Friday, 7 September 2012

In Praise of Windpower

2012 - the wettest summer in Britain in 30 years; droughts across America, the worst in 80 years, begin to push food prices up across the planet as crops fail - just as last year they did in the Russian grain belt; wild fires torch Spain, the worst in decades; floods engulf the Philippines and China, the worst in decades; while the entire Greenland ice-shelf thaws simultaneously for the first time in thousands of years, and Arctic ice melts at a rate which results in warming equivalent to a doubling of human-created carbon emissions.

Still think it's just a coincidence that global warming just happens to be taking place alongside humanity's continued release of record amounts of carbon gases into the atmosphere? Never heard of cause and effect?

The Earth's temperature is delicately balanced in a range that permits life to exist on its thin crust. Our planet lies in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" as astronomers call the narrow band out from a star where it is neither too hot, like Venus, nor too cold, like Jupiter, for life as we know it to exist. The Earth is particularly blessed by the development of our biosphere into a world with contrasting climates which enhance the overall temperate nature of our planet - keeping it just cool enough for plants to grow and people to flourish.

Key to this is the albedo effect - this is the rate at which the Earth reflects light (and heat) back from the Sun out into space. Without it, the planet would burn, as would anything on it. Albedo is strongest on white and other light surfaces, whereas on dark surfaces it is low to non-existent, causing heat and energy to be absorbed by the recipient material.

Traditionally, Arctic and Siberian ice sheets and snow have played a major role in reflecting heat back off the planet - while just 4% of sun light hitting an asphalt road is reflected back, with snow the rate is between 80% and 90% and ocean ice is around 70%. As global warming caused by human activities heats the planet and these ice sheets melt, the overall albedo of the Earth has started to decline, creating an upwards spiral. As dark water replaces white ice, even more heat is absorbed, leading to more extreme weather patterns such as more typhoons and storms. The feedback loop continues - as Siberian permafrost melts, methane gases twenty times more warming than carbon are released; more ice melts; albedo declines more, and more. Currently, the Albedo effect provides the Earth with an average temperature of around 15C. As ice cover reduces, this is rising, and if, in the extreme, all the ice and snow on the planet was to liquefy, this would rise to an average of 27C: far above the level at which most forms of current life, including humans, could survive.

We need to act urgently more than ever. We need to see a huge switch from carbon fuels to cleaner alternatives. Yet this week, the British Coalition Government has appointed an Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who is both a sceptic of climate change altogether and keen to abolish any and all support to alternative forms of energy - "fracking" for poisonous shale gas and oil is his pet project. He is keen on green fields, it seems, as long as they are on rich people's estates and splattered with the blood of shot pheasants and , in his ideal world, the body parts of foxes torn apart by hounds. That, ultimately, his green and pleasant land is going to be parched and turned dry brown by rising global temperatures, seems of little concern to him. Like most Tories and capitalists, he can't focus much beyond next year's dividends sheets.

A poet, Derenz, has written on the beauty of wind power, one of several forms of alternative energy which is clean and limitless, and the bizarre hypocrisy of those who oppose them in the name of a nature in imminent peril from carbon emissions. This is the closing verse:

towers, remain
unplanted as the planet
heats, while the booted
arrive in cars of steel,
to tramp hill to hill,
heel to heel,
across the shrinking peat.

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