Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Research to avert economic collapse and climate change

There are looming threats to human life on earth, including

Global warming
Ever increasing pollution of the atmosphere
Exhaustion of petroleum resources

A news item at
http://www.nhne.org/news/NewsArticlesArchive/tabid/400/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/3781/Default.aspx
quotes Dr James Lovelock F. R. S. as saying that the world's population would decline from 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million by the year 2100 due to global warming. There does not seem to be any consensus about the impending calamity being of such a magnitude. But, this report does indicate the kind of problem we are talking about. Even if the death toll due to global warming were to be only 10% of what Lovelock estimates, it would snuff out 600 million human lives.

Only The Bubonic Plague or "Black Death" of the 14th century seems to have been a human catastrophe of this magnitude. The Wikipedia says “this plague may have reduced the world's population from 450 million to between 350 to 375 million. China, where it originated, lost around half of its population (from around 123 million to around 65 million), Europe around 1/3 of its population (from about 75 million to about 50 million) and Africa approximately 1/8th of its population (from around 80 million to 70 million)”. See
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubonic_plague

My main concern in this article is about the exhaustion of economically recoverable oil reserves, which is also contributing to global warming through the build up of green–house gases. There may be considerable petroleum on earth in some form even in 2100 AD, but our economies would have been shattered well before that due to enormous disruption caused by unaffordable costs of petroleum products. One does not have to take food off the market to starve people; raising the cost to unaffordable levels will have the same effect. Nuclear power stations cannot save us using current technology. Making up for petroleum depletion through such power stations will require commercially viable new technology such as hydrogen-powered vehicles to be developed soon enough.

I do believe that a major economic crisis is a very probable development unless we take concerted action to prevent it on an emergency basis. What can we do and how fast can we do it? Can R & D create commercially viable technologies, say, in 30 years? Will this happen at the current level of R & D effort addressing this problem – that of reducing our dependence on petroleum resources?

What would be the damage done to our economies in these three decades? Is there an indication of how big an R & D effort we should mount to have a high enough probability of success? Who is going to rally the world to mount this effort?

Al Gore and the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have done a very good job of attracting world attention to the climate change problem. We need the continued efforts of champions like them to persuade the world to initiate a big enough R & D effort to prevent depleting oil reserves ruining us. We have to hope that we can succeed in three decades in averting disaster. Otherwise, it may be too late.

Rapid use of non-renewable resources we have discussed is closely related to another problem I have listed above – the rapidly rising pollution of the atmosphere. Creating suitable technologies to enable us to cope with depleting oil reserves can, therefore, partially answer all three concerns.

Leave alone badly needed big inventions to improve fuel cells and solar power generators. There are a number of simple steps that can be, and should be, quickly taken. Thomas L. Friedman has proposed a gasoline tax of a dollar per gallon to motivate the adoption of fuel-efficient technology. See
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/opinion/14friedman.html
Every responsible government should consider taking this step seriously. All countries should give tax breaks to manufacturers of hybrid and electric cars. Improving train speeds should be a national priority everywhere. R & D related to surface transportation should be given considerable importance. Information Technology should be used more extensively to make road travel more efficient. There ought be an international effort to encourage all countries to adopt synchronized traffic signals for city traffic in all major cities.

But taking these small steps alone will not suffice. We need a big R & D effort if human life as we know it is to survive on earth.

Srinivasan Ramani

1 comment:

-- said...

I agree with what you have said. Concerted action is very much needed. Like AlGore said in his latest speech at TED, (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/243) action has to come from the common man. The Govt. responds to the needs and desires of the people. If each of us rate this as a important and urgent matter, then steps will be taken in this direction.

Europe seems to be taking this issue very seriously. So much so that Emission Trading is a $3billion market now. But their efforts alone won't save us. Unfortunately the biggest polluter is too scared of the developed world to even sign the Kyoto agreement. Most Americans, and certainly their president, doesn't seem to care. Like AlGore points out in his speech, effects of GHG (Green House Gases) are at the bottom of their issue list.

But when the question is human race we can't play the blame game. Leaving the past behind, each of us needs to take quick and long steps to stop GH emisions. Climate change is one change which is definitely not happening for the good.