The debate on climate change faces a number of inherent handicaps. Human nature is perhaps the most important. At our best, we deal reasonably well with the present and the immediate future. If next Christmas seems remote, our abilities to grasp what the environment might look like ten or fifty years hence are severely limited. A limitation that is reinforced by our relative powerlessness – the “I’m happy to recycle but what about the Chinese coal-fired power stations?” argument.
A second handicap comes from the not insignificant resources some invest in promoting climate change denial. The most understandable of these come from businesses with a clear commercial interest in delaying, diluting, or derailing regulatory attempts.
Then come the (usually wealthy) benefactors who are ideologically opposed to any form of market regulation. This groups funds many of the more strident US think tanks and a range of other lobby groups whose job it is to rubbish climate change claims and scientific arguments.
Unfortunately the irresponsible, arrogant or just plain sloppy actions of some climatologists have now provided change opponents with a generous supply of potent live ammunition.
Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, is perhaps the most infamous. His unit crunched the numbers to produce the Earth’s temperature curve. Their calculations, based on temperature records dating back to the beginning of industrialisation, showed that the average global temperature has increased by nearly one degree since 1850.
In making their calculations they had to factor in various adjustments to allow for local factors. The most obvious example is that of readings from a particular weather station taken over several decades. If that station was in open countryside when it opened in 1920 but is now surrounded by buildings, that change has to be factored in to produce meaningful statistics.
This process is known as statistical “homogenisation”. Understandably when other scientists or laboratories want to review and develop such work, they need access to the homogenisation formulae used in the original. The CRU resisted or refused requests for their original calculations before being obliged to admit that they had in fact deleted them from their computer systems.
While most scientists accept the basic figures from the University of East Anglia, they cannot actually verify them, and therefore can no longer stand over them.
Last month these and other gaffes led UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to establish the InterAcademy Council, a coalition of 15 national academies of science, to review the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by this Autumn.
The UK Met Office has decided to make all its climate data freely available on-line, but it is likely to be a couple of years before this system is up and running.
If most scientists believe reviews are unlikely to alter the basic conclusion that our planet is getting warmer because of human activities, it has become painfully obvious that this has not made the task of those of us who argue for rapid and radical action on climate change any easier.
There are, however, several reasons other than climate change per se why our societies urgently need to address some of their climate-related challenges.
There are nearly 7 billion of us on our small planet and in less than 40 years we are likely to be some 9 billion.
Demographers postulate that population growth will level off around 2050, and that the global population will then gradually decline. That reassuring prediction has to be qualified by pointing out that its major basis is a hope that past human reproduction patterns will be repeated in the future. Essentially as people become wealthier, more educated and more of them live in urban areas, they tend to have fewer children.
We are, current crises apart, becoming wealthier as a species. As Chinese living standards rise, Chinese people are eating more meat, more often. The North American lifestyle of comfortable housing, personal vehicles and abundant food is the one to which many people aspire. The problem is that it would take the resources of five planets to satisfy that aspiration, and we only have one.
Feeding, housing and satisfying 9 billion people is a major challenge – given that the global population was only nudging 3 billion back in 1950. One thing we do know is that we cannot simply duplicate how we (sort of) dealt with the doubling of our planet’s population between 1950 and 2000 if we are to satisfy the needs on 9 billion in 2050.
The imminence of peak oil is spelled out in the report of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security (ITPOES) The Oil Crunch published in February 2010 www.peakoiltaskforce.net. Sometime in the next 5-10 years we will hit the maximum possible level of oil production. Oil supply will thereafter inevitably decline, perhaps gradually at first, and oil prices will inexorably rise. Already, in the midst of our current global economic recession crude oil was trading at an 18-month high of about $86 a barrel last week.
Just how we are going to significantly expand agricultural production as the price of diesel for tractors and combine harvesters and oil for fertilisers doubles and then trebles is one of the many difficult questions humanity needs to answer.
The declining oil supply will become concentrated in those activities where oil is difficult, or for the moment impossible, to replace.
Human ingenuity, political direction and market forces will all move to replace oil with other energy sources where possible. As the simplest and most profitable (at least in the short term) move for market forces would be to concentrate on coal both as a fuel in its own right and as a basis for synthetic petrol and diesel, this will have to be counterbalanced by public regulation and incentives.
Electricity is going to play an ever greater role in our energy supply mixture. Given that vehicle generations in developed economies have about a 15 year cycle, by around 2030 most of our vehicles will be either electric or largely electric with small stand-by thermal engines. Electricity is likely to supply more of our space heating, most probably via heat pumps.
This means that all developed economies are going to have to address two urgent challenges. The first is making more electricity available, and the second is distributing that electricity.
More electricity can be made available through better use of existing production and through adding production capacity. Quite where the balance will lie will depend on a range of local and national factors. France, for example, is not going to reduce its dependency on nuclear fission for 78% of its electricity needs any time soon.
The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering published Generating the Future: UK Energy Systems fit for 2050 last month (www.raeng.org.uk/gtf). The Academy places its emphasis on electricity transmission rather than on how that electricity might be generated. Its conclusions in terms of the effort and investment required if the UK is going to be capable of keeping the lights on make for sobering reading. Transmission systems, particularly smart grids, take years, if not decades, to design and build.
The Academy’s message is essentially pragmatic, but that pragmatism is quintessentially political as it states in the conclusions to the Executive Summary:
“While the market will be the vehicle for technological and business solutions… security of supply and affordability call for a more directed approach from government. This transcends political ideology: only government can facilitate and ensure delivery of the necessary infrastructure, some of which, being natural monopolies, do not respond classically to market forces. The market will not respond unless there is an appropriate long-term national plan and a framework set out by government to ensure the delivery of the necessary infrastructure in the wider context of Europe.”
Ireland desperately needs a rational and a rapid debate about a host of long-term policies and investments: electricity supply and distribution, electrification of railways, energy inter-connections with Britain and mainland Europe, together with cost/benefit and feasibility studies on a rail tunnel under the Irish Sea to link us with the proposed British high speed rail network, and onwards to mainland Europe.
Such investments could take us a long way towards developing the Irish economy, creating not just thousands of badly needed jobs, but also a pool of professionals skilled in tasks which are going to be in truly universal demand in the near future.
There is little sign of such strategic thinking in our political parties, nor indeed amongst senior officials. To have any chance of being prepared for major changes in energy realities in the next 5-30 years and to any of the likely impacts of global climate change on our island, then that debate will have to be citizen-generated.
Those of us who seek to develop such a debate need to be more careful than some climate scientists have been in the past. Our arguments need to be solid and challenging while not being alarmist.
If our message becomes one of “we are all doomed” we should not be surprised if we fail to motivate our fellow citizens because if doom is unavoidable, then why should people try to avoid it?
More rational analysis and less proselytising.
We need to act, and we need to act now.