Monday, March 11, 2013

The Ostrich Just Got Its Head Out of the Sand: Can We Have a Word With Her Before She Buries Her Head in the Sand Again?

Dr. Sened is a Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis, and former chair of the Political Science Department at Washington University. His main interests are comparative theory of institutions, game theory and mathematical modeling. Dr. Sened teaches Undergraduate and Graduate level courses in the Political Science Department.

Following the devastation of hurricane Sandy, a debate about how to protect New York City with sea barriers has opened up.  In this post we argue that as a solution to global warming this amounts to science fiction and suggest a rapid return to the more important debate: how do we get over our addiction to fossil fuels, which is the only way to protect the global sea shores wherever they are. When Ostriches get scared they bury their heads in the sand.  At least so the legend says.  When human get scared or just too frustrated they turn to science fiction.  This is very natural, but as the only highly intelligent living species on the globe we must be able to do better than that in light of imminent threat of global warming.

The Ostrich has just gotten its head out of the sand and for a very short while she sees clear and straight.  Our consumption of fossil fuels, she admits, is unsustainable.  Global warming and all the other harms caused by this practice are bringing devastation to every aspect of our lives as a unique species on the face of the earth.   We will get back to this uniqueness shortly but before we do that, let’s try to get the attention of the Ostrich for one short window of opportunity.  Because Ostriches will be Ostriches, and when they see danger they bury their heads in the sand.

Last week we launched this blog stating very clearly that our mission is to close the information gap on clean energy.  We stated, as of now without proof, but we will get to this later, that transferring our energy production means to clean energy is not just feasible, possible or desirable, it is an urgent obligation that we must commit to precisely because of our unique role in the evolution of everything that lives on this planet… this uniqueness again. 

We don’t think this is more than stating the obvious but we do understand that we will need to spend much time energy and resources to convince many of this.  This is, after all, why we launched this blog to begin with.

But back to the Ostrich, if the Ostrich sees the danger why is it burring its head in the sand?  That is probably a question to pose to biologists who specialize in the long term evolution or survival mechanisms of Ostriches.  But why would human do this?  We pride ourselves to be the only rational living animal on the globe, that, has been shown to be somewhat of an exaggeration but we definitely have this unique characteristic of having by far the most developed intellectual organ in us that we call the brain and spend so much money and time to train to think clear and straight.  So why is the most intelligent living creature joining the Ostriches? That is a more interesting question for our purposes.
At this point we need to clarify, what are we talking about and this going to be very easy.  Let us start from the beginning and do it in four short steps.

Step 1: Most scientists believe that the world cannot stick to our habits of consumption of fossil fuels for the purposes of producing energy.  And ‘most’ here, is actually an understatement. 

Step 2: We are a unique living species because, among others, we can use science to further our goals.  Science has determined that we must quickly curb our fossil fuel consumption and that clean energy can help us attain this goal.

Step  3: Instead of simply following the scientific rationale, in recent scientific meetings that I attend I hear a very interesting argument.

Step 4: Instead of using minimal resources to switch from Coal Energy to Solar and Wind energy, there is a growing trend in the scientific circles to direct what we currently call sustainability studies to study how to deal with the almost certain and unprecedented in magnitude damage of sticking to our bad habits.

What am I talking about?  A recent very well publicized debate will quickly clarify my point.  Following the devastating damages caused by hurricane Sandy, a rather fascinating debate emerged that took the brightest and the finest minds by no surprise.  The idea of debate was the erecting of what everyone refers to as see barriers.  Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Cuomo have promised to give it a close look, or in the common jargon, start a feasibility study.  Cities in Europe, most notably in the Netherlands, London and St. Petersburg have already built small projects of this sort so why can’t New York do the same?

Here is the point though, with the quick rise of sea levels, protecting New York may be only the beginning of a much longer and much more costly road and very quickly it will cost many time the cost of replacing our coal burning plants with wind and solar production of energy.  So why do we prefer science fiction over science?  Why can’t we protect all sea shores in the world by moving from fossil fuels to clean energy?

We already stated that the answer to this is complicated.  But building sea barriers does not seem to be the right answer no matter how you think about it.  Stopping the sea from flooding the subways of New York City may be feasible.  It will cost a fortune but it may be feasible.  Stopping the rising seas from flooding the rest of the world’s heavily populated seashores is probably not feasible, speaking of feasibility studies’ but is certainly not practical.

So why are we considering the impractical before we consider the very feasible alternative? This week we chose to simply get the attention of the Ostrich before it buries its head in the sand again.

 The reason why sustainability studies as a discipline is turning to damage control instead of energy switch reflects a very widespread belief in academia that the switch from fossil fuels to clean energy is impractical, too expensive and politically not feasible due to the remarkable power of the fossil fuel energy sector and the famous collective action problem involved.  The collective action involved is of course the fact that Mayor Bloomberg cannot protect New York City from global warming by switching to clean energy unless China and India are willing to join him in his efforts.  Building sea barriers he can do on his own.

In the coming weeks we will bring more and more posts from a wide spectrum of experts on how moving to clean energy is feasible, technologically and politically and is even not so expensive.  We only need to take the first few steps in this direction and then keep on the right track. 

When Ostriches get scared they bury their heads in the sand.  At least so the legend says.  When human get scared or just too frustrated they turn to science fiction.  This is very natural, but as the only highly intelligent species on this planet we must be able to do better than that in light of the looming global warming crisis.

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