Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What India's Blackouts May Mean to Earth

Unless you're in India today, you've little right to complain about the heat.

And if you're in India, you're likely not able to read this essay today, since half of your country is suffering from its second day of massive power outages.

The numbers are staggering:  yesterday, over 300 million Indians spent more than half the day without any electricity, and no sooner had power been restored, it went down again today, putting over 600 million Indians - about half of the nation's population - in the dark.

I have friends in India, and they tell me brownouts and rotating blackouts are common.  One family lives in a modern apartment complex with generators that kick on automatically throughout the day when the central line goes dead.  Fortunately, they live in Bangalore, a part of the country that doesn't swelter under the oppressive humidity for which India as a whole is known. And Bangalore has not been directly impacted by the country's widespread blackout.  At least, not yet.

But I have another friend in New Delhi, which at one point was 99% powerless yesterday, save for the emergency generators at select hospitals, office buildings, and the homes of affluent families.  Fortunately for her, my friend is currently on vacation in Thailand, undoubtedly hoping power is restored to her home by the date of her return flight.

A Chill in the Air

Stories have been coming out of darkened India today about how the country's aging, insufficient, and mismanaged electric grid has been unable to keep pace with its society's remarkable burst of economic prosperity.  Not only are many Indians coping without lights, subways, traffic signals, and the Internet.  But they're also having to get along without another relatively new commodity there: air conditioning.

Indeed, we Americans can appreciate how the availability of artificially-chilled air during our summers makes the difference between getting a good night's sleep or not, being productive at work or not, and even remaining healthy or not.  Imagine what being without a/c is like in a country where sleep, productivity at work, and basic health get compromised by so many other things.  Even though India has a sizable middle class that enjoys ever-increasing purchasing power, its crushing legions of poverty-stricken citizens remain larger than its large middle class.  Systemic, endemic corruption means efficiencies, orderliness, reliability, sanitation, and planning evade even the best attempts at wide-scale modernization.  Modernization not just of the country's built infrastructure, but its suffocating bureaucracy that inhibits sustainable entrepreneurialism.

Which, speaking of suffocating, brings us back to this air conditioning business.  India's growing dependence on air conditioning isn't just a problem for Indians when their electric grids crash.  How long will it take before environmentalists around the globe realize that it's not just us in the West who they should be targeting as climate destroyers?  For years, we've been blamed for emitting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and depleting the ozone layer, partly because of our reliance on artificial refrigerants.  Nowadays, we have to use new, more expensive coolants for our air conditioners.  Here in Texas and across the South, scientists are incentivizing real estate developers to incorporate more and more green technology into new buildings, so each new home and office tower reduces its carbon footprint during our sweltering summers.

Meanwhile, India has a dim legacy of allowing centuries of customs and cultural pressure to suppress the kind of vibrant environmental activism we have (for better or worse) in the West.  Since India is such a populous country, what environmental activism it has seen has been relatively small-scale and hardly widespread.  Being an environmental activist can also be dangerous business in India.  None other than Amnesty International was forced to intervene on behalf of two Indian activists kidnapped and tortured by officials of a private coal-burning plant who didn't want them educating residents with facts about coal pollution.

Changing the Climate Change Debate

Back here in the States this past Saturday, Western environmental activists were somewhat heartened to learn that Richard Muller, a climatologist funded in part by the conservative Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, had officially decided that climate change caused by human activity is genuine.  Koch, you'll recall, owns an industrial conglomerate that stands to lose lots of money if forced to change its business practices - if man-made climate change can be proven.

Initial reaction on Muller's ideological switch has been muted, both among conservatives and liberals, since he's always been something of a loose canon in the normally-staid scientific community.  Still, since chemicals such as the kinds used to artificially cool air have been in the crosshairs of environmentalists for years, having somebody like Dr. Muller now say he's convinced mankind is negatively influencing the environment will make life only that much more difficult for people and industries who depend on technologies like air conditioning for their comfort, safety, and profitability.

And yes, environmental activists like to point fingers at those of us in the affluent West because they say we flaunt our creature comforts at the expense of Majority World countries like India.  But instead of accusing us primarily, which is the easy thing to do, where's the acrimony among Western liberals when it comes to, for example, the rampant artificial cooling of developing countries like India?

One of the remarkable things about air conditioning is that the more a person gets used to it, the harder it becomes to deal with heat.  Since most Indians have had air conditioning for a shorter period of history than we have, and since there are twice as many of them as there are Americans, and since it's still only a fraction of Indians who've ever even experienced an air-conditioned environment, why not start combating whatever dangers chemical coolants may pose to the environment from the ground up?  In places like India?

It's at this point where people like me get accused of being heartless, overbearing elitists, since I'm trying to protect lifestyle standards in the West at the expense of India's.  But let's look at this objectively:  for years now, we Westerners, and Americans in particular, have been blamed for virtually all of the world's ills, while many Majority World countries pursue similar - if not worse - pollution-creating practices, towards which environmentalists turn a blind eye.

India Offers Environmentalists Plenty of Opportunities

"To whom much is given, much is required" has become a common phrase on my blog, and even when it comes to protecting the environment, I can understand where developed countries like the United States may have to pay a higher cost for deploying those things that damage our planet.  But why should we be expected to do it alone, or to bear a disproportionate burden?

I don't begrudge India's 1.2 billion people their opportunity to live with air conditioning.  However, I think that since as a whole, their country has much further development ahead of itself than we do, India and its fellow emerging countries provide greater opportunities as laboratories for the sustainable technology environmentalists have been pushing for us 300 million Americans.

After all, can the world afford to let India turn into another America?  Only it wouldn't be just like us - it would be America times four!  I suspect that the reason some environmentalists love making such a ruckus here is that they can still enjoy the luxuries and opportunities the rest of us Americans enjoy on a daily basis in our post-modern society.  Life for them would be much harder - and dangerous - in places like India, wouldn't it?

Not that we Americans should be absolved from our responsibilities to our planet.  I don't see why it's so hard for climate change skeptics to imagine that all of the foreign chemicals we humans have been pumping into the atmosphere for the past 100 years haven't done any significant damage to our natural resources.  Still, I'm not ready to lay the entire blame for whatever climate change may be happening at the feet of mankind.  Remember, our planet once had an ice age, supposedly, and somehow, the Earth warmed up and melted most of that ice.  That was way, way before SUVs, oil refineries, hairspray, and air conditioning, wasn't it?  So who's to say that periodically, our globe doesn't get its own naturally-occurring hot flashes?

But if our new-fangled chemicals are contributing to our current environmental problems, let's not forget that the West - and America in particular - aren't the only global citizens using these chemicals.

As India's blackouts this week may be proving, the growth sector for environmental activism shouldn't be here in the States.
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Want to read more?  Check out this article on refrigerant fraud in India and China.

Update:  According to the United Nations' secretive environmental regulatory project, "Agenda 21," India hasn't submitted any current reports charting its progress in implementing sustainable environmental policies.  According to the Indian government's own environmental website, all they seem to be doing is hosting meetings and writing official responses to UN seminars.  And we Americans think our own bureaucracy is inefficient!

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