Sunday, October 25, 2009

Windmills and polar bears

Kate and I went for a hike in the woods today. We saw big lizards and turtles and managed to avoid snakes. I don’t like walking but I love forests. Here's Kate, she likes them too.

And check this out. I think there might be something scary behind this tree.

I’ve got a lot to do these days but I try stay up to date on ‘environmental-stuff’ when I can. I now hear that all of the ice on the top half of the world will be gone in ten years. Polar bears will be out of luck I suppose. At the very least, they will be uncomfortable. I mean… it's not like they eat ice. They probably do a little, I don’t know if I could survive without ice cream.

There’s a new book called Superfreakonomics that sequels one of my favourites from a few years ago (Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner). The reviews are really, really bad. Apparently, in one chapter the authors express skepticism about human causes of global warming and argue that emissions trading schemes and CO2 reduction goals set at the international meetings like Kyoto wouldn’t be useful anyway. Best of luck with that one gentlemen. You’re out on a lonely ledge now and you should appreciate the support you receive from the coal and oil lobby because you won’t get much from the rest of us.

I saw Al Gore do his thing and I’ve read We Are the Weather Makers by Tim Flannery – and I’m sold on the fact that the experts are united on this one: you and I, dear blog reader, are tossing a lot of carbon up there and we are changing global climate. I doubt a few pages in Superfreakonomics will change many minds about that fact but who really cares in light of the fact that we can’t stop changing the climate anyway. Knowing about it, or believing it, makes little difference unless you happen to have six hundred thousand windmills and a million square miles of solar panels lying around somewhere that you're not using.

Do you ever wonder if the future climate will be better or worse for humanity? You can correct me if you want, but I don’t believe there is anyone qualified to answer that question. Most people, once they reach a certain age, are pretty frightened of change. It’s not natural. We like the comfort and security of repetition. But Earth’s land is mostly in the northern hemisphere and much of it is too cold for farming. Perhaps, in a few hundred years, useful land gained due to warming will outweigh land lost due to warming. And who knows what countries will benefit and where future borders will be drawn, they have certainly changed a lot in the last few hundred yeas. There's also the spooky possibility of a sudden shift to a human-induced ice-age. The climate is kind of 'complicated' and a bit unpredictable you see, and we don't get a practice try. An ice-age would be very, very bad for everybody.

But why speculate about temperature and the unknown future when we can consider energy consumption and the unknown present? I would love to know just how much total energy we use on Earth yearly? Just one simple number please - I like numbers. And how much of that energy comes from non-renewable sources? Transportation, electricity, heat - oil, coal, natural gas, uranium - right? Some places use a lot of hydroelectricity and wind. But our little home-rock will run out of oil, coal, natural gas, and even uranium at some point. And then we’re on our own aren’t we? I wonder what that world will be like. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear an educated forecast about whether there is even enough ‘potential’ energy available from wind, solar, geothermal etc. to theoretically sustain a decent standard of living for 8 or 9 billion people (or whatever we max out at) once we have drained our planet of carbon fuel. Now that’s a question worth answering.

And by ‘decent standard of living’ I mean worse than Donald Trump but better than today’s Bangladesh average. ‘Decent’ to me means that you can work and earn enough to eat well, sleep comfortably, travel a little bit, and get some enjoyment and experiences in life. I know much of the world is well below this standard today, but I wonder if it is even feasible, in some distant future, for everyone to live above it in a world that isn’t relying on 'temporary' fuel? In the long run, we can’t avoid learning the answer to that question. Actually I’m setting you up here - I’m happy to tell you that someone has already answered it - there is an AWESOME BOOK by David MacKay called ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’. I’d give him a prize just for the witty title - well done! And apparently the author doesn’t need money because he has made the book available online and has granted permission for anyone to use or reproduce all of the amazing figures and schemes wherever we want. Take a look ( It’s not the kind of thing you will want to read in detail front to back, but I skimmed the whole thing in one sitting… I just couldn’t stop.

The format is so simple. He stacks up our energy consumption compares it with a stack of conceivable sustainable energy production. The result looks something like this:

I recommend this book big time.

In any case, the transition away form carbon fuel is ongoing and will continue throughout my life and much longer. Wind farms and solar panels are going up in many countries, bio-ethanol production technology is improving, efficient and electric vehicles and energy efficient homes and products are starting to pop up at a good rate. I find all of this very cool. It is one of the few aspects of the world today (and in recent history) that I think we can all be proud of. Obviously it’s not happening fast enough, and the transition will suck for many people… but I still think there is reason for optimism.

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