Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for January 1st, 2009

What to do next

with 12 comments

It is not often that I find myself in disagreement with one of the world’s leading experts on climate change. James Hansen has long been leading the charge – “he first spoke on the issue at congressional hearings in the 1980s. His testimony to the senate featured in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and he has received numerous honours for his work on the issue.” And he is absolutely right that responses since the 1980s have been completely inadequate.

He has now written a personal appeal to President elect Obama. He wants him to do three things

  • a moratorium and phase-out of coal-fired power stations that do not incorporate carbon capture and storage.
  • a carbon tax and 100% dividend
  • a renewed research effort into so-called fourth generation nuclear plants

There is, of course, no practical carbon capture and storage system available – and doubts whether that is even possible. But that will not be the biggest issue in getting that one through. The carbon tax he sees as effective in a way that cap and trade won’t be: I think he is also probably right about that – and I only hope that Carol James and the NDP take note of that.

It is the nuclear option that I find objectionable. Yes, it might be interesting to do some more research, and I understand why a scientist would want that done. But as a main plank of policy is utterly wrong headed, because it plays straight into the hands of those who believe that current energy consumption rates are sustainable. Nuclear is the magic bullet that will make business as usual credible as a policy option.

We have to start adjusting North American lifestyles to be sustainable. It is imperative that our consumption of the earth’s non renewable resources be slashed drastically. Policy directions that suggest we can continue to forever expand – that economic growth is not just good but essential – simply point us in a direction that will inevitably fail. And each time it does the consequences are worse.

It is now possible to build houses that do not need heating – Germany has them. There is a whole range of technologies that looked economically promising when oil was $150 a barrel that now look dubious. Of course the current drop in oil price will not be a permanent feature of the market – but it is now and that is cutting progress in reducing oil dependence. This is the result of short term fluctuations – the market is now much more volatile. But clearly prices will rise again. And the need for renewables as the best way to cut fossil fuel use is even more urgent now that we understand how badly wrong the IPCC forecasts were.

We should not be bailing out failing businesses that are based on 20th century perceptions. Any available new money should go to businesses which are based on a low or zero carbon output.  Renewable sources  should be the first place to look. There is a a major source of energy that shines down on us all the time, that drives winds and waves and we have knowledge of all kinds of methods to tap into that. Not so long ago our entire marine transportation system depended on wind energy.

But mostly we have not even started to get serious about conservation – and far too many pundits are already dismissing that as being to slow and too hard to do. But again, our health and happiness depends on us changing the way we live. Cars and suburbs are literally killing us. The three biggest health problems we face – heart disease, diabetes and obesity – are all products of over consumption and under activity. Living in places where walking is impractical as a transportation is a major problem but one we seem curiously reluctant to tackle. Most people still seem to think that owning a big house and more than one big car is something we need and have to facilitate with more freeways. Yet it is clearly the reason we are in such a pickle now. We cannot go on doing this.

Of course it is going to take time to turn this supertanker around. But one of the good things about the present situation is that the impetus to keep going in the wrong direction has already stopped. Business is no longer telling government that it knows better what is needed and should be allowed to proceed with no interference. Government can now get back to what it should have been doing – setting a direction that is different from that of an unregulated market which is only concerned about maximising profits and mostly on the short term.  James Hansen is right that climate change is the top priority. And the immediate need – to get America back to work and to start fixing some of the inherent failures of the immediate past – can also be met by concentrating on technologies that we know will work. And we must ignore the siren song of the proponents of “gee whiz” – nuclear, hydrogen and all the other techno babble. Building decent homes in livable communities that have good transit and plenty of places to walk to safely is perhaps a little less exciting in terms of sound bites and photo ops, but it is nonetheless necessary for a future that still has life on this planet.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 1, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Transportation