Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Time to move from protest to proactive on climate change

'Let's stop arguing about who's responsible for the problem and just get on with it.'

'Let's stop arguing about who's responsible for the problem and just get on with it.'

People hold placards as they attend a protest to demand action on climate change on September 27, 2019. (Rafael Marchante / REUTERS)

Demonstrations by young people in the streets and anger at politicians addressed by Greta Thunberg have clearly highlighted the problem of climate change. Now it is time for positive action with viable solutions — otherwise it is nothing more than a shouting match.

Finger-pointing on its own is not always productive. It can have a polarizing effect where both sides dig in their heels and little progress is made. A more productive approach is to move away from name-calling and accusations toward a discussion about how to change our behaviour in ways that are not threatening to either side. Many of the solutions, and means to pay for them, are already in place.

When it comes to science, people are getting tired of hearing all the bad news about how the climate is warming, ice caps are melting, forest fires and droughts are more common, hurricanes are stronger, oceans are acidifying, fish stocks are down, species are going extinct — it's enough to give you eco-anxiety

Let's talk energy 

But science also offers realistic alternatives to our energy issues, many involving technology that already exists.

First of all, there is no shortage of clean energy on Earth. It falls out of the sky every day, blows on the wind, comes from the ground. We just haven't been very good at capturing it. That's mostly because we haven't needed to.

Oil, coal and natural gas have provided virtually all our needs and all we have to do is pump it out of the ground and set fire to it. There is so much energy packed into fossil fuels that it has been easy to put them into tanks to drive vehicles of any size, heat our homes, generate electricity, even make products from it. That energy density has spoiled us. 

Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are significantly lower in energy density and they are spread out over large areas. We need large structures such as wind farms or solar panels spread over the land to capture it. The only form of energy that is denser than oil or coal is nuclear, but it has issues with safety and public perception.

Renewable energies like wind and the sun require a lot of space to harness energy. (Reuters)

As of 2018, Canada is ninth in the world when it comes to installing wind energy. It contributes about five per cent of our energy needs. We can do better, including offshore wind farms. Solar power represents less of our energy input, but when you add up all the rooftops of buildings in a city, that's a lot of area for solar panels to gather the free energy from the sun.

Of course many people avoid installing rooftop solar panels because of the cost, but this is where government support can come in. During this election, politicians are talking about carbon taxes and reducing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. If these funds were combined with taxes already collected on gasoline, (roughly a third of the cost of a litre of gasoline is tax) that adds up to billions of dollars per year. Some of that tax revenue goes toward public transit, and the government does have an Energy Innovation Program, but that's not enough.

The solar array covers 78 acres on the east side of the Trans-Canada highway south of Brooks, Alta. (Elemental Energy)

A dedicated fund to fight climate change

Would it be possible to create a very large, dedicated fund solely for clean energy development and mitigation for climate change? This multi-billion dollar fund could include subsidies and tax breaks for companies producing the clean products and rebates for homeowners to make retrofitting the home more affordable. 

In addition, the fund can support research into future technologies, such as better, cheaper  batteries, hydrogen power, energy storage, harnessing ocean waves, and tides, geothermal, biomass, and exotic ideas such as space based solar power satellites that beam energy to the ground. Even nuclear technology is evolving into much smaller modular units, some of which can be buried underground for safety.

An illustration shows a NuScale Power Module on a truck. NuScale is one of the small modular reactor companies whose designs are going through pre-licencing approval with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Many are designed to be small enough to transport by truck or by shipping container. (NuScale Power)

Most exciting, are energy solutions we haven't even thought of. Perhaps some might keep the oil industry alive. Could there be clean ways to extract energy from oil beyond just burning it? Carbon sequestration technologies might make this possible.

Give basic researchers the freedom to experiment on innovative new ideas. 

This won't be the first time technology has evolved into a better, more efficient form. Iron replaced stone tools, books replaced scrolls, the printing press replaced scribes, steam power was overtaken by diesel electric, cars replaced horse and buggy, computers took over from typewriters, and look what happened to the telephone. In every case, there were protests from the old guard, but new jobs. In fact, entirely new industries were created and the economy boomed as technology improved. This scale of innovation has not happened in the energy sector and transportation.

Now we are on the cusp of another evolution in technology as we leave the age of fossil fuels behind. The resources are there, the money is there. Let's stop arguing about who's responsible for the problem and just get on with it.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.