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- a Recent Wall Street Journal article

 

 

A recent wall street journal article 'The Last Carbon Taxer' has 'gone viral' and is now making the email rounds  click here...  to see a copy on this site.  The following comments are also interesting; reflecting both sides of the present debate in Australia.

As the subject article points out, contrary to present assertions, a domestic carbon tax in Australia will neither do much to reduce the carbon impact on world climate, if implemented, nor make a significant contribution, if not implemented. 

But what this does not reflect is the total impact Australia has on world climate.  Our carbon exports are many times our domestic consumption, mitigated somewhat by our very significant and increasing exports of nuclear energy in the form of uranium oxide.  Click here...

I have discussed the carbon tax on this site several times already. You can read these articles here... and  here...   For a more detailed discussion of alternative energy options click here...

 

Elsewhere on this site I have made the following points:

  • Climate change is a continuous and naturally fluctuating process and like a range of other natural events such as tectonic instability and extraterrestrial occurrences, has the potential to be catastrophic; killing large numbers of people and/or causing serious economic impacts.
  • The activities of mankind have always had some impact on local microclimates: initially through the use of fire in hunting; then through agriculture and forestry.  With the development of settlements, then cities, water diversion; the management of waste and sewage; and the development of roads and other engineering had increasing local impacts. 
  • The development of civilisation required the mobilisation of energy in the service of mankind.  Animal domestication was essential, often supported by slavery and serfdom, to provide the energy for lifting carrying and digging; while trees provided carbon for cooking and heating and then to fuel the development of metallurgy.  Entire forests were consumed to provide the carbon for metallurgy and construction timber used in cities.  The conversion from wood and charcoal to fossil fuels made possible a vast expansion of civilisation; and at the same time allowing the abolition of legal slavery and the progressive substitution of machines for animal and human labour. But the greatest impact was, and continues to be, due to agriculture and grazing.
  • As the world population grew to over a billion urbanisation grew to a scale that reshaped the local climate around cities like London, Paris and New York.  Now the human population will exceed seven billion this year and the changes to microclimates have merged into regional and even global climatic changes.  Four and a half billion extra people have been added in just my lifetime.  The exponential growth in the human population and demand for energy and food has caused changes in a few hundred years that might previously have occurred in tens of thousands of years; far too quickly for natural ecosystems to evolve. Thus the planet is experiencing the greatest mass-extinction event since the last major meteor impact.
  • Among the side effects of exponential growth in human civilisation is a massive release of carbon dioxide due to the use of fossil fuels: coal and gas consumed for electricity generation and metallurgy; and oil and gas for transportation and chemicals production.  
  • This is but one of the impacts of our civilisation's exponential, but fundamentally unsustainable, growth.
  • Energy is the least of our problems. We have a range of existing and relatively easily implemented technologies to resolve the immediate energy impacts of the growth of  human civilisation.  Power engineers understand this and know what to do. To replace fossil fuels for electricity generation currently requires a mix of hydroelectricity, nuclear power and wind.  At present economic settings solar and to a lesser extent geothermal may make a smaller or local contribution. 
  • Electricity can then be substituted for many existing transportation means currently reliant on petroleum. Fast electric rail is mature, reliable, safe and potentially economic.  Electric cars and vans are becoming more practical.  But this requires weaning electricity off fossil fuels first. In Australia these electric vehicles presently release more carbon than equivalent petroleum or gas fuelled vehicles.
  • Thus the immediate energy impact can be fixed with an engineering solution.  It does not necessarily require the pricing of carbon but it does require the resolve to implement some advanced technology on a scale some ten times larger than the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme.  Nuclear power expansion is presently capacity constrained. Large scale implementation to replace existing coal fired boilers, initially at existing generation sites, will require additional capacity to produce very large high quality steel forgings.  This is just one of a wide range of advanced technologies that will need to be acquired; either domestically or contracted to manufacturers in Asia, the US or Europe.  Wind turbines will need to be tolerated in some controversial locations and to be complemented with some very expensive additions to the electricity grid.
  • A Carbon Tax is the least good solution to achieving this necessary outcome.  The tax quantum required to have industry behaviour changing impact is very large. Due to special pleading and electoral concerns politicians and bureaucrats will have huge difficulty spending the revenue from such a large tax effectively and without other economic distortions and inefficiency.  A vast growth in the administrative overhead can be anticipated and the process is already heavily compromised and inequitable in its impact.
  • A cap-and-trade scheme is better.  But only if global in scope and not interfered with by special pleading and exemptions.  To oxidise x tonnes of carbon you need y credits; no matter who or where you are.  As with a Goods and Services Tax, intermediate producers of emissions need hand the cost to downstream customers. Imported goods and services need to have their carbon footprint imputed and to consume credits at the equivalent rate.  Sequestration in agriculture and forestry needs to be set against energy consumed in production and the consumption of agricultural and forestry products that go to provide energy (food); or are wasted or burnt; not hypothetical offsets against celebrities taking international flights or other such nonsense.

 

But none of this addresses the fundamental underlying issue  

 

Demographers, scientists and economists agree that continued exponential human population growth is unsustainable and must reverse very soon.  The consensus is that this decline will need to begin well within the next fifty years. 

We need to get back to around one or two billion if we are to have a long term sustainable future as a species.

This poses two challenges:

  • how to achieve the required negative population growth without unacceptable inhumanity;  in particular, an increasing premature death rate in the third world; and
  • how to transition through a period of quite dramatic population aging to a no-growth then a negative-growth economy, without serious economic collapse; or worse, the collapse of civilisation itself.

The first solution obviously depends on successfully managing a decline in human fertility.  This needs to fall to below replacement level, particularly among presently excessively fertile socio-economic cohorts; across all societies. 

We know that this has already been achieved in many economically advanced or upwardly mobile cohorts through readily available contraception and legal abortion; combined with the economic and social empowerment of girls and women. 

The development of technology to enable parents to pre-select the gender of children would also reduce the motivation to 'keep trying' for a child of the desired sex.  In some societies and social groups this breakthrough would result in an excess of boys and a consequent automatic reduction in community fertility.

In 'first world' countries fertility reduction probably needs a corresponding resetting of present social security settings combined with more education in schools to improve contraception.   Social mores and attitudes need to change to discourage potential parents; until they have acquired adequate financial and childrearing resources.

The second problem is more contentious.  As population growth slows and goes into decline economic progress could be halted and the world could move back into a new 'dark age'.  One solution could lie in a return to a more mature and intellectual age, in which economic progress is in quality rather than quantity and where services like information exchange and leisure replace material production. In this the communications revolution may show the way forward.

But it is clear that there are major challenges ahead for humanity. 

On the 'business as usual model' we are rapidly heading towards the point of planetary unsustainability; occasioning climate collapse and massive death and starvation.  In all probably this will be accompanied by catastrophic economic collapse. Dangerously, this has the potential to be followed by the failure of civilisation as we know it.

Under successful policies; and as yet unpredictable technological achievements that allow a managed reduction in human numbers; we nevertheless face the future stabilisation then decline in global material production.  This decline will inevitably be accompanied by demographic changes including significant population aging.  There will  need to be a dramatic reconfiguration of our present material growth based economic model. 

Let's hope that it's the second outcome that's faced by our children and grandchildren.

As I have further argued elsewhere sensible people need to find the solutions. Contrary to the hopes and expectations of some, there is no deus ex machina in the wings; ready to step in to help us to get out of our current difficulties.  In confronting our issues we humans are making our ephemeral way in a brutal, unimaginably vast universe.   We have no guarantee of survival.  Indeed the the contrary is certain.   It's just a matter of when.  We are but one species among many on this planet, most of which, including some close relatives, have already passed into oblivion.  

No one could, I hope, believe that recognisable humans will still be here in another thousand million years.  By the time we humans appeared 13.7 thousand million years had already passed.  Our sun has not even made one orbit around our galaxy since the first stone toolmaking primates evolved.  In another thousand million years this universe will still be young with many billions of years to run; but humans will be long gone.

If we competently manage our resources we might, optimistically, hope for a hundred thousand years of human presence; just as individually we might hope to exceed a hundred years before 'we turn to dust again'.  But in the grand universal picture, the entire human species will have arrived and passed in a twinkling of star light.  So those that believe in an imminent (or immanent) supernatural resolution to our challenges, including our inevitable personal and species extinction, are sadly but certainly, deluded.

But we are born to live a life; so let's find some practical solutions ourselves and get on with it; and try to have some fun along the way.  Read The Meaning of Life on this site for an extended discussion.

 

 

 

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