US left behind in technological race to fight climate change  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

George Monbiot has a look at a talk by US energy secretary, Steven Chu, at the Copenhagen conference - US left behind in technological race to fight climate change.

I have just been watching the tragic sight of a fallen giant flailing around on its back like a beetle, desperately trying to turn itself over.

The occasion was a speech by the US secretary of energy, Steven Chu. He is, of course, a Nobel physicist, brilliant, modest, likeable, a delightful contrast to the thugs employed by the previous administration. But his speech was, in the true sense of the word, pathetic: it moved me to pity.

Yesterday afternoon in Copenhagen – where the UN climate talks are entering their second week – Professor Chu unveiled what would have been a series of inspiring innovations, had he made this speech 15 years ago. Barely suppressing his excitement, he told us the US has discovered there is great potential for making fridges more efficient, and that the same principle could even be extended to lighting, heating and whole buildings. The Department of Energy is so thrilled by this discovery that it has launched a programme to retrofit homes in the US, on which it will spend $400m a year.

To put this in perspective, four years ago the German government announced it would spend the equivalent of $1.6bn a year on the same job: as a result every house in Germany should be airtight and well insulated by 2025. The US has about 110m households; Germany has roughly 37m, and German homes were more energy-efficient in the first place. This $400m is a drop in the ocean.

Professor Chu went on to explain two amazing new discoveries: a camera which can see how much heat is leaking from your home and a meter which allows you to audit your own energy use. Perhaps thermal imaging cameras and energy monitors seem new and exciting in the US, but on this side of the Atlantic, though their full potential is still a long way from being realised, they've been familiar for more than a decade.

He thrilled us with another US innovation, a technology called pumped storage: water can be pumped up a hill when electricity is cheap and released when it's expensive. The UK started building its first pumped storage plant, Dinorwig, in 1974. Then he told us about a radical system for heating buildings by extracting heat from water: this must have been the one that the Royal Festival Hall used in 1951.

I'm sure these technologies have in fact been deployed for years in parts of the US. My point is that Chu appeared to believe that they represent the cutting edge of both technology and public policy.

The energy secretary explained that the US is now making "a very big investment" in developing and testing new components for wind turbines. The "very big investment" is $70m, which is what the US spends on subsidies and forgoes in tax breaks for fossil fuels every two days.

As if to hammer home the point that the Department of Energy seems to be stuck in a time-warp, and as if to highlight the sad decline of technological innovation in the US, Chu finished his talk with a disquisition on the beauty of the earth as seen by the Apollo astronauts.

What has happened to the great pioneering nation, the economic superpower which once drove innovation everywhere? How did it end up so far behind much smaller economies in boring old Europe? How come, when the rest of the developed world has moved on, it suddenly looks like a relic of the Soviet Union, with filthy, inefficient industries, vast opencast coal mines and cars and appliances which belong in the 1950s.

The SMH also has a bit of a rant by Monbiot - The rapacious will not give up without a fight
The Copenhagen climate summit is a battle to redefine humanity.

This is the moment at which we turn and face ourselves. Here, in the plastic corridors and crowded stalls, among impenetrable texts and withering procedures, humankind decides whether to continue living as it has done, until it must make a wasteland of its home, or to stop and redefine itself.

The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint, in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.

This is a battle between two world views. The angry men who seek to derail this agreement, and all such limits on their self-fulfilment, have understood this better than we have. A new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere, demands to trample on the lives of others as if this were a human right.

The angry men cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. They accuse those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but know at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits. ...

Although the delegates are waking up to the scale of their responsibility, I still believe they will sell us out. Everyone wants his last adventure. Hardly anyone among the official parties can accept the implications of living within our means.

There will, they tell themselves, always be another frontier, another means to escape our constraints, to dump our dissatisfactions on other places and other people. Economic growth is the magic formula that allows our conflicts to remain unresolved.

While economies grow, social justice is unnecessary, as lives can be improved without redistribution. While economies grow, people need not confront their elites. While economies grow, we can keep buying our way out of trouble. But, like the bankers, we stave off trouble today only by multiplying it tomorrow.

Through economic growth we are borrowing time at punitive rates of interest. It ensures that any cuts agreed at Copenhagen will eventually be outstripped.

Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it's only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil.

We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accommodated on a finite planet.

For all their earnest self-restraint, the negotiators are still not serious, even about climate change. There's another great unmentionable here: supply. Most of the nation states tussling at Copenhagen have two fossil-fuel policies. One is to minimise demand, by encouraging us to reduce our consumption.

The other is to maximise supply, by encouraging companies to extract as much from the ground as they can.

We know, from the papers published in Nature in April, that we can use a maximum of 60 per cent of current reserves of coal, oil and gas if the average global temperature is not to rise by more than 2 degrees. We can burn much less if, as many poorer countries now insist, we seek to prevent the temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees. We know that capture and storage will dispose of just a small fraction of the carbon in these fuels.

There are two obvious conclusions: governments must decide which existing reserves of fossil fuel are to be left in the ground, and they must introduce a global moratorium on prospecting for new reserves. Neither of these proposals has even been mooted for discussion.

And to close, the ABC has the long awaited debate between Monbiot and Australian climate pseudo-scientist Ian Plimer (who spends an amazing amount of time avoiding answering any direct question - maybe he used to be a politician) - Plimer, Monbiot cross swords in climate debate.

(embedded video removed as I can't make it stop playing automatically)


HO has some comments on Monbiot's article on the Chu presentation:

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