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?