectly obvious facts. One- that we MUST control population-consumption- reduce and reverse growth; and two- that there are more ways to solar benefits than PV.

Engineers have a plenty of schemes to get what we want from solar energy without PV, most of them quicker and far less expensive. A few examples- solar water and space heating, solar lighting, solar thermal power, biomass, algae, and so on and on.

A key to all of this is to somehow put the FULL COST on anything we do- that is, the cost of putting the planet back to an equal or better condition after doing it.

Posted by: wimbi on 6 Oct 06

Right on, wimbi.

We have to remember that there's also only so much silicon available, and that we need it for a lot of other things besides PV. And since every technology holds challenges, foreseen and unforeseen, in scale-up as well as in technology development, we can't put all our eggs in 1 basket - diversity of approaches is key to assuring that we actually accomplish something.

And Jan, remember that PV doesn't limit us to the amount of light striking the earth's surface - it limits us to the amount of light being emitted by the sun, which might be possible to harvest using tethered PV in orbit, solar wind turbines, or a range of other options.


Posted by: Bert on 6 Oct 06

One topic that hasn't been addressed here is socio-economic. People's main motivation in life is happiness - generally we assume that increased economic wealth = increased happiness.

However, if we want to limit/change/reduce economic growth in order to ensure we have enough resources to power our world (regardless of technology - but don't forget off-shore wind) then we have to re-configure our definitions of what makes us happy.

If we can manage to define increasing happiness = "increasing quality of environment" then maybe all other things (e.g. change in lifestyle, energy use etc.) will emerge automatically from peoples changing lifestyles and priorities.

Posted by: John Kazer on 9 Oct 06


I'm with you on your main point, using diverse energy sources, and it takes a lot of energy to whip it into useful form/purity but silicon is hardly scarce...

from wikipedia: Silicon "is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust, making up 25.7% of it by mass."

PS I'm trying to "sell" an idea for saving 30% of the silicon currently used in PV panels (should bring down the cost of panels by 10-15% minimum). Anyone know people in the industry?

Posted by: disdaniel on 9 Oct 06



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