Sunday, November 15, 2009
The last month has been bad for the struggle against climate change. The Pew Research Center's recent poll shows that Americans are almost evenly divided between those who think it's a very serious threat, those who think it's a somewhat serious threat, and those who don't think it is a serious threat.
APEC nations announced they would not sign enforceable limits on greenhouse-gas emissions at the Copenhagen meeting coming up in December.
And now we have Al Gore's much-anticipated new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.
His first book was supposed to show the science about global warming and climate change, but he got the science wrong and thereby gave ammunition to the denialists. The best-known mistake was the graph that showed the correlation between global average temperature and CO2 concentration over the last 400,000 years. What he may have failed to notice, and certainly didn't point out, was that the temperature changes preceded the CO2 changes by hundreds of years, which contradicted his thesis.
So expectations weren't high when he published this new book, which deals with the solutions. And we were neither disappointed nor pleasantly surprised.
He covers all the important points in the subject. Some of the information no doubt is accurate and valuable. Unfortunately, it's poorly referenced so readers can't distinguish between solid information and his own opinions.
And we see grating inconsistencies. Our interest here is mainly in nuclear energy as an important part of the solution. He shrugs it off, saying only that a very great investment is needed to implement it.
His solution? Besides the usual exhortations to practice efficiency and conservation, he gives us only the usual tired nostrums: wind, solar, and geothermal energy. As we have shown here to the point of tedium, the investment required for wind and solar energy is higher than that for nuclear, and geothermal could at most provide only a few per cent of our electricity requirements. By his logic, nuclear should be at the top of the list of solutions; sadly, his information doesn't carry him to the right and obvious conclusion.
He does get credit for at least considering the problem of intermittency. Here again, alas, he falls down. He proposes that plug-in hybrid car batteries will solve the problem of storing enough energy to get the country through periods of low energy production from wind and solar.
We happen to know how much electricity has to be stored. As we calculated here, the US would have to store between 141 and 386 billion KWH, depending on how much comes from solar and how much from wind, based on current consumption rates. But Toyota's intended battery has a storage capacity of 202 volts x 13 amp-hours, or 2.6 KWH. Each battery costs around $10,000. The number of plug-in batteries required would be 54 billion to 148 billion, in a country with 306 million people. Or, if every person owned one battery and used it only for energy storage, the combined capacity would be only 0.2% to 0.56% of what's needed. For the storage to provide 5% of the amount needed would require technological improvements that aren't even on the horizon.
Ironies abound in the second half of the book. He points out the undeniable fact that the most effective way to limit population growth is to promote economic security in poor countries. "The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive," he quotes Julius K. Nyerere, Tanzania's first Prime Minister and President. But he wants to limit their energy sources to the most expensive and unachievable ones.
He offers us this crucial conclusion: "The only meaningful and effective solutions to the climate crisis involve massive changes in human behavior and thinking." That clearly is true, and it's too bad he doesn't apply it to his own attitudes about nuclear energy.
He refers to the confusion over climate change mentioned at the beginning of this article. He blames the confusion on self-interested political groups that spread misinformation about the subject. They didn't have to prove they were right, they just had to create doubt about the truth. He quotes climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer: "What they've done is try to take scientific understanding and put it on the same level with political opinion." Why can't he grasp the fact that the same thing happened to nuclear energy?
As was the case for the first book, Mr. Gore's errors fortify the arguments of those who oppose his program. For some time, they've been pointing out that if the situation is as dire as he makes it out to be then he should be calling for massive nuclear construction. His demands for solutions that are more popular but less effective undermine his credibility and, it follows, his argument.
So that's the deal on his book. Certainly some of the information has to be good, but it's not referenceable. The pictures are good. If your public library has it, you definitely should read it.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
------UPDATE: EATING WORDS-------
When you're wrong you should say you're wrong. In the article shown below in its original form I complained that President Obama was offering only symbolic gestures in dealing with the important problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. Today, May 19, 2009, he announced important changes in the rules governing CO2 emissions from vehicles. Some plans were in place to limit emissions in 2020, a time so far off in the future as to be meaningless. Under the new rules, auto manufacturers will have to start meeting new fuel efficiency standards beginning in 2012. The rules will be tightened yearly until 2016, when passenger cars will have to achieve 39 mpg and light trucks 30 mpg.
One could protest that the changes are too little and too late. For onlookers who are concerned about the headlong rush to habitat destruction in which humans are engaged, the plan seems over-solicitous of auto executives. But it clearly isn't a symbolic gesture.
I still think that Jon Wellinghoff's comment, discussed in the article below, is cause for alarm. Since the President faces political constraints most of us can't appreciate, though, I suppose we should respect his judgment and look for continuing reforms to the country's energy and environmental policies.
I haven't added articles for a long time because anything I said would be repetitious. But something has changed so maybe it's right to do another.
When President Obama was running for the office he holds now, he spoke against cynicism. "The era of Scooter Libby justice, and Brownie incompetence, and the Karl Rove politics of fear and cynicism will be over." Spartanburg, SC | November 03, 2007 He promised us.
Soon after taking office, he barred former lobbyists from working for agencies they had lobbied within the past two years and required them to recuse themselves from issues they had handled during that time and barred officials of his administration from lobbying their former colleagues "for as long as I am president." New York Times, January 21, 2009. Pres. Obama set the rule at two years because he isn't one to limit his options.
So how does Pres. Obama deal with the important problem of energy and global warming? He appoints Jon Wellinghoff to be head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Chairman Wellinghoff is a lawyer who has made a career of lobbying on behalf of consumer and anti-nuclear political groups. Before joining FERC, he was Nevada’s Consumer Advocate for Customers of Public Utilities. Prior to that, while a lawyer in private practice, he was the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Act. He spent over thirty years lobbying on behalf of renewable-energy businesses. FERC
So we see the rule against lobbyists only applies to lobbyists who didn't support Candidate Obama. It's okay, though, because of the two-year rule.
What about cynicism? Here's what Chairman Wellinghoff has to say about nuclear energy: "We may not need any, ever." His solution: "Natural gas is going to be there for a while, because it's going to be there to get us through this transition that's going to take 30 or more years." New York Times, April 22, 2009
What this means is that cynicism has taken over energy policy in the Obama administration. Maybe the President and the Chairman are right. The problem of global warming is so daunting, perhaps even insurmountable, that there's no point in trying to solve it. Political considerations preclude ignoring it, especially since it faces us every day in the news, so the only response left is symbolic gestures. We'll put up some wind turbines and solar panels. We'll sprinkle money around university research labs to pretend we take new-age gimmicks seriously. Mainly, we'll follow T. Boone Pickens's plan to burn natural gas until it's all gone.
Obviously, cynicism is no substitute for policy. But it doesn't matter, because the destructive effects of global warming will hit after Pres. Obama retires. See how that works?