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.

go! Platteland - - CONTENTS - James Reeler is the Project Man­ager: Land and Cli­mate for the World Wide Fund for Na­ture South Africa.

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.

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