Friday, June 18, 2010

Green, clean, or sustainable? Where should our priorities be?

'I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems, obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.' - Freeman Dyson

The environmental movement has busily attempted to make a great deal of hay off BP's colossal boner in the Gulf of Mexico. One sees it on HuffPo and one sees it on liberal blogs. It's hard to blame them.

The trick is whether they are pursuing the proper tack.

I tend to consider myself reasonably 'green' on most issues, but I tend to consider that Dyson's position on environmental activism bears a certain degree of merit too. It's important to understand that 'clean energy' is not as simple as it sounds. How do we define 'clean'?

The environmental lobby has a lot of ideas. Solar, hydroelectricity, wind, geothermal power... and they all pose their own economic and environmental risks. Hydrogen fuel cells are a substitute for gasoline, but not for oil. Hybrid engines and chemical batteries create waste more toxic than carbon dioxide and that waste must be disposed of safely. How do we do that?

Self-proclaimed 'conservatives' bandy about phrases and code words like 'clean coal' and advocate greater use of nuclear energy. Right wing propaganda aside, making 'clean coal' a fact and not a propaganda phrase would cost more money and pose a greater economic risk than public investment in solar and wind power. It is important to note that the 'free marketeers' who oppose investing in potential new solar and wind based industries are happy to pour a fortune into the coal industry on a pipe dream. Nuclear energy, like chemical batteries, requires the safe disposal of waste much more toxic than CO2.

This isn't an issue where there are easy solutions. T. Boone Pickens' plan to convert gasoline-power industry and transport to natural gas power while investing in wind and solar power was interesting... but also very expensive. Economic issues have caused it to be thrown aside. It still might be worth examination, but the cost is a real factor.

More importantly, natural gas is still a non-renewable resource. Ditto uranium, cadmium, lithium, and coal. We may not have developed Hubbert Peak level models to discern when these resources will be exhausted... but we still know it will happen if we're intellectually honest with ourselves and others.

This is not to say that investment in battery power and nuclear power is not practical. It is only by seeking to improve existing chemical and nuclear technology that cleaner and safer alternatives can be discovered. If cold fusion can be made practical, further research into fission and fusion technology must almost certainly precede it.

There are no easy answers.

What if we're not even asking the right questions?

It is not just a matter of finding safe and clean energy technologies. We also have to develop sustainable energy technologies if we don't wish to eventually go Luddite. This energy has to be affordable to the average citizen if we do not wish to narrow our economic base even further than we have already done.

Civilization is going to have an effect on the environment. We can make choices about just what form that effect will take. We can't eliminate it entirely. We may not be able to eliminate every option (with the exception of the non-existent and scientifically shaky 'clean coal' notion) entirely either.

The honest answer, from the environmentalist standpoint, is that we really don't know yet. The honest response to that answer is not 'conservative' declarations that we might as well keep doing what we're going as long as it keeps working.

The honest response is another question.

Why aren't we doing more to find out?

1 comment:

daniel noe said...

Whenever I feel pessimistic about human progress, I read the latest Scientific American magazine. People are always looking for more efficient, safer, greener, and better ways of doing things.