IDEAS: Developing a sustained capacity for realistic thinking

Only science can save us from climate catastrophe

If there was ever an example of humankind being unable to bear too much reality, it is the current debate on climate change. No reasonable person any longer doubts that the world is heating up or that this change has been triggered by human activity. Aside from a dwindling band that rejects the clear findings of science, everyone accepts that we face an unprecedented challenge. At the same time, there is a pervasive belief that this is a crisis that can be solved by feelgood gestures such as eating organic foods and refusing to fly or installing a wind turbine on the roof

When it comes to deciding what should be done, most people, including the majority of environmentalists, shrink from the discomfort that goes with realistic thinking. George W Bush seems to have been persuaded that climate science is not a left-wing conspiracy to destroy the American economy. Along with the rest of our political leaders, however, he continues to insist there are no limits to growth. As long as we adopt new technologies that are supposedly environment-friendly, such as biofuels, economic expansion can go on as before.

At the other end of the spectrum, greens put their faith in sustainable growth and renewable energy. The root of the environmental crisis, they say – and here they agree with Bush – is our addiction to fossil fuels. If only we switch to wind, wave and solar power, all will be well.

In political terms, Bush and the greens could not be further apart, but they are as one in resisting the most fundamental fact about the environmental crisis, which is that it cannot be resolved without a major reduction in our impact on the Earth. This means curbing the production of greenhouse gases, but here fashionable policies can be self-defeating. The shift to biofuels, led by Bush but which is also underway in other parts of the world involves further destruction of rainforest, a key natural regulator of the climate. Reducing emissions while destroying the planet’s natural mechanisms for soaking them up is not a solution. It is a recipe for disaster.

Yet standard green prescriptions are not much better. Many renewables are not as efficient or as eco-friendly as they are made out to be. Unsightly and inefficient wind farms will not enable us to give up fossil fuels, while large-scale hydroelectric power has major environmental costs. Moving over to organic methods of food production can have significant benefits in terms of animal welfare and reducing fuel costs, but it does nothing to stop the devastation of wilderness that goes with expanding farming to feed a swelling human population. [complete article]

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