Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tipping Points

With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce is not reassuring or comfortable. It is a scientifically-grounded explanation of climate change/global warming/freaky world changes.

It probably could only have been written by Mr. Pearce. He's been following the global-warming story as a journalist since about 1990 and because of that he was able to interview many of the principal researchers in the ongoing struggle to understand the process.

He presents four topics of interest. First, he explains the mechanics of climate change. If you're a little fuzzy on the ocean conveyor or methane clathrates he'll bring you up to speed. Second, he lays out the limits of knowledge. The parameters cover large ranges and he keeps clear the distinction between what is known and what isn't. Third, he covers the slipperiest part of the whole topic: tipping points; how they work and what happens when we reach them. He also discusses what the consequences of climate change are likely to be, bearing in mind the limits of certainty. We're going to say a little here about tipping points, based on the author's remarks.

Skeptics dismiss the concept of tipping points. You can't prove them, they say. Actually, you can prove some of them but it's not clear what will activate them. Some others aren't understood to the point they can be considered certain. It goes the other way too, though. There's no justification for traveling up the Keeling curve with insouciance. Before we jump into a pot of hot tar, common sense tells us we ought to find out how hot the tar is.

I'll go through the main tipping points the author describes.

* Shrinking ice caps. This one is maybe the most basic. As the ice caps shrink the world is absorbing more energy from the sun. Furthermore, the water released lubricates the glaciers' movements, causing the process to accelerate.

* Clearing of rain forests lowers the amount of rainfall downwind from them, whether it's done on purpose or by natural fires that result from drying out. As the vegetation burns and exposes the soil to sunlight, large amounts of CO2 are released.

* As frozen bogs thaw in the extreme north, rotting tundra releases methane, a terribly effective greenhouse gas.

* CO2 dissolved in the oceans is removed by marine organisms that use it to build structural body parts. If the CO2 level rises too high, ocean water becomes too acidic for the organisms to live and this CO2-removal mechanism disappears.

* Clathrates are layers of methane lying in deep ocean trenches where the pressure and temperature are extreme enough to keep them frozen. If ocean temperatures rise enough to thaw some of the methane then inevitably it will enter the atmosphere. But it could be worse: there are layers of methane gas under the clathrates, kept unfrozen by warmth from the earth. If the ocean melts through spots in the clathrates, large amounts of methane will escape.

* Clouds are a subject of considerable uncertainty. As water evaporates we expect to see more white, fluffy clouds that reflect solar energy. That may be why the world hasn't warmed more than it has. But if the atmosphere gets hot enough we'll see fewer fluffy clouds and more high, thin clouds. They admit more solar energy and intercept energy that otherwise would escape.

* The ocean conveyor is a superlong ocean current; one of the things it does is carry heat from the tropics to the north Atlantic, warming the US coast before it swings over and does the same for northern Europe. As it moves north to the Arctic region it cools and drops down to return under the north-moving stream. What if Greenland's ice melts? If it happens fast enough, a real possibility, the fresh water would cause the saltier and heavier water of the current to short-circuit; it would drop down to the return stream prematurely. Northern Europe would see severely cold conditions. Meanwhile, the tropics would warm up because of losing the Arctic cooling.

The author makes the point that this issue is different from the issues we're used to. Usually, when you learn more about a concern you find that it's not as alarming as you thought before. With global warming, the more you learn the more there is to worry about.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

US Presidential Candidates on Global Warming

Here we offer a comparison of the views of the three major contenders for US President with respect to global warming.

Senator John McCain

Senator McCain has co-sponsored, with Senator Lieberman, legislation that would establish cap-and-trade measures for dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions. He tends to favor technological solutions over behavioral changes. In line with that view he supports federal support for nuclear energy.

Of the three candidates, he may have the most realistic views. At a time when millions of people are driving motor homes, yachts, and private aircraft around for recreation, buying houses bigger than they can afford, and treating flying vacations as a divinely-ordained right, perhaps it's too idealistic to suppose the greatest number would give up such indulgences.

As advocates of nuclear energy, we applaud his support for that technology. On the other hand, the view here is that what the country needs are coherent energy and environmental policies. If fossil fuels weren't subsidized with tax credits and if air-quality standards were reasonable, utilities would pursue nuclear and renewable energy without any federal support. Besides, nukes can't do the whole job, not even with cap-and-trade. The country needs some serious leadership on conservation as well.

Senator Hillary Clinton

Senator Clinton offers what looks more like a wish list than a plan. Cap-and-trade, R&D and subsidies for renewable energy, higher efficiency standards, and something called "home-grown biofuels." In the past she has said nuclear energy has to be kept on the table, but such sentiments don't appear on her website.

From here it looks as though she (or whatever staffer writes her energy positions) doesn't grasp the magnitude of the challenge or the urgency. Perhaps she knows better but doesn't want to offend the bicycling-and-winetasting crowd. We can sympathize, but it's not a point in her favor.

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Obama's positions are so close to Senator Clinton's it's hard to tell them apart. Possibly, the main difference is that he sets out his policies in more detail, so they come together as a plan. He understands the importance of setting stricter clean-air standards. He understands the value and the limitations of renewable energy sources, including biofuels.

He recognizes the importance of nuclear energy, but sets out four issues that must be addressed: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation. Then he proceeds to describe the measures he will take to address these same four issues. As advocates of nuclear energy, we are convinced that these issues have been addressed successfully and that any administration that looks at them clearly will work hard to develop nuclear energy.


Senator Obama seems to have the most comprehensive plan for dealing with global warming. Senator Clinton's might be as comprehensive, or possibly could be identical, but she doesn't spell it out and she doesn't mention nuclear energy; that's a major omission. Senator McCain is pro-nuclear; that's good but it's not enough.

It's appropriate to point out here the main problems with cap-and-trade, since it's the most important feature in all three candidates' positions. First, there's the ethical problem of letting polluters decide the price of pollution rights. Surely the victims ought to be setting the price. Second there's this political problem: call it what you like, cap-and-trade is a tax. Republicans won't allow it. Democratic politicians facing tough challenges won't vote for it. That means we have to weigh the different plans discounting the cap-and-trade part or any part that depends on it.

If we weigh the plans this way, Sen. McCain has only support for nuclear energy and Sen. Clinton has good intentions. Sen. Obama still has a plan.

Monday, March 3, 2008

How to Solve the United States' Worst Economic and Environmental Problems

First, the main economic problem is reduced job opportunities. As manufacturing jobs leave the country, middle Americans are watching their job opportunities shrink. They move to poorer-paying jobs that contribute less to society. Instead of providing goods and services that benefit other people, they sell goods and services provided by others. Junk-mail advertising, telephone soliciting, clerking in big-box stores. Data entry work for marketing companies. A nation of people taking in each other's laundry. Or selling each other long-distance phone service.

This problem is compounded by competition from immigrants from countries where people have even fewer opportunities. In this regard, the only plausible solution is for other countries to solve their own economic problems, for which this article is a template.

The second problem is too much cash floating around. Credit has been so easy to acquire that people have reached the saturation point with stuff, even buying houses they can't afford. Furniture, appliances, electronics, sports gear---how much stuff can a person own? The first time a cold economic wind blows, everyone stops shopping. Of course. It's time to conserve cash and pay down debts. Our federal government has come up with an economic stimulus plan so absurd it sounds like a joke. The government will borrow billions of dollars and dole it out to people in the hope they'll spend it on things they don't need. President Bush's biggest fear is that people will behave intelligently and do otherwise.

Now let's look at the environmental problems. Fossil fuels account for nearly all the air-pollution problems and a big part of the water-pollution problems. Even outweighing those is climate change caused mainly by burning fossil fuels.

As the other articles in this blog have shown, the most important solution to these problems is to convert from fossil fuels to renewables, especially windpower, and nuclear energy. What are the barriers to improving this situation? You saw this coming, didn't you? First, there aren't enough trained workers. Second, it takes a lot of capital investment.

So we see that the solution to our environmental problems is also the solution to our economic problems. When people go to work manufacturing the equipment for renewable and nuclear energy sources, or constructing the facilities, they can earn good pay because these are highly productive jobs with a big economic payback. Furthermore, and for the same reason, these are splendid investment opportunities. With the low interest rates presently being paid on investments and the low interest rates charged to borrowers, people have little incentive to save. But given this excellent investment opportunity, people can direct their earnings toward long-term financial security.

Is this sleight of hand? Voodoo economics? Not at all. It's simply the transfer of money away from wasteful consumerism toward long-term investment. It will transform the country in magnificent ways but it's not a magic trick.

The economic pressure driving this change is so powerful it won't be contained; the only point in question is how long it will take to start it. My opinion is that the only thing holding it back is an administration that believes consumerism is the sole engine of wealth. If I'm right, then next January we'll see the beginning of an avalanche of economic drive. All three of the leading candidates understand that prosperity depends on growth, not on spending.

Get ready and hold on.