Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SHAME ON

WIRED MAGAZINE: ISSUE 16.06





It is really unfortunate that WIRED saw fit to pass on so much superficiality (and some down right errors) in its special section on global warming. This will sell magazines the same way that climate change skepticism does -- by toying with ignorance. But in this vital area -- that will being affecting all of us -- we really need deep education rather than puff and flame. WIRED has stooped toward the lower and more ignorant poles of the discourse. It's sad to see such an important topic reduced to tabloid treatment.

Here are some brief comments on the various sections (with links to the WIRED text).

CITIES

High density metropolitan area centers are definitely much more efficient than suburbs. But there are cities and cities. A lot of it is about car use. Manhattan is probably one of the best in the world because driving is so impossible and it has a great subway. On the other hand, modernist Brasilia is heading toward being one of the worst because it is completely auto-dependent. But cities are efficient, for example, it is much more efficient to heat/cool people in buildings than in single family homes. The critical questions really don't focus on cities but should deal with out-of-control suburban sprawl.

AIR-CONDITIONING

True, cooling takes less energy than heating. Of course, it's all relative to base temperatures and how comfortable people want to be. If heating and cooling become adopted as comfort symbols in tropical zones where it can also turn pretty cool, it will have a tremendous impact. In Brazil, for example, people generally have no heating or cooling or expensive insulation in their homes. They simply dress for the weather which is much more efficient than trying to heat and cool all of those boxes. And, the writer seems to reveal his urban intellectual bias with his bucolic image of the country dweller chopping wood and siting around the pot-bellied stove. When I lived in the Oregon backcountry most people had already shifted to more efficient oil heaters precisely because of their awareness of the environmental consequences.

ORGANICS

Food questions are real tricky. In general I like the lines of thinking presented by Michael Polan here and here. I think the bottom line conclusion is correct that both eating less meat and eating foods grown locally are extremely important. In Brazil, for example, it is the expansion of range for cattle that is the first line of cutting and burning the forest. Feed lot production would be much more efficient and reduce deforestation.

FORESTS

This one is simply off-the-wall crazy. Yes, forests are carbon neutral and not carbon negative, recycling rather that sequestering carbon across the very long term. The Canadian study is correct -- standing forests do not capture and sequester MORE carbon if they have reached maturity and equilibrium. So Canada can't get carbon offset funds to meet its Kyoto obligations by claiming its mature forests are removing and storing carbon (especially since climate change is already producing drought and more forest fires). But the issue is totally different -- it is about DEFORESTATION. Suddenly enormous amounts of stored CO2 are released from disturbed soil, from burning, from processing much of wood fiber into many short-term products like paper. Thus, 1000s of years of carbon stored stored in tree trunks and soil can be propelled into the atmosphere in a single logging season. It is all even much more problematic in the tropics where the soils degrade so quickly that forests may never return. This is why Brazil is hoping for REDD funds (carbon credits for avoided deforestation). In the temperate zones, (contrary to the interpretation given) it absolutely essential to protect places like the pictured Redwoods and the Headwaters Forest precisely because they don't burn.

CHINA

I agree. China is the main experimental location of the interface between population, development and environment. Technological innovation will emerge in China out of necessity. One caution though is the dynamic of global trade -- it might be cheaper for China to get commodities and resources from Brazil than to become more efficient at home in some areas. It's the old story of where you put the waste and destruction. The rich generally "outsource" it to poorer areas within their own countries or abroad. So, the truth is that we are globally connected and technological innovations in places like Brazil will be very important in determining the ultimate viability of the Chinese experiment.

GENETIC ENGINEERING

Genetically engineered crops are here to stay. They will produce many new advantages. The problem (mostly) will be that some crops will be so successful that they will come to dominate everywhere and natural biodiversity and variation will be lost. A simplified gene pool and less-varied agriculture will also be a weakened and more vulnerable agriculture. Nature's insurance policy is biodiversity which increases the chances that when abrupt or unforeseen changes occur there will be something available with good adaptive qualities. Nature shifts around all the time. The labs are going to be challenged to keep up with it all. Don't toss out the results of eons of natural evolution.

CARBON TRADING

This one really suffers from shallowness. The issue is very complicated and responses will probably involve a mixture of markets and taxes.
Fortune magazine predicts that a 3 trillion dollar carbon market is coming. The problem is working out the details and the devil is always in the details. It will take many years and much trial and error to reach a stable institutional platform for dealing with carbon but it's coming for sure and its architecture will include both trading and taxes.

NUCLEAR POWER

[UPDATE: May 30, 2008 WorldChanging ran an interesting article by Amory Lovins that says, "The punch line: nuclear expansion buys two to 10 times less climate protection per dollar, far slower than its winning competitors."]

I think this one has the correct drift but there are still big problems of waste disposal, relative costs, political will and weapons proliferation. Nuclear is coming but not for all. For example Google, facing the uncomfortable fact that the Internet will soon be the single largest draw-down of electrical energy, is now betting on solar technology.

USED CARS

Right now used cars are the better deal. Mass transportation often is even better, especially in metropolitan areas. Currently excessive car ownership is concentrated in the developed world but autos are quickly becoming a status symbol for rising middle classes worldwide -- even in street-clogged cities of India. We need to find something better than used cars.

THE WORST CASE

Yes, the greenhouse gas load already traveling into the atmosphere is going to push the tipping points. Adaptation is going to be more and more important. But like personal health it's got to be a mixture of prevention, cure and acceptance.


1 comment:

Odin said...

Hi Lou! This is Marcio, the guy who installed your Nero another day. =)
Very nice your blog !
See ya !