The race of our time

Published Tuesday, March 31, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Years ago, I remember listening to a radio documentary that reconstructed the dramatic final moments in the control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Kiev, Ukraine on April 26, 1986.  That re-enactment came to mind recently as I read two news stories: one about accelerating melting of Antarctic ice, and the other about the incredible strides being made in renewable energy technology.

Critical seconds

According to the radio dramatization, the final seconds in the Chernobyl control room came down to a race between two opposing factors: one, an unstable nuclear reactor about to surge out of control and the other, the plant’s control rods being lowered into the reactor in time to prevent a catastrophe.  

As the reactor began its ominous surge, the operators suddenly realized what was happening and a switch was thrown to lower the control rods – but the process would take several seconds.  Would they descend in time to stave off disaster?

Alas, had that switch been thrown mere seconds earlier, Chernobyl might still be an unknown, ordinary place in Ukraine.  Instead, we know it as the site of the world’s most devastating nuclear accident ever.

Two stories

So what two stories brought this narrative to mind?

The first was about the Totten Glacier in Antarctica: it seems to be thinning and melting much faster than previously thought.  The glacier’s vast half-million square kilometre catchment area contains enough water to raise sea levels worldwide more than three meters.  

The second was an optimistic overview of the revolution that’s happening right now in renewable energy.  Technologies are advancing at lightning speed, costs are dropping much faster than expected and installations around the world are exceeding all forecasts.  In Bangladesh, solar panels are installed on a home every thirty seconds.  In China, a new wind turbine is erected every hour.

One story about a climate on the verge of sliding out of control, the other about the technology that can prevent that from happening.  A bit like the race between the nuclear reactor and the control rods.  

Two wolves

In a traditional Cherokee legend, an elderly brave tells his grandson about the battle that goes on within every person.  

He explains that there are two wolves inside each of us, continuously in conflict.  One is evil: it is anger, jealousy, resentment, greed, arrogance and lies.  The other is good: it is serenity, contentment, love, generosity, humility and truth. 

The grandson thinks for a minute, then asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man answers simply, “The one we feed.”

So… which will we feed?

The shrinkage of the Totten Glacier is just the latest rumble of a changing climate.  January was the second hottest on record; so was February.  Earlier this month, the ice cap over the Arctic Ocean reached its annual winter maximum size – except that this year that maximum was the smallest on record.  There’s growing evidence that melting Arctic ice is causing a wonkier-than-normal jet stream, which in turn is causing more weather extremes.  

Yet globally, greenhouse gas emissions from our consumption of oil, coal and natural gas continue to climb every year.  Fossil fuels are a hard habit to break; they’re the evil wolf.

At the same time, solar panels cost a fraction of what they did just a few years ago.  Wind turbines are becoming cheaper and more efficient.  Tidal and wave energy technologies are on the cusp of breakthroughs.  Collectively, they’re the good wolf.

So which will win – the evil wolf that’s ruining our climate, or the good wolf that can prevent that from happening?  The choice is ours – it will be whichever we feed.