Commentary: The other side of the equation

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Although the (merciful) cessation of presidential election campaigning put a damper on the climate change debate, the reality of its impact on commerce, on food production and perhaps most importantly on energy security is growing ever more threatening.

National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2010 that, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.”

Whether or not you might question the “caused largely by human activities” phrase, the objective measurements of everything from ocean warming to higher average temperatures across the world’s temperate zones to the devastating storms, hurricanes, droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events are conclusive: The climate is changing, and the impact will be monumental.

Along with a hundred other issues, climate change impacts energy security, and that’s probably the No. 1 priority in modern society, since agriculture and commerce and even military capability all depend on energy availability.

Obviously, most of the policy focus has been on the supply side of the equation, with demands that oil exploration be expanded, that restrictions on drilling offshore, on wilderness land or in deep ocean waters be swept aside in the interests of producing the oil we need.

Even the environmentally suspect technologies of oil shale extraction and natural gas fracking are being pushed aggressively, as if the urgency of maintaining our current energy consumption patterns means we need not consider the long-term effects of such activities.

Those are all policy decisions that are far from settled and will continue to occupy the national debate no matter which direction the political winds happen to be trending.

But what about the other side of the equation? What about demand? Can a similar focus on reducing demand mitigate the crisis-like urgency with energy procurement? One interesting take on the subject comes from the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy NGO that concentrates on “green” business growth, transportation efficiency and sustainable development, among other often-controversial topics. On the issue of energy, though, the institute’s latest report makes a compelling argument: If we prioritized energy conservation, reduction in demand and promotion of renewable sources, we could sidestep the threat that worldwide fossil fuel demand could soon outstrip global supplies.

Are they right?

As a semi-objective observer, let me say this: They’re not entirely wrong.

Considering lesser known threats

The report made the argument that reducing the atmospheric emissions that exacerbate global warming—if such policies could mitigate climate change--would lessen other threats rarely considered in debates about energy production and availability.

For example: Weather events obviously cause serious problems, ranging from the horrendously expensive restoration efforts that inevitably follow massive storms such as Hurricane Sandy, but also the more mundane but equally pressing problems created when rising temperatures increase electricity demands for air conditioning, especially during peak load times that strain the power grid.

But consider this: According to the institute, the United States has more than 280 electric power plants, oil and gas refineries and other energy facilities situated on low-lying land and thus vulnerable to sea-level rise and episodic coastal flooding. In Florida alone, 26 energy facilities are sited in especially vulnerable, low-lying areas.

It’s not necessary to buy into the doomsday scenarios of rising oceans overwhelming the entire East Coast. Look at what happened when Sandy hit New York and New Jersey. Millions of people lost power, and oil storage tanks, refineries and energy pipelines were severely compromised.

While we battle over the economic impact of strategies aimed at reducing production of greenhouse gases decades into the future, we’re forking over hundreds of billions right now to repair damage and restore energy systems damaged, arguably, by the superstorms and extreme weather events triggered by climate change.

Short of enacting draconian measures to curtail coal burning, restrict peak electrical usage and place taxes on carbon consumption, what can be done? The institute (and many other organizations, by the way), argues for reducing demand, and its top three recommendations are rarely top of mind for either policymakers or the public:

  • Raise automobile mileage standards
  • Improve building energy efficiency
  • Invest in wind power production

What’s intriguing about that short list is that not only are all three do-able without any long-term R&D and without any major reinvention of business and commercial activity, but all three strategies create jobs, add economic value and reduce energy consumption.

Who’s against any of that?

Interestingly, those three priorities also involve (respectively) government, private industry and agriculture. Federal mandates are essential to accelerate the slow creep of improvement in automotive fuel efficiency, which would dramatically reduce gasoline consumption. The construction industry could start tomorrow implementing all kinds of new materials and technologies to make commercial building (and residential ones, as well) far more energy efficient. And if we’re seriously considering siting thousands of wind turbines across the country, then we have to determine how those “farms” might co-exist with actual farms.

We now know that severe weather is costing us multi-billions to repair the damage done by hurricanes, floods, drought, etc. We also know that fossil fuel supplies are no longer inexhaustible, that every supposed windfall, such as oil shale, becomes ever more costly to extract and refine. And by now we ought to be painfully aware of the price tag that dependence on imported oil carries with it.

Given all that, whether you embrace the entire climate change scenario or not, isn’t it at least worth trying to deal with the demand side of the energy equation?

We can’t solve all our problems just by becoming more energy efficient, but it sure seems like a great place to start.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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