Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Cost Of Caution

There is a debate going around about who is going to be hurt the most by the costs associated with trying to control global warming by restricting carbon dioxide emissions. Well it is pretty obvious that poor people around the world, or even those in developed countries trying to live on fixed incomes are going to be badly hurt by the rising costs of everything. The following article expresses this fundamental fact better than I can.

I'm wondering if by limiting the energy available to the developing world , in the form of fossil fuels, the real motive isn't the control of population growth. What are the moral implications of that?


Counting the cost of the precautionary principle
People will appeal to the Precautionary Principle - that it's better to be safe than sorry. Why not sign global treaties to limit carbon emissions? The April 16th Newsweek had a telling map entitled "Leaders and Laggers". Based on the Environmental Performance Index from Yale, it rated countries based on how environmentally friendly their policies were - the "leaders" dark green and the "laggers" in coal black. One immediately notes a rough correlation between wealth and environmental policy on this map. Why not encourage developing nations to get with the program and use more "clean energy"?

Well, why don't you have a solar paneled house? Probably because it's too expensive. No matter what we say about saving costs down the road, as a practical matter these solar technologies involve too much of an initial capital investment to be feasible for most Americans. Installation costs for one entirely solar house in Boston was $35,456. Presumably the technology will get cheaper and more efficient in the future, but this is where it stands today.

A recent article came out about a group of Virginia Tech engineering students who designed a solar energy system to power a clinic in Getongoroma village in Southwestern Kenya. The high tech system will provide the clinic with an ample 24 kilowatt hours per day (25% more than was requested, but still 20% less than the average US household uses). The projected cost: $120,000. Surrounded by the relative riches of America, the project is still in the fund raising stage. How can we possibly be serious in prescribing this to countries where the average person earns a couple of dollars a day? James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist and author, has said, "The rich countries can afford to engage in some luxurious experimentation with other forms of energy. But for us, we are still at the stage of survival."

Of course, there are places where solar energy is the best option for electricity in developing countries. These are generally places that have no hope of getting connected with a power grid, such as remote clinics in agricultural communities in Kenya or guerilla-controlled areas of Burma.

The technology generally used in clinics along the Thai-Burmese border, for example, utilizes solar panels which each cost $525. Sounds a little more reasonable, right? Each of these panels supplies 130 watts of power. If you have two incandescent light bulbs on in your house right now, you are probably exceeding this wattage. If you made coffee this morning, you used almost seven times this amount of power. The medics along the Thai-Burma border don't really focus much on immunizations because a refrigerator requires at least 200-700 watts of power. Of course, this also precludes the possibility of blood banks, in a part of the world where medics are frequently faced with treating postpartum hemorrhage, malarial hemolysis and trauma. At a household level, lack of refrigeration has profound repercussions in the form of prevalent and deadly diarrheal diseases that account for 50% of childhood mortality in this population. What else might you want in a clinic? An ultrasound? Cautery? A microscope that can be used at night? A pulse-oximeter? A UV lamp?

These affordable solar panels are a valuable stopgap, but they are by no means a permanent panacea for the word's energy needs. Economist James Shikwati says, "I don't see how a solar panel is going to power a steel industry, how a solar panel is going to power a railway train network. It might work to power a small transistor radio….

One clear thing that emerges from [this] debate is the point that there's somebody keen to kill the African dream. And the African dream is to develop." By telling developing countries to use "clean energy sources" what we are saying is, "You will not have electricity at all." We are saying, "You will live a life of backbreaking work. You will see at least one of your children die in early childhood, probably more than that. You will experience incomparably more painful and dangerous pregnancy and labor than women in developed countries, and you will face it more frequently because you will fear losing your children to disease, starvation or violence. You will be too busy struggling for survival to protest the rampant official corruption or the government troops who rape you, destroy your villages and disregard your votes. Ultimately, you will die 20-30 years younger than I will.

"But it will be worth it, because I've been told there is a scientific consensus that all this is necessary to avert global warming."

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