What Will Work

Kristin Shrader-Frechette of the University of Notre Dame is rigorous in the presentation of her argument in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power. In recent times a number of leading environmentalists have concluded nuclear power has to be employed to enable the transition away from fossil fuels. Shrader-Frechette disagrees. There is no “devil’s choice” between expanding nuclear fission and enduring climate change. Nuclear power is not needed, and it’s certainly not desirable.

Not that the author in any way downplays the need to give up the use of fossil fuels. She fully accepts the science of climate change and what is needed to avoid climate-related catastrophe. Objections to taking action are listed in detail and briskly dismissed. The people who deny climate change for profit are categorised and exposed for their role in misleading the public. Among them, sadly, are the American politicians who repay campaign fund donations from fossil-fuel companies by denying or delaying climate change issues.

But Shrader-Frechette rejects the argument that nuclear power is necessary in the energy mix if we are to address climate change quickly enough to be effective. A substantial part of the book is devoted to showing that nuclear energy is not only undesirable but also diverts much-needed investment and government subsidy from energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Far from being part of the solution it gets in the way of solution.

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The God Species

It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”

Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.

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Merkel’s rush to renewables

I’ve become wary of politicians’ commitments to clean energy, having been disappointed by the rapidity with which the rhetoric of leaders like Obama or Rudd loses substance when the political going gets tough. But it was hard not to pay attention to a striking article in Yale Environment 360 this week in which Der Spiegel journalist Christian Schwägerl wrote of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new energy policy. In March, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, she announced an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2022 at the latest.

“We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible.”

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The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global EconomyAustralian Paul Gilding straddles the NGO and corporate worlds. A former international head of Greenpeace, he subsequently moved into consultancy with global corporations and others on the transition to sustainability. Transition can sound a comfortingly gradual process, but that’s far from the case with the transition foreseen in his striking new book The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy.

Gilding stands firmly with those who have been warning for half a century that our economies are pressing environmental limits to breaking point. Their warnings have now become realities. We have passed the limits of the planet’s capacity to support our economy. Ecosystem change and breakdown is now under way globally. Gilding takes his stand on the science, whether of climate change or the many other areas where sustainability is crumbling.

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Treating a Fever

Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

William Calvin, emeritus professor in medicine of the University of Washington in Seattle, has written many books for the lay reader in the course of his career, most of them concerned with the human brain. But for a quarter of a century he has been following climate science literature closely, talking with its practitioners and writing articles for the public. Now he has produced a book on the subject: Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change. He likens himself to a GP reporting on the results of the tests and analysis of the specialists and helping the patient understand the treatment options.

He is keen on analogy and quotes a memorable passage from poet Robert Frost on the metaphorical nature of thinking.  Overheated frogs, things going pop, slippery slopes, creeps and leaps, domino effects, feedback loops, vicious cycles are some of the metaphors pressed into service in the major concern of the book – how one thing leads to another in climate change.

The book does not attempt a systematic account of modern climate science, the broad findings of which are taken as fully established.  Rather it focuses on trying to explain what Calvin calls the principles of acceleration which are at work in climate change – the “how” of things, the underlying mechanisms. Feedback loops alter the normal cause and effect sequences, leading to reactions out of all proportion to the stimulus.  Neurophysiologists (Calvin’s profession) study nerve and muscle cells with positive feedback mechanisms that help things to happpen very quickly.  So climate change is often not, in the manner of a dimmer switch, proportional to the provocation. It is more like the ordinary switch where a little more pressure will bring sudden change. Gradual warming is an inadequate metaphor.  Surprises are involved.

In a chapter on drought he shows how feedbacks are naturally a part of the process – for example over a tropical forest about half the rainfall comes from what recently evaporated from the leaves upwind. No evaporation means less rain. Things get worse. Drought is part of the normal instability of climate, but in the US most models agree in predicting that the dryness of the 1930s Dust Bowl will return to the American Southwest by midcentury – and for a very long time. He has some vivid pictures of the dust storms of the 1930s.

Another chapter discusses the climate creep whereby higher global temperatures lead to a widening of the tropic’s Hadley Cell movement of air which means dryer air for a further degree or two of latitude in the areas where deserts already exist.  Major cities become vulnerable to spreading desertification — San Diego, Los Angeles, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Perth and Sydney. This isn’t just gradual warming for the places concerned, but a massive change.

In discussing ice he looks at the way it is not only melting but moving on Greenland, and points out that collapse, not melt, is the operative concept. We would have centuries up our sleeves if Greenland melted simply from surface run-off.  It is one of the seriously incomplete aspects of the IPCC report that its estimate of sea-level rise depended mostly on melt run-off and thermal expansion of the ocean.

These are but a few of the matters Calvin discusses in his explanations of why and how we’re in trouble. Along the way he offers a very good short explanation of climate models and also of the comprehensive processes by which IPCC reports are prepared. His chapters are short and nuggety, not attempting to be comprehensive, not always strong on continuity, but packed with suggestions for better understanding the phenomena of climate change. His early pre-college experience in journalism and photography is reflected in the many pictures, diagrams and maps which accompany his discussions. Quotations from a wide variety of scientists and writers stud the text and give a good sense of the large community of people working in the climate science field.

When he’s finished with explaining how things are going wrong he turns his attention to what we need to do to turn things around by no later than 2020, his latest date for stopping the growth in emissions.  In spite of his awareness of how rapidly things can worsen in climate terms he is an optimist.  He considers that, once we understand what’s what, progress in addressing it can be rapid.  When tempted by pessimism he recalls the progress he’s seen in medical science in his lifetime.  He also pins hope on religious leaders coming to see that climate change is a serious failure of stewardship and our present use of fossil fuel as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations. Their arguments will trump the objections of the vested interests, just as they did when slavery was ended in the 19th century.  And the developed nations already have the technology to achieve within ten years a substantial reduction in their fossil fuel uses.  He allows for a wide range of possibilities here, but selects three as the most likely to produce rapid turnaround – energy efficiency, hot rock energy and nuclear generation. Hot rock energy, for those who haven’t encountered it, takes advantage of hot and dry granite below the sedimentary rocks. It can be drilled, and the further down the hotter it gets. Water is injected, returns as steam for a turbine, and is subsequently recirculated. In recommending nuclear power generation he refers to improvements in safety and efficiency since the industry first started, and also looks ahead to the fourth generation reactors which will increase efficiency enormously. Finally, along with carbon-free generation we also need continent-wide low-loss DC transmission lines.

Different writers have different proposals for the best technologies, and the array can appear bewildering.  But it also means that there are plenty of options and most of them can at least contribute towards the solution.  Calvin is mainly concerned that we act quickly, and he turns to analogy again, the same one that we now hear from many quarters – arming as for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience.


Appendix:  The passage Calvin quotes from Robert Frost is very striking.  Worth pondering:

[All] thinking is metaphorical, except mathematical thinking. What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weaknesses. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.