Golden or beneath contempt: our choice

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

We are living the golden age. This is it. There has never been a better time to be alive, certainly in Canada. The bad news is it won’t be getting better. Ours will be remembered in a thousand years as the age that squandered the future. In our golden age we spent it all for ourselves and left garbage for our great-grandchildren. Unless . . .
I give you Tom Rand who has written a book called Waking the Frog. He says something you might not be aware of. There is a solution to the climate disruption problem. Climate disruption is caused by too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat from the sun much like glass in a greenhouse. Too much heat does a lot of rough stuff, from melting the polar ice caps, which causes oceans to rise and seaside cities to drown, to parching the lands where food is grown. The carbon comes from digging out and then burning up too much coal and oil. Climate disruption is what is squandering the planet’s future. The solution is simple and well understood: put a price on carbon so that people will churn less of it. The problem is how to manage the consequences.
Waking%20Frog.jpgJust to start with, the proven reserves of the energy giants “are already four times more than we can safely burn.” This is inventory on corporate balance sheets meant to be sold. How can that be stopped? It has enormous economic consequences. There are big oil companies willing to fight to keep hands off their hydrocarbon deposits. They won't even give up the very dirtiest of them, such as the Alberta tar sands. Athabaska tar is Alberta's asbestos, a lethal product that never should be pried from the ground.
Another big problem: what can we turn to that keeps the lights on and the engines turning without releasing carbon dioxide? Neatly, Rand suggests how the two problems might provide cross-solutions. Global energy companies can put their engineering talent to work on what Rand calls an “energy moon shot,” much more ambitious in scope than President Kennedy’s original commitment to put a man on the moon. It would be a “publicly directed mission” to turn the finance, engineering and industrial strengths of the market economy by giant leaps, not incremental changes, toward a low-carbon energy future, nothing less than what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.
Mainstream economic analysis based largely, Rand asserts, on oversimplified climate data, coalesces around the proposition that carbon levels should be reduced but that a modest effort is all that’s required to bring atmospheric carbon levels to “between 700 and 800 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the twenty-first century.”
Flawed economic analysis to be sure but it’s the consensus and it’s what politicians are hearing from their expert economic advisers. The problem is they might persuade us all that their predicted outcome is good enough, thereby appealing irresistibly to our natural instinct to do nothing until crisis strikes, perhaps devastatingly, as in Katrina, Sandy or Japan’s tsunami. What if their comforting numbers disguise a nasty result? What if they’re right indeed but the outcome is dismal nevertheless.
This is more likely than not, according to Rand, because “no one with any serious knowledge of climate science thinks 800 ppm is a place modern civilization can go.” This may be the place for me to mention that Rand, while he isn’t a climate scientist, is very well versed in the fast developing world of clean technologies as an entrepreneur. He’s also academically irreproachable with a degree in engineering from Waterloo, two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy from LSE, the U of T and the University of London,. He’s a bright guy. He’s making an intelligent argument that inspires action. It’s leavened with irony and wit — Waking the Frog is eerily apt — and jabs at the preposterously overpraised. It’s an argument from a clear-eyed look at facts and a common sense approach to instituting change. It’s a mighty challenge. But he shows that indeed there are what the book’s subtitle promises: solutions for our climate change paralysis. And, most effectively, he explains why it must be done.
“A rise in global average temperatures associated with 800 ppm of atmospheric carbon,” he writes, “brings systemic risks throughout our food supply with massive increased risks of droughts, severe weather, and flooding in coastal areas. By the end of the century, those risks are off the charts! Resource scarcity leads to wars over food and water. Our ever-aging infrastructure will be at risk of being consistently overwhelmed by storms, water and fire — and all the attendant physical and financial misery. Ocean levels will eventually rise not by meters but by a hundred meters (328 feet) or more because the ice caps will completely melt over time. That kind of a carbon level is . . . the end of comfortable life as most of us know it now!”
If 800 ppm represents survival in a blistering, bleak and barren world, where are we now? Well we’re struggling to hang on to a target of 450 ppm. “To have a snowball’s chance of limiting carbon to 450 ppm,” writes Rand, “we have to leave between two-thirds and four-fifths of all proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.” To have any chance of doing this we must have alternatives for at least some of the displaced carbon. Rand suggests everything from breeder reactors to geothermal systems to commercial building retrofits. As a pilot project in the latter category he presents a hotel he developed in downtown Toronto that reduced its energy use seventy five percent by leveraging five percent of the building’s capital cost to instal geothermal and solar heating and super-efficient LED lighting that “can light-up the entire building like a Christmas tree — inside and out — for less energy than a four-slice toaster uses.”
Why put a price on it? Nothing in the global market is more certain than demand reducing as costs increase. If the goal is to reduce the use of carbon, charge more for its use. “There’s no more powerful tool in our policy options,” Rand argues. “Pricing carbon is fair, justified, effective, efficient and politically neutral.” Nobody gets a fee ride.
Rand allows that any of the solutions he presents can be debated in good faith but one thing we must agree on is the urgent need to act.
“Humankind has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years. From Rome and the birth of Christ through to our wonderfully complex global economy, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Art, literature, science, culture, and our civic structures, all are results of our long journey to the present. Who knows what further adventures might await? We’ll only have the chance to find out if we manage to squeak through the climate crisis and stop our mad gallop toward the climate cliff.”
The frog is us. The planet, our pool, is rapidly warming. If we don’t jump soon, very soon, it will start to boil. Wake up before we feel much more heat is Rand’s cry from the soul. Wake up, I echo, or be beneath contempt forever in the memory of generations to come.
Waking the Frog: Solutions for Our Climate Change Paralysis, by Tom Rand. ECW Press. 209 pages. $29.95

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