Sunday, November 15, 2009

Al Gore's New Book

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.