‘Can-do’ attitude

I read with slight dismay the conclusion drawn by Howard Bradfield that ‘saving the way of life we are comfortable with, and attempting to halt the inevitable’ (climate change) are ‘mutually exclusive’. The one point I can agree with is that ‘climate change is inevitable’. What I cannot agree with is the simple cause (man-made climate change) and effect (we must reduce man’s impact) ‘analysis’ — of which this is only one example of what might be called the ‘climate-change policy consensus’, whereby the only possible policy is to ‘cut back’.

As engineers, we owe the public, at the very least, to inform them of the possibilities of alternatives to this scenario. The world is now what might be termed an ‘artificial place’ due to the ingenuity of engineers, scientists, farmers and wider society. There is no getting away from this, apart from humanity effectively shutting up shop, or at the very least mothballing large parts of the planet.

What is most objectionable about the ‘mutually exclusive’ argument, as presented in Bradfield’s letter, is the idea that — in the examples he gives — ‘everything that humans do has an effect’ treats humans as a passive (albeit destructive) actor on the environment. Humans in this kind of analysis end up being effectively a toxin on the planet. What it ignores is that human ingenuity means that problems can be identified, alternative solutions proposed and the public, via democratic institutions (a great non-engineering invention) decide — in short — which is best.

What we are missing at present is some form of leadership from engineers to identify and promote these alternatives to the frankly anti-human outlook prevalent today. For instance, as James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky describe in their recent book (Energise!), as only one example — the fact that wind farms, if considered as part of a large-scale global grid, can reduce the need for one-to-one standby capacity, as Bradfield suggests. Over a larger area, the highs and lows of local generation are more likely to be balanced out to produce a less variable average and be part of an energy system that could produce more energy than we have now — without any appreciable increase in CO2 and so on.

What we need today is much more of a ‘can-do’ attitude than one which misleadingly suggests that the only option is to ‘cut back’.

Paul Reeves, Cambridge