Climate change

January 12, 2009

Prescription for the Planet – Part I

As foreshadowed in my previous post on Integral Fast Reactor nuclear power, I recently ordered Prescription for the Planet, by Tom Blees (subtitle: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises). Well, it’s now arrived, and I’ve set about reading through it with a careful eye for detail. After 3 chapters, I can already confidently say that it’s GREAT (don’t worry, you’ll get the pun in later posts).

Anyway, I’ve decided to review this incredibly important book on BNC in 6 parts, because there is just so much useful material for discussion and dissemination [for readers interested in variety, don’t worry; the part-book-reviews won’t all come in a sequential stream — no more than 1 or 2 per week]. This post is concerned with chapters 1-3:

– Chapter 1: A World of Hurt (pg 7-33, following a 5 page introduction)

– Chapter 2: Pie in the Sky (pg 34-109)

– Chapter 3: A Necessary Interlude (pg 111-116)

Blees has made the intro, chapter 1, and the first 2 pages of chapter 2 available for a free, appetite-whetting download, here. Here is the book’s blurb:

Solving our planet’s most pressing dilemmas requires more than simply setting goals. We need a roadmap to reach them. Technologies that work fine on a small scale cannot necessarily be ramped up to global size. Worldwide environmental and social problems require a bold vision for the future that includes feasible planet-wide solutions with all the details. Prescription for the Planet explains how a trio of little-known yet profoundly revolutionary technologies, coupled with their judicious use in an atmosphere of global cooperation, can be the springboard that carries humanity to an era beyond scarcity. And with competition for previously scarce resources no longer an issue, the main incentives for warfare will be eliminated. Explaining not only the means to solve our most pressing problems but how those solutions can painlessly lead to improving the standard of living of everyone on the planet, the lucid and provocatively written Prescription for the Planet has arrived not a moment too soon. There is something here for everyone, be they a policymaker, environmental activist, or any concerned citizen hoping for a better future.

So, what’s in the first section? The introduction talks a little about the zero-sum game played by the developed world. It goes something like this. The world, being finite, is like a pie (not a magic pudding!), whereby if you (a given nation) take more than your fair share of resources (a large slice), then there will naturally be less for everyone else (smaller slices). As Blees notes, “The lack of enthusiasm for helping to lift the poorest nations out of their misery can be traced to the nagging fear that enlarging their piece of the pie will inevitably diminish what is left for the rest of us“. But with energy, he reckons this need not be an inevitable corollary. This topic has been explored in a somewhat fanciful yet interesting way, in the comments section of an earlier BNC post on the Fermi Paradox.

Chapter 1 covers terrain that is mostly familiar to my regular readers. The world is hurting due to global warming (working up an accelerating pace), the overconsumption of natural capital, air pollution, oil shocks, deforestation and water wars. He also discusses the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation and the lingering problem of ‘nuclear waste’ — the byproduct of current-generation nuclear reactors that will remain dangerous and difficult to manage for hundreds of millennia (there is 50,000 tonnes of the stuff in the US alone). There was not a lot that was new to me in this chapter, but for those who are relatively poorly informed about the state of the sustainability emergency (all of the above constitute elements of this overarching crisis), this chapter provides an excellent primer. Blees writes with clarify and verve.

Chapter 2 takes a hard look at the potential for a range of possible low-carbon energy solutions, and ends up being similar in its approach to that of Ted Trainer (Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society). Blees includes fewer technical details and specific calculations on the limits to massively scaled up renewable energy, but (to my mind at least), he ends up being even more persuasive than Ted on the emergent conclusion: supplying most of our energy from renewable sources is NOT simply a matter of current-scale implementation x 1000 (or 1,000,000). It’s on a diminishing gains curve, and moreover, when all the hard-nosed estimates based on current implementation experience are worked through, the cost and scale of doing this are simply mind-boggling.

Blees covers carbon trading (ouch, he’s savage on this!), biofuels (not microalgal biodiesel I might add), ‘clean coal’, natural gas, energy efficiency (this gets a big +), electric cars (and who killed them), solar power (photovoltaic and thermal – a desert mirage?), wind power (with a note about subsidies), hydroelectric (not so safe),  geothermal (lots of potential but…), hydrogen (not likely or desireable), fusion power (eventually…), and current-gen nuclear fission (well, you know the story here). Some of the figures herein are real eye-openers.

It’s a huge overview, but incredibly valuable (if depressingly blunt about the limits of these options). In short, after reading this and other material, I’m now firmly in the camp of those who subscribe to the view that whilst renewable energy and related techs are going to provide a useful contribution to future energy supply, they are going to fall well short of delivering what is required if we (global society) are going to go carbon neutral (actually, carbon negative) within the next few decades, as the Earth system (and the limits of fossil energy) now clearly demands.

Read chapter 2, please. It is critical that everyone understand this information.

Then an interlude (chapter 3). A time to take a breather and look at whether it’s time for despondency (hint: it’s not), given the seemingly insurmountable climate, energy and resource challenges we face, and the starkly apparent inadequacy of renewable energy as a complete replacement package. The quote at the start of the chapter summaries the problem neatly: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” (attributed to physicist Albert Bartlett) [As someone who has spent a fair deal of their research career modelling the resource constraints imposed upon natural systems, I say amen to that!] Blees then explores the impediment to alternatives. Here is an excerpt that captures the position of the climate change denialists perfectly:

Our earth is a finite sphere, and thus it is undeniable that population must remain within some sort of limits. In a world groaning under the burden of billions of people, it is simply delusional to deny the threat that overpopulation poses to our planet. Yet even with the world’s population projected to increase 50% by mid-century, many of the world’s most influential leaders seem oblivious to the situation. This is illustrative of a general disconnect between scientific progress and the evolution of social consciousness. The advances of science seem to have outpaced humanity’s ability to adapt. Rather than encouraging people to examine pressing issues with logic and reason, an antagonistic anti-intellectualism has taken hold of many, certainly in America at least. So we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand we have the seemingly unstoppable march of science, and on the other an anachronistic mindset more suited to life in the Dark Ages...”. (Remind you of any group in particular?)

He also has a go, quite rightly, at those who are at the other extreme:

It would be deluded at best to pretend that energy conservation and self-denial are going to make a dent in this problem, yet that is about as far as some environists (environmentalists whose mental portion is substantially inoperative) are thinking. And it is every bit as foolish to believe that we can dramatically increase the world’s population while we maintain the fossil fuel power model. Self-denial is not a policy. Neither is denial…Neoluddites will have to be kicked to the curb, then hopefully most of them will be able to open their eyes to the reality and become part of the solution rather than remaining part of the problem. Likewise the fossilized thinking of the fossil fuel forever advocates must be abandoned, and not a moment too soon. Indeed, we can only hope it’s not too late“.

The above quote should not imply that Blees has dismissed the value of energy efficiency and energy conservation. They’re no-brainers, with multiple benefits — he (in chapter 2), I, and just about everyone else, agree with this. It’s just not going to deliver a solution to the climate or energy problem that is fully, or even mostly adequate, as is required.

Part II will cover chapters 4 (”Newclear Power”) and 5 (”The Fifth Element”).


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