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Munk Debates: is climate change mankind’s defining crisis?

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Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response. This was the motion debated in 2009 by four global warming experts, at an event in Canada run by Munk Debates.

In front of an audience, each speaker was given seven minutes to set out their position on the matter, before they were allowed to rebut and reject claims made by the other side. Event organiser Rudyard Griffiths was tasked with mediating the free-for-all – to often hapless effect.

The first point to make is that although the quartet might be among the most vocal advocates or opponents of climate change, they are by no means the experts (despite being introduced as such by Peter Munk, whose charitable foundation created the debates).

Arguing for acceptance of the motion was Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party and a trained lawyer. Guardian writer, environmental activist and Zoology graduate George Monbiot was on her side.

On the opposite bench was Lord Lawson, former chancellor of the exchequer and chairman of the controversial Global Warming Policy Foundation. He has a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford and was a journalist before becoming a politician. He’s also one of Blue & Green Tomorrow’s four horsemen of the climate apocalypse.

His co-debater was Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish writer who describes global warming as a “joy and recently claimed in a New York Times column that the developing world needed fossil fuels to survive. His degree is in political science.

May began her introduction by making the above point about herself and her three fellow debaters not being the real experts on climate change. The climate scientists are the experts, she added.

She also pointed towards a 1988 climate change conference in Toronto, which began with the following sentence: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

Monbiot’s opening remarks began with a question: “How lucky do you feel?” He claimed Lomborg and Lawson were talking about a “better than best-case-scenario” that was more optimistic than even the most optimistic scientific reports.

On the other bench, Lomborg – a self-styled “sceptical environmentalist” – described how poverty, providing access to clean energy and the need to rid the world of infectious diseases were more pressing issues than climate change.

Meanwhile, Lawson claimed there had been “no further global warming this century” – a point that Mobiot and May rebutted later on.

Prior to the debate, the audience voted on which side of the fence they sat, with 61% saying that climate change is indeed mankind’s defining crisis. But post-debate results suggested a win for Lomborg and Lawson, with the climate advocates’ advantage falling to 53%.

We can only hypothesise whether Lomborg’s concluding attempt to overtly pull at the audience’s heartstrings – “What is more important: to save 4.5 million kids or postponing global warming six hours?” – was a factor in this shift.

What the public results tell us, though, is how good at debating the four were, and definitely not the extent to which the science on the matter is settled.

We know that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is primarily driven by human-produced carbon dioxide. James Lawrence Powell’s excellent analysis last year of 13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles from between 1991 and 2012 found that only 24 either rejected this claim or suggested the world wasn’t warming at all. That’s 0.17%, or one in 581.

There is an argument that says some of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made by out-of-consensus scientists: think Newton and gravity; Einstein and the theory of relativity. Indeed, we champion such innovation on a daily basis.

But when it comes to climate change, it doesn’t quite work like that – plainly because of the lack of disproving evidence offered by naysayers. Even when evidence is thrust forward that rejects global warming, authors often (nine out of 10 times, according to Carbon Brief) have strong links to oil companies (i.e. the firms with a vested interest in climate change not existing).

In the same way that atheists would be regarded as foolish for not believing in God if Jesus Christ himself came down from Heaven tomorrow, climate scientists would instantly change their opinion if a credible stream of peer-reviewed research was tabled.

This is the nature of science. It shifts with consensus.

And with the scientific consensus as it is, these kind of public debates don’t help in enacting critical policy decisions over carbon emissions or renewable energy. Instead, they give influential platforms to dangerous views; while making the debate appear balanced and the science unsettled.

As the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers wrote in response to the BBC’s decision not to give equal air time to both sides of the climate debate, “The BBC isn’t ‘balanced’ in its reporting of climate change: but the facts aren’t ‘balanced’ either”.

Lord Lawson, of all people, makes a good point in his concluding address when he says that politicians are full of bold rhetoric on climate change, but lacking in action: “politicians talk big, but do very little.” He attributes this to the cost of adopting carbon reduction measures.

However, the real reason for this gulf between talking and walking is to do with the politicians themselves.

George Osborne, the man in charge of distributing the UK’s annual budget, once described green campaigners as the “environmental Taliban” and has been called “seriously misinformed” on sustainable business by former US vice president Al Gore.

He appears to have an ideological objection to renewable energy, which given he is among the most powerful British politicians (of which there are a few anti-greens), is worrying.

In the Munk Debate on climate change, Lawson and Lomborg (in particular) set up numerous straw man arguments, claiming that there is a choice to be made between tackling poverty and fighting climate change. May and Monbiot respond by explaining how climate change will inflate the risk of infectious diseases, push more people into poverty and increase the number of natural disasters.

All the evidence from every respectable scientific body suggests they are right. These are the experts. We should listen to them. Not to do so would be effectively signing the human race’s death sentence.

Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and it does demand a commensurate response To quote Monbiot, how lucky do you feel?

Click here to watch the debate for yourself.

Further reading:

97% of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused

Climate sceptics are our generation’s slavery apologists

Why climate deniers have no scientific credibility – in one pie chart

How online ‘filter bubbles’ can reinforce climate scepticism

Visual evidence, not science, shown to sway climate sceptics

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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