Some inconvenient truths

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GLOBAL WARMING, CAPITALISM, DEMOCRACY, AND SUSTAINABILITY
Essay by Ian Edwards, May 22, 2007

When I told a member of this group that I would be giving a talk on global warming her response was a groan and then to ask me why I couldn’t talk about Shakespeare or some other literary subject. I have preferred to talk about global warming for two reasons; firstly, I could never do justice to Shakespeare and secondly, his work constitutes no threat to the future of life on Earth whereas global warming does. Several talks have been given to meetings of the Sydney Realists on the subject. In my opinion none of them was sufficiently realistic, mainly because of their deficient understanding of the way capitalism works and their consequent failure to deal with the issue of sustainability.

An important factor in regulating the temperature of the Earth’s biosphere is the greenhouse effect of certain gases in the atmosphere which allow radiation from the sun to reach the surface of the Earth but act as insulation to prevent heat from escaping back into space. With the possible exception of water vapour, the most important of these gases, because the most abundant, is CO2, produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels. Next in importance is methane, produced by burping animals in volumes less than CO2, but, per unit weight, having a greenhouse effect 23 times greater. It is also produced in landfill by anaerobic fermentation of organic matter. The other main contributor to the greenhouse effect is nitrous oxide, a component of motor vehicle exhaust emissions. It should be said that the greenhouse effect is not wholly bad, as without it the Earth would be too cold to support life.

Since the last ice age several new factors have emerged which have changed the human situation. The first was the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago and the development of cities which made people less mobile and therefore less able to adapt to change.

Second, the population explosion, which has accelerated the rate at which the world is being polluted and its resources depleted. Homo sapiens evolved about two hundred thousand years ago. Ten thousand years ago there were probably no more than five million of us; in the year 1600, 500 million; in 1810, 1 billion; in 1930, 2 billion; in 1960 3 billion; in 1975 4 billion; in 1987, 5 billion and the population is now 6·5 billion. During the lifetime of anyone born in or before 1930 the population has more than tripled and it is still increasing.

It has been suggested that the problem of overcrowding could be solved by migrating to Mars. I don’t doubt that some people will eventually walk on Mars, as they have on the moon, but mankind has evolved to survive in the Earth’s biosphere breathing oxygen and moving under the influence of terrestrial gravity. Surely it would be easier to stabilise the population and continue to inhabit the earth.

The third new factor is the industrial revolution, which has resulted in the greatly increased consumption of fossil fuels and consequent increased emission of CO2. The generation of electricity depends predominantly on steam driven turbines powered by the burning of coal which produces large amounts of CO2 for which no proven means of disposal has yet been found. Land clearing for agricultural purposes not only removes plants, which while growing absorb CO2, but also, if burnt or allowed to decay, release it into the atmosphere, thus adding to the greenhouse effect.

Cyclical variations in the Earth’s orbit and the inclination and precession of its axis are complex. They will result in another ice age; but the immediate problems for humanity arise from global warming. The most urgent of these problems is the rising of sea levels due to the melting of snow and ice. Since the arrival of Homo sapiens there have been tremendous variations in sea levels. 18,000 years ago so much of the world’s water was locked up in ice and snow that sea levels were 120 metres lower than they are now, which enabled people to walk across Bering Strait from Asia to Alaska, across the Torres Strait from New Guinea to Australia and from mainland Australia to Tasmania.

When the sun’s radiation falls on ice or snow most of it is reflected. During periods of glaciation, water is precipitated in high latitudes and altitudes as snow, and seawater in polar regions is frozen as ice. This process continues until the snow and ice cover starts to decrease. This is the phase of the cycle we are in now. All over the world, glaciers are shrinking and the snow line on mountains is getting higher. To quote Jared Diamond on the effect of global warming in the state of Montana, “When the area of Glacier National Park was first visited by naturalists in the late 1800s, it contained over 150 glaciers; now, there are only about 35 left…At present rates of melting Glacier National Park will have no glaciers at all by the year 2030.” The melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps is causing sea levels to rise and this has already begun to affect people living in low-lying Pacific Island countries.

There are potential effects of global warming which could have serious consequences for other parts of the world. The circulation of the Gulf Stream is driven by a thermohaline pump, a term which refers to both the temperature and salinity of the water. Global warming is affecting its operation. As it is the warming effect of the Gulf Stream that is responsible for the comparatively mild European winters, global warming will, paradoxically, result in colder European winters. Whereas New York, which is on the same latitude as Madrid, now has colder winters than Madrid, this situation is changing.

Global warming is causing the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. In Australia bushfires are becoming more frequent and more intense and higher ocean temperatures are bleaching the Great Barrier Reef. There is some scepticism on these matters but not in the insurance industry, which stands to lose by claims due to damage caused by these events. Tropical diseases, such as malaria, will spread as temperatures rise both north and south of the equator.

Sceptics, such as the geologist Ian Plimer, who say that global warming is simply a recurrent phase of climate change, point out that there have been times in the long history of life on Earth when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been much higher than it is now. We may agree that the causes of climate change are very complex but it is impossible to determine the extent to which human activity is exacerbating global warming. On the precautionary principle we need to take all possible measures consistent with sustainable development to minimise our contribution to the warming process. For the first 3200 million years of life on Earth it consisted entirely of bacteria and primitive algae which are very well adapted to the extremes of temperature, pressure and weather conditions which they had to endure. Anaerobic bacteria don’t need oxygen to survive: they produce it. People do need oxygen and are not nearly as adaptable to climatic extremes.

There is general agreement that the world is getting warmer. The disagreement is about the cause or causes of this warming. There is an overwhelming consensus among those scientists best qualified to speak on the subject that human activity is at least exacerbating the problem. People, such as business men and women, who think that environmentalists are a threat to their profits, tend to disagree. They usually have the support of non-scientists, conservative politicians and free market economists, such as Milton Friedman, who act as apologists for capitalism. One of their favourite arguments to counter the warnings of environmentalists on global warming is that on the science of climate change the jury is still out. This is not so. The jury has concluded its deliberations and returned a verdict of guilty against those such as the oil companies and owners of coalmines and coal-fired generators of electricity, and all users of electricity so generated, who pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

In Australia, the only industrialised country other than the United States to refuse to ratify the Kyoto protocol, there is a group of people, quite happy to call themselves the greenhouse mafia, who have exercised a powerful influence over the federal government’s policy on pollution. The most important of this group is Hugh Morgan, former head of Western Mining Corporation and later head of the Business Council of Australia. He was also the moving force behind the Australian Aluminium Council, a coalition of aluminium producers such as Alcoa and Rio Tinto. The smelting of aluminium uses huge amounts of electricity for which they pay very much less than domestic users. They justify this by the need to be competitive but far from contributing to the health of the Australian economy the subsidies cost the taxpayer so much that we would be better off if the aluminium smelters took their business elsewhere. A report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney stated that “subsidies to fossil fuel energies, worth close to 10 billion dollars, result in a serious market distortion, create an unfair disadvantage to renewable energy and help increase greenhouse gas”.

The federal government asked the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics to provide estimates of the cost of cutting greenhouse emissions. Their report was severely criticised in a June 1997 statement by 131 professional economists, including 16 professors of economics. It emerged, from a statement by Senator Parer, that most of the funding for the research had been provided by the fossil fuel industry. The Australian Coal Association, the Australian Aluminium Council, BHP, CRA, the Business Council of Australia, Exxon, Mobil and Texaco had all paid $50,000 per year for a seat on the steering committee. The Australian Conservation Foundation applied for membership, asking for the fee to be waived, but was refused. This situation says a great deal about the government’s attitude to emission reduction and its refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and when John Howard talks about not doing anything that would damage the economy we can see where his advice is coming from and whose interests he is protecting.

Having failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol the government took the first available opportunity to give the impression that it was taking the problem of global warming seriously. The Bush administration had initiated the formation of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which brought together Australia, the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and India. The Australian government became an enthusiastic supporter as it set no mandatory emission targets and could help to undermine the Kyoto agreement.

There are those who will admit that the Earth is getting hotter but say that it is not happening fast enough to be a problem. Senator Campbell, the then Environment Minister, in response to a pronouncement by an oceanographer from the University of Western Australia on rising sea levels, assured anyone who had property on the coast that they needn’t worry as sea-levels wouldn’t rise before another 1000 to 2000 years. On the contrary, many scientists are worried that change could happen much faster than we have been led to expect. Positive feedback can lead to a tipping point after which a process can accelerate out of control. The area of the arctic ice cap was 20% less in 2005 than it had been in 2000. The Greenland ice sheet is also melting and may have passed its tipping point. If it were to melt completely it would cause a rise in sea levels of seven metres.

CAPITALISM

The Macquarie Dictionary defines capitalism as “a system under which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are in large measure privately owned and directed”. This definition doesn’t tell the whole story. The authors of Natural Capitalism say:

Capitalism, as practised, is a financially profitable, nonsustainable aberration in human development. What might be called ”industrial capitalism” does not fully conform to its own accounting principles. It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs – the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.

Modern industrial capitalism springs from the scientific revolution of the 16th to 18th centuries and the protestant reformation of the 16th century. The scientific revolution led to the development of technology, such as the steam engine and the spinning jenny, which resulted in astonishing increases in productivity in the textile industry. What took the labour of 200 workers in 1770 could be done by a single spinner in 1812. The mediaeval church had insisted that business transactions between people were also subject to moral law and banned usury, the lending of money at interest. The reformation questioned the authority of the church so that the accumulation of wealth, instead of being condemned, as it so clearly is by Jesus in the gospels, came to be seen as the reward of diligence and a sign of God’s favour. The organised churches have consistently been a conservative force, resisting reforms as well as being homophobic and misogynist. This should not, however, blind us to the fact that William Wilberforce, the leader of the anti-slavery movement in England, and the Earl of Shaftesbury, the 19th century reformer of working conditions in factories, were both evangelical Christians.

In 1776 Adam Smith published An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations which, at that early stage of the Industrial Revolution, rapidly became the bible of the emerging entrepreneurial class, largely due to the following passage. Referring to entrepreneurs he wrote:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

This sounds very much like a secular version of the Christian doctrine of Providence. There is no more evidence for the existence of an ‘invisible hand’ than there is for the existence of a benign Providence. Even if each entrepreneur intends ‘only his own gain’, in a competitive environment some people will succeed at the expense of others. There will be winners and losers. Capitalism stresses the value of competition, and governments in capitalist countries may make anti-competitive practices illegal, but such practices can be very difficult to detect. Manufacturers and retailers who decide that it would be more advantageous to collude with their rivals to keep prices high, than to indulge in a price-cutting war, are unlikely to leave any documentary evidence of such collusion.

A favourite device of global corporate capitalism is ‘outsourcing’, a euphemism for denial of responsibility. Any manufacturer can increase its profits by having its goods made under contract in countries with corrupt governments, such as China, Mexico, the Philippines or Indonesia, where labour is cheaper because working conditions are such that they would not be tolerated in any civilised country. The same considerations apply to the privatisation of state-owned assets such as Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra. When a government sells a public asset it relinquishes control and hands over the power to set working conditions to employers. The so-called choice that is offered to any applicant for a job is to accept the conditions offered or not get the job.

Capitalism is an inherently inequitable and exploitative system. As Lewis Mumford said, it works because it harnesses all the seven deadly sins except sloth. It works for those who know how to use it to their advantage. George Soros said that “the main enemy of the open society…is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat” and that unless the self-interest of capitalism is tempered by a greater recognition of common interest “our present system…is liable to break down”. Thomas Carlyle called Political Economy the dismal science but at least, like John Stuart Mill, he recognised the impossibility of separating economics and politics. Some modern economists like to think of economics as a pure science on the model of physics, where measurement is fundamental. This leads to patent absurdities. E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful writes:

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, with increasing affluence, economics has moved into the very centre of public concern, and economic performance, economic growth, economic expansion, and so forth have become the abiding interest, if not the obsession, of all modern societies. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.

But what does it mean when we say that a thing is uneconomic? The answer to this question cannot be in doubt: something is uneconomic when it fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money. The method of economics does not, and cannot, produce any other meaning. This means that an activity can be economic though it plays hell with the environment, and that a competing activity, if at some cost it protects and conserves the environment, will be uneconomic.

Probably the best example of the stupidity of the conventional wisdom of economists is that the costs of the clean up of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was added to the GNP, not subtracted from it.

There are signs of a revolt against the materialistic ethos of capitalism. An increasing number of people are taking the opportunity to step off the treadmill; to resign from the rat race; to make changes in their lives which will reduce their income but give them more time to spend with their families and friends. This enables them to develop talents and pursue interests for which they had no time when they allowed themselves to be brainwashed into seeking status by indulging in the conspicuous consumption of products which they didn’t need and could ill afford. Probably the best example of the absurdity of the capitalist system is the bottled water industry, which exploits the gullibility of people by persuading them to buy something that they could get very much more cheaply by simply turning on a tap. Having discarded the false values of consumerism people are then free to attend to important issues such as the menace of rising sea levels and the necessity of conserving the earth’s resources.

Environmentalists have always maintained that, in the long run, it costs less to save the environment than to ignore the damage that is being done to it by forces such as global warming. These warnings have been ignored by free market economists and conservative politicians. In Australia, it is only very recently that popular opinion has obliged the federal government to take the issue more seriously. This is due to such factors as Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, the Stern review of The Economics of Climate Change and the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t recognise national boundaries so that any effective answer to the challenge of global warming requires an internationally coordinated response. The Kyoto Protocol was a step in this direction but the fact that it imposes no mandatory emission reduction targets on countries such as China and India has allowed some industrialised countries to use this as an excuse for their failure to ratify it.

In 2002 our Prime Minister, following the example of President Bush, decided not to ratify the Kyoto agreement as it would “cost us jobs and damage our industry”. The situation has changed since then: in April 2006 the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change stated that ” We believe that climate change is a major business risk and we need to act now”. The state and territory governments have never shared the scepticism of the federal coalition about the seriousness of the threat of global warming and have taken the lead in introducing a carbon-trading scheme. Similarly in the United States a number of states, such as California, and many cities, have instituted programs to mitigate the effects of warming, in spite of the reluctance of the federal administration to take any action.

Any changes in policy regarding the export of coal or uranium would need to be introduced gradually to minimise disruption to the workforce and if Australian mining companies ceased to export minerals it would affect the profitability of those companies and the dividends to their shareholders. It would also have a significant effect on the revenue received by governments as royalties and company tax, but very little effect on the incomes of the great majority of the population who don’t have shares in mining companies. It would also enhance Australia’s reputation as a responsible member of the international community but I doubt if that consideration would influence many voters in either state or federal elections.

The United States of America is the foremost proponent of capitalism but also produces its best critics. Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, The Status Seekers in 1959 and The Waste Makers in 1960: J.K. Galbraith published The Affluent Society in 1958: David Korten, who has seen how global corporations operate in third world countries, has written about the “cancer of capitalism” in his books When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism. In England R.H.Tawney wrote The Acquisitive Society and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

In Australia, Sharon Beder drew attention to the corporate assault on environmentalism in her 1997 book Global Spin. It examines the way in which corporations have used their financial resources and power to counter gains made by environmentalists, to reshape public opinion and to persuade politicians against increased environmental regulation. There was a considerable reaction to environmentalism in America in the 1970s, with a large increase in the number of firms who had political representation in Washington. Propaganda was issued by deceptively named organisations such as The American Council on Science and Health, which received funds from Coca-Cola, Burger King, PepsiCo, NutraSweet and Nestlé USA as well as Monsanto, Exxon, Union Carbide and others. Its executive director, portrayed in the media as an independent scientist, defended chemical companies, the nutritional value of fast foods and the safety of pesticides. There was a similar reaction in Australia from the Confederation of Australian Industry, the Australian Chamber of Commerce, the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Business Roundtable. Conservative think-tanks, having helped the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, turned their attention to the defeat of environmental legislation and cast doubt on the importance of issues such as industrial pollution, the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming.

Other Australians who have made valuable contributions to the criticism of capitalism are Clive Hamilton in his books, Growth Fetish, Affluenza and Scorcher and the economic journalist Ross Gittins, author of Gittinomics. The importance of economic growth is now taken for granted by both sides of politics. This would have surprised, if not shocked, John Stuart Mill who wrote, in a scathing criticism of laissez-faire capitalism:

I confess I am not charmed by the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress…the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.

In spite of the fact that, once people have their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter met, there is very little correlation between their material standard of living and their happiness, the ethos of capitalism encourages the idea that what is important is not what people are but what they have. This pernicious influence is purveyed by the advertising industry. It is strongest in the United States but is extending its influence in Australia, aided greatly by commercial radio and television stations that earn their income from advertising. SBS, which has a generally high standard of programming, used to show commercials only between programs. Now, in common with channels 7, 9 and 10, it interrupts its programs to show commercials. The production of consumer goods used to be important when the majority of the population were poor, but, at least in industrialised countries, where the overwhelming majority have all the material goods they need, most economists still insist in measuring the standard of living of a country by its gross national product. This takes no account of the standard of education or essential public services or the quality of life of its citizens. J.K. Galbraith was complaining about “private opulence and public squalor” fifty years ago. Since then the situation has deteriorated.

The relevance of capitalism to global warming is that the concentration of entrepreneurs and investors on short-term financial gain makes it very difficult for them to see the problem from an unselfish long-term point of view.

DEMOCRACY

Winston Churchill said “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Probably the best-known definition of democracy is the one that was given by Abraham Lincoln: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It consists of a great deal more than simply casting a vote at elections. Politicians and policies can be influenced by joining organisations which may lobby governments on behalf of their particular interest, joining a political party, writing letters to newspapers and members of parliament, or demonstrating in street marches.

So, what is the relevance of democracy to the problem of global warming? Whatever the faults of the system, representative democracy is, in the long run, responsive to the wishes of the electorate. The evidence that the clearing of land and the burning of fossil fuels exacerbate global warming is overwhelming and, as the electorate becomes increasingly aware of the problem, governments will be obliged to legislate to deal with it. As Jared Diamond wrote “In the long run, it is the public, either directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable and illegal and to make sustainable environmental policies profitable”.

SUSTAINABILITY

If the earth were like Norman Lindsay’s magic pudding there would be no problem of sustainability: we could all cut and come again: we could all consume as much as we like for as long as we like. But, unfortunately, it isn’t: the planet is finite and its resources are finite. Economists generally are unaware of this basic flaw in capitalist ideology. As Schumacher writes: “ A business man would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth?” For development to be sustainable we need to ensure three conditions:

1. Rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed the rates at which the ecosystem is able to replace them. Earth’s forests and fisheries are being depleted at an unsustainable rate. We could all help with the problem of forest depletion by using both sides of a sheet of paper, and recycling paper for which we have no further use. At this point I can’t resist the temptation to quote Jared Diamond again, from his book Collapse: “I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? Like modern loggers did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or ”We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering”?

2. The second condition for sustainable development is that rates of consumption of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rates at which renewable substitutes are developed. This is simply common sense. Fossil fuels, as the name implies, are not being made any more so there must come a time when they have all been consumed. We need to ensure that renewable sources of energy have been developed to take their place.

3. The third condition is that rates of pollution emission do not exceed the rates of the ecosystem’s natural assimilative capacity. This is particularly important in relation to CO2, the atmospheric pollutant over which we have the most control.

Of increasing importance is the provision of energy to produce electricity for our radios, television sets, washing machines, dishwashers, clothes dryers and air conditioners. Most of the coal which is burnt to generate electricity was laid down in the Carboniferous and Permian periods 350 million to 250 million years ago. Oil, from which petrol is derived, was formed some time after the Paleozoic Era that ended about 250 million years ago. It is found together with natural gas and bitumen. One reason for conserving the limited supplies of petroleum is that it is the raw material for the petrochemical industry.

A greater effort at recycling would help to conserve the Earth’s finite resources but most changes involved in industrial processes are irreversible. This means that the raw materials used to make a labour-saving, energy-using device, such as a dish washer, are no longer available to make anything else, at least until they have been processed as scrap metal. In Australia, which, in some areas, is experiencing its worst drought on record, the need to conserve water has become obvious. We will need not only to use less water but also to overcome our squeamishness about drinking water that has been recycled from sewage.

The things we could do to mitigate the effects of global warming are of two kinds; those which would require legislation by governments and those we could do as individuals. Germany has led the way in extended producer responsibility legislation, which makes producers responsible for the whole life cycle of a product. Affluent societies, such as the USA and Australia, have an increasing problem of waste disposal. When something wears out we tend not to have it repaired but to buy a new one. Manufacturers, retailers and advertisers, as such, are not interested in the future of life on Earth and so encourage us to buy new products.

As the release of greenhouse gases is an important factor in global warming it will be necessary for governments to discourage the burning of fossil fuels. This raises the question of possible conflicts of interest. A government that earns some of its income from royalties paid by mining companies will be reluctant to forego this income. The use of fossil fuels could be discouraged by the imposition of taxes on the extraction of coal and oil and a refusal to license any new mining of them. The other possibility is to introduce a carbon trading scheme whereby producers such as coal miners and oil companies will be penalised according to the quantity of CO2 that their product is likely to produce when burnt. They could offset this by buying credits from people, such as the owners of tree plantations, who help to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere. The increased costs incurred as a result of pollution would encourage companies to find more efficient and less polluting ways of operating. A recent decision of the Land and Environment Court in New South Wales ruled that the government must take into account not only the effects of extracting the coal from a proposed mine but also the effects of burning it.

CO2 sequestration occurs naturally in the process of photosynthesis whereby growing plants in sunlight absorb CO2 and release oxygen. Animal life breathes in oxygen and breathes out CO2. This circulation of carbon and oxygen produced a fairly stable concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere until recently, when the two factors of the industrial revolution and the population explosion upset the balance. It is necessary to find other ways of slowing, if not stopping and reversing, the increase of free CO2. The coal industry has proposed that CO2 produced by the burning of coal could be sequestered by liquifying it and pumping it into the depths of the oceans, or trapping it underground. This solution ignores the costs that would be involved in doing so and can’t guarantee that the gas will not escape. A more promising development is the research conducted by Professor Jones of the University of Sydney, and his overseas university colleagues, on the fertilisation of phytoplankton in the oceans. This would absorb CO2 by photosynthesis and, incidentally, provide a food source for fish; thus helping to replenish depleted fisheries.

The generation of electricity from nuclear reactors involves no direct emission of greenhouse gases but requires a large energy input to mine the uranium and enrich it, so that it would need to be subsidised to compete economically with coal-fired generators. It also poses the problems of the storage of nuclear waste and the security issue involved in the safeguarding of material that could be used by rogue states or terrorists to make bombs. Even supposing that these problems could be solved, neither uranium nor any other radioactive element is a renewable source of energy. It has been said that 20kg of uranium can produce as much energy as a trainload of coal, but this is a misleading comparison. Uranium is a radioactive element which has several isotopes. U235, the only one which can be used in a nuclear reactor, constitutes only 0.7% of uranium as it is mined and must be enriched to a proportion of at least 3% before it can be used to produce energy.

There was a time when the most common form of private transport in China was by bicycle. The Chinese, like the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and those of other underdeveloped countries, have as much right to drive cars as anyone else and an increasing number of them are doing so. This is leading to increased pollution of the atmosphere and accelerated depletion of the Earth’s oil supplies.

The only long-term solution to the problem of supplying the energy needs of humanity, and at the same time combating global warming, is to develop renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power. Another possible source of renewable energy is in the movement of waves and tides. The exceptionally large tidal range at St Malo on the French coast is used to generate electricity.

Australia has a plentiful supply of sunlight and is a world leader in scientific research into photovoltaic cell technology. David Brower, in his user’s manual for the planet, writes “The biosphere was thoroughly tested and developed during a 3 billion year breaking-in period and is powered by a maintenance-free fusion reactor that will supply energy for another 5 billion years”. Professor Plimer predicts that Homo sapiens will be extinct in 50 million years but that bacteria will survive for much longer. However long we expect to survive it is time that governments stopped protecting the interests of the fossil fuel and automotive industries and took a more long-term point of view.

At the end of his book, The Weather Makers, the Australian scientist, Tim Flannery, gives a climate change checklist, which includes the following suggestions. The things we could do as individuals are: install a solar hot water system; install photovoltaic solar panels; use energy-efficient white goods; use a triple A rated showerhead; drive a more fuel-efficient car; walk, cycle or take public transport and write to politicians about climate change.

In New South Wales the state government has introduced the BASIX legislation to enforce standards of energy-efficiency on new buildings and many local councils now have regulations to ensure that the approval of new buildings depends on them being energy-efficient: retrofitting of old buildings can make them more energy-efficient. The internal combustion engine is an extremely inefficient means of moving people. The authors of Natural Capitalism write:

The contemporary automobile, after a century of engineering, is embarrassingly inefficient: of the energy in the fuel it consumes, at least 80 % is lost, mainly in the engine’s heat and exhaust, so that at most only 20% is actually used to turn the wheels. Of the resulting force 95% moves the car, while only 5% moves the driver, in proportion to their respective weights. Five % of 20% is 1 % - not a gratifying result from American cars that burn their own weight in gasoline every year.

This assumes that the car is carrying only one person, which is not always true. Greater economy can be achieved by sharing motor transport, either by private arrangement or joining a car-sharing club. The car of the future will be built of lightweight carbon fibre instead of steel, be aerodynamically designed and be driven by fuel cell electric motors, the only waste product of which is water. There is nothing inherently wrong with motor vehicle transport, only with the pollution caused by its exhaust emissions. Some people maintain that it is already too late to do anything effective about global warming, either because the interests of the fossil fuel and automotive industries are too strong, or because people are apathetic. I disagree. In the Griffith Review in which Murray Sayle’s article, Overloading Emoh Ruo, appears, there is an article by emeritus professor Ian Lowe entitled Changing Public Attitudes to Long Term Issues, in which he traces the history of changing attitudes to issues such as the deleterious effects on health of cigarette smoking. The tobacco industry has consistently denied that nicotine is addictive and that there is any connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. There are still some people who deny the harmful effects of passive smoking, but the anti-smoking lobby, often with the support of bans on cigarette advertising, is winning the battle. I’m optimistic about a similar outcome in the case of global warming.

A catastrophic event, such as the collision with a meteorite or an asteroid which is thought to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, may extinguish life on Earth and it is inevitable that there will be other ice ages, but the immediate threat to humanity is global warming. This warming can at least be slowed by decreasing the rate of release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This can only be done when a sufficient number of people become aware of the problem and are prepared to take responsibility for acting to solve it.

Those who warn of the dangers of global warming have been called alarmists. The Aesop fable of the boy who called wolf shows that those who make predictions that prove to be false lose their credibility: but we need to remember how the story ended. There was a wolf and it attacked the villagers after they had decided that it didn’t exist. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis the fifteenth and friend of Voltaire, was disturbed by the contrast between the wealth of the aristocracy and the poverty of the peasants and could see that the situation couldn’t last. What she meant exactly by saying “Apres nous le deluge” we‘ll probably never know but she was right about one thing; she and the king were both dead before the revolution of 1789 swept away the privileges of the aristocracy. Most of us here now will be dead before the worst consequences of global warming are felt but I don’t think that absolves us from responsibility for the welfare of future generations. As Al Gore says, it is a moral problem.

I’m not advocating Socialism: the former Soviet Union and those countries that came under its control had a very poor record of responsibility for the environment, but it also seems obvious to me that capitalism is very much in need of reform. Those who profit most from the system will need to be persuaded that they have a responsibility to future generations and not just to their shareholders. In democratic societies those who have the privilege of influencing their governments through voting or agitating for change have a responsibility to exercise that influence to combat global warming in ways compatible with sustainable development. Even if we take the extremely sceptical view that human activity is contributing nothing to global warming there is still a strong case to be made out for conserving the finite resources of the planet.

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