10 March 2013 3 comments

Is the climate changing on climate change?

One of the great triumphs of modern times is our ability to communicate at the speed of light. Things burst onto our consciousness in an instant – think Arab Spring and the ability organise mass action in a flash. But like so many things that grow fast, they die fast too. It seems to be a sad reflection of the times that our attention span is becoming shorter and shorter. New ideas race in, crowding out the old before they have had time to mature and turn from campaign to action.  Thus it seems with climate change.

OK so this didn’t emerge at the speed of light – but following a long period of almost silent gestation in the great halls of science and in the back alleys of politics, climate change issues seemed suddenly to grab the public consciousness. Ten years ago I was still explaining climate change to bewildered London cabbies who thought me a little odd. Five years ago, though, it was the other way around. Cabbies were telling me about the latest conferences on the Kyoto protocol. Newspapers were full of it, and it seems no morning on Radio 4 was complete without Roger Harrabin discussing some aspect of climate change. Then came President Obama, with his spine tingling inauguration speech repudiating the denialism of the Bush years. That moment, four years ago, marked for me the high water mark of hope on climate change. For the first time there was a realistic prospect that the world’s greatest power would take on the world’s greatest challenge. That was the moment when we could all believe that the rhetoric would turn to action; nations might stop quibbling and start saving; and we could all stop trying to negotiate with Physics and start instead using it to re-configure energy.

How wrong we were. Obama staked his presidency on Healthcare, not Climate. Endless conferences did nothing more than ooze intent to think about doing something sometime. And, it seems in no time, climate change had moved from the front pages to the backwaters! If you ask the editors, and the journalists who write for them, it seems it’s our fault. The public had its moment of focus, and has moved on. Short tempered ministers, badly behaved celebrities, and a hundred other trivia have crowded out the most important crisis ever to face mankind. The record loss of Arctic sea ice this summer barely registered in the public consciousness. It seems that even the potential of global catastrophe can only manage its allotted 15 minutes of fame.

So what now? Obama may have a new mandate but climate change barely figured in his campaign. Here, in the UK, Her Majesty’s Government is busy disassembling any evidence that the slogan ‘Vote Blue to Go Green’ might once have mattered. For completely different reasons, both Germany and Japan have renounced nuclear power, one of the few forms of low carbon energy that could both keep our standard of living up and the temperature down. In all the talk of stimulating growth there is barely a whisper of making it green.

Thus, on the face of it, we are in deep trouble. We have no political consensus, no international agreement and an indifferent public. More campaigning probably won’t help. If anything there is a real risk it will turn people off even more.

So let’s look at what we need in a new energy economy. It boils down to three things: better ways of capturing energy from nature; better ways of using energy; and last, but far from least, better ways of storing energy. There is a huge range of exciting ideas coming off the drawing boards, spurred by those headlines of five years ago. Wind turbines can now compete with coal; solar power is becoming cheaper by the day; and although slow to start, new batteries are emerging that will match nature’s energy supply with customer demand. Add in the new generation of safer nuclear technologies, such as the Chinese are developing using Thorium, and the energy supply side looks promising.

Consumption, too, is set to change. Motoring is set for a dramatic transformation – with fuel consumption falling like a stone as the new generation of affordable plug-in hybrids hits the road. Efficient, high quality, LED lights are rapidly becoming the norm, and efficient appliances are already with us. The new gadgets will be bought because they are simply better than the old. LED lights last for years not months, efficient appliances cost pennies to run, and electric cars are quieter, quicker, and cheaper to run than petrol ones. It’s the better customer experience, not the green campaign or international conference, that will ultimately change our world.

So has the climate changed for Climate Change? Yes. But has activity evaporated? No – far from it. It’s just gone underground out of sight for a bit. When the new technologies emerge – get ready for a roller coaster ride as we ditch the old for the new faster than we dumped the horse and cart in favour of the motor car.

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  1. Caspar Henderson 10 March 2013 at 3:45 pm

    I sincerely hope the optimism is warranted Mike! I agree with your triumvirate. With regard to the last of the three, energy storage, my understanding — based on all too little research for an overview article last year — is that we’re likely to be looking at a great range of technologies, from traditional pumped hydro, though (perhaps) cryo-air and advances in battery technology (to name only a few) but that few thing there are single decisive game changer technologies at scale and cost. Also, a lot else needs to be in place: medium to long term decisions on energy investment, mix etc.

  2. Mike Mason 10 March 2013 at 4:19 pm

    The big challenge will be seasonal storage, not daily storage. With daily storage you use the battery or whatever 365 times a year – so you get value for money. With seasonal storage you use it but once a year! That makes the electricity it delivers really expensive.

    Think about heating our homes in the UK – we can’t have gas – (see http://co2.org/?p=8) – so we have to deliver a vast amount of power in a few month of the year. The energy involved has to be stored over the entire year, then released in a few months. That’s the challenge now.

  3. Sophia Henri 11 March 2013 at 9:28 am

    As the inevitable wave of anti-nuclear power hits on the second anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi today, the voices behind huge strides being made in new, safer, cleaner nuclear technology need to be raised above the storm.
    As you say, significant progress is being made on a range of clean energy technology which merits exposure and investment, but existing nuclear power is the fastest solution to meeting the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions. Evolving to new nuclear has little hope of engaging public support unless the promise of a cleaner nuclear future is taken seriously and a pathway articulated.
    You’re right that hope is now the most compelling message to get out to industry, policy makers and the public, and we need a viable, time-scaled solution to push climate change back up the agenda in the context of a fast, effective and viable clean energy future.

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