The analgesic option only worsens the damage

When rising carbon emissions are calling for serious shifts in the way we do things, we keep looking for the silver bullet — the technology that will save us from changing our ways. [8 April 2008 | Peter Boyer]

We’re never more resourceful, we modern humans, than in finding ways to help us forget our problems. Drugs relieve us of care and pain, enticing advertisements separate us from our money, and travel and entertainment are avenues of escape from the here and now.

And there’s that old standby, the displacement activity, in which we put off the decisive moment by doing anything other than what’s actually needed.

We’re willing participants in this analgesic existence, and with the sense of unease that comes with climate change, who can blame us?

But the pill packets warn us against prolonged use of painkillers and sedatives. Persisting with them won’t cure us. Worse, they hide the ailment while it continues to do its damage.

Global warming is challenging the whole fabric of our lives. Our economies, our communities and our social structures have been shaped by availability of cheap fossil fuels. The loss of these fuels will therefore profoundly affect our future and that of our planet.

This is not a comfortable prospect. So we reach for the analgesics, in the form of neat solutions, silver bullets of technology, offsets that will make us “carbon-neutral”, pseudo-science that claims global warming is a swindle.

For instance, an old idea that just recently resurfaced is that we cool our planet by blasting sulphur or soot particles into the stratosphere, creating a “global winter” effect by blocking out the sun’s rays, like a major volcanic eruption.

Putting aside the facts that this would eliminate blue skies and risk escalating international tensions, the major issue attached to such engineering “solutions” is that they do nothing about the underlying problem – the rising impact of human demands on our finite planet.

Another neat package is carbon capture and storage. Last week, the Canberra-based Co-operative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies started operating Australia’s first CCS demonstration plant, the Otway Basin Project near Warrnambool, Victoria.

This project, in which compressed carbon dioxide is injected into underground rock formations, has been hailed as a major step toward making “clean coal” viable.

Coal-fired power is the stand-out culprit when it comes to greenhouse pollution, so such claims are politically very attractive. But we should treat them with caution.

Pressurised carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air and toxic to animals (including humans), will have to be piped or transported from major coal power centres to suitable storages.

The Otway project is of a relatively small scale. It will need to be many times larger to be commercially viable. And early estimates suggest that the process will increase the cost of producing coal-fired power by between 30 and 60 per cent.

If it ever proves a realistic solution, carbon capture and storage still won’t be functioning commercially for another decade. But today’s emission trajectory gives us less than half that time to stop the coal industry’s greenhouse pollution.

We could choose one of these analgesic options. Or we could face our demons and change the way we live our lives. It’s up to us.

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