The ice caps are melting. Within a few years the North Pole will likely be ice-free for the first time in 10,000 years, causing what some call the “Arctic death spiral.” In the following excerpt from A Farewell to Ice, Peter Wadhams explains what we can do today to fight climate change.
What can we do, both individually and collectively, to try to save the world? There is a massive list, of course, but I will pick out a few actions that might make a real difference.
First, counter with all the power at your disposal the sewage-flow of lies and deceit emitted by climate change deniers and others who wish us to do nothing and hope that it all goes away. It will not go away. Be especially vigilant of the sinuous misrepresentations of politicians, from prime ministers downwards, and look out for glaring anomalies between what they say and what they do. When they sign up to a solemn international agreement in Paris to radically curb carbon emissions, then withdraw the feed‑in tariff on solar power, fail to support renewable energy research and development, and seek to expand fossil fuel use through fracking, you know they are hypocrites and you can point out to your elected representatives that they will lose your vote unless they shape up. Scientists who study climate change should be among the first to speak up, and should be prepared to risk the blighting of their careers and the absence of establishment honours. At least they will no longer be burned at the stake, and, as the reality of climate change begins to bite, scientists who have had the courage to speak out will be respected rather than being abused and threatened.
Second, in your own life adopt every possible measure that will reduce unnecessary energy use, especially of fossil fuels. Why are more homes not insulated? This is the most energy-effective thing that you can do to your house, and from time to time a reluctant government even offers grants to assist you. Drive an economical car or ride a bike – many commutes and other types of journey in a town or city can be managed very effectively by electric bicycle. Install solar panels on your roof, even if you don’t receive a feed‑in subsidy.
“…as the reality of climate change begins to bite, scientists who have had the courage to speak out will be respected rather than being abused and threatened.”
Third, on a national scale, insist that the government changes the basis of power generation. Britain is particularly remiss in this respect. In 2015, 82 per cent of our energy still came from fossil fuels. We are world leaders in the inventive development of wave power and current turbines, and have the marine environment to exploit these new ideas, whether it be our wave-lashed west coast, the fast-flowing currents between the Orkneys, or the Severn bore. Yet only pitiful amounts of funding support come from the government for the pioneers of these new energy systems. Only recently, innovative and deserving wave power companies have closed down for lack of support. The UK has huge wind resources, but has never even tried to manufacture wind turbines, leaving this to Denmark. Solar photovoltaic power is becoming cheaper all the time, and is suitable not only for home use but for larger solar farms, even in the grey UK. The problem of energy storage, which is a real one (the sun doesn’t shine at night), is near solution, both from bigger batteries and from flow conversion systems, which store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks, which work something like fuel cells and which can store massive quantities of energy limited only by tank size. A Harvard laboratory led by Professor Michael Aziz came up with a successful flow conversion system in 2014 using quinones (organic compounds) as fluids. All that is needed to put such schemes into practical operation is whole-hearted support from governments. Any plea (as in the UK) that there is no money because of austerity is bogus, because renewable energy is – in fact, has to be – the energy source of the future, so we have to adapt to it and should lead the change so that our own industry can build the new technology.
On an international scale, as I have said, the overwhelmingly important need is to undertake a colossal scientific and technical research programme on geoengineering and on carbon dioxide removal. Geoengineering is necessary to hold warming back, because we are unlikely to reduce our carbon emissions fast enough, but there are huge questions of science, engineering, and governance which need to be solved before we can proceed safely. We could, of course, simply build some cloud brightening systems and/or some aerosol distribution networks and try them out. Stephen Salter, for instance, has devised a sensitive test to see whether a vapour injection system is actually having a detectable effect or not. But if we want to be safer we have to develop a research programme on modelling the impact of geoengineering techniques before we start to deploy them on a large scale.
Most important of all is the need to find a way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is the only thing that we can really do to save the world, so we had better do it while we still have the technical capacity and the civilization to sustain it. I have shown all the drawbacks to the various indirect techniques of CO2 removal that have been suggested, from crushed rocks to biochar to afforestation and BECCS. The only one that can really save us is the direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through some device which sucks ordinary air in at one end and emits it again at the other minus its CO2 content, and does so at a less than impossible price. It is a problem in chemistry, physics, and technology, a giant problem, but not one that is greater than that of building a huge bomb out of a reaction which previously was only observed among single atoms in a laboratory. It is the most important problem that the world faces. If we solve it, our human civilization can continue, and we can devote our energies to all our other myriad challenges, from overpopulation to water and food shortages, disease and war. If we don’t solve it, we are finished. Along the way we will have said a farewell to ice, but if we stabilize our atmosphere and climate the ice may return for our descendants to wonder at and enjoy.
Featured image credit: “cold-glacier-iceland-melting” by Jaymantri. CC0 via Pexels.