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Coal, steam, slavery and the greening of the planet

Coal, steam, slavery and the greening of the planet

Andrew Macdonell is a chemistry PhD student entering his last year at the University of Glasgow. He works with polyoxometalates, trying to produce new materials which will save the world or, at the very least, get him his degree. In an effort to preserve some vestige of his social skills, he likes to talk to people about science (in appropriate settings) and convince them that it’s not all as bafflingly complicated as it might first appear. Being something of an addict for extracurricular activities, in his spare time, he normally likes to have a little lie down.

He is a contributor for the blog http://www.thescifact.wordpress.com/


Having been lulled into a false sense of security by the cosy proximity of my first two days of talks at the British Science Festival, the discovery that my next booking was a short metro ride away was something of a shock, especially given the five minutes I’d left myself to get there. One mad dash and ten minutes of accosting strangers about the whereabouts of the Literature and Philosophical Society of Newcastle later, I stumbled slightly late into the cosy meeting room and, trying to hide my breathlessness and shame, skulked into a seat near the back of the room.

The speaker, Matt Ridley, was already in full flow when I arrived, discussing the historical impact of fossil fuels on Earth’s population. I had thought the talk itself would be standard climate change fare, discussing the problems and causes and ending with an aren’t-we-awful, buy-a-new-boiler style note, but he had taken the entirely opposite tack.

The first portion of the talk was a celebration of the contributions fossil fuels had made to humanity and the environment, from reducing respiratory diseases (gas is better than coal is better than wood is better than dung for burning indoors) to reducing deforestation (burning coal means we don’t have to burn wood). He looked at the industrial marvels that have come from having a cheap, dense source of power and the general improvement of the human condition, including vast improvements for working standards.

Of course, we’re under no illusions that fossil fuels are great sources of energy and that people had good reason for using them, but we now know that they had the unexpected side effect of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere which, we have been reliably led to believe, is going to make living on this planet a somewhat less pleasurable experience.

Matt Ridley does not deny the existence of global warming and willingly accepts that fossil fuel use contributes to it, but it is the predictions of its effects on the planet on which he focuses his sceptical eye. Interesting observations abound, such as the lack of data showing an increase in irregular weather patterns or snow fall or the fact that increased CO2in the atmosphere actually increases the growth rate of plants across the globe. He notes that increasing global temperatures have initially been predicted to improve conditions on the planet, such as growing seasons, before more negative consequences arrive, and that we do have slightly more time than is being indicated to try to avert these negative effects.

Matt Ridley does not come across as a climate change denier by any standards, and readily acknowledges that global warming is a problem to be solved, but he advocates for an equal level of scepticism to be attributed to all claims, whichever side of the divide they should fall on. He points out the massive deforestation of Haiti compared to the lush green forests of the Dominican Republic, the border between the two countries being rendered visible from the air because of this, due to Haiti’s reliance on “green” charcoal, and the massive drop in CO2 emissions in America thanks mostly to their switching to shale gas. He reminds us that in our rush to eliminate fossil fuels entirely, we may well be doing more ecological harm than good, and that idealism is no match for hard data and statistics.

Questions at the end focussed on the controversial nature of his opinions and suggested that a similar talk would work well as part of a debate with someone who supports the views Matt Ridley criticises, which I would be inclined to agree with. All in all, I think the audience left a little less ready to demonise the fuels that have brought us to the point we’re at, and a little more confident that there may still be time to do something about the unexpected consequences of their use.

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