Global warming? Leave it to human ingenuity

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In this article John explains how human ingenuity is the most likely answer to environmental concerns in the future as it has been in the past.

Is it climate change, or only summer? Carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming. But we have no firm evidence of the size of the effect. Nor do we know what is happening to the background temperature, which fluctuates considerably through natural causes. A climate change industry of environmentalists, scientists, politicians and bureaucrats has come into being, demanding attention and funding. They describe the future with a certainty they cannot legitimately have.

But they may be right, and the consequences of a rapid rise in world temperatures are sufficiently grave for us to take the issue seriously. The measures in the Kyoto protocol, even if they were implemented, are virtually irrelevant. If there is a problem, they are wholly inadequate; if there is not, they are a costly waste of time.

If there is a 20 per cent chance of rain, you do not wear 20 per cent of an overcoat. You keep an umbrella handy. And we should respond to the threat of global warming in the same way – by giving ourselves options. The environmental equivalent of the umbrella is an alternative technology that can be economically deployed on a large scale.

Nuclear power – the only important new fuel of the past century – is one possibility. But nuclear power has not succeeded, for a mixture of economic, political and technical reasons. Most complex systems – like the human body – shut down when they fail. But nuclear power is hard to contain and must be kept in check by a battery of safety measures.

When reactors were designed, no one thought that bored engineers would play Ukrainian roulette – as at Chernobyl – or that anyone might aim a jumbo jet at a reactor core. These risks, once identified, can be minimised. But scientists can never honestly give us the assurance we seek.

Hydrogen cells are an alternative to internal combustion engines. Manufacturing hydrogen itself requires energy; but that energy is used efficiently and can be generated from economic renewables – solar power in sunny spots and windmills in blustery climes. Nuclear fusion seems to meet every requirement: it is clean, can generate power almost without limit and has the fail-safe property – it stops when you stop feeding it – that existing fission technologies lack. But for decades now we have been “20 years away” from constructing commercially viable fusion reactors and perhaps it will always be so.

At the end of the 19th century, scientists expressed concern that exhausting the stocks of guano would lead to mass starvation. The world would run out of the artificial fertilisers that had made it possible to feed a rapidly growing population. We were using more bird droppings than birds were dropping. The cause was taken up by moralists and millennialists, who explained that economic development must be halted and said we must adopt a simpler way of life.

None of these things happened. We did not eat less, procreate less, or use household compost to grow our own vegetables. The problem was solved, completely and permanently, by the invention of a process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. And no one has complained about a shortage of bird shit for nearly 100 years. The history of modern applied science is that when it is necessary to find alternatives, human ingenuity and commercial incentives fund them.

Economics governs our behaviour. So forget insulating the hot water tank, bicycling to work, and walk-to-school day. The main value of these activities is the virtuous feeling they create in those who engage in them. If we need to rely on them to save the planet, the planet is indeed in danger. And so the coterie of industry special interests around US President George W. Bush is more likely to come up with answers to climate change than environmental activists; and funding for research in new fuel technologies is more significant than the unimplementable Kyoto protocol. Moral humbug is a resource in plentiful supply but low in effectiveness. Better to use the resource of human ingenuity, efficient in problem solving and almost infinite in availability.

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