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Pursuit of profit won’t solve climate crisis

Every answer has a cost. Every choice exacts a penalty. A new book reminds readers there are no easy answers to the climate crisis.

Resolving the climate crisis demands radical political change, a British author argues: the end of free market capitalism.

You could turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant wind farm and it still wouldn’t generate all of the UK’s current energy demand. That is because only 2 per cent of the solar energy that slams into and powers the whole planet on a daily basis is converted into wind, and most of that is either high in the jet stream or far out to sea.

Hydropower could in theory supply most of or perhaps even all the energy needs of 7 billion humans, but only if every drop that falls as rain was saved to power the most perfectly efficient turbines.

And that too is wildly unrealistic, says Mike Berners-Lee in his thoughtful and stimulating new paperback There Is No Planet B. He adds: “Thank goodness, as it would mean totally doing away with mountain streams and even, if you really think about it, hillsides.”

This is a book for people who really want to think about the state of the world, and how to get to zero-carbon emissions as swiftly as possible, and in a way that preserves a decent life for the 11 billion or so who will people the planet by 2050. And, of course, everything boils down to energy

Fit for purpose democracy entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good.

Mike Berners-Lee, author, There Is No Planet B

Enough for everyone

The sun delivers around 16,300 kilowatts to the Earth’s surface for every person on the planet: enough, he says, to boil an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water for each and every one.

Solar panels that covered just 0.1 per cent of the total land surface (think of a small country just 366 kilometres square) could meet all of today’s human energy needs. But human demand for energy is growing at 2.4 per cent a year. If this goes on, then in 300 years, human demand would need solar panels over every square metre of land surface.

The message from every page of this book is that we need to think, and think again. We could of course think about using the energy we have more efficiently, but history suggests there might be a catch.

The catch is now called the Jevons Paradox, after William Stanley Jevons who in 1863 (he was thinking at the time about the exploitation of coal) pointed out that energy efficiency tends to lead to increases in demand, because that’s how humans respond to plenty: they want even more of it.

So we don’t just have to think again, we have to rethink the whole basis of human behaviour. This means switching to vegetarian or vegan dietsabandoning plastic packaging, and cutting down on air travel (powered by biofuels, if we must, but the biofuel business is lunacy—he uses the word “bonkers”—in energy terms).

But these are small things. The big and not necessarily entirely popular message of the book is that we must change politically. Free market capitalism or neoliberalism or any pursuit entirely and only for profit cannot deliver answers to the coming climate crisis.

Professor Berners-Lee takes a lesson from simple physics: wealth is, or ought to be, shared the way kinetic energy is shared around the planet.

When molecules of a gas collide, they redistribute energy, just as when people catch a bus or buy a sandwich, they redistribute wealth. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution law says that you rarely get one atom or molecule with more than 10 times the average energy, and almost never with more than 20 times the average energy.

And if human wealth was distributed according to the same law the total wealth would not change, and some people would still be richer than others, but the median wealth—the income of the person right in the middle—would be a massive 79 per cent of the mean or average. That’s better than the share of wealth in the fair nation of Iceland. So it would be a manifestly fairer world.

Fairer resource-sharing

If the world shared its wealth (and wealth is a proxy for energy resources) more fairly, then it might be a great deal easier to be sure of democratic assent and international co-operation for radical shifts in the way we manage our food, water, transport and our precarious natural wealth in the form of biodiversity: all the wild birds, mammals, fish amphibians, reptiles, plants, fungi and microbes on which humankind ultimately depends.

The above is just a small sample of a rich, thought-provoking and easy-to-enjoy text. Berners-Lee doesn’t have all the answers, and admits as much, but he does know how to frame a lot of questions in illuminating ways.

He has packed his book with explanatory notes, supporting evidence and definitions, one of them being the case for democracy in the world of the Anthropocene.

“Fit for purpose democracy”, he warns, “entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good.” A book like this could help us get there. 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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