The burning issue Walt Patterson says fire is at the root of our climate problems and it is time we faced up to it
Is climate complicated? Yes – except in one key respect. Countless reams of disputed text preceded the Paris Agreement of December 2015. Media coverage before, during and after the summit was hectic with controversy. Yet all the furious disputation that surrounds the climate issue can be traced back to a single common fourletter word. The word is fire. Why fire? In the headlong climate debate worldwide, no one talks about fire. They talk about fossil fuels, about emissions, about carbon dioxide, about increasing global temperature, about floods and droughts, about sea-level rise, about melting glaciers and collapsing ice sheets. These, however, are symptoms of what is wrong. They are not the cause. Somehow the commentators fail to notice or remark that all of these factors arise because of fire.
ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Saudi Aramco do not produce petroleum to make lubricants and plastics, although they could. They produce petroleum mainly for us to burn. No one even thinks of the useful molecular structure of coal. Peabody, BHP and Glencore gouge the landscape and blow the tops off mountains to produce coal for us to burn. The frackers extracting natural gas expect to sell it for us to burn. Vast worldwide enterprise is devoted to feeding fire.
Fire predates us; our Neanderthal precursors used fire. We Homo sapiens evolved with fire. It has been a critical factor in developing human society, allowing us to make light, to cook, to bake ceramics and smelt metals. Even now, we still think of fire as cosy and welcoming. But fire is a violent, extreme process. It produces heat at a temperatures so high it’s dangerous. Fire turns resources rapidly into waste, usually pernicious. Yet because we have always used fire, we have never accurately costed its deleterious consequences. We take them for granted, as though we had no alternative. We do have an alternative. With the help of fire we have learnt to control electricity.
With electricity we can now do most of what we used to do with fire. We make light not by burning oil but with electric lamps. We exert force not with the fire of steam engines but with electric motors. We are even beginning to move people and goods not with fire – internal combustion – but with electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, we now manage information with electricity in electronics, expanding at a rate we can hardly comprehend.
Fire is a chemical process. It destroys the material it happens in. Electricity is a physical process. It does not alter the material it happens in, nor does it produce pernicious waste. Electricity could save us from the damage fire is doing – except for one awkward detail. We still make most of our electricity with fire. We don’t have to. We have known for two centuries how to produce electricity without fire, from chemical batteries, then from moving wires, and more recently from sunlight. Today we have a rapidly expanding shopping list of fire-free electricity, from water power, wind power and solar power, in many versions, with costs decreasing and performance increasing. But we still allow planners to call firebased, coal-burning electricity ‘cheaper’, even as it suffocates cities and upsets the climate we have to live with.
That is another corollary of fire. Its unwelcome consequences are not just gradual, long-term and global, as is the case for climate. Fire under indoor cooking pots and in kerosene lamps in villages in Africa and Asia kills millions of women and children each year. Fire is also the reason you can’t breathe today in Beijing or Delhi. Some sceptics say we should focus on these immediate local issues, rather than climate. But both local and global issues arise from the same ultimate cause. Locally as well as globally we have let fire get out of control. What can we do about this? Much of the commentary around the climate issue talks of the emerging transition to a different
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32 | the world today | february & march 2016