How Bermuda can contribute to addressing the global warming crisis
I cannot stress strongly enough that this is a last-chance, life-or-death situation, not only for human civilisation as we know it, but for the biosphere (all life) as a whole.
We have let this creep up on us without serious consideration for far too long, and even if we do address it seriously now we are still facing the juggernaut of runaway human population increase combined with still increasing material standards of living in all First World countries at the sacrifice of the environment and quality of life.
Third World countries on the other hand are already on the verge of environmental disaster, caused mainly by First World pollution combined with local overpopulation. It will be like stopping a heavy freight train on a collision course and getting it into reverse, which takes time that we don’t have to spare.
This is not the kind of crisis that can be addressed by Sunday outings of volunteers for picking up plastic flotsam from our beaches, or doing the same for a litter clean-up on our roadsides.
While the educational value of these efforts is useful, it is addressing the problem at the back end, which is the most futile and inefficient way of addressing it. We need to be tackling the problem at the front end – the coal and oil extraction and industrial manufacturing end, which Bermuda can play no part in and is at the mercy of.
The only way that we can make a proportionately significant contribution to the crisis is by reducing wasteful consumption, given that we have one of the highest standards of material consumption in the world, and the two areas which are the most environmentally harmful in this regard are plastic consumption and gas or diesel operated motor vehicle consumption, so these are the areas to focus on, along with the need to transition to solar and wind power generation to provide the energy for this change.
This is going to mean some very painful belt tightening, causing a temporary, if not long-term economic disruption and lowering of the standard of living, with the only alternative being a collapse of human civilisation as a whole. Needless to say, such changes will be politically unpopular and almost impossible to implement in a democracy because of vested interests by wealthy people with powerful political clout who can influence elections. The only answer to this is education. Everyone, including the most wealthy and all the politicians, must become aware that the only alternative to belt tightening will be catastrophe, where everyone loses.
So what can we do to contribute our share towards solving the problem, getting the most bang out of our buck?
Here are some potential and specifically Bermuda oriented ideas:
A first step, already supported by the Government and being actively researched, is the banning of single-use plastics, perhaps the easiest belt tightening to implement with maximum benefit to ourserves, as well as to the world, but nevertheless still very disrupting to the status quo. It will be hard to find alternatives to plastic that are not themselves environmentally harmful in another way. For example, the pressure on forests for the manufacture of paper bags. Cloth bags for multiple use as grocery bags require more cotton fields, which drain soil nutrients, but at least they can be re-used over and over again. And we can do nothing about plastic packaging for food protection, even though this is a single use too.
Moving on to the much tougher challenge of addressing the energy crisis, we are going to have to mandate the fastest possible phase out of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles ranging from cars, trucks and buses to motorbikes and even boat engines eventually, all in favour of electric alternatives which will require huge sources of energy to charge batteries. Electric cars are already coming into the market, and those electric peddle cycles are the best thing that ever happened, keeping people heathy and eliminating the noise pollution and speeding of motorcycles. Better for attracting tourists too, by going back to the good old days which attracted tourists in the first place. This transition could be accelerated by imposing a significant tax on all gasoline operated cars at purchase, or annually at relicensing, while leaving electric vehicles free of tax.
Even that won’t be enough, however, because we are already approaching gridlock on our roads as a result of our increasing population and rising standard of living, with everyone aspiring to own a car and power boat. Everyone will agree that our traffic problem is becoming a nightmare with great lines of cars held up at increasingly frequent intervals by a variety of causes such as road repairs and traffic accidents, with noisy motorbikes travelling at twice the speed weaving in and out between them. At the present rate of increase, it must be obvious to everyone that this simply cannot go on much longer.
Unlike larger countries, we cannot address the problem by building more roads or widening existing ones because our widely scattered suburbia constrains and prevents any expansion. It is like a hardening of the arteries, which can cause a heart attack! Only the old railway trail provides any conceivable option for highway expansion, but in this case it would serve much better as a rapid transit railway restoration, rather than a road. Its main advantage is that the right of way is still largely intact and government-owned. It would only require the costly replacement of a few bridges.
One other advantage is that its only other use at present is as a walking and jogging trail, albeit extremely popular, such that there has even been substantial private investment to restore some of the bridges to a standard capable of accommodating pedestrians. Needless to say, this would be a major source of controversy and opposition. However, if restored as a railway rather than a road it might still be possible to accommodate the present use as a single narrow track on one side, because unlike roads with their steady streams of noisy traffic, trains only run at infrequent and predictable times.
I strongly recommend that the Government should employ a railway engineer to investigate the costs of its restoration together with an economic feasibility study to determine if it would be financially viable.
We can no longer afford the luxury of everyone owning their own car This trend alone is beginning to drive our tourists away.
Thus we are going to have to address our transportation system as a whole, with the aim of reducing the number of motorised vehicles on our roads and thus reducing our contribution to the production of greenhouse gases. Another possibility for achieving this would be to replace the present cumbersome bus system with a larger fleet of electric minibuses, enough to run on all our longitudinal roads at ten-minute intervals and with more stop sites. This, combined with a tax on all gasoline operated vehicles, or on the gas fuel itself, might persuade more people, who can barely afford to own a car now, to go back to bus or train transport as a cheaper but equally efficient option.
Whatever we decide to do, it will not be possible without the need to provide the vast battery capacity and battery charging capacity to replace our present gasoline and diesel-driven economy.
Bermuda already leads the world in solving its water supply problems by using our roofs for water catchment, with storage of the water in tanks below the house footprint to conserve space. Our roofs also provide space for solar panels without impinging on our scarce open space because solar panels are mutually compatible with water catchment. Solar panels are already becoming very popular as a way to reduce our electricity bills. This is one way to benefit from our large houses and extensive urbanisation without adding to the loss of open space. If we could persuade, or even mandate as a condition of planning approval that all house, building and warehouse roofs should serve that dual function, we could be a global leader in this respect.
Even so, this would probably still not be enough to accommodate the huge energy demand for charging electric vehicle batteries. Much larger ramps of solar panels like the one already in operation on the “finger” of the former US base; or giant wind generators, which could only be placed in the North Shore lagoon at some cost to the marine environment and bird life, might also be needed,.
To be realistic, we are ultimately going to have to arrest our population increase, too — or have nature do it for us. The most humane way of doing this is to encourage all families to limit their children to two, while at the same time educating them to understand the economic advantages of doing so. At present our population is still increasing by immigration as well, with many of the immigrants marrying in to the local population and pushing up the cost of housing. This is also doubling the rate of new development in an already near universally suburban environment — yet another factor reducing the quality of Bermuda’s environment and driving tourists away.
Our immigrants fall into three distinct categories:
1, Highly educated professionals needed to fill high profile jobs which our sophisticated economy requires and for which no equally qualified local is available
2, Menial, low-paid workers for jobs that few Bermudians are willing to fill at present
3, Extremely wealthy people who see Bermuda as a desirable place to move to. They contribute to the economy by employing servants, gardeners and construction firms for house building, etc, but at a huge cost to the environment by reducing open space and often getting around the planning regulations due to their financial clout and short term benefit to the economy. By using up open spaces for large houses, they unintentionally increase the cost of land and housing for everyone else
With these three trends, it can be anticipated that more and more Bermudians will be unable to keep up with the cost of living and hence more willing to fill the menial jobs just to survive. The best solution I can suggest to counter this is for immigration to be much more restricted in regard to menial workers, even though their work ethic and reliability is generally outstanding.
• David Wingate is the former Conservation Officer of Bermuda