This morning I read an interview with Bill Gates in Wired magazine. Essentially, Gates asserts that it will be impossible to effectively address global energy issues without a greater reliance on nuclear power. Kind of a risky thing to say in light of what happened at Fukushima. While I am no supporter of nuclear energy, he did bring up a few points which cause me to stop and think.
First off, he claims that there are actually many more deaths related to energy generation from fossil fuels, particularly in the way of deaths in coal mines and from particulates. The difference, he says, is that these deaths usually occur a few at a time, and it’s safer for politicians to manage death in small amounts. If the negative effects are spread out over time, then they don’t get the sensationalist attention in the media.
Another thing that Gates talked about, and this one hit home for me, is the problem with biofuel in this country, particularly ethanol:
… despite often-heard claims to the contrary, ethanol has nothing to do with reducing CO2; it’s just a form of farm subsidy. If you’re using first-class land for biofuels, then you’re competing with the growing of food. And so you’re actually spiking food prices by moving energy production into agriculture. For rich people, this is OK. For poor people, this is a real problem, because their food budget is an extremely high percentage of their income. As we’re pushing these things, poor people are driven from having adequate food to not having adequate food. (p. 110)
Gates is correct here. My biggest household expense is food, and I refuse to buy unhealthy, subsidized food for my kids. Should we be continuing to look at biofuel as an alternative energy source? I think so, but I don’t think we should be giving more money to companies like Monsanto while we make basic sustenance more challenging for lower-income families.
So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. It’s a complex problem and will require a complex solution. The one thing that I am sure of is that we need to do something, and soon. Climate change is a real concern and the longer we dawdle and neglect exploring innovative ways to address the issue, the more dire it will become.