It’s impossible to know what the long-term consequences of the war in Ukraine will be but one thing that has been brought into sudden focus is the reliance of Europe on fossil fuels from Russia. The immediate preoccupation is with finding substitute providers of those same fossil fuels, even as news comes that the Conger ice shelf in East Antarctica has collapsed due to unusually high temperatures.
We’re repeatedly told that we’re facing a climate catastrophe and that urgent action needs to be taken. Yet, the pace of change is nothing like as fast as it needs to be.
Vested interests blocking change
The environmental scientist Donella Meadows wrote, “if we want to bring about the thoroughgoing restructuring of systems that is necessary to solve the world’s gravest problems – poverty, pollution, and war – the first step is thinking differently”. This is described in terms of ‘paradigm shift’ – changing the patterns of our thinking and behaviour.
While it’s obviously in the interests of the survival of the planet for us to start thinking differently, it’s not so much in the interests of the fossil fuel industries. They have a vested interest in ensuring we carry on thinking for as long as possibly in terms of the present fossil fuel paradigm. Information and measures that have threatened corporate profits have been strongly resisted and subjected to vicious attacks, or at least cynical, undermining responses, notably in the “Climategate” scandal of 2009.
What we are seeing now is that, while the industry is being pressurised to accept the need for change, those same vested interests are at work in steering its direction.
Hydrogen – a possible fuel for the future
Two recent articles from The Conversation take up the issues around the use of hydrogen, which is now seen by many as a climate-friendly answer to our fuel needs.
As described by Tom Baxter of the University of Aberdeen, there are different ways to harvest hydrogen, described as grey, black, brown, blue or green, depending on how it’s produced. Of these, as explained by Baxter and in a further article by Walter Mérida of the University of British Columbia, green hydrogen is the least harmful to the biosphere but remains the most expensive.
It also poses the greatest threat to the fossil fuel industry. While the other ‘colours’ of hydrogen are sourced from existing fossil fuels, green hydrogen comes from – water! Little wonder, then, that fossil fuel companies are pushing for a different option.
How green is blue hydrogen?
Generated from fossil fuels, but with its CO2 captured and stored underground, blue hydrogen is, according to Baxter, being targeted by governments in the US and the UK as a good lower cost, low-carbon option for the future. However, what his article points out is that the production of blue carbon requires 25 percent more natural gas than if the gas was simply used directly for heat. It also releases more global warming methane than fossil gas.
This leads to the obvious conclusion that, as concluded from their research by scientists Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobs, “there really is no role for blue hydrogen in a carbon-free future”.
Carbon-free means fossil-fuel-free. Reaching for a blue hydrogen solution in no way shows a willingness to think sufficiently differently to deal with the climate emergency. It’s simply more of the same and in some ways worse.
Another major impediment to changing our thinking is our own complacency. As long as we’re not personally suffering serious harm from climate change, we find it hard to take the danger on board and indeed prefer not to have to do so.
Our tendency, supported by the media, to avoid difficult issues at all costs is satirised in the recent film Don’t Look Up, where scientists fail to manage to get people to take seriously the fact that the earth is about to be destroyed by a meteor. Climate scientists could relate to this.
In her book The Global Citizen, Meadows quotes Thomas Kuhn on the subject of making people think differently. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the seminal book about paradigms. Meadows explains his view that, “what ultimately causes a paradigm to change is the accumulation of anomalies – observations that do not fit into and cannot be explained by the prevailing paradigm”. However, such is our desire to stick with old ways of thinking and behaving that, “The anomalies have to be presented over and over because there is a social determination not to see them”.
How many floods and forest fires will it take for us to accept that the prevailing paradigm is broken?
“I can’t make a difference”
The feeling that that no one listens to you and your vote doesn’t count leads to the establishment of another paradigm, described by Meadows as “Individuals cannot make any difference”. We might feel some sympathy with this; it can be difficult to see how you can pit yourself against the weight of the fossil fuel industry.
Or, we might equally say this is just an excuse – another method of allowing ourselves to avoid facing difficult choices and taking responsibility for our lives.
‘Which future’ is the title of a 1995 article by Meadows in which she reports the results of a team led by Hartmut Bossel of the University of Kassel which mapped out two possible scenarios for our future way of life.
The first is characterised by ‘competition and globalization’, and “an accelerating exploitation of natural resources”. It is, in other words, very much a description of what we have now. Climate breakdown is one example that proves the report’s conclusion that this approach is ultimately “unsustainable and self-destructive”.
The second scenario – ‘partnership and decentralization’ – sees life being organised more locally, based on co-operation and sharing of work and resources. Fuel needs would be met by “energy-conserving architecture, solar collectors, and other renewable energy sources”, with the result that each group of houses would be “fairly energy self-sufficient”. In many ways this is reminiscent of a “small is beautiful” world view but, as Meadows reports, the principles behind it are sophisticated.
How might it come about? In Hartmut’s reported view, a transition “has to happen in hearts and minds, particularly those of people in the currently industrialized nations”.
Time to think differently
Paradigm shifts, thinking differently, transitions in hearts and minds. It would be good to think that our politicians were working on how to inspire us all to engage in these necessary changes. Instead, we have them announcing the same old cynical measures to ensure re-election.
It’s not what we need, it’s not what the planet needs. Step forward the leader who will be brave enough to start thinking differently.
With thanks to Helen Johnson for her work editing this article.