The Green in the Machine

March 4, 2010 Topics: EnvironmentGlobal CommonsGlobal Governance Regions: Americas Tags: Undefined

The Green in the Machine

Mini Teaser: As the debate over global warming gets vicious yet again, climate expert David Victor explains the real unknowns and real solutions.

by Author(s): David G. Victor

[amazon 0060548304 full] This sweeping thesis is inevitably Water's greatest weakness. "Water challenges" is such a broad concept-especially since Solomon includes all of naval power along with more traditional hydraulic concerns-that it is not hard to weave most facts into this grand theory. And none of Solomon's theses is new, although their treatment in a single, well-written volume that covers the whole sweep of history is a tour de force.

Looking to the future, Solomon sees water troubles defining the twenty-first century, and he might be right. Global population growth is concentrated in areas that are already poor in water resources, such as China, India and the Middle East. Whether climate change multiplies those stresses will depend on if governments turn the issue into a matter of war or an opportunity for innovation.

The pessimistic view is that climate change could turn scarce water into a prized commodity. Indeed, Solomon sees a future where foreign policies are "realigned and influenced by water-driven alliances, just as they were in the last century by oil." In theory, it is not hard to see scenarios that plunge the Middle East into an even-deeper crisis as water supplies become more scarce. Many of the region's rivers-think the Tigris and the Jordan-cross borders between warring states. But in practice, it would take a lot for water to eclipse ethnic, regional and traditional power struggles to become a dominant force in foreign policy outside of a few niche regions. The Middle East was hardly all roses before the water started running short.

The other, optimistic view is more compelling. Solomon's book makes it clear that better management of water resources is vital; and, happily, little effort is needed to improve in this area. Rampant subsidies encourage waste, especially in agriculture, and the technological potential for using water more wisely has barely been tapped. Solomon suggests that perhaps three-fifths of the world's water supply is wasted through leaky infrastructure and other bad management. The productivity of what gets to final users is shockingly low. About 80 percent of California's water goes to farming, which produces only 3 percent of the state's economic output. That massive misalignment has endured for many years, but the great drought that has descended on the American Southwest is now focusing minds on solutions. For too long, California has lived on other peoples' water-drawing far above its quota from the Colorado River, but state politicians (with a helpful push from the federal government and courts that are protecting endangered species that need water of their own) are slowly chipping away at the vested interests.

Water crises, as in so many other areas of politics, help spawn solutions. London finally started fixing its sewer system-which dangerously had its water intakes downriver in the filthy Thames-after a "great stink" in 1858 forced Parliament to stop dithering. Climate change will surely bring other pivotal challenges, and when societies focus on the difficulties, they will find much fat in how they use water.


FOR MOST authors who see warming as a looming crisis, climate change isn't just another policy problem. It is a challenge so grave that it will force humans to rethink their relationship to machinery. Must the industrial Frankenstein be stopped by breaking apart the machines into smaller and more controllable systems? Or should industrial society build even-bigger machines run by larger networks of professional experts to fix the problem?

The history of success in managing water challenges is largely a story of massive infrastructure such as canals and dams. Most of these projects required investments so large and risky that governments usually played the central role. The world's forty-five thousand large dams, for example, are mainly the product of government funding and large, state-owned enterprises. Big dams needed big money, which inevitably created strong pressures for central planning. Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer before becoming president, said, "every drop of water that runs to the sea without yielding its full commercial returns to the nation is an economic waste." Stalin, as Solomon points out, set Soviet dam policy according to the same maxim.

For the most part, where governments have been able to appropriate the surplus from water infrastructure for themselves, they have turned inward and sclerotic. China suffered that fate when a huge inland canal built in the fifteenth century let the government exert stronger control over a larger territory. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-master of huge public-works projects and champion of massive public subsidies-suffered a similar fate in the American West as it created agriculture and cities out of arid lands. (It is particularly ironic that so much of America's libertarian agitation emanates from that region.)

Solomon shows that when the incentives are right-where governments and markets are allowed to focus on the real costs of and opportunities for using water resources-much better management of water systems follows. In the United States, the demand for water was rising steadily until regulators started getting serious about its scarcity and quality in the 1970s. Water use peaked in 1980. Since, it has declined one-tenth. Across the industrialized world, from the 1960s on, the economic productivity of water-the dollars-of-economic-output per cubic-meter-of-water-inputs across the economy-has risen by a factor of roughly four. In water, and in most resources, modern economies are actually headed toward "postresource" futures. Unlike in the agricultural and industrial revolutions-where raw resources such as soil, timber, coal and oil determined success-it is ingenuity (and governance that encourages smarts) that will largely define the future success of modern societies. Stresses on water supplies may yet make life nasty, thirsty and short. But with a little bit of effort to get the incentives right, most of the world's water problems don't seem that hard to solve.


IT HAS been difficult to focus on real solutions because nearly all of the analysts who are most concerned about climate change and the other ills of modern energy systems are blinded by a stock set of answers. Industrial Frankensteins fired with fossil fuels are the problem. Local and renewable are the watchwords for repairing the mess. But the realities probably point in the opposite direction. Fixing global warming will require more machines, less localism and perhaps even more fossil fuels for a period.

[amazon 1594867348 full] Among the titles that purport to work through the technological solutions to climate change is Al Gore's Our Choice, a beautifully produced description of the world energy system. Prior to its release, Gore claimed (on the op-ed page of the New York Times) that his plan would allow the United States to shift fully to emission-free (mainly renewable) power in a decade, though it is hard to find much serious analytical support for that assertion in his book. Other analysts arrive at similar conclusions. A big essay in November's Scientific American offers a plan for the planet to go fully renewable by 2030, but its authors never actually contend with the costs or the reliability needed if such a vision were to become a practical reality. If you sift through the citations in most of the offerings calling for radical change, you find an echo chamber of analysts who usually cook the numbers to make central power supplies (e.g., nuclear) look ugly, while renewables come out crunchy green.

The whole case for renewable power needs a lot more scrutiny. So far, the largest renewable power systems are giant hydro dams, but those are falling out of favor because of their environmental impact. That leaves wind and a few other sources, such as solar and geothermal. (Often these systems also have large footprints-such as massive wind farms-but since they are "green" power, their backers usually ignore the horrors they cause to landscapes.) The best sites are often far from people, which means more power lines and a still-bigger footprint. But the people are not fooled, and renewable power systems are increasingly finding it hard to get local consent. That has pushed developers of wind power offshore, where the giant towers are less visible and the power lines are hidden on the seabed far from human view-although probably not much less of a footprint on nature. Others look for more local supplies, such as solar panels on rooftops, but that option-the sexiest and politically most attractive-is extremely costly. And when it comes to electricity, it is proving very difficult to build and operate renewable energy supplies with the reliability that is essential, not to mention on a scale that will make them relevant for cutting emissions. Similar practical troubles are emerging with energy efficiency, which is in theory the cheapest way to avoid emissions, yet in practice has proved very difficult to implement as widely as necessary.

At this stage, all that is really certain is that the viability of renewable power on the scale needed to make a dent in emissions is unknown. While the days are still early, the current craze for renewable power could end badly. So far, most of the industry thrives on policies that are designed to hide true costs, such as mandates that force utilities to purchase renewable energy regardless of the expense and subsidies like so-called "feed-in tariffs," where the government guarantees lucrative prices for renewable-energy suppliers that largely divorce the industry from real market risks. (In some countries-Spain is the most prominent recent example-all of the market distortions have produced unsustainable bubbles in renewable-energy supplies.) And even if renewable power does work, it seems likely that energy systems will become bigger and more centralized, not local and huggable. Interconnecting large numbers of intermittent supplies will require new technologies-notably, cost-effective power storage-and professional, centralized management.

Essay Types: Book Review