There was a scene in the ABC documentary titled I Can Convince You About … Climate” that featured Bjorn Lomborg, the self proclaimed “Skeptical Environmentalist”. Lomborg acknowledges that human activity is causing the climate to change due to changing atmospheric chemistry, but he thinks that the proposed solutions are either too expensive, not effective, or require giving up too many of the benefits of our fossil fuel-powered industrial society. He believes that we have some time to do better and thinks that a $100 billion per year world wide research and development program will lead to cheaper and better solutions in 20 – 40 years.
Here is a clip of that scene.
Call me a “convinced technologist.” No, I have not read all of the scientific papers on the subject of global climate change, done any atmospheric research, or built any predictive models. No, I am not someone who listens to arguments, tallies up the people on one side or the other and figures that the majority rules.
Yes, I love living in a technological society where I can change my personal environment with the flick of a switch or the push of a few buttons on the electronic controller for my central heating and cooling system. I love the freedom of being able to stop at a local filling station and purchase enough fuel to propel me and three other adults for 600 miles without stopping. (I’m a proud owner of a VW Jetta TDI that gets more than 44 miles per gallon of diesel fuel on the highway.)
Yes, I am fully aware of what life is like without access to large quantities of power; I’ve trekked more than 300 miles on the Appalachian Trail and cruised several thousand miles on the open ocean in a 44 foot sailboat shared with 9 other crew members. No, I have no desire to routinely live by counting kilowatt-hours any more than I want to live the rest of my life on a calorie counting diet.
Yes, I have been blessed by having been born into an American middle class family that lived in a comfortable suburban home and usually owned as many cars as required for all of the licensed drivers in the family. We took a lot of memorable car trips of thousands of miles per trip. I have driven more than a million miles during the past 35 years and burned up more than my share of refined hydrocarbons.
I have also been blessed with enough wide-ranging travel opportunities to make me deeply aware of the fact that there are places in the world that are relatively untouched by human beings where the skies are open and individuals can feel really, really insignificant. I’ve been to the US desert southwest and stood on the bridge of several different ships and submarines in the middle of a vast ocean.
However, I have also been to places where it seems like human influence has completely obliterated the natural world and seen how those areas can appear to last forever. I grew up in what my Mom called “the megalopolis” of Southeast Florida. Even when I was quite young, one could start driving north from Homestead and never leave a city or suburb all the way up to Palm Beach. That is a distance of nearly 100 miles that is filled with people and their “stuff”. It is a place where the only hills are either overpasses or trash dumps. I’ve also visited overflowing cities like London, Cairo, Atlanta, Houston and New York.
I’ve been blessed with fact-based educational opportunities paid for by the taxpayers of the United States. We made a deal – you would pay my tuition, room and board. I would study hard, complete all assigned work and then put that learning to beneficial use by serving you for an agreed upon number of years. I feel like we both kept up our ends of the bargain, but I cannot shake the feeling that I am still in your debt. I feel an almost overwhelming need to put that education and training to work to serve you and help solve some of the challenges that I see ahead.
Because you paid to educate me, you expected me to take charge of people and help ensure that they also served you well. Some of the people who you paid to train me taught me a haunting mantra “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
At the tender age of 23, I was assigned to lead a division of 10 well-trained electricians. Before my 28th birthday, you put me in charge of an engineering department that included about 40 trained technicians and officers that operated and maintained a nuclear fission heated propulsion plant powering a 9,000 ton submarine. It was an awesome responsibility and I took it seriously. Partially to give me some “chops” with older folks, you stuck gold oak leaves on my collar a few weeks after my 28th birthday, but the people who awarded that “spot” promotion told me if I did not perform, I would have to trade those collar devices for my old “railroad tracks”.
All of my travel, work experience and classroom training taught me that individual human beings can be a force for good or evil. It also taught me that millions to billions of human beings can build really amazing systems, structures and devices or they can make terrible messes that are difficult to clean up. Building and mess making can be closely related, but not always.
I never worry about the waste products that exit the tailpipe of my well-maintained automobiles with their highly engineered emissions control systems. I never worry about the used nuclear fuel that is left over after decades worth of operation of submarines, aircraft carriers and power stations because I know that the material has never hurt anyone and has never left its engineered containers. I also comprehend the relatively tiny scale of the problem – I’ve seen the building in France that stores all of its used fuel and seen pictures of the place in Idaho where all of our used navy fuel is stored.
I worried a lot about making sure that my crew kept our drydock nearly spotless so that we would not make a mess of the Cooper River when we flooded down after a 60 day repair period. I worked hard to make sure we had adequate provisions for getting rid of paint cans and other used items because I knew that if they started piling up, sailors or shipyard workers would do something to get them out of the way.
I worry a lot about the billions of tons worth of waste products that get dumped into the atmosphere from thousands of large power stations, factories, and ocean going ships. The balance between concern and lack of worry is all a matter of understanding scale and multiplier effects. Whenever I hear someone tell me that they doubt that human activity can damage the earth because it is just so big and we are so small, I think about a sailing trip when I could see the yellow haze over the US east coast several days before we actually arrived.
When it comes to climate change and ocean acidification, I have a rather simple way to distinguish between those who are serious problem solvers and those who are using the issue to market preexisting agendas. If the person says they are convinced that climate change is a crisis but fights against the increased use of nuclear fission energy to mitigate the problem, I dismiss them out of hand. If someone claims that there might be a problem, but it is too early to tell, I dismiss them as being either unobservant or so addicted to fossil fuel that they can never be convinced to change their mind.
If someone like Lomborg claims that there is a problem and that we must invest and work towards a solution, I see an opportunity to share what I know about the power of the atom.
Maybe a better appellation for me would be a “committed technologist.” I know that we have problems with our current energy supply choices (both with the combustion waste and with supplying sufficient quantities of fuel to as many people as want access) that nuclear energy can virtually eliminate. I am committed to helping to develop the technology as an increasingly powerful and adaptable tool for improving human society.