Where to from here?

IF THERE was one thing to come out of the Copenhagen summit, it’s that we’re all screwed.

The science called for stronger cuts than what was set as an ‘aspirational’ goal, and the squabbling between developing nations and industrial nations continues. It seems that we, as a species, just can’t get it together and we’re pretty much doomed to failure. But what exactly should we do about this?

Should we wail to the heavens? Should we riot and overthrow the governments that refused to take meaningful and clear action on climate change or perhaps we should just give up.

Investing in green and untested technology could be the biggest drain on our economic progress since...ever, and we’re just coming out of a recession so should we just simply stop trying to cool the planet and start adapting to a harsher climate?

There have been growing voices for increased effort in climate change management in lieu of any strong action on stopping the effects, and with Copenhagen branded by many to have contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than taken from it, it seems the debate is picking up steam. So in this new (ugh) climate, what can we expect the net big buzz areas to be?

Seriously, we need food.

Developed nations can turn their attention toward food supply and how we can adapt our growing environments to the end product.  Securing a food source is a bigger problem than most people realise, and it’s only going to get bigger if growing conditions get worse. For example, back in 2003 US scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that based on conservative projections of climate change, that: “Results from these simulations indicate that yield and percent kernel nitrogen content using the two climate scenarios could not both be maintained at levels currently simulated.”
Well, duh.

But the interesting thing about that little tidbit is that Nebraska is a prime example of wheat-growing country. So for them to come out and basically say 'we are screwed if we keep on using the same practices, because climate change is here', is a pretty big deal. Now factor in that the science on climate change has gotten even worse since 2003, and it starts to dawn on you that we need to do something to secure our food sources into the future.

Other strains on food supply include the increasing use of bio-fuel as an efficient means of getting around. Of course you'll never see a tractor using bio-fuels, but I digress. Ever since bio-fuels have become prevalent, wheat growers have voiced their concern over an increasing market. Sure, they have a marketplace to which they can sell their wares, but they're also concerned that there won't be enough wheat to go around. This will in turn drive up the price of wheat, leaving those countries without good wheat-growing climates with a hefty bill for importing. Of course, that also means that people are going to starve, but let's just focus on the economics.

The solution to the problem has seen the lobby crying out to keep crops GM-free quieten down a bit as we faced the reality that seeds genetically modified before being sown are the way of the semi-arid future. GM crops could also reduce the amount of fertiliser needed for a successful yield, and thus reduce the carbon footprint of plantation. With grain becoming an increasingly finite resource, it makes perfect sense that we try to use new areas devoid of agricultural activity to try and grow. Anti-GM protesters say that in our eagerness to get GM crops up and running in new areas, we may just forget a bit of quality-control in the lab, leading to unsafe compounds and ultimately dangerous end-product.

They certainly have a point. As with all things though, it's about balance. There's no doubt the need for GM crops is there, but we have to be careful that we're not too eager to use them just yet.

I shall harness the power of the Earth!

Of course there’s always the alternate energy debate to liven things up. The great and clean hope for the future seems to be geo-thermal energy. The great thing about geo-thermal energy is that all emissions can be theoretically be stored in the ground, and requires no fuel to run. Of course every rose has its thorn.

You see, it can’t be conclusively proven that the emissions dredged up can be successfully stored underground, with some environmentalists saying that the effectiveness of carbon capture and store can’t be proven within 50 years, as the gasses could slowly seep out during this time. Add a hefty capital investment with a 20 per cent failure rate, and it doesn’t exactly make for an attractive investment opportunity. It’s also pretty untested on a massive scale.

Even so, the prospect of powering most of a capital city with a single plant is too tempting to pass up. Geothermal energy also has the distinct advantage of using an almost infinite resource (the earth’s naturally occurring heat), so there are no price fluctuations arising from supply-demand.

Why it been taken more seriously at this point may be a bit of a mystery, but it turns out geothermal can be a bit hit-and-miss
. So far, large-scale geothermal projects have only been possible at points where a lot of heat is stored naturally underground. Places such as New Zealand and Iceland use geothermal because their kind geography allows hot water and steam to rise near the surface, and giving a lot of energy. But those spots happen to be a long, long distance away from capital cities for obvious reasons.

The problem with drilling in other areas, is that it's hard to get deep enough to get the natural heat of the earth. This is because when you get deep enouch, the rock gets quite impermeable. The hard part is trying to find fault lines to exploit, but if we had the technology to find these fault lines more easily and with less disruption to the earth, then the potential is there for a massive energy source with almost zero cost to the environment.

Developed nations to the rescue!

A huge direct injection of capital may just be possible from developed nations, but what about those in those nations not-so fortunate?

Of course, climate change scientists have been at this question for quite a while. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has even published a report on what needs to be done to help nations brace for the impact ( .

Areas identified as being most vulnerable to climate change include the polar regions and small island-nations. Of the small island nations, the IPCC says: “The need for adaptation has become increasingly urgent, even if swift implementation of global agreements to reduce future emissions occurs....most adaptation will be carried out by people and communities who inhabit island countries; support from governments is essential for implementing adaptive measures.”

So basically, if we can’t agree on a course of action to halt climate change (which we can’t), we should help nations to adapt to climate change. Of course, this still requires a massive amount of investment capital from world governments run from their climate-controlled offices, so how can we help smaller nations adapt for the least amount of cheddar.

But why should bigger nations help smaller nations from being ravaged from climate change? Let's go all Ayn Rand for a moment here and stop to ponder the question. What sort of payoff is there? Apart from the alteristic goal of you know, not letting fellow human beings lose their home, there's a very real economic threat from non-action.

When people lose their homes, they tend to migrate to the nearest developed nation. The mass displacement of people due to flood, drought and environmental disaster is a very real threat, so how are we going to deal with the influx? If you listen to the latest political dogma, we're not. We're going to lock them up on an island somewhere and forget about them.

Here’s the sobering thought (if we haven't had a few already). We can’t get out of this without throwing a heck of a lot of money at it, and with the global economy still taking baby steps after being felled by our own greed this investment may not be forthcoming. Even more sobering than that though, Copenhagen gave us an oppotunity to come up with a defined action plan for helping developing nations not only reducing their emissions but adapting to a changing world, and we didn't.

The closest thing we got to agreement or investment on the subject was the US plan to give developing nations access to a 100 Billion dollar fund, the details of which are kind of sketchy. Expect 2010 to be a year when the failure of past years finally comes home to roost.

So it seems that we can’t just give up on trying to slow climate change because at the end of the day, we need to figure out a way to live with climate change, and that's going to be just as bad as trying to stop climate change in the long-run. We need to not only figure it out, but we need to give resources we don’t have and co-operation we clearly don’t have toward the goal.

Either way ladies and gentlemen, we’re screwed. We can discuss which technologies will be the focus of legislators and climate change activists until the cows come home but the effectiveness of these technologies comes down to one key attribute which has proven elusive to politicians worldwide.


- James McGrath


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