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In the April episode of his ‘How to Talk to an Ostrich’ climate change series, Richard Alley (the renowned climate change scientist and activist) discussed that a shift to clean energy can be achieved, using an analogy from 18th Century Scotland. In short, the story deals with a Londoner visiting Edinburgh and being confronted with the city’s technique of discarding human waste by means of emptying chamber pots from upper stories into the cobbled streets below. Although shocked by this practice (and also the way that the locals didn’t seem to bat an eyelid at this regularity), the Londoner noted that he did not see a financially viable remedy for the situation, as installing conveyances and receivers for this waste en masse would seemingly be an expense too great for the economy of the time to bear.

However, in due course, large-scale sanitation systems were installed in Edinburgh, and countless other cities, ensuring access to clean water and preventing water-borne diseases from ravaging the populace. A mandatory societal progression which we dare not contemplate life without its implementation.

Now to the analogy of this story with climate change: on Earth, fossil fuels are being burned, producing CO2, which can be seen as a form of ‘human waste’. Just as the chamber pots were being emptied onto the public streets, so CO2 is being dumped into the public space – our homogenous atmosphere. Human waste running freely on the streets had consequences – infection, sickness, death – and so too will increasing CO2 levels have consequences – rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, sea level rise, etc. – which in turn result in serious social implications. The sanitation crisis of 18th Century Britain forced the authorities into action, which produced a sewage system that remedied the situation. In round numbers, it is estimated that the Scottish government of the time had to spend 1% of its economy on the implementation of this system. It is also estimated that transferring our dependence onto clean (i.e. renewable) energy would cost current governments a similar figure. So it comes down to sacrificing a [relatively] large capital investment now, in order to minimize a serious and irreversible crisis that future generations will face. For many however, this does not seem to be priority; I wonder if people felt the same way about sanitation in the 18th Century? Or is it just because the effects of water-borne disease were imminent and affected present generations in real time, and climate change is not yet felt in real time, so to speak, and won’t really affect the present generation as much as it will future ones?

What does the anti-renewable-energy brigade have to say about this? Well, they seem to be ranting about a new study which shows that wind turbines actually increase local temperatures by approximately three-quarters of a degree Celcius by helping mix the surface layer of air. They don’t seem to understand that this just changes the distribution of heat within the atmosphere, not the actual heat content of the atmosphere. The latter is what increasing CO2 levels changes. Not to mention that human-driven local changes in temperature are common (consider urban heat islands) and are not a proponent in climate change. So once again, the anti-renewable-energy brigade just focuses on the part of the study that aims to further their purpose, disregarding the fact that it’s really of no global or even regional significance.

Alley’s analogy is not without its flaws: the source of human waste is never addressed (the waste itself just gets redirected and treated), whereas switching to renewable energy deals with reducing the source of CO2 rather than redirecting emissions. However, trivial discrepancies in the analogy are not worth getting worked-up about: the real issue is that there is a problem, which has, and will increasingly have, serious implications, and this problem needs to be addressed. It’s been done in the past, so why can’t it be done now?

4 Responses to “Learning from history: moving towards clean energy”

  1. Laura Hodgkinson

    I really enjoyed the analogy provided, even if not devoid of flaws it provided in some way a clear association of something that many of us cannot imagine without feeling slightly sick, the thought of waste disposal flying through the air over public streets, with a situation that is not yet adequately quantified in terms of total effect.

    The people of Edinburgh were according to the article not phased by the adopted way of disposing waste and did not “bat an eyelid”, and it was only when the health hazards of the method became so detrimental that the government resigned themselves to the loss in budget to cover the advancement in sanitary waste removal. I think this so adequately describes the basis of the battle currently being fought to implement climate change mitigation strategies, the fact that the hazards of the situation have not been deemed great enough to warrant proper consideration. This throws into harsh respect the attitudes towards climate change that are currently in existence. The fact that for many people “this (transition to clean renewable energy) is not a priority” is simply a product of their own naivety, they have not been affected directly enough by climate change to influence their decisions. This is the sad fact of reality, and the reason history is doomed to repeat itself. I think this article highlights adequately the astounding advantage of hindsight and thus the biggest battle of climate science is to convince the masses before it is too late

  2. Myra

    Alley’s analogy is interesting and apt – but his optimistic attitude is what is refreshing.
    Even if it does cost more than 1% to switch to the world to renewable energy path, I think it is an investment we as a society need to seriously consider (especially since the effects of rising CO2 emissions are compounded by additional factors such as population growth and the declining efficiency of natural C sinks etc).
    I agree we can – and should – learn from history, but I recognize that (currently) the limiting factor in our progress towards renewable energy is the politics surrounding global warming, rather than the economics, engineering or (climate) science.

  3. Jorge

    Water, solar, and wind.Oddly enough the most colmonmy found and under-utilized is probably methane. From human sewer systems to landfills, from animal production farms to compost production systems, there is a readily renewable source of methane. A number of folks consider methane to be less than environmentally friendly as its use does generate CO2. A number of folks consider it to be less than practical because one one source is likely to be a sole solution for an area/greater. A number of folks discount it because it is not necessarily a magic bullet that can be sold as the solution for use by all across the country, nor particularly by a private utility company. Still it exists and is not particularly being used for productive purposes.

  4. Stefaan

    “They don’t seem to understand that this just changes the distribution of heat within the atmosphere, not the actual heat content of the atmosphere.” – I was wondering about the same thing – surely if the temperature of an entire column of air were to increase, and only at night, that would be a violation of the principle of conservation of energy?

    “[I]t’s really of no global or even regional significance.” So I would have thought as well, but the Daily Telegraph article that refers to quotes the lead author of the paper as saying: “These changes, if spatially large enough, might have noticeable impacts on local to regional weather and climate.” Which is still hardly a cause for large-scale panic, but it certainly does appear to warrant at least some further study. However, the same article refers to changes in temperature of 0.72°C/decade over 9yrs (~0.65°C) as “almost” 1°C, which appears to me to be shockingly sensational and dangerous, judging by some of the utterly senseless comments posted in response to

    Further, the lead author also states: “For a given wind farm, once there are no new wind turbines added, the warming effect may reach a stable level,” which begs the question why changes in temperature, recorded over only 9 years, are quoted in degrees Celcius per decade.