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Climate reality

History reveals many mistakes that we could learn from. “Many” because most of them are still waiting there for humanity to do some learning. When we were all hunter gatherers our body wastes were spread thinly over the landscape where they were dealt with by dung beetles and blow flies and other useful animals. As we sat around the campfire, the released carbon dioxide floated up into the atmosphere and was gradually taken back by plants and the soil in a balanced cycle of renewal. We had no need to pay for our waste, either in cash or in hardship or in disease.

Then gradually we became town dwellers. Now our waste started to accumulate around us; tipped out of windows into the streets or washed in gutters to the rivers. And we started to pay for it, not in money but in disease and discomfort; rats and fleas and stink and plague and rivers it was dangerous to wash in. Our town fires burning wood also started to have a price in the loss of forests, and as towns grew into cities in the health cost of smog. But as long as the fuel was wood, the carbon cycle kept the carbon dioxide content of the air steady at around 280 parts per million.

Eventually the cities realized that sewage had to be dealt with and that treatment came at a cost. Doubtless at first many complained bitterly at having to pay for something they regarded as free, the right to chuck garbage just anywhere. But now we barely notice our quarterly sewage charges, recognizing that without an efficient disposal system we would find our cities unlivable; cesspits of disease and vermin.

About 200 years ago we started to burn rock. Nature is quite able to recycle the carbon dioxide from burning trees, but burning rocks put a whole new dimension to the task of naturally recycling this gas. Such a huge task that nature failed. She does try though, about half of the carbon dioxide we put into the air by burning rocks has been returned to the earth as plants, shells and soil carbonate, but there is still an excess, a big enough excess to change the climate. To stop the inevitable global warming we are creating we will have to stop throwing our carbon dioxide rubbish into the air. Either bury it decently (known as carbon capture and storage) or don’t burn coal, oil and gas at all. Either way energy charges will rise and it will cost you money. Exactly the same as paying sewerage charges.

Just as we now accept the cost of disposing of sewage and garbage, those waste products of living and of our life style, so we have to accept the real cost of a high energy life-style. Either pay in dollars now, or pay it in deaths later. Our mediaeval forebears paid for their sewage carelessness in deaths – 8,000 a week at the height of the Great Plague of 1665. Do we have to make the same mistake? Your choice for our grandchildren.

Tony Eggleton

Emeritus Professor, ANU

July 2018