Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

25 Jun 2022

A tale of two pathways

Posted by Michael Keating

Our civilization has reached a fork in the road. After a million years of harnessing fire, the pollution from all that burning is destroying the climate that supports us. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – produce about 80 per cent of global primary energy. This is what powers furnaces and stoves and generates much of the world’s electricity. The greenhouse gases released by producing and burning all this fuel is transforming our atmosphere, making it trap more heat. The rising global temperature already has devastating effects. Weather has become more extreme and unpredictable. Recently there have been huge floods and droughts in parts of China with red alert heat waves. The southwest United States is in a historic drought. The Colorado River, the main water source for much of the region, is shrinking and Lake Mead, the giant reservoir, has dropped by 155 feet [about 47 m.] since 2000. In France, one violent storm after another fires hailstones the size of tennis balls or bigger right through roofs and car windshields. In recent years one huge wildfire after another has levelled towns and killed people in North America and Europe. The heat waves are even worse killers. We are already locked into an even warmer and wilder climate.

The only way to slow and eventually reverse global overheating is to throw the off switch on fossil fuels. We need to power virtually everything with clean electricity. There is also a place for geothermal, clean hydrogen and a limited amount of biofuels [because they compete with food crops]. This will be a long, complex and costly transition stretching over decades. The process has barely begun. Despite promises from most of the world to reduce fossil fuel use, global emissions are still rising. Countries are building solar and wind farms at a historic rate, but it will take many years to make the shift from fossil fuels. People are buying more electric cars, but they are still a tiny fraction of sales, and internal combustion engines will continue to spew out pollutants that warm the planet and create choking smog for years.

The fastest way to a greener pathway is through energy conservation, by reducing how much we use every day. For many people, locked in a car commuter cycle or relying on a truck for work, that will be difficult. However, everyone has the option to cut back their energy use to some degree. Just switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles would have an important impact and would not reduce mobility. In the longer term the most important thing individuals can do is to tell businesses and governments they are ready for the difficult and sometimes expensive changes we will need for a global energy transition. Business is very sensitive to consumer demand and will change products quickly when our buying patterns shift. It may take longer to get governments to make a major shift. There is an axiom in government that it may claim to lead but is always setting its course based on what if feels voters will accept. So, it is up to us as individuals to press our leaders for major change and say we will support them at the ballot box.

We have good advice on what climate change is doing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but we need a guide through the difficult process of change and adaptation. Governments experimented with expert groups of cabinet ministers, business leaders and senior representatives from other parts of society. This was the round table on environment and economy process of the late 1980s, but it often lacked focus and commitment and has generally disappeared. This kind of multistakeholder approach would be well suited to the clear and specific challenges of climate change. Non-partisan groups with experts from many sectors would have the credibility needed to make the difficult calls about how we need to change.

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