Return Of The Sun

No Night Lasts Forever

One of the things I’ve noticed about the Melbourne winter is that people seem to get most depressed by it before it has truly begun. From the first time it gets really cold in May, through most of June many of my friends can be pretty down. Come the solstice they mostly start to cheer up. (The exception is those who really do have seasonal affective disorder and are truly miserable by late July if they haven’t gone north for part of the winter.)

In a way this is rather odd. After all, the lengthening of the days is virtually imperceptible at first – less than an extra minute a day for the first few weeks. Moreover, it’s not so much the lack of light that bothers most people, it’s the cold and the rain. Since July is colder in Melbourne than June (on average), and August is wetter than either, on June 22 the worst of is very much still to come.

Yet that is not how people seem to feel. Instead there is a sense that the end is now in sight, a corner has been turned.

I mention all this because I think we may find similar experiences with some of the world’s greatest problems. On issue after issue the biggest obstacle to action is the sense that it’s all too hard. Using climate change, once again, as the exemplar, people avoid action or even acknowledging the problem) because of the scale of the challenge. Even many people who are deeply committed to facing the issue seem trapped in a discussion about how we will eliminate the last 10 or 20% of electricity-based emissions.

Europe, on the other hand does not have this paralysis. Most people attribute this to the strength of the coal lobby and the anemic state of Australian political debate. These are undoubtedly factors. However, I wonder whether part of the problem is not that we are still on the upside of the curve, with emissions still rising. All that effort by the committed minority and we’re not just still warming the planet, we’re warming it at an accelerating rate.

Maybe, hopefully, there will be a psychological shift once we get to the point where emissions are falling. Sure they’ll still be an order of magnitude too high, but once we have enough solar and wind installed that week by week, month by month we’re emitting less than we did before maybe people’s psychology will turn. The great warming of the planet, like the great cooling of the city, will still be ahead of us, but we will see that real difference has been made, and with far less pain than the nay-sayers predicted. It’s too long since I’ve been in Europe to know whether this is the reason many governments are willing to make commitments so much more ambitious than ours (in the middle of much harder times), but at this distance it strikes me as possible. They turned the corner a while ago, and having turned it realised the path in front is not so bleak.

Likewise, the Earth’s population will probably peak during the lifetime of half the people reading this post. When it does, and ever so slowly starts to fall I think we’ll get past both sets of scaremongers – those who predict famine and disaster as an inevitable result of population growth, and those who predict economic collapse from falling population.*

Once the despair is dealt with and we move on to productive action, things will get easier and easier.

This is why I find so much hope in reports in the explosive growth of solar power. By my calculation, last year PV panels installed amounted to roughly 1% of total rated electricity generators in Australia. Of course, because the sun doesn’t always shine, the actual generation of last year’s panels will only be around 0.2% of the electricity generated this year. Unnoticeably small. However, if demand is growing a few per cent a year, that amounts to perhaps 5% of the growth of energy produce. That is noticeable. We’ve already installed more than that this year, and Hepburn Wind chose this auspicious day to start generating. I’ll try to do a round-up of the total new renewable energy coming online this year later, but if you put everything together its now a large proportion of the increased production. A few more years of growth (particularly once the solar flagships are producing) and the increase in renewable energy production will be greater than the increase in electricity consumed. At which point emissions, from electricity generation at least, will start to fall.

I’m far from certain of the psychological significance of this shift, but in the chilly depths of winter (knowing guiltily as I complain that in fact this winter is so far unnaturally warm) it is one of the things that offers me a warm glow of hope.

*Actually the second group will have been discredited long before global population starts to fall. As a critical mass of nations with falling populations but healthy economies emerge they’ll be treated with the contempt they deserve.

Yes, yes I know I have illustrated a piece on the southern solstice with a very northern hemisphere image. If any one can think of a similarly iconic representation of the festival of sun return, I’d be happy to use it.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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