Monday, February 11, 2008

A new (to me) take on global warming

George Will argues that the human cost of global warming is "cheaper" than the cost of maintaining or improving the global temperature. By cheaper, I mean that the threat to humanity and to our ability to survive and thrive as a society. As Will says, an important question is: "How much are they willing to pay—in direct expenditures, forgone economic growth, inefficiencies and constricted freedom—in order to have a negligible effect on climate change?"

Will approaches the problems of environmental concern with a quite pragmatic vantage point, but I think what he underscores (indirectly) is helpful: there are things that we fail to consider when we look at such problems. Often, our solutions appear to be what is best for now, only to create new problems down the line.

Think, for example, of the problem of our reliance on fossil fuels for so many parts of life, but especially transportation. For many, the obvious solution is hybrid and all-electric technology to power cars. But the long-term effects of this may be even worse than depleting fossil fuels: such vehicles require enormous batteries that will, eventually, be disposed of; where will we put them? Is there a clear plan in place to efficiently recycle them so that we don't end up with even more waste (and fairly hazardous waste, at that) in our landfills?

It may be better, instead, to focus on utilizing natural gas (another fossil fuel, ironically) as the next step for fueling our cars and trucks-- it burns very cleanly, and we have it in abundance-- the main issue is one of distribution. Meanwhile, batteries can continue to reduce in size and our ability to recycle them will also improve.

A similar concern is with regard to electrical power: for years, environmental activists have asserted that our current (primarily coal-powered) power grid is a threat to our ecosystem, especially with more than 35% of our CO
2 emissions coming from them, causing harm to our atmosphere. Yet, the same activists have long maintained that nuclear power-- which has the unique ability to create incredibly large amounts of electricity without atmospheric repercussions-- is equally as dangerous in other ways.

However, Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace (one of the loudest voices about such concerns) has recently made
a bold statement reversing his position on the matter. Moore's argument is that we need to give a second look to nuclear as a truly viable alternative to burning coal.

Still, the long-term costs must be accounted for: though nuclear power plants are not the threat to the well-being of those around them they once were feared to be, an increase of nuclear power plants represents a corresponding increase of nuclear waste that must be disposed of carefully and safely. The question of what sort of legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren is
one that we must consider. With continuing improvements in realms such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar power (the Japanese have made substantial advances with solar, in particular), there are better long-term alternatives.

And I have to wonder (and as a Pastor, feel compelled to wonder aloud): is the stewardship we are called to exercise as Christians best understood as simply improving our technology? How about simply reducing our demand for it? Driving less, riding in carpools when possible, and implementing alternative means of transportation come to mind when gas prices are up-- why not at other times? Using space heaters, efficient gas logs, and other forms of more localized heating during winter are great alternatives to simply turning up the thermostat. And there are surely other ways to reduce our collective demand for local, national, and global use of energy and fuels.

What are some ways that you can think of to reduce demand and improve stewardship?

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