River Wissey Lovell Fuller


November 2001

This Month - Experts

Are you tired of 'experts'? Perhaps we have too many of them or perhaps they are too keen to open their mouths before they are absolutely sure of the facts. Time and again they seem to give advice only for it to be contradicted at some point in the future. I suppose the classic example was over BSE when we were being assured that meat was safe to eat when it was not. Regularly we are given advice on which foods are good for us and which should be avoided, only to find that they have changed their minds later.

In 1975 there was a major scare because of the man made oil crisis and there was a realisation that world oil and gas stocks were strictly limited. In my job I attended a number of international conferences, I talked to oil company geologists and university professors. I saw estimates of world reserves and future world demand and production rates drawn up by experts. It was clear, they said, that by the year 2000 demand was going to exceed supply with the inevitable rise in price. Oil, they claimed, would be restricted by price for transport use and gas would be a premium fuel for space heating. To use either of these limited fuels for large scale heat production for industrial processes or for electricity generation, they said, would be irresponsible as well as uneconomic.

What has happened? In the year 2000 there was a world glut of oil with a corresponding slump in prices and there has been a 'dash for gas' as electricity generating companies have switched to gas fired power stations. In other words, the experts got it wrong.

Nationally we were not too concerned about the impending shortages of oil and gas. Based on what the experts were saying, every school physics teacher was telling his pupils, quite correctly, that we had enough coal to last us for centuries and that we could expect to see developments of cleaner ways of producing and using coal. We could produce synthetic oil from coal and, of course, we could produce gas from coal, there was even talk of producing gas with the coal remaining in situ. The future for the coal industry looked very bright. Within ten years the coal industry was practically dead. They got it wrong again.

As the coal industry died we were told not to worry, nuclear power would provide. Fast breeder reactors were just around the corner and there was the prospect of controlled nuclear fusion to look forward to. What do we see now? The running down of the nuclear industry.

School pupils learning about the role of carbon dioxide in the photosynthesis of plants queried what would happen if we switched to nuclear power and stopped producing carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. What would happen to plant life? They were reassured that nearly all the CO2 in the atmosphere was from natural sources such as volcanic action and dead matter decay, the contribution by humans was negligible. What are they being taught now?

In last December's issue I complained about all the hype in relation to global warming and expressed my own doubts on the validity of all the fashionable statements. When the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) issued a report in the late 90's they claimed that global temperatures had increased by 0.6C over the last 100years, I queried that they could measure average global temperatures to that accuracy today, let alone 100years ago. They predicted that temperatures would rise by up to 3.0C in the next100years, and claimed that this was largely due to the production of greenhouse gases by human action, principally CO2. . The IPCC has recently produced a further report which threatens an even larger increase than 3.0C in the next 100years. Clearly there is some evidence of global warming but only dubious evidence as to the cause.

Whilst the experts may have got it wrong when they predicted a shortage of oil and gas by the year 2000, they are not wrong in saying that there is a limit to world resources and they are probably only a few decades out. We can certainly expect to see the production of oil and gas peak then start to decline sometime during the twentyfirst century and we will be forced to look elsewhere for our energy sources. With this in mind we might ask why we should worry so much about restricting CO2 output when the supply of oil and gas will be drying up before any international agreements that we might be able to make start to take much effect. We might also ask why we are being so profligate with our limited supply of these fuels, which are so useful for transport and domestic space heating, by using them for electricity generation when other sources are available.

The record of the experts is not very impressive so I think we can be forgiven if we view the current outcries over global warming with a certain amount of scepticism. Nevertheless for a variety of reasons we do need to be less wasteful with energy. Energy conservation and the harnessing of renewable energy sources need to be pursued with more vigour than currently.

What does surprise and worry me when people express concern over the future of our planet and its environment is that they fail to focus on the real threat to the environment and humankind's continued existence with the prospect of a pleasant life for all - and that is the population growth. What we really need is some reduction in population, but at the moment very little is being done to try and restrict further growth and, as we all know, there are some organisations supposedly including intelligent people, that are actively engaged in thwarting efforts to introduce more birth control.

Ron Watts

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