Tipping point

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Winter finally arrived, sort of, with a dusting of snow on Saturday, enough to give hope to skiers and others who enjoy outdoor recreation amid the white stuff. While there may have been an upside to the so far unusually mild December, things were definitely seeming a little out-of-kilter without the usual trappings of December, and the sad spectacle of ski lifts set against a background of earth and grass. Still a long way to go, of course, and this early run up to not-quite winter may be long forgotten by the time most of us are ready to see green shoots poking out of the ground. Is this a preview of climate change and global warming? We'll have a clearer idea in 10 or 20 years perhaps, or maybe sooner, if the worst case scenarios have merit. Before that tipping point is reached, it is to be hoped that the pious and we'll assume serious intentions of world governments made at the recently concluded Paris summit on climate change gain more traction than its failed Copenhagen predecessor did in 2009.

Keeping things on track to scale back the use of the nastiest carbon emitting energy sources and gradually edging towards a global economy that relies more on renewables will be difficult. So much investment and infrastructure has been developed to extract coal, oil and natural gas that unwinding all of that is hard to imagine. But at the same time, the economics underlying solar and other renewable sources of energy have seen dramatic shifts in recent years. And it will be through the marketplace that such shifts will either occur or not. Finding the way to phase out the old, and ease in the new, without massive disruption of local, national and international economies will be a major test of statesmanship of the 21st century. Some nations are not close to being prepared to do their fair share. Some speak hypocritically on the subject. Some individuals and organizations, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, insist on denying there's a problem in the first place.

Here's a thought — what if the climate change deniers are right? What if what we are seeing is simply part of a natural cycle of ebbs and flows, comparable to past periods in history. What have we lost by "playing it safe" and investing in reducing carbon emissions?

Well, fighting climate change is expensive, and money that flows into renewables or the subsidies to make them competitive represent money that could have gone into other things or have been left in taxpayer's wallets. So there is a cost, but at the same time, the new industries emerging to fuel the economies of the 21st century and we hope, for many more to come, represent technical and engineering challenges that also offer new ways of wealth generation and employment opportunities for those willing to take them on. And if at the end of the day, all we have to show for it is cleaner air and water, and polar ice caps not shrinking (and coastal cities and islands not worried about submerging), then how bad is that, really?

Part of that new investment should flow into building and designing the next generation of nuclear plants as well, not a popular sentiment among many in the green environmental community, but it is difficult to see how we as a world community gets there without this non-carbon emitting technology. That's assuming of course we don't want all ridge lines and field dotted with solar panels and wind turbines. What we do need more of is power lines and an upgrade of the electric grid to get the electrons to the right places.

Climate change need not be the grinch that steals Christmas, or whatever end-of-year holiday that's observed around the world. But standing still is not an option, not if we want our grandchildren to have a chance to ski and board and ride a snowmobile.


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