Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

12 Responses

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  1. You know, Stephen, I agree – it’s interesting how climate change policy requires so much fine tuning for the specific target populations, but very few policy wonks use the science behind it.

    I am not a fan of nuclear energy myself, and I agree that a change in lifestyles is what we need.


    January 1, 2009 at 10:31 am

  2. I hope you are right about business no longer steering government but I’m doubtful.

    The allure of safe nuclear power will be supported by lots of folks who think we can just keep on living as we do if only we could find the magic bullet. We can’t.

    I find this similar to line of thinking that suggests that once we produce a vehicle that doesn’t pollute we’ll all be able to drive wherever and whenever we want. We can’t do that either.

    If us 20 percenters (the 20% consuming 80% of the world’s resources) don’t start lowering our expectations and living with less the result will be catastrophic.

    I have little faith that the governments of the day can make the necessary hard choices.

    Good article Stephen.


    January 1, 2009 at 12:21 pm

  3. I was born at the end of WWII and therefore was raised very frugally as people had gone through WWI then the depression then WWII and had not made much money during all these times (as far as I know soldiers weren’t paid during the wars, as when I went to the army–it was compulsory–for 2 1/2 years in the 1960s I wasn’t paid either). In the 1970s Euro countries, and some Asian ones too, did a lot to conserve energy at all cost. Unlike post-wars days it became possible to keep relatively warm in a house, for example, without spending too much money. Still frugality was a given. I worked in a building company and some of our clients had holidays homes that had been in the family for centuries, with rooms so big it would have been terribly costly to heat them the conventional way so they used radiant panels (shaped like a flat TV) that only warmed the person nearby not the whole room (as soon as you turned them off or were on the other side of the room it felt much colder). Although these clients were wealthy–they all had full time household staff in both the holiday home and their big apartment in the country capital–they were willing to put up with lower temperature outside the radiator area and dressed accordingly. Of course these radiators, when used in “average” houses with ceilings around 9-10 ft only, a living room no bigger than 15 ft by 20 ft and bedrooms no bigger than 15 ft by 15ft, gave warmth to the whole room. I was surprised not to see them when I moved to Canada and not to see instant hot water boilers, fuse boxes that control all the appliances to avoid using too much electricity at any given time etc.etc. FAST FORWARD to the 21st century. Most Euro countries have loans and grants to help both home owners and tenants–yes tenants–retrofit their homes to save as much as energy as possible. See This includes insulation of course but also solar power, geothermic power, small home-sized windmills (a relatively small tube not giant blades) and run-of-river hydro turbines that feed power straight to the home (no dam across the river needed either. In the mid-sixties the science teacher in the college I attended lived in a 18th century water mill. He installed a small turbine–about 6 ft long, 1 1/2 ft wide– in the weir once feeding the old wooden water wheel and sold the extra power to the national hydro). The national and regional governments don’t give loans and grants (or big income tax rebates) out of Christian charity but because: 1- it keeps local trades around the country employed and 2-it saves having to build giant hydro plants or nuclear ones. Apparently all Euro homes must be energy efficient by 2020 at the latest (this includes the huge number of houses built between the 1960s and the 1500s–yes 16th century– houses that cannot loose their historical character inside or out) The last part isn’t too hard, only time consuming, as even in early 20th century working class homes the tradesmen in our company couldn’t install new pipes and cables within solid stone walls and solid ceilings. We ran everything horizontally in special baseboards or moldings and vertically in special hollow posts, keeping holes through walls and ceilings to a minimum. One advantage was that repairs or renovations were easy. I think that the Canadian government can help homeowners but the loans/ grants are very modest. What family can afford to put $40-60 000 up front? and unlike European ones who run full page ads in monthly Home decor magazines it isn’t that easy to find out about Canadian programs. I will end this rambling post by saying that many Euro governments, after waving carrots in front of homeowners (loans, grants etc.) also wave a big stick by making mandatory for home owners to give a prospective buyer all the official energy reports of the home for sale.

    Red frog

    January 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

  4. Thanks for the positive news about Germany. No-energy houses are becoming more a part of people’s housebuilding plans here.

    I recently talked to a bright, thoughtful American friend who said that he wasn’t convinced cars damage the environment at all, although he admitted this was probably connected to his background

    Andy in Germany

    January 2, 2009 at 1:54 pm

  5. Sorry, Stephen, I don’t buy your logic. I usually think your posts are spot on, but this one doesn’t cut it.

    What does research into (and possible use of) these kinds of nuclear plants have to do with not changing our lifestyle? I think that you are saying that pursuing these kinds of pie in the sky technologies (and I include Carbon capture here, too) will cause us to ignore the real hard choices from that we will ave to make in the future regarding our lifestyles.

    I think the right kind of leadership will get us thinking about what we need to do regardless of whether or not we are doing this kind of research into “controversial” alternative energy sources. Only if we have this research going on, it may give us more options in 20 years.

    So, yes, I think Hanson is correct with his third point.

    However, I do agree with you that conservation should be a fourth bullet point in that list.

    Andrew Eisenberg

    January 2, 2009 at 3:34 pm

  6. I do not think we have 20 years. The IPCC forecasts have been shown to be too conservative. We must reduce output of CO2 as a matter of urgency. Some promising technologies – such a concrete that captures CO2 – will be adopted. Nuclear energy is a bit like hydrogen – always promising, never delivering. But it sucks up resources and attention. It also plays to the policy approach that says we can somehow keep our present lifestyle and economic growth strategy by switching to some new energy source. And that is downright dangerous from a wide variety of perspectives.

    It is about making choices of what sort of research needs to be done first to tackle the problems we face. And actually there are now plenty of things we can be getting on with that do not need any research. Carbon capture/sequestration and 4th generation nuclear are two I would not pick.

    Stephen Rees

    January 2, 2009 at 3:53 pm

  7. You’re right, we don’t have 20 years to wait to start doing things. We need to make big changes and big cuts in our emissions now. But what happens when we do that and 20 years have passed? What if we run out of magic tricks because we haven’t been doing enough long term research?

    “It is about making choices of what sort of research needs to be done first to tackle the problems we face.”

    That’s not how research works. IBM research, for example (and I use them only because I used to work there and know how they operate), internally works on different projects with different horizons between 5 and 25 years. Most of this is destined to fail. But, some of this is taken to market and turned into a product by a development team. IBM is always seeking to balance the horizons of all their research projects.

    Working on quantum computing does not preclude their also working on a next generation shopping cart (IBM is a biiiig company).

    I think, I hope, that what you are saying is that you disagree with Hanson’s priorities, and not that you think it is foolish to pursue this line of research at all.

    Andrew Eisenberg

    January 2, 2009 at 6:59 pm

  8. I am not against research. But nuclear research is always funded by government. Business would not touch nuclear power without huge flows of money from taxpayers, so the comparison with IBM is not appropriate. Hansen is addressing the US President elect and is talking about the use of public resources. Nuclear energy has swallowed up vast amounts of public funding – and it is time now to divert that to better energy sources and better ways to use that energy.

    Stephen Rees

    January 3, 2009 at 10:59 am

  9. Hensen is dead wrong about the 100% dividend for the carbon tax. This is what the government tried here and it failed miserable. Much better to put the money into funding solutions such as public transit.

    I just did a blog entry on this last week:

    Richard C.

    January 4, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  10. Richard’s blog entry is much more persuasive than his brief comment.

    Carbon taxes are regressive – they impact on the poor more than the rich. And the implementation of the BC carbon tax was inept- and inadequate. But unless carbon is priced we will continue to release huge amounts of CO2 – and carbon taxes seem more likely to work than cap and trade.

    My preferred tax strategy would be to make taxes bite harder on the rich and raise the levels at which tax on income starts being levied. People on low incomes, minimum wage and benefits of various kinds should not see any of it clawed back. But there also has to be a clear signal that fossil fuels cost more than renewables – and since the market does not send that signal, a tax must.

    How you spend taxes should not relate to where and how they are raised. Everything must go into a common fund and from that government decides on current priorities. This ends stupidities such as a fall in gas tax revenues hurting transit operations.

    Stephen Rees

    January 5, 2009 at 11:17 am

  11. “There’s yet another global expenditure that helps put the U.S. bailout program in perspective. In his celebrated warning on global warming, British economist Lord Nicholas Stern put the future cost of controlling climate change at $9-trillion – expressed in 2006 dollars, though expended over the next hundred years. In other words, the U.S. Federal Reserve could apparently finance the global-warming expenditures of the entire world, for the next hundred years, simply by printing precisely the same quantity of cash it has casually printed to thwart deflation in the last three months.”

    Why aren’t more people talking about the fact that our governments seem to have all the money in the world to bail out wall street and big banks, but nothing to help ordinary people and our environment?

    Thanks for your thoughtful article. I hope you will consider talking more about what a dumb idea it is to bail out the dinosauric automakers in Ontario, rather than investing in a twenty-first century energy grid and mass transport.

    Northern British Columbian

    January 5, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  12. Stephen,

    If you want to see the arguments behind Hansen’s and others’ support of nuclear power, take a look at Joseph Romm’s list of candidate technologies to hit the climate targets for stabilization at 450ppm. The argument is essentially that the changes required are radical enough that they may require both massive energy efficiency (3 “wedges” of emissions reductions) and nuclear power (1 wedge).

    I haven’t made up my own mind, but I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand.

    – David

    David Pritchard

    January 9, 2009 at 10:45 am

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