Fossil fuels and climate change: is it time for an attitude adjustment?
The sight of a wind turbine on the horizon should be a cause for celebration in the face of climate change, says James Reeler.
Many holiday-makers know the route between Somerset West and Hermanus. After Sir Lowry’s Pass the road follows the curves of the mountain, and you’re surrounded by apple orchards, vineyards and lush vegetation. But that moment when you breast the Houwhoek Pass and the road curves down to the left always fills me with a tingle of anticipation. Setting down the mountainside, the landscape opens up in front of you: the hamlet of Bot River surrounded by rolling hills of canola and wheat stretching out to the blue mountains past Caledon. It’s breathtaking.
For the past five years there has been a significant addition to that otherwise determinedly pastoral landscape in the form of nine gleaming white wind turbines. I know a number of folks who fought to prevent the wind farm from coming into being. The strongest argument that will strike a particular resonance within the heart of the plattelander is that they are ugly and not in keeping with the rural beauty of the landscape. They’re far from bucolic, but for me those quiet sentinels have only made the view more stunning. Because, aside from the hypnotic whirl of the blades and the tiny impact they’ve made on the wholeheartedly productive fields, these elegant towers signify the fact that it is possible to deliver basic human needs without destroying the planet.
Compared with gaping wounds coal leaves on the landscape, acidic waters and human health impacts, these towers are beauty itself. They show that we need not relinquish every modern luxury in the effort to protect our grandchildren. But the urgency of climate change is such that we must build more of them, and urgently.
CLIMATE CHANGE has been part of my world-view since soon after I donned my first khaki school shorts. Back in the 1980s, this was not a contentious thing to be taught – because the science was effectively settled. Even the major oil companies like Exxon and Total openly agreed that climate change was real, before they embarked on their systematic campaign of disinformation. Following the example of the tobacco companies’ smokescreen, they funded studies and publicity to obscure the science, raising false objections and straw man arguments, and generally sowing the impression that what they knew very well to be true was in fact not the case. Their cause was helped by the fact that it’s hard to link any particular event to climate change, leading many to disregard the threat or at least wonder whether the scientists’ increasingly dire predictions are based on reality. So while climate scientists have been nearly unanimous in their call to action, many people harboured the illusion that climate change was no more certain than next week’s weather prediction.
After the past few years, there really should be no doubt in anyone’s mind. Climate change itself doesn’t cause events like floods and droughts. But it does worsen their impacts, making the rain fall harder, the wind blow faster and the temperatures climb higher. This is reflected in the increasing intensity of hurricanes over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the “migration” of quiver trees southwards to escape the expanding Namib Desert. In 2016, eight of South Africa’s nine provinces were declared drought disaster areas, and while Durban experiences huge floods, Cape Town is wilting under the sun of two years of the worst rainfall ever recorded. UCT climate scientist Dr Piotr Wolski has calculated that under normal climate conditions the Cape would not expect to see another such dry period within a thousand years; but even as farmers in Grabouw are pinching out blossoms on their fruit trees to prevent fruiting and help them survive the year, they’re wondering whether this really could be “the new normal”.
THE TRUTH IS that it’s only likely to get worse. The average global temperature is currently just under one degree hotter than before the industrial revolution, and if we continue on our current path, the world will certainly warm by between two and three degrees more by the end of the century.
At that point, summer temperatures could render parts of the world permanently uninhabitable, yields of many staple crops could plummet, and climate chaos will likely lead to millions of refugees fleeing natural disasters on monumental scales.
The relevance of my mention of the industrial revolution above is this: the single biggest driver of the industrial revolution and modern economy is the availability of cheap energy. And the biggest driver of climate change is the carbon dioxide that’s emitted when we burn fossil fuels such as oil and coal to provide that energy – either as fuel for vehicles or as heat, light and electricity to power our industries and devices. Carbon dioxide (and other gases like methane) trap heat in the atmosphere, warming up the air and seas – hence the term “greenhouse effect”.
A second big cause of climate change is the phenomenal rate at which we have transformed the land, an issue highlighted poignantly by my friend Rupert Koopman in this very column (‘The price of “progress”’, Autumn 2017). Anyone who has lived or spent time outside of the city over the past few decades will have noticed how buildings have swallowed up the coast and that the wilderness is in retreat. All of those plants that once determinedly pulled carbon dioxide into the soil have now gone up in smoke, blighting the “lungs of the planet” with the creeping cancer of change.
SO WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS? Because this all seems too large and overwhelming for you and me to deal with, it requires solutions on a grand scale. And obviously we’re dependent on that cheap energy to feed and clothe ourselves (and to charge our phones, nogal).
Well, since energy is the biggest cause, this is where we all should start. Reducing your usage through simple interventions is key: LED bulbs save money in the long term, insulating your geyser and hot-water pipes improves their efficiency, and ceiling insulation reduces the need for heating and cooling your house. Switching off unnecessary lights can make a difference.
Even better, solar power is becoming a real option for homeowners. The price has dropped by more than 80% over the last 10 years, so even within cities you’re likely to save money by installing panels on your roof rather than face Eskom’s continued price hikes. And a solar water heater can nearly eliminate the biggest energy cost in most homes. All these measures save you money as well as reduce the environmental impact.
Yet the biggest impact would be to remove fossil fuels from our energy mix entirely. South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has shown that the nation’s wind and solar potential is the best in the world, and the country’s growth can be powered entirely by emission-free renewable energy. Globally, renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy sector and provides more jobs than
Climate change itself doesn’t cause events like floods and droughts. But it does worsen their impacts, making the rain fall harder, the wind blow faster and the temperatures climb higher.
coal or nuclear – at a lower cost. It’s feasible, economically sound and socially responsible, and the only thing standing in the way is the fact that we’re used to doing it another way. Public support, locally and nationally, is key in helping our government and businesses make the necessary shift.
So every time you see another “ugly” wind tower or a roof gleaming black with solar cells, instead of thinking about the spoiled view, consider how it’s protecting everything else in the landscape. And tell whoever you’re with – because knowledge is the first step to clean power.