I readily confess I’m not a scientist and I used to sit carefully behind the most vocal disbelievers but, having spent the best part of two years travelling the globe, I’ve seen it for myself
For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert: March in the UK had the lowest average temperature for over a century, yet we are still told that the threat of climate change is a real one.
On the one hand, some experts claim that the planet is under sentence of death unless we urgently address the devastating risks of climate change; on the other, other experts claim that we are in an inter-glacial period that started 20,000 years ago.
But there is no doubt in my mind that the earth is warming up. I readily confess I’m not a scientist and I used to sit carefully behind the most vocal disbelievers but, having spent the best part of two years travelling the globe, I’ve seen it for myself.
It wasn’t as if I was looking for it either, but quite by chance I came into contact with many of the great glaciers of the world in five of the continents and only one, the Petit Moreno Glacier in Argentina, wasn’t shrinking. You don’t need to be a climate scientist to appreciate that ice melts when warmed up.
Perhaps more pertinently, glacial ice is far denser than the stuff you create in your freezer (one cubic metre weighs one ton): even a small chunk of it would keep your whiskey cool all night. This also means it takes glacial ice longer to disappear than we might imagine. Therefore, its gradual disappearance is all the more significant. The scars that are left behind in rock that was once cloaked in the frozen grip of a glacier are the strongest evidence that global warming is a phenomenon that cannot be dismissed.
Scars like fingers
For us Europeans these scars can most easily be seen in the Alps where a walk around Mont Blanc reveals grey fingers, like skeletal bones, hewn into the mountainsides above which can be seen the retreating remains of glacial ice.
For those living in La Paz, the lofty capital of Bolivia, the problem is even starker. The city has been living off the water from the Andean Glacier since inception but with the vanishing ice it is predicted that the 2 million inhabitants will run out of water in the next twenty years. Above the city, the Chacaltaya Glacier, which used to be a popular ski area, has almost vanished. The situation is dire. While President Morales blames it all on the imperialist Americans, the mayor of La Paz is busy trying to move people out of the city.
Pictured below: The retreating ice and snow on the Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia
Further south, the Western Antarctic Ice is also disappearing; the difference between the ice lost each year and the ice replaced is now 60 per cent. If you’ll pardon having numbers thrown at you, there has been a 75 per cent increase in the loss of the Antarctic ice in the years 1996 to 2006 and since 1958 the ice has warmed by 2.4C.
The unacceptable pretence
There are plenty of other examples of course but, having seen these phenomena with my own eyes, I find it downright uncomfortable, if not unacceptable, to pretend that global warming isn’t happening. And don’t take my word for it: go see for yourself, talk to the locals, listen to their stories and I’m sure you will come to the same conclusion.
So, the question becomes, What should we do about it? For a start we should accept that the current approach has failed. First, the (modest) Kyoto targets have been missed; second, green taxes are bad for the economy and turn everyone away from supporting climate change policies; and third, green energy is too expensive and currently doesn’t deliver.
However, it is to this green energy that we need to turn for the future. The idea, according to Bjorn Lomborg, an environmental economist, isn’t to make fossil fuel so expensive that nobody wants them but to make green energy so cheap that everyone uses it. The prize for success is significant because, as their economies expand strongly, the developing world is expected to produce more than 80 per cent of global carbon emissions, driving them to a level that will make the traditional economies look like saints.
Not easy, not cheap, but necessary
Putting our investment and focus into research and development for green energy won’t be easy and won’t be cheap but it won’t cost as much as we are paying right now. At the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, a panel of economists suggested that green energy R&D should be increased to $10 billion per year globally. The UK commitment for this would be $5 billoin against a current bill of $34 billion for the EU climate policies.
We know that R&D can work as the US breakthrough with shale gas clearly demonstrates. About $10 billion has been spent on innovation to make fracking an economic operation which has lead to a dramatic fall in natural gas prices and a shift away from coal as an energy source. It has also resulted in reduced US annual CO2 emissions by about 450 million tons per year – twice that achieved by the rest of the world over the last 20 years.
But the most positive outcome of this approach is that it changes the emphasis away from the negative current policies whilst accentuating positive actions for the future. It’s something we can all get behind. Additionally, one argument we can all agree on is that, at some point in the future, fossil fuels will become more expensive and will be exhausted.
So, whichever bank of experts you like to sit behind on the global warming debate (and as Mr. Feynman says, 'Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts'), cheap green energy is a no brainer. Let’s go for it.