Simple but great piece on climate changePosted: June 26, 2010
Here’s a simple but stylishly written and persuasive piece on climate change. It’s a short speech delivered to an audience of big business and investors in London in 2005 by Nobel Laureate and physicist, Professor Michael Beard, famous for devising the Beard-Einstein Conflation.
I can’t locate an on-line copy of the transcript of the entire speech so I’ve typed up just the first few paras:
“The planet is sick. Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive – perhaps as much as two per cent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums.
“What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilisation, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence.
“Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact: we barely understand how successful we have been.
“So of course, we should salute our own inventiveness. We are very clever monkeys. But the engine of our industrial revolution has been cheap, accessible energy. We should have got nowhere without it. Look how fantastic it is. A kilogram of gasoline contains roughly thirteen thousand watt hours of energy. Hard to beat. But we want to replace it. So what’s next? The best electrical batteries we have store about three hundred watt hours of energy per kilogram. And that’s the scale of our problem, thirteen thousand against three hundred. No contest!
“But unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We have to replace that gasoline quickly for three compelling reasons. First, and simplest, the oil must run out. No one knows exactly when, but there’s a consensus that we’ll be at peak production at some point in the next five to fifteen years. After that, production will decline, while the demand for energy will go on rising as the world’s population expands and people strive for a better standard of living. Second, many oil-producing areas are politically unstable and we can no longer risk our levels of dependence. Third, and most crucially, burning fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. But the basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our children’s lifetime.
“And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilisation and continuing to bring millions out of poverty. Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilisation, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and co-operation, the satisfaction of profit. Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money. And the answer to that burning question is of course exactly where that money, your money, has to flow – affordable clean energy”.
It’s good reading on a Saturday. Beard lived like he was a character from a novel. He had an enduring love for solar energy and many other things besides – this speech I read as an atonement for a less than honourable private life, apparently spent too often between the sheets in the arms of strangers as he carried his message around the world, from Amsterdam to Chesil Beach.