by Andrew R.B. Ferguson
In the film An Inconvenient Truth, ex vice-president Al Gore presents the facts about climate change. It is a bravura performance. He makes use of brilliant presentational techniques to put before us all relevant current knowledge about climate change. He lightens the factual burden with humour, and by including some interesting autobiographical vignettes showing how various things in his life brought him to see the subject as being of pre-eminent importance.
Although I am fairly familiar with the subject, he introduced me to a telling statistic. He said that over 900 scientific peer reviewed papers had been published, yet none had argued that global warming was not taking place. As part of the same survey, over 600 popular media articles were analysed. More than fifty per cent of them presented the subject in such a way as to appear that it was still an open question whether global warming was taking place. Doubtless the media do this partly because they think that controversy is more interesting, but as Al Gore pointed out, they are helped by the industrial lobby, which thinks that it is to their benefit to create uncertainty where none should exist. Such activities have been manifest in the tobacco industry as well as in the energy industry.
As a presentation of the inconvenient fact of climate change, the film can be recommended merely on the basis of the pleasure of seeing something being done as well as it possibly could be. But there are five other inconvenient truths which are of equal importance which were largely ignored by Al Gore.
The second inconvenient truth is the immense difficulty of replacing fossil fuels. Fossil fuels contain energy by virtue of having accumulated millions of years of solar energy. To replace fossil fuels we have two options. One is to tap nuclear energy. Nuclear fission — of uranium and thorium — is limited by the restricted supply of suitable resources (apart from any other dangers). Nuclear fusion is at a stage where it needs still to be regarded as a possibility rather than a probability, and there is a good chance that even if it becomes possible to achieve, so much waste heat would be released in the process that the “cure” would be worse than the “disease” of inadequate energy supplies. Nuclear fission leads to the overheating of rivers, and is already a problem in that regard.
The second possibility, in addition to nuclear energy, is that of capturing solar energy as it arrives on the Earth. There are intractable problems to which evolution has not provided a solution, so we would be wise to withhold judgement as to whether the human race will be able to. Where power density is fairly high, as with wind, photovoltaics and tidal stream, uncontrollability (i.e. intermittency) is an immense problem. Where uncontrollability is either no problem or little problem, as with biomass and hydroelectricity respectively, power density is low. Biomass captures and stores in its mass only about one thousandth part of the energy that falls on it, which is why I say that evolution has not provided an answer to how to store the immense quantity of energy that is needed to make it possible to sustain our present population.
These difficulties lead those who have studied the matter to conclude that without fossil fuels the Earth is only likely to support about 2 billion people, rather than the 9 billion that are likely to be here by 2050. Al Gore did not mention the number of people who might live on Earth in reasonable comfort with diminished energy resources.
The third inconvenient truth is that even a large reduction in fossil fuel usage by the developed nations — one so large as to be barely conceivable, a 60% reduction — is likely to be cancelled by a wholly justifiable increase by China, India and Indonesia. If this 60% reduction could be achieved by 2050, China, India and Indonesia are likely to have increased their present per capita consumption by an amount that would match the decrease in the developed world. Moreover their per capita emissions would still be less than the developed world after the mooted 60% reduction. Thus the overall effect is likely to be little reduction in present emissions, even according to the most optimistic hopes. Yet the world is currently emitting about two and a half times as much carbon as it should be to have a hope of stabilizing atmospheric carbon at a “safe” level. The conclusion to this is that while taking action to reduce carbon emissions may help to mitigate some of the dire problems seen by Al Gore, it will not prevent most of them, so preparing for those problems needs to be as high on the agenda as attempting to reduce the emissions. Al Gore sees hundreds of millions of refugees as the inevitable outcome of substantial sea level increase. One of the most sensible methods of preparing for this is to do all that can be done to slow population growth. Failing to take note of this inconvenient truth, Al Gore did not mention that much remains to be done to (a) change the Vatican’s belief that only “natural” methods of contraception are permissible, and (b) combat the influence of the “right to lifers”. In short to ensure that contraception is easily available to all those who wish to use it, and that abortion is readily available when contraception has failed and the mother does not want another child. That inconvenient truth is about as inconvenient as inconvenient truths come!
The fourth inconvenient truth arises from the fact that it is bound to be a slow process to reduce the per capita emissions of the developed nations. Thus the action that would most rapidly ensure that there was some mitigation in burgeoning use of fossil fuels would be to prevent the populations of the developed nations growing by net immigration (as is happening in the USA and to a lesser extent in the European Union).
The fifth inconvenient truth is that a powerful driver for fossil fuel consumption is globalization. There is little hope of making frugal use of energy while globalization requires that goods and consumables are unnecessarily transported around the world. There are many problems associated with globalization, but this aspect is the one which is relevant to excessive use of fossil fuels, thus overloading the Earth with carbon.
The sixth inconvenient truth is that the belief of economists and the commercial world in ever continuing growth is impossible. We need to change our capitalist system so that it works reasonably well without growth, with goods lasting as long as possible and designed so that they can be repaired when they go wrong, and with products being made only to satisfy real needs, not “needs” invented by business to expand their markets.
Every one of those six inconvenient truths is of great importance, yet Al Gore attended in depth to only the first. While he did mention population as a problem, he gave no indication of the immense reduction in population that is needed if everyone is to live even moderately well. He indicated, with a passing remark, how he justifies that to himself, namely that he is himself party to the delusion that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels. As to the other inconvenient truths, perhaps he did give an implicit explanation of why he kept quiet about so many important matters. He mentioned that he had observed long ago that it is almost impossible to persuade someone of the truth of an argument if that person’s salary depends on their believing the argument not to be true. After the above survey, I think we might extend that observation to conclude that it is almost impossible to persuade a politician of the truth of an argument, if that politician’s chance of office depends on their believing the argument not to be true!
Andrew R.B. Ferguson is Research Coordinator at Optimum Population Trust, 11 Harcourt Close, Henley-on-Thames, RG9, 1UZ, United Kingdom (email:firstname.lastname@example.org). He is also editor of the biannual OPT Journal. His special interests include applying eco-footprinting to estimating national carrying capacities, assessing the net energy capture of renewable energy sources, and raising awareness of the existence of Clive Pointing’s seminal book, A Green History of the World (1991). In an earlier stage of his career, he was an airline pilot (1957-1983).