News | Environmental narratives and energy solutions

Three McGill professors weigh in on the future of energy and the environment

Earth Day, retrospectively
Thomas Jundt is a visiting instructor in the McGill Department of History. Jundt presented his paper “Earth Day and the Creation of the Green Middle Class,” at the annual convention of the American Society for Environmental History in 2003.

The McGill Daily: You say that the environmental movement had its beginnings in the United States prior to the first Earth Day in 1970 and Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs, published in 1962. What led you to this conclusion?
Thomas Jundt: When I first set out to write my book, I was going to write about the first Earth Day – April 22, 1970, which really was a huge event. There were 20 million Americans [who] took to the street…. The environmental movement explained [this number] away one of two ways…but neither of those worked for me.

I started to think about what was going on in 1970. Had anything changed? There was anxiety about the [atomic] bomb, at that point, still. We all grew up in an era where there were fall-out shelter signs on public buildings. And so I decided to look at that, examine the bomb and [public] anxiety, and sure enough, what I found was that there was an apocalyptic sense that accompanied the bomb, understandably, from the beginning. That inspired narratives of other ways that we might be destroying the earth. People started writing in the late forties. There were books by Fairfield Osborn and William Vogt, who immediately began talking about environmental narratives of apocalypse.

MD: Throughout the fifties and sixties, how did changing circumstances lead Americans to reconsider the way that energy was produced, consider alternate sources of energy, and re-examine the way in which they were consuming energy?
TJ: In the early fifties, there were already some moves toward solar energy, and there were groups that were meeting to do this. But at the same time, there was atomic energy, and the government wanted to convince Americans who were very frightened in the atomic age that there were great benefits [to atomic energy] too…. [They] wanted to convince people that it would be a great, very cheap, very plentiful energy source, and [the U.S. government] put enormous funding into it. So at the same time that there were beginning movements for solar energy, it was greatly outdone by atomic energy [that had] both industrial backing and government funding.

— compiled by Lauren Liu

Energy’s just the beginning
Robin Thomas Naylor is a professor in the McGill Department of Economics, who specializes in the black market, money laundering, environmental crime, and the financing of international terrorism. He has published 10 books.

The McGill Daily: What is your interest in climate change issues?
Robin Thomas Naylor: My work on this and interest in this is a little more general. I got a feeling that too much energy is being co-opted by the climate change issue. There are all kinds of other things out there, and some of them are related. There is no question that there will be feedbacks between them, but all of the energy and all of the big debate is talking about the impact of more CO2 – while we have a huge problem with the spread of reactive nitrogen in the biosphere. We have problems – enormous problems – of soil exhaustion, water quality and quantity decline, biodiversity loss, slashing of rainforests, general chemical toxification of the biosphere, and on, and on, and on. But the problem is, it’s not that climate change isn’t important…but the problem is all the energy directed at just this. As a result, I think people are expecting some sort of a magic bullet to solve all of these problems.

It’s as if you took away carbon-based fuels the world would suddenly be a more wonderful place – well, it isn’t if you’re losing 30 billion tons of topsoil every year. It won’t be if the oceans are emptying out.

MD: So you think this focus on the production of energy within this discourse of carbon reduction is counterproductive?
RTN: Not counterproductive, except to the extent that everybody bandwagons and forgets the other issues. I think the carbon issue has to be looked at in the context of how human beings have screwed up the biosphere for 10,000 years. And in a sense, rather than it being a cause, the carbon increase in the atmosphere is a symptom of our collective stupidity.

So the basic issue is this high-energy, high-consumption economy – how long it can last without destroying the entire biosphere. And that’s going to be a problem no matter what energy source you choose.

— compiled by Sam Neylon

Technologically-oriented
Christopher Green is a professor in the McGill Department of Economics. Last December, Green and PhD student Isabel Galiana co-authored an article entitled “Let the global technology race begin” in Nature. The article argues that the best way to respond to climate change is to adopt a technology-led climate policy, rather than to set emissions targets.

The McGill Daily: What do you mean when you refer to a “technology revolution”?
Christopher Green: Currently, 85 per cent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. If you want to stabilize climate by the end of this century, you need to reduce that to a very small amount. [This means that we need] a revolution in [energy-producing] technologies that are no longer carbon-emitting. Now, except for nuclear, we don’t have any large-scale technologies to do that. Nuclear finally began to overcome the bad name it got, and they’re starting to rebuild. [As for] solar and wind [energy], we don’t know how to store it. Biomass: we haven’t gained anything, but we have driven up food prices.

Technologies are not developed overnight. There are basic breakthroughs that have yet to be made [on the levels of] testing, demonstrations, and scalability. There’s a lot of work going on. Who’s putting money into this? Corporations: Exxon [has put] $800 million into algae [fuel]. I’m not here to support Exxon, but they know that it’s a technological problem.

One of the technologies that must contribute is carbon capture and storage. We’ve got so many coal-fired plants that we’ve got to capture carbon and bury it. It’s been done, on a small scale, but a modestly-sized, 400 -megawatt coal-fired plant generates 2.8 million tons per year of CO2 – and because there’s an energy penalty, if you try to capture it, it may take as much as four million tons of CO2. And we have no experience of capturing and burying that amount, and of making sure it doesn’t come out.

MD: So a green technology revolution means building on the kind of green energy technologies that are nascent, but that we don’t have adequate capacity to make full use of?
CG: [You’ve got to be careful when using the term] green energy technology, because some people would say that nuclear [technology] isn’t green. So maybe the best word here is “low carbon-emitting” technologies. Carbon capture and storage, which doesn’t mean getting rid of a coal-fired plant, would certainly not be considered green by many people. But we probably need, over the life of these plants, to do something along that line, if possible. Otherwise there are just too many emissions. We need to work on [carbon capture], and we need to work on nuclear.

— compiled by Lauren Liu


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