on 30 June 2014
Mike Berners Lee's first book, 'How Bad are Bananas', was an outstanding example of the proper use of facts and reason: it provided the data for the thoughtful reader to understand the CO2 impact of their actions, and so to make informed choices.
Mike's second book has all the virtues of the first. It is not only logical, thoughtful, and impeccably well argued. It is also well able to see both sides of a case: for example, on p.185 he gently points that the Fukushima could be taken as proof of the danger of nuclear power - or of its safety. He knows what confirmation bias is, and he has thoroughly understood, not just the economics of energy use, but also the psychology behind it. His account of rebound effects, which mean that greater efficiency can sometimes lead to more rather than less use (pp. 49-63), and of the four elements of the Kaya graph (population, affluence, energy intensity, carbon intensity, pp 64ff), is masterful, and clearly shows how he understands, and avoids, simplistic solutions.
What point is this book, written with Duncan Clark and prefaced by Bill McKibben, making? The authors ask the question, can we risk using all the oil, coal, and gas in the ground? And their answer is no: if we do, we put into the atmosphere five times the amount that the IPCC deems safe. That means that those fossil fuel reserves must be written off, with all that that implies, not just for the companies and sovereign wealth funds that own them, but for the economies (and pension funds) underpinned by that wealth. It is a breathtaking challenge - or, as they rightly put it, a Burning Question! They do not play down the magnitude of the challenge, but they argue that desperate cases require desperate remedies: in the words of the famous Prime Minister, 'There is no alternative'.
Are they right? As with everything, it depends on your point of view. For me the excellence of the book - I do not use the word idly - lies in the way it brings to our attention the magnitude of the consequences if we do choose to embrace the low-carbon route. Berners Lee and Clark are warmists, convinced that the threat of global warming is real, present, and major. I am a lukewarmist, someone who believes that global warming is (currently) happening, but isn't the biggest challenge faced by humans - or the planet. (That's why I can only give it four stars.) What does this mean for the way I respond, not to the book as a whole, but to the solutions it puts forward?
First, I am very uneasy about anything that threatens growth. In my view (and for what it's worth), increasing prosperity is a good thing, and will by the end of the century lead to a smaller world population with a lower 'human footprint' bearing down less heavily on the domesticated and wild animals and the plant and marine ecosystems of the world. The costs of leaving fossil fuels in the ground are huge - the authors estimate it at $25,000 for every man, woman, and child in the world. That's serious money.
Secondly, I am very sceptical about renewables. I think the technology is immature; I think there is a huge opportunity cost (renewables use money which could be spent, for example, on insulation); I don't think there is the energy density in the atmosphere to support wind energy; and most renewables suffer cripplingly from the problem of intermittence, the fact that we can't store the energy they generate for use when we need it. The latest evidence from Germany, in my view, supports this. I see renewables as a way of shifting money from poor people (by 2030 the UK will have spent £130BN on wind turbines, or over £4,000 per taxpayer) to rich people (most wind turbines are built by developers, on land owned by ... well, landowners). And I don't like that.
But the main objection, in my view, is simply that it ain't going to happen. It's hard enough for politicians in the 'good guy' countries of Western Europe to get their people to make sacrifices (see Tony Blair, 9 Jan 2007, quoted on p230 of David MacKay 2009). It's much more improbable that China and Russia will fall into line. But as I write, the conflict in Syria has been dragging on for three years; two hundred Nigerian girls are still kidnapped; the ISIS/ISIL Caliphate has just been announced in Iraq. These are huge international challenges which the international community does not know how to solve: and the players in these states have no time, and no interest, in global warming. And in case you think this is just about militant Islam, let's not forget the Rwanda crisis, where hymn-singing Christian Rwandans murdered other Rwandan Christians, men, women, and children, in hundreds of thousands. Is this a world in which we are going to get political consensus on making people poorer (or on anything)? Will the turkeys vote for Christmas?
So the value of this excellent book for me is not to create an avenue - it's to block one off. Having looked at the options put forward by the authors, it seems to me that it just ain't going to happen. As soon as possible we need to go nuclear - but we knew that anyway. In the meantime the only option I can see is to take the subsidies away from renewables and CCS and go for the two strategies that we know can work and which amount to the same thing: greater prosperity, and greater resilience. As the old saying has it - I feel ever so much better, now that I've given up hope.