Thursday, March 6, 2014

The most important thing right now

The most important thing right now isn't the crisis in Ukraine, or the less alarming but still heated culture wars raging seemingly everywhere.

The most important thing for humanity right now is to figure out how to power civilization without killing ourselves.

"How to Talk about Climate Change", by Stephanie Bernhard, is a 3-part series of essays in Full Stop; I've only read part 1. Bernhard usefully points out that scientists aren't always adept communicators and that professional writers have an important role to play in the ongoing battle over whether to do anything about climate change. (I find it deeply discouraging that we still have to have that discussion, but we are where we are.) She also breaks down the pros and cons of the blame game, a game which in my opinion is a regrettable sideshow except to the extent that we must understand that our industrial civilization is a major contributor to our problem.

And that brings me to the only reason I mention her piece, which doesn't say anything new (to me). Bernhard offhandedly notes that one major obstacle to getting the general public engaged with climate change is that there's still not much of a solution available to us. What we're asked to do is less of what we do, yet what we do (in terms of consuming fossil fuels) is essential to modern life. We can't — or rather, we won't — go back to a 16th- or 17th-century standard of living.

So my point is this: those of you working on a renewable and non-polluting replacement for oil are doing the most important work on Earth right now.

Why oil, rather than coal? Because coal is primarily used in buildings — factories and power plants — that can be fitted (at some expense, admittedly) with scrubbers and other existing technologies to reduce its impact. Also, coal-fired power plants can be replaced by other, less- or non-polluting power sources like natural gas or wind. Some combination of these mitigating steps can address many of the problems coal presents.

Oil, though, is a different matter. Oil fuels our vehicles, from scooters to supertankers, and to date we have found nothing that matches oil's concentrated power. Battery-powered cars are all well and good, but battery technology creates its own set of environmental challenges in manufacturing and disposal (much like nuclear power). Also, nobody claims to be close to developing an electric jumbo jet or cargo ship.

No, in the long run — indeed, for there to be a long run for humanity — we need a renewable, non-polluting replacement for oil. It probably won't combust in the way fossil fuels do: I don't see how traditional combustion of anything can be continued on a mass scale if we're to reduce our contribution to climate change. However, the replacement will pack the concentrated power of oil so that we can continue to support our global trading and travel patterns, patterns that are indispensable to civilization.

(My guess is, we're going to have to expend huge amounts of energy to mitigate climate change's effects on our cities anyway, so we'd better get good at generating lots of it.)

The transition to a non-fossil fuel-based infrastructure will be expensive and complex. Well, guess what? Our standard of living is neither cheap nor simple. If we want to preserve it, we're going to have to bite the bullet.

Those of you working on this problem, keep at it. Demand as much support as you need. We need you to succeed.

Without a clean, renewable way to power our vehicles (and everything else), we can kiss our civilization — and perhaps ourselves — goodbye.

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