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A Man, a Central Plan, and One Big Dam

A Man, a Central Plan, and One Big Dam

If we could reduce our coal dependency by 50 million tons per year (reducing 100 million tons of CO2 annually in the process), but would need to relocate over a million people to do it, would we? The Chinese news service recently posted an update on the massive Three Gorges Dam, highlighting completion of the project, including the relocation of 1.3 million people.

The dam, which spans the Yangtze river, is over a mile long and five times larger than the Hoover Dam. The project has many critics, which cite changes to local ecosystems which could have unforeseen consequences, the potential for the reservoir behind the dam to become a cesspool of sewage and industrial pollutants, and accumulating silt, and the social impact of forcing so many people to leave their homes. The official party line is that the country needs clean energy, and the project will protect millions from flood waters, and millions of acres of farmland. Both sides are probably right.

Reduction on coal dependency in China is a critical element of a global approach to fighting climate change, but is this sort of central planning approach really the only way? Thomas Friedman wrote recently in the NY Times: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century…China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar.”

Yikes! I for one hope that our democratic system can lead to an equally positive climate outcome, without trampling on personal rights to do it.

Rather than promoting Chinese-style government, Friedman is really lamenting the failure of our congress to act in a bipartisan fashion to come up with a new energy and climate policy which reduces our overall consumption and dependence on fossil fuels. As Friedman says, “The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying ‘no.’” What you end up with is what he calls “one party democracy.”

This potential logjam created a pretty clear contrast between the Chinese president’s speech to the UN climate summit – full of targets and planned action – and President Obama’s, which was heavier on rhetoric, calls for action, and restatement of the problem, but lighter on specifics.

Even so, Obama’s acknowledgment of urgency and strong statement of support for action on the global stage is significant progress. The signals are pretty clear that we need a new energy/climate policy, and we should be discussing “how” rather than “if”. The beauty of cap and trade (if designed right), renewable energy targets, or even a carbon tax is that each points towards the needed outcome, without resorting to autocratic measures to get there. There are plenty of ways to change our footprint, from conservation, to wind and solar investment, to changing what we buy, what we make, and how we get around. We simply need to create more urgency and some choice.

Do our legislative officials have the will and public mandate to at least acknowledge that there is a problem, so that we can work on the solutions? Or will this be just another issue for bipartisan bickering and lobbyist influence? As Obama said “…the journey is long. The journey is hard. And we don’t have much time left to make it.” But the alternatives are not very appealing.

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Photo copyright hughrocks at flickr.com

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40 comments

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7:55PM PDT on Oct 4, 2009

Anybody remember the "Trail of Tears". Hopefully, as a global community we can set aside personal convenience and personal wealth, if we try to take into consideration of the ramifications of our actions on others and maybe do with a little less, maybe we wouldn't have such a negative ripple effect. The people in China have been through so much, if only enough people would speak out for them.

9:44AM PDT on Oct 3, 2009

We should talk about many "small" hydro power stations which would not destroy completely a region, and what about wind mills, energy from the sun and so on. There are other solutions. But money greddy lobbies continue to decide everywhere against new directions.

11:07AM PDT on Sep 30, 2009

Scott Mc - It is not always black and white. while that may be your solution, it is not mine. While I did shut off the air about 3 years ago, and have not used heat in 12 years, I call that a start. Since I live in Florida, that was simple. However, let me ask, if it is so difficult to set the heat so the pipes do not freeze in the house, and forget the air in the summer. Power plants get built because of demand not because of beauty. Which I guess is fine so long as you spend all your time in the man made world. To not care where your power comes from, or where the water comes from that you use to bathe and take a dump in or what becomes of it, is utter stupidity. Which is the problem with most humans.

7:57AM PDT on Sep 30, 2009

Tough choice
Burn Coal
Build Dam
Freeze in dark
Not really
I think the dam is the best choice, if you picked freeze in dark, stop using electricity, heating and AC today.

3:18AM PDT on Sep 30, 2009

China and ecology it's much like a rubberboat in the desert!
Usually they do resolve a problem creating an even bigger one.
They don't care about ecology and human rights, at this moment their main concern is: how can we get as much cheap energy as possible from our natural resources in order to survive!
The aftermath that they at the end will create is a problem to resolve the morning after!

2:54PM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

the ony thing I don't like about China is that it is not really Communist any more. Pity.

9:43AM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

China has a terrible record of human rights. The novel Three Wild Swans is a history of the changes as written about the true story of 3 generations of women - fascinating!

We are now entering the realm of juggling. Human rights, fair trade, environment, conservation and all this needs to be balanced with industry. Obama seems not to have an idea of what to do with any of it.

On the other hand, China knows exactly what it wants to do but is not acting with scientific research.

There has been a lot of research into alternative forms of energy yet no-one seems to be looking at or using this research. Biofuel is one of the worst things that can happen to the planet yet thousands of acres are being turned over to palms!

Without thought and conservation, we are hastening global warming. Without thought we are failing to look at alternatives and investing in entirely the wrong methods. Without action we are allowing industry, especially oil companies, to continue to rape, abuse and pollute. We ALL need to act and not just sit back.

One comment is about population growth. We cannot dictate to people but by providing education and free contraception, we can make a start.

8:26AM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

Thank you Hugh for telling me to look at the map, while this particular damn will not effect the Mekong directly. There are seven dams involved in the whole complex. The Mekong is the source of all water and river life for the people of Indo-China. Chinese plans for the full range of damning projects will take in damning the Mekong. The Chinese need for power will include not only this particular river but all of the snow melt rivers that come out of western China. The first one will displace thousands of China's own people, the eventual plans for Chinese dams will include the Mekong. China will sacrifice their own people and people of other nations without compunction in their craving for more electrical power.I wish China was capable of putting the human equation into play. However, their inexhaustible craving for more electricity exceeds morals and ethics and human needs.

1:25AM PDT on Sep 27, 2009

the welsh got a good idea (go to electric mountain) where they used the water from the top of a mountain rushing down to turbine then converting it to electic brillant idea well done the welsh well worth a visit why cant other country do the same?

11:15PM PDT on Sep 26, 2009

I would like to see solar energy fine-tuned.

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