Archive for November, 2011

Dull fog, sharp sun

I just recently moved to London. Finsbury Park. I was wandering around the area on Sunday morning. It was a very foggy morning. The fog made all of the sharp edges of the urban landscape seem blurry. Corners of buildings, billboards and so forth all lost their clarity in the morning mist. However, when I looked up into the sky, I was able to not just see, but actually look at the sun. And it was a perfect, crisp lemon-yellow circle. It was unusual and beautiful. I just thought I’d share this unexpected inversion of the norms of what is visible and clear and what is blinding and fuzzy.

I’ve just watched Panorama on BBC 1 explore the hot topic of energy prices, and I am left feeling a little frustrated.

Building a sustainable and reliable energy infrastructure surely has to be a national priority. It won’t be easy, or cheap, but the alternatives are more expensive, and more frightening.

Panorama argues that energy price increases are due to three factors: green targets (renewables, nuclear and pylons), plant renewal, and volatile gas prices. The screen time given to each was roughly in the ratio 3:2:1 respectively.

While it is true that it will be expensive in the short term to switch from traditional technologies to low carbon technologies, the question I would have liked to have seen asked is the following: what would the costs of inaction be?

A tentative answer: It would result in one or both of the following: a) missing our climate targets, which is an abhorrent prospect, not just for our own children and coastlines, but for the consignment to death of entire countries elsewhere; and/or b) having to adapt rapidly, rather than gradually, to sky-rocketing fossil fuel prices in the face of what appear to be increasingly uncertain international financial markets, increasingly uncertain geopolitical tensions, and lest we forget the major factor the programme omitted, the actual exhaustion of the fossil fuel resource and its attendant price explosion. Breaking our fossil fuel addiction might be tough today, but the longer we leave it, the tougher it’s going to be.

Ultimately the programme failed to see the big picture: the need for a sustainable, dependable energy system. An energy system built on imports of finite resources is neither sustainable nor dependable. For energy security alone, a sustainable energy system is an imperative. The climate change thing is almost secondary; Panorama’s ridiculous depiction of it as the domain of policy wonks and mad scientists does not change the facts around fossil fuel’s volatility, and ultimately, finitude.

From a moral perspective, I am sad that the ethical imperative concerning the risks of climate change cannot inspire us to swallow the renewables medicine, which once we get used to it I’m sure we will find tastes not so bitter at all, but in fact sweet. From a purely rationalist perspective, I am equally sad that most of the people on that show were so short-sighted as to not even consider what costs society will have to bear in a rapid energy transition 30 or 40 years from now rather than a gradual one starting today.

The question is not: what are the costs of going green compared to what we’re used to, but rather, what are the costs of going green compared to what happens if we don’t? Because we have to face up to the fact that what we’re used to is unfair on the majority world, and, in any case, whether we like it or not, is not going to last.