The other Hot Topic

The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights on

A book of modest size but surprisingly wide scope, The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights on was co-authored last year by Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, and science writer and broadcaster Gabrielle Walker. It has now been published in a revised and updated paperback version. Straighforward clarity marks the writing, and combined with careful organisation of the material results in some readily understandable explanations of complex matters.  Both authors are trained scientists.

The book’s structure is simple. In three parts, it first explains the problem, then discusses the technological solutions and finally canvasses the political solutions.  The intention is to show that although global warming is probably the most serious problem that the human race has, collectively, ever faced, it is not unsolvable.

The problem.  The world is warming, more so and unequivocally in recent decades.  Carbon dioxide and its sister greenhouse gases are responsible, emitted by human activity. Already some of the effects of this heating are being felt in the natural world and in human suffering.  But there is more inescapably in the pipeline, currently delayed by the built-in lag of the ocean which takes a long time to warm up. Moreover there are climate wild cards which could dramatically escalate the scale of the problem, including the shut-down of parts of the oceans’ circulation, massive abrupt sea level rise following ice sheet slide into the ocean, melting permafrost triggering the release of massive amounts of carbon, or some as yet unsuspected danger hidden in the process. But our generation has the chance, the last chance, to avoid the worst of such scenarios.

The technological solutions. We may be able to keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade if we stay below 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent, lower than earlier estimates which were too optimistic. A rise of 2 degrees will be bad enough in its effects, but we should be spurred to action, not dismayed. The wedges strategy advanced by Socolow and Pacala is the best way to proceed. Efficiency savings are the low hanging fruit and can be achieved quickly.  In transport the right kind of biofuels can play a very useful part, public transport of various kinds can make a big difference to fuel use and hydrogen still remains a possibilty as a fuel.The usual technologies for clean power generation are discussed with some caution, including carbon capture and storage; the book remarks that enough sunlight falls on the earth to meet our energy needs 10,000 times over and in principle wind could generate five times the global electricity needs.  We have the technical wherewithal and ingenuity to achive the greenhouse reductions needed, and the time to start is now.

The political solutions are more difficult. Economics first. The economic debates over discount rates rather miss the point that the science says that action cannot be put off to some future date as some economists have argued – we have to act now.  In any case the costs are not beyond our ability to pay.  Fully global cap and trade schemes, if we learn from early mistakes, can work, though they will need additional regulatory action and government investment to keep us in the right direction. A “Green New Deal” could invigorate the global economy.

On to politics. Post-Kyoto agreement will need a global target, followed by the fiendishly difficult task of dividing the global reductions among the nations of the world. The book spends some time on how this might be done, surveying various possible approaches already on negotiating tables and concluding, perhaps surprisingly, that the choice of approach makes relatively little difference to the requirements for most countries. Carrot and stick financial mechanisms will be required to encourage nations to meet their targets and provide sanctions if they don’t.  The agreement finally will need a mechanism to transfer both technology and funds from the richest countries to the developing world.

There follows an interesting discussion of what will be needed from the five most rapidly developing nations – China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and India – and then from the major industrialised countries, noting in the case of the US the new hope that President Obama has brought to the possibility of effective action.

The book concludes with a reminder of actions we can take as individuals to contribute in small ways towards the result.  I appreciated the final paragraph urging us not to despair. “The climate problem is certainly a hard one, but it’s not intractable.” This statement is backed up by a map of the world showing six small squares distributed through the various land masses which would together provide enough energy to power the entire world’s requirements once we learned to capture sunlight efficiently.

The authors describe their aim as being “to tell you everything you wanted to know about global warming but were too depressed to ask.”  Readers who know that depressed feeling may be reassured by the book, though there is nothing facile about its optimism. Indeed there is an element of doggedness in the iteration that now is the time to act, not to despair. A doggedness, I hasten to add, that I am happy to share. The political solution is the sticking point.  I found the book particularly useful in its explanations of the issues in international negotiations and how they might be tackled successfully. The authors may not be politicians, but they draw on experience of the political world  and display a good understanding of how things work there. The interested reader will find complicated matters explained with admirable lucidity.

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