Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Phlegm and phlebotomy

The fight against global warming is lost, says the astrophysicist Paul Davies in his contribution to Edge's dangerous ideas for 2006. But in my view his analysis is unhelpful.

First, the idea that "the fight [to reduce emissions] is a hopeless one" risks being self-fulfilling. Yes, the forces against emissions reductions are absolutely huge, but we do not know for sure they are insuperable. As Dave Reay argues in his response to my note on James Lovelock's highly pessimistic assessment, we are not necessarily committed to the high emission scenario.

Second, saying "the obvious solution [is] nuclear energy" is like saying phlebotomy is the obvious solution to malaria. It applies antiquated and discredited thinking that further endangers the patient. Creating a more sustainable world industrial system means designing out dangers, wastes and legacy costs, not creating large new ones. (Some R&D into fission and fusion can continue in the eventuality that problems associated with these technologies are overcome, but not at the expense of an intelligent energy use revolution).

(On a side note, it appears that the British government, being either incapable or unwilling to learn, shares this mistaken view about nuclear power. It looks as if campaigners need to address this issue first.)

Third, Davies needs to substantiate his claim that "the evidence that the world will be worse off overall is flimsy", as it appears to go against the best judgement by climatologists and Earth systems scientists. Can an unstable world really afford - for example - millions of refugees from low lying parts of Bangladesh and the desertification of the Amazon Basin and so on in return for more power to Vladimir Putin's regional henchmen (assuming that Siberian tundra really did turn into good farmland)? Can one be sure that the positive feedbacks from unlimited emissions that so concern James Lovelock and others will not kick in and contribute to substantial net disbenefits?

For a wiser view see Martin Rees who says "The future will best be safeguarded - and science has the best chance of being applied optimally - through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic".

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