The pre-emptive action
"Even if there is no conclusive evidence of man-made global warming," goes an often-heard argument, "we shouldn't wait until we see a problem; we should take action before".
First of all: we must decide what we are discussing about. Are we discussing whether there is any evidence for man-made global warming? Then this argument has no position in the discussion; it is totally irrelevant. That is the discussion we have been making so far. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of man-made global warming. That human activities can generally harm the environment is a very serious issue, but it is a very different discussion, and it does not in any way alter the fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of man-made global warming.
Any action, pre-emptive or not, has effects. If you want to make an omelette, you'll need to break the eggs, regardless of whether the omelette is pre-emptive. If you want to reduce the amount of emitted carbon dioxide, you'll need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Let's see what this implies.
There are two ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption: one is to consume less energy; and the other is to use alternative forms of energy. You can also use a combination of those.
Consuming less energy means really consuming less energy. There are no magical solutions. If you think that technological developments like "energy-saving" lamps are the solution, think again. If all lamps of the planet were replaced by "energy-saving" lamps, we would barely save one percent of energy, and even this is questionable . One percent would be barely perceptible in Figure 1.
Consuming less energy means not owning a car. Never entering an aeroplane. Never getting on a railway that travels faster than 90 km/h (55 mph). Not replacing your mobile phone with a new one before you have owned it for 10 years. Not consuming food that needs to travel more than 200 km (120 miles) to arrive to you. You might think we are hallucinating, but if what you want is to reverse the trend in the graph above, this is what you need to do. You can't do it with energy-saving lamps or hybrid cars. There are no magical solutions.
As much as we believe that life might be better if we lived as described above, we are also convinced that this is absolutely impossible the way western society and economy are structured, unless a large part of the population dies of starvation. Therefore, although we agree that long term measures to reverse the global energy consumption trend should be applied, the short term pre-emptive measures you are seeking cannot be found in consuming less energy. The only serious alternative for pre-emptive action is therefore alternative energy sources.
Once more, as much as you cannot make an omelette without breaking the eggs, you cannot produce energy without harming the environment. In order to replace one fossil fuel power plant you need one or two thousand wind turbines. It may be difficult to understand what one thousand wind turbines means, until you see a huge number, count them, and find them to be only 50 or 100. In mountainous areas like Greece, wind turbines can harm the landscape. What's more, thousands of km of roads need to be opened for these turbines to be installed and maintained, further harming the landscape. Finally, wind turbines produce energy when wind blows, and not necessarily when you want the energy. There is no easy way to store electric power, which usually needs to be consumed the moment it is produced; and you can't just switch on a thermoelectric power plant when the wind stops blowing, because thermoelectric plants need from a few hours to a few days to warm up. Therefore, in many cases, wind turbines save close to nothing, because thermoelectric plants must stay on.
Similarly, for producing energy from the sun, in the huge quantities that we consume, we'd need to cover vast areas with mirrors or solar cells or whatever, and, again, these would not produce energy during the night. For producing energy from water, huge reservoirs, that is, artificial lakes, need to be constructed, which poses environmental questions; and the extent to which it is possible depends on whether there are mountains and enough water in the area.
The renewables, as all these forms of energy are collectively called, certainly need to be explored; but there is no easy way. You can't just use the "renewables" label and think that you found a neat solution for all your problems. It is debatable whether the technology of the renewables has reached a stage where they can entirely replace a significant part of fossil fuel power plants.
There is only one form of energy which can replace fossil fuel plants reliably and without burning anything: nuclear power. But this, even if we ignore the probability of accidents, has the problem of nuclear waste. You can build the plant today and not worry about what you are going to do when it closes. But it will close, about 50 years after it is constructed. You cannot demolish a nuclear reactor. You can shut it down, bury it in concrete, and hope that nothing bad is going to happen for one or two thousand years. (Incidentally, if you think that nuclear fusion is the answer, because it is supposedly clean: maybe it is, but it's not here yet. No nuclear fusion reactor has yet been made that produces more energy than it consumes. Until one is made, nuclear fusion will only be hope, and there can be no guarantee that it will be ready when we need it.)
In order to evaluate these risks, you need to think in a cool manner. You must evaluate the dangers of fossil fuel correctly, the problems of the renewables correctly, and the dangers of nuclear power correctly. Taking pre-emptive action against fossil fuel does not make sense any more than taking pre-emptive action against the renewables, since all have known problems.
Finally, it's not exactly that we don't have any other problems to deal with. The economy is in serious trouble. We are running out of energy. We are polluting underground water. We consume 15 calories of energy for each calory of food that we place on our table. We raise chicken in inhumane conditions in dark, stinking factories, and then we eat their sick meat and their sick eggs (, p. 104; ). The same goes on for all kinds of food. We have submitted control of world food supply to a few multinational corporations . We are gradually extiguishing the night sky, and the inherent beauty of natural darkness, with our light pollution . We are expanding our noise-polluting roads and we live in conditions where living a moment's peace becomes increasingly difficult . We are running around like crazy, full of stress and depression. These problems are right in front of our eyes, and we live in them every day. Why do we need to take pre-emptive action against a non-problem, when we have all these pressing problems that need immediate attention? Taking pre-emptive action against the alleged man-made climate change could further harm the environment, and at the same time it takes our attention away from real, undisputed problems.
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|||Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Our vanishing night", National Geographic, November 2008; http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/light-pollution/klinkenborg-text/1, accessed on 2009-07-13.|
|||Noise (is) pollution, The Quiet Zone 8, Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, Fall 2006; available at http://www.nonoise.org/library/qz/, accessed on 2009-08-05.|