Reflections on Climate Change After Biking Across Turkey

Over the next eight to twelve months, David Kroodsma and Lindsey Fransen are riding their bikes across parts of Asia, and sharing what they learn about the climate issues facing the countries they bike through.

I'm writing this blog entry from Batumi, Georgia, sitting on a beach chair and gazing across the Black Sea. This morning we left Turkey and entered Georgia, where we quickly realized just how much Turkish we had learned in our six weeks in the country. In Turkish, we can count to a thousand, make basic conversation about the weather, ask someone how many children they have, and ask if we can set up a tent for the night (our grammar is horrible, but we could communicate). In Georgian, we only know how to say "thank you." It's much harder to talk to people.

I'm working on a video summary of Turkey, which will show the many highlights: campsites along lakes, rivers, and the Black Sea; families who have hosted us in the countryside and cities; countless stops for tea; the five-times-a-day call to prayer; witnessing the incredible pace of progress in a rapidly growing country -- cranes everywhere, building new apartment complexes, new roads, and new power plants. Stay tuned.

With respect to climate change, below are our thoughts after crossing Turkey. These are the generalizations reached by biking across a country and talking with as many people as possible. It was reached by speaking with experts and advocates in Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir, and speaking with laypeople we met in the cities and countryside. It is not a scientific survey so much as a set of impressions.

1) Global warming is a low priority for Turkish civil society. We met few environmental advocates who focus exclusively on this issue -- in fact, the main environmental movements in Turkey appear to be opposing new nuclear and hydropower plants, both of which are relatively good ideas if you care only about climate change.

2) Global warming is very low on the political agenda. When talking with experts and reading over the official plans for the next decade, I see that greenhouse gas emissions are not a significant priority. The main priorities for Turkey's energy future are to increase energy supply and reduce the amount of energy the country imports. This is a mixed bag from a global warming perspective: it means both more coal and more hydropower and wind.

3) External international pressure matters. While in Istanbul, we learned that Turkey has renewable energy targets; that the main reason they have them is because they want to be part of the EU, and the EU requires countries to have such targets.

4) Decisions Turkey makes today will make a big difference to future emissions. What we saw in Turkey is a country that is rapidly building infrastructure -- new roads, dams, and buildings. This infrastructure will be there for decades. One advocate shared with me a summary of all the proposed power plants -- and then noted that not all will be built. Some won't be funded or will prove impractical, and others will be stopped by local opposition. We heard from a second advocate that only about one in seven of the proposed hydropower plants in the country's rainy northeast would be built, largely because of local resistance to them. With regards to energy, Turkey can build many more coal and natural gas plants, or build more non-carbon polluting sources.

Many advocates we met questioned whether Turkey even needs all of these new power plants. While there are many ways the country can become more efficient with its energy, and thus reduce current and future emissions compared to business as usual, this is actually a broader question over development, and whether we "need" so much energy and consumption to be a fulfilled, healthy, happy, prosperous society. Personally, I like to sidestep this question, as it seems inevitable that Turkey's energy demand will grow (it currently uses about 1/5th as much energy per person as the U.S.), and rather than asking whether or not it should grow, I'm focused on how it will grow.

5) It is getting warmer in Turkey, and people are noticing. You can see a longer blog entry about this here, but we were surprised by how many people said they thought it was warmer than when they were a child -- even when they didn't know what global warming was.

6) We're reminded why it is so hard to address climate change. In our conversations, it was apparent how intrinsically local environmentalism is -- the biggest environmental movements in Turkey appear to be opposing specific new power plants by local communities. It's hard to in turn think globally -- what is best for a community or region (for example, building natural gas power plants instead of hydropower or nuclear) might not be what is best for the world (since fossil fuel power plants have higher greenhouse gas emissions). Also, we're reminded how hard it is to work together. I usually think about how countries have to work together to solve this problem, but traveling through Kurdish Turkey, I'm reminded how much trouble countries have working together within their own borders. Lindsey writes more on this in her recent post from Kurdistan.

Again, this is a list of impressions from biking across the country and talking with people we met. If you disagree with any of these thoughts, or think we should be considering other issues as we bike, please let us know in the comments below.

After taking another day to recover and reflect here in Batumi, Georgia, we are going to take the next week to bike across this small former Soviet country -- and ride north into the Great Caucasus mountains. Check back in a week for more stories and photos from the road.