Welcome to the inaugural Cosmopolitan Globalist debate. Our subject: All things considered, what’s the best way to provide energy for the globe’s 7.9 billion people?
Greetings fellow Cosmopolitan Globalists. Claire Berlinski has asked me to moderate this debate.
I began working in energy when I was 19, delivering fifty-kilogram steel bottles of liquid propane gas in Miami. Now I’m a nonresident senior fellow at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
In between, I worked for a municipal power plant in northern Florida; had summer internships in graduate school at two US National Laboratories, Brookhaven and Argonne; worked as a young professional in the US Energy Information Administration; then headed to the Netherlands on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship, where I worked under the direction of the late Professor Peter Odell, a British economic geographer and expert on North Sea oil and natural gas.
In 1987, I joined the International Energy Agency here in Paris and produced their first estimates of subsidies to European and Japanese coal producers. I then shifted to trade policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2016, I took a sabbatical to serve as the Director of Research for the Global Subsidies Initiative of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, where I wrote and oversaw almost a dozen studies on subsidies to biofuels. After returning to the OECD, I supported the G20’s efforts to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels, oversaw the creation of the OECD’s Inventory of Government Support to Fossil Fuels, and chaired the first six peer reviews of G20 members’ fossil-fuel subsidy reform efforts. Since retiring, I’ve been writing about fossil fuel subsidy numbers, trade, and the environment.
My role in this debate is to play the neutral arbiter. I hope, too, to remind people of history. There are reasons, dating back to the 1970s, for the world’s heavy reliance on coal; there are reasons for the widely varying views about natural gas and nuclear power; and reasons, too, for the way rich and poor nations have divided the responsibility for putting the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions.
All of our readers are welcome—indeed, encouraged—to participate in this debate about the central question:
Omnibus perpensis, what’s the best way to provide energy for the globe’s 7.9 billion people?
We’ll be running excellent essays about fossil fuels, nuclear power, and green tech; we’ll be taking all questions from our readers—as well as submissions, should they wish to write at length; and at the end of it, we’ll wrap it up with a Grand Cosmopolicast Debate, followed by the announcement of a winner.
Among the essays in the queue is one by Adam Garfinkle, a member of our editorial board, explaining why former US President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change wasn’t the calamity that climate activists around the world insisted it was. By extension, he asks whether it makes any difference that President Biden has rejoined it.
For more than 40 years, nuclear power has frightened people, even though it’s the world’s best and most scalable source of clean energy. Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, will make the climate case for nuclear power. Geoff Marcy, an American astronomer, backs him up, arguing nuclear power should be a major component in the electrical portfolio of developing countries, enabling them to raise their standard of living with a reliable, carbon-free source of electricity.
Casey Handmer, a physicist and software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will offer a Minority Report. He argues nuclear has already lost the market to solar.
Alexander Hurst and Benjamin Wolf will discuss Europe’s Greens: Are they the political future? Are their proposals any good? If they take power, can they govern? Could their worldview even supersede liberalism and global capitalism?
Gareth Lewis, a geologist and 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, will spell out the unstated assumptions inherent to the vision of a green energy transition powered by renewables, and asks whether these assumptions are correct.
Cosmopolitan Globalist co-editor Vivek Y. Kelkar will file a piece examining key concepts in the corporate world’s philosophy of climate change.
We’re delighted, too, to announce that the Cosmopolitan Globalists’ new resident climate expert will contribute. Dr. X, as we’ll call him for now, is a distinguished scientist who works on the mathematical modeling and computational simulation of ice flows and their interactions with the ocean and atmosphere.
We asked him if he would be kind enough to join the discussion this week to ensure none of us inadvertently descends into scientific illiteracy. This was his response:
I’d be honored to serve as a resident climate expert for the Cosmopolitan Globalist. I’d prefer to stay anonymous, at least for now, and to advise behind the scenes.
I appreciate your attachment to the aims and ideals of the Enlightenment.
We hope that Dr. X will find the discussion so stimulating that he emerges from his occultation. Failing that, the Cosmopolitan Globalist is—always—impressed by good arguments, unimpressed by credentials. If Dr. X’s arguments are sound, they will speak for themselves absent his name; if they are not, no name and no fame can save him.
Welcome, Dr. X! We’re so pleased to have you.
Ronald Steenblik is a nonresident senior fellow at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
“Omnibus perpensis, what’s the best way to provide energy for the globe’s 7.9 billion people?”
The short answer, for me, is to use/develop all sources of energy and to use the source(s) geographically most efficient for a given region (whose size and location are deliberately vague). And to use/develop those sources entirely absent government subsidy of any sort beyond funding privately done basic research in the development of new. (The topic of subsidies and credits is a separate, political economy matter.)
But it seems to me that a closely associated question also needs to be answered, and that is “Why do we care about atmospheric CO2 as a greenhouse gas in the first place?”
After all, the planet’s recorded history (not the “recorded history” so conveniently referenced that begins so few years ago when industrial nations started keeping their records, of more or less accuracy) indicates, on the one hand from Greenland and Antarctica ice cores running back 400k years, that CO2 concentrations lag planetary warming.
On the other hand, records reaching back 10s of millions of years seem to contradict that by indicating utter lack of correlation between planetary temperatures and CO2 concentrations.
In the latter case, though, there seems to be a strong correlate: in both periods of higher temperatures than today and of much higher CO2 concentrations, life was lusher than today.
There’s a second question that needs to be answered, too: “What is the relative impact, if any, of human activity on planetary warming and simple orbital and rotational mechanics?”
Summer in the northern hemisphere presently occurs when Earth is at its farthest from the sun in our non-circular orbit and when Earth is tilted away from the sun. That has implications for planetary temperature, and those implications are colored by ocean-land distribution. Over geologic time (which includes so far unpredictable continent movements), we’ll get northern hemisphere summer when Earth is closest to the sun. Over much shorter times, we’ll get summer when Earth is tilted toward the sun. The precession cycle is some 26,000 years, and we’re (more or less) halfway through it. Also, continental drift won’t enter into this cycle. Those two cycles harmonize, too, which further potentiates seasonal temperature highs and lows.
And: Earth is warming, in some part, because the sun has been heating up since it first lit off those 4.5, or so, billion years ago.
And then there’s the more nearby temperature record. We may still be cooler than we were during the height of the Roman empire, although those records are incomplete and not planet-wide. We are still a bit cooler, 11,000 years after the last Ice Age, than the geologic warming trend line for Earth.
I’m having trouble seeing why we need to be so worried about CO2. I’m not having any trouble at all seeing the economic damage and associated destruction of lives (physical, emotional, economic) from trying to ban this or that energy source or mandating that or this source, or subsidizing one and punishing another.
Western Australia also gave us an object lesson in the outcome of entirely depending entirely on one, “renewable” energy source. That fiasco is an engineering problem, not a theoretical one, but the fix(es) are years, if not decades, away.
Thanks for the blurb, Claire, but while I’m a Berserkely Ph. D. in enviro planning, my slender professorship is only as an adjunct; and these days I’m mostly a independent web designer towards practicable conservation of both cultural and ecological assets —particularly as relating to megaproject hydropower schemes on the Himalayan-sourced rivers which I’ve observed firsthand— and only know about the natural gas issues in Myanmar what I read in the papers. But no question the Tatmadaw has an enormous financial interest in their country’s under-developed energy sector that vastly exacerbates anti-national ethnic minority armed politics and led in good part to the coup three months ago. Which was fastidiously bloodless at the onset before the descent into righteous lunacy on all sides… Our primary website URL is <https://cultivateunderstanding.com>
Please add to that “megaproject inter-basin transfer schemes”… <https://cultivateunderstanding.com/pdfjs-2.3.200-dist/web/viewer.html?file=../..//Digital_Media/IAIA_2021/presentation.pdf>
Thank you E Hines for your comment. I will leave others to debate the merits of your comments on long-term climate change. But from an economic perspective, I should think that the answer to “Why do we care about atmospheric CO2 as a greenhouse gas in the first place?” is the risk to the huge investments that have been made, to populations vulnerable to extreme weather, and to the natural world. The changes in temperatures and the severity of storms are seem to be happening at a rapid pace, making adaptation of both natural species and humans to such changes all the more difficult. We no longer live in a world without borders in which humans can migrate long distances in response to changes in local flora, fauna and water availability.
Of course, the feeling of urgency among policy makers makes the chances of governments implementing hasty policies that are not well thought even higher. That is why I, personally, favor broad-based policies that send industries and consumers signals of the costs of their actions, rather than prescribe specific outcomes (e.g., mandated biofuel targets in transport).
Other studies indicate that storm severity or frequency really aren’t increasing very much, if at all–they just get better publicity and economic costs are so much greater.
It also seems to be the case that we’re no warmer today than we were in the early 1900s–at least as far as climate “models” can tell. Those models, too, can’t simultaneously predict the past and the present without heavy tuning of ‘way too many input parameters to avoid overtuning errors, and for at least the last 20+ years, the models’ predictions of the future have been wildly exaggerated and wrong.
Science consensus (for what that’s worth–certainly worth listening to, but nothing to bet the farm on) also is starting to converge on the premise that if we follow the Paris nonsense, Earth’s temperature will still rise a fraction of a degree by the end of the 21st century, and if we do nothing, Earth’s temperature will rise by a slightly larger fraction of a degree, or two.
I’m not seeing anything here that’s worth the economic destruction that governments are proposing.
Particularly since those long-term changes that you dismiss raise the so what question for the here and now in which real people live real lives.
On a completely separate topic (nuclear power), I’m posting here a question submitted directly by e-mail to Claire. That person is welcome to identify himself, if he sees this.
Basically, referring to the 1976 book, The Health Hazards of NOT going Nuclear, by Petr Beckman (see the first page of a review here: https://academic.oup.com/spp/article-abstract/4/3/291/1625273), our reader notes, Beckman’s “quantitative calculations and comparison of the major fuel groups was not denied at the time. Has anything happened to debunk him since then (other than his tone)?”
Anybody care to answer that question?
I put the question to Dr. X. This was his reply:
“I’m not familiar with the book, but based on the publication date and the first few Amazon comments, the answer to that question is probably yes. Are you looking for something more specific? For instance, whether it’s possible to have safe, affordable, carbon-free baseline electric power that isn’t nuclear?”
I’m not 100% sure what the first poster was trying to get at, but of course ALL energy sources involve some trade-offs affecting safety, risks to human health, and impacts on the natural environment, whether in their construction, operation, or disposal. So we’re talking relative degrees here.
Also, just in terms of terminology, effectively no technologies for generating electricity are totally carbon free on a life-cycle basis, because of energy used in their manufacturing — though one could imagine eventually, if all mineral extraction, manufacturing and transport energy comes from technologies that do not emit carbon, they could be. Steam-based geothermal power plants do usually emit some CO2 as a result of that gas being entrained in steam. And hydroelectric plants usually involve at the very least the harvesting or submersion of carbon-containing flora and soils.
As for safety, the installation of any electric small-scale electricity sources can, like rooftop solar panels, carries some occupational risk. Indeed, solar PV presents unique electrical hazards that, as this web page points out
technicians should be aware of. Wind turbines are very high, and it gets windy up top (by definition), so people working on them have to take special precautions as well.
From the standpoint of the general population, however, my impression is that most carbon-free technologies are very safe, and getting safer. In particular, they do not emit air pollution, except in the case of biomass-fired power, which I do not consider to be “carbon-free”. I will not talk about the safety of nuclear power here, as that question will be covered by a couple of essays that I expect will get posted soon.
The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in 1979. That was the last nuclear power plant to be built in the US until recently when VC Summer and Vogtle came along, still under construction. Old timers in the nuclear industry in North American still remember where they were when the accident occurred. You could call it cathartic. No prohibitive laws were passed, though there was great soul searching and the regulators became very conservative. And so the costs went up. My opinion is no one had the stomach to build until recently. And of those new plants, only Vogtle remains. Cost overruns and schedule delays caused VC Summer, half built, to abandon the project. Nuclear has many benefits, but the regulatory landscape is very challenging. To my mind, that is where improvements are needed if nuclear is to become and remain competitive. ( I have been building nuclear equipment for 25 years, some of it for these two new plants.) The Chinese are building the same plants (same design) within budget and schedule.
This series sounds really fantastic. Congratulations on recruiting such a distinguished group of authors to contribute.
I have two issues pertinent to this debate that I’m interested in hearing about.
(1) Is the science on climate change really as settled as the press and environmental activists claim it is?
Anyone who knows anything about science knows that things are rarely as “settled” as activists and pundits claim they are. It’s also a fact that the “scientific consensus” often proves to be wrong.
Just two recent examples from medicine prove the point. Since the mid 1970s the overwhelming consensus was that dietary cholesterol was implicated in increasing the risk for coronary artery disease. Massive changes in dietary recommendations were forcefully advocated and implemented. We now know that dietary cholesterol intake has little to nothing to do with LDL cholesterol levels or heart disease. The scientific consensus was massively wrong and the results were dire; a massive increase in obesity and an epidemic of Type II diabetes.
Want another example of the scientific consensus gone awry? There’s the idea that gastric ulcers were caused by diet. We now know that they are caused by bacteria.
Can we really be sure that the so-called consensus on climate change isn’t simply wrong or, more likely an exaggeration by the press, pundits and activists about whether that “consensus” is really definitive enough for the world to massively alter its economic relationships? What are the costs if the consensus is wrong or not quite the universal scientific agreement it’s cracked up to be. Who pays those costs?
(2) There are few if any costs to the intellectual elites associated to adjusting to climate change policies. Pundits, college professors, programmers, physicians, accountants, lawyers, government workers, etc. can obsess about climate change because the “fixes” hardly impact them at all. The working classes in the United States and elsewhere pay almost all of the costs. Massive job loss not only in the energy sector is but one example. What about the auto assembly line workers, gas station attendants, and garage mechanics who will lose their jobs because of electric cars?
What about the plumbers, roofers, landscapers and other contractors who have to bear the expense of trading in their pick-ups for expensive electric vehicles that they don’t want? What about the those same contractors who used to spend five minutes gassing up their vehicles who now have to spend 30 minutes charging up their vehicles? Of course they can charge up their vehicles at home; that is if they can afford several thousand dollars to install the home charging station.
It’s understandable that knowledge-elites don’t care. Many are commuting to their jobs on public transportation. Going forward, millions will be telecommuting and zooming. The changes required to ameliorate climate change won’t cost them anything.
Can climate change policies be implemented without causing calamitous economic ruin to working people around the world?
It’s hard to see how, but maybe the experts assembled by the leadership of the Cosmopolitan Globalists can explain how it might be accomplished.
Regarding the association between CO2 and its effect on infrared radiation, I should think that is pretty settled. This type of experiment has been performed thousands of times:
As for past errors in medical science, large-scale studies of the effects of diets on particular health outcomes are notoriously difficult to carry out, because of wide variations in people’s genetic makeup, actual food and drink intake (as opposed to reported intake), and other factors that affect outcomes like coronary heart disease. It took a while for medical researchers to look beyond what seemed to be the logical and obvious causes to possible pathogenic causes. But they weren’t totally off-base. To quote from the article at this link, “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), low-dose aspirin, smoking, excessive alcohol use, emotional stress and psychosocial factors are increasingly important causes of ulcers and their complications even in H. pylori-negative patients.”
That is not to say that climate scientists are infallible. So scientists may yet find other factors that are contributing to climate change.
I completely agree. For many reasons dietary studies are very difficult to design if the goal is to arrive at definitive answers. That’s always true when the subject you’re trying to understand has a multifactorial etiology.
But surely, climate change must also be multifactorial. How certain can we be that reducing carbon emissions will impact climate change? Perhaps it will work splendidly. Perhaps it will fail completely. Perhaps it will be a net positive but the climate will change in deleterious ways anyway but at a somewhat slower rate.
The entire basis of science is the experimental method; you formulate a hypothesis that you prove or disprove by conducting experiments that are as well controlled as practicable.
I simply wonder whether the hypothesis that climate change can be ameliorated by reducing human carbon emissions has been tested in either the real world or any reasonable model.
The essence of science requires investigators to be as objective and dispassionate as possible in designing their experiments and analyzing the data resulting from those experiments.
Have climate change advocates been dispassionate or are they convinced of the efficacy of their proposed remedies without regard to the experimental process? Many words can be used to describe environmental advocates; I’m not sure “dispassionate” is one of those words.
Is proposing decarbonization without data that it will be impactful (to the standard of statistical significance) science or is it something else?
Reasonable people can differ about this but given the costs of getting it wrong, before we implement policies that could ruin the lives of millions of people, a little skepticism might be in order.
That’s the point I’m trying to make.
Wig Wag, I appreciate your common sense points. I stopped eating eggs for breakfast and then ate Raisin Bran for 20 years only to be told that eggs were better and the cereal would give me adult diabetes. As a retired construction worker your point on trucks is well made, especially to someone with a long daily commute. It’s one thing to be able to charge your vehicle at a single house, another to imagine the crush of people trying to do the same in an apartment or condominium complex.
Indeed these are good points and the same thought has occurred to me. The climate change crowd says, “The science is settled.” And this is true —narrowly true. that human activity does play some role in climate change is a settled question. But though they pretend otherwise, the remedies proposed by climate change advocates are in no way supported by that “settled science.” Indeed, science qua science can’t tell us what, if anything, we should do about climate change. That’s a complex policy matter that transcends science.
I want to chime in that the decisions to choose a particular energy source over another are often made in a more decentralized manner than one might think. For example, the US Federal government may want to encourage nuclear power and is also in charge of regulating the safety aspects of it but the actual decision to build new nuclear plants is in the hands of state utility regulators and private companies. Additionally, the US, in particular, has a crazy patchwork of hundreds if not more utility companies each with their own authority to make resource planning decisions across the country.
In other “Federal” countries like Canada and Australia, these resource planning decisions are like in the US not made at the Federal level. The primary advantage Canada and Australia have is that electric policy at the subnational level is unified in the sense there is only one electric company in Quebec, BC, Ontario etc(i.e. Hydro-Quebec, Ontario Power Generation, BC Hydro etc). So even when people in Canada say Justin Trudeau needs to build more nuclear plants that is not something completely in his control, however, the province of Ontario with the longsta1nding support of the Canadian Federal govt is probably the second most nuclear dependent jurisdiction in the Western world outside of France.
Then finally of course there is the French model. As everyone knows France is a very highly centralized state and takes a lot of pride in being a very centralized state however, most don’t realize that French municipalities actually retain franchise authority for EDF to run powerlines in and above public streets and about 5% of French municipalities actually have their own electric distribution utilities that purchase the power from EDF on a wholesale basis. This is unlike Orange/France Telecom originally spun out of the French Post Office(La Poste) which does have a very specific universal service mandate for every square kilometer of French territory. Of course, this franchising authority in France may be thought of pre-1930s historical relic before EDF was formed that still lingers in French law. EDF by the way was formed as a nationwide electric utility throughout France in the beginning largely to develop hydro-power in the Alps. France like Ontario in Canada went through an experience of finding out after centralizing its electric system to take advantage of Hydro-power(in Ontario’s case from Niagara Falls and the St Lawrence Seaway) during the 1960s and 70s post-war boom that these early hydro projects as impressive as they seemed and are to this day couldn’t keep up with demand. Thus both Ontario Hydro and EDF in France went down the road to nuclear for largely similar reasons, unlike Quebec which had the natural topography to continue building more and more hydro dams.
Important point. Thank you!
Good points Tim. I can add that EDF was at one time partly owned by the French government, and hugely subsidized by it. Also interesting to note that the recently ejected provincial Liberal government in Ontario decided to go with windmills, with the idea that when the wind blows, nuclear power plants could be throttled back. But nuclear power plants are designed to operate at 100% and 75% of their costs are capital costs. So there are no savings.
I have a few predatory comments.
First, I hope that the discussion will not ignore or slight the, ahem, intersectionality of energy policy and politics.
Second, a reminder that energy policy is a form of third-party decision making—indeed, a form of central economic planning. The issues involved and the decisions made would profoundly affect the lives of countless people with no say in the process.
Third, a reminder that a national energy policy would of necessity be crafted on the basis of incomplete information and would be subject to unforeseen frictions (as Clausewitz termed termed them in the context of war). Simpler things than a national energy policy have fallen foul of the Law of Unintended consequences.
As you may have deduced, I’m skeptical about this kind of policy making on a national or supranational scale. I think I’d prefer a policy of expediency: doing what seems workable, doing it on a realistic scale, and foregoing grandiose goals.
Um, prefatory. Thank you, autocorrect!
“Prefatory: serving as an introduction; introductory.” Thanks, I learned a new word today!
Will try to address your larger questions tomorrow. Almost “Midnight in Paris” here.
I thought autocorrect’s version was better, actually! Punchier.
I agree that as observers and critics of government policy, we should always be alert and sound warnings over the risks of unintended consequences. Government policies to promote biofuels made from crops is a classic case in point.
But modern societies are beyond the point of being able to organize on their own to engage in Coasian bargaining, especially over global externalities such as emissions of greenhouse gases.
So, in my view, governments have to get involved somehow, including at the international level. Do I have faith that they can work out some ambitious international deal that averts serious increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations? No. The problem, of course, is that it would be unethical to not at least try. But I regard the likelihood of some country, or countries, taking matters into their own hands by 2050 — e.g., through some geo-engineering “solution”, like releasing sulfur or some other chemical that reflected light into the stratosphere — as fairly high. More:
I can’t speak to the competence of other countries’ governments, but I will say that my confidence in the ability of the US government to manage anything in the way of a comprehensive energy policy addressing climate change in tandem with other considerations is close to zero. Bureaucracies are no good at the vision thing, and anything the US government tried to do on energy would have to be done through the bureaucracy. One has only to recall how the FDA and the CDC have performed during the pandemic to judge how things would turn out on the energy front.
The state of American political culture only compounds the problem. Like just about everything else, energy policy and climate change are battle fronts in the war between Left and Right. Just yesterday in Barnes & Noble I spotted a book by someone or other on climate change—the author’s thesis being that the culprit is capitalism, whose suppression is essential if the planet is to be saved. Let’s just say that such arguments are not helpful. Nor are utopian, not to say nonsensical, proposals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Nor are the claims of some conservatives that climate change is nothing more than the Left’s cat’s paw.
In principle it should not be too difficult to craft an energy policy for the US that strikes a balance among all the relevant considerations. The problem is that once it’s put down on paper any such policy will be picked to pieces by all the competing special interests, then processed through the bureaucratic mincing machine. That’s why I favor a policy of expedients.
It may be, however, that a geo-engineering approach is the way to go, at least on the government front. Something like that—a Manhattan Project, a Project Apollo—relatively narrow in focus—crash priority—aligns better with government’s skill set.
Having perused the comments, I have a question: How far should climate change be allowed to influence the development of energy policy? Is it the overriding consideration, trumping all others? If so, nothing good will come of the exercise—at least in my opinion. Now, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be one consideration. But what others apply, and how should they be ranked? In short, what’s the objective here?
“Omnibus perpensis” means “*all* things considered,” so one of the things we have to work out, this week, is the answer to this question. Since we at the Cosmopolitan Globalist are *not* partisan hysterics, however, we expect to be able to assess this rationally. I submit that anyone who is rational and not in the grip of partisan hysteria or flagrant neurosis would agree that multiple desirable ends must be considered as we ask this question. Among them (not in rank order): 1) providing enough energy to everyone on the planet to promote human flourishing; 2) doing so in some *reasonably* equitable manner, although what I mean by “reasonable” needs considerable refinement; for now it’s a placeholder; 3) doing so at a cost low enough that money is left over for all the other things essential to human flourishing (or at least survival); 4) doing so with minimal damage to property (private and public) and the environment; 5) doing so without making free countries hostage to the whims of despotic ones; and 6) doing so without taking unreasonable risks of warming the climate in a severe way; 7) doing so without taking unreasonable risk of warming the climate in a catastrophic way. (I separate them because I think they’re two separate analytic problems, often confused.) Again, a definition of the word “reasonable” here needs to be hammered out through debate and given a formal definition. For now, I use it in a colloquial and intuitive sense, i.e., no one should think it reasonable to worry about a risk of catastrophic climate change that by all evidence is lower than the risk of being being, say, stolen by a voodoo priest and zombified. The latter *does* happen (really! https://www.mensjournal.com/features/into-the-zombie-underworld-20130108/), but not so often that if we had a suspicion this was related to, say, to angering the Gods by building dams in sacred places, we should ignore considerations 1-6 because we fear it. That wouldn’t be reasonable. It wouldn’t even be remotely rational. However, if we assess the risk of catastrophic climate change as, “Maybe five percent, at this rate,” it becomes overwhelmingly important: Probably enough to subordinate (not eliminate) some of the other priorities. This is an incomplete list, but I wouldn’t take very seriously anyone who hasn’t given at least some thought to all of these aims.
I can’t correct typos in comments, it seems; above, my list has a confusing misplaced “and” between numbers 5 and 6; it should be between 6 and 7.
This is a nice summary of the problem’s complexity. I find myself asking if it would be possible to reconcile points 1 through 6, or even to assess point 7 possibilities. It seems to me that claiming “a five percent chance of catastrophic climate change” would represent little more than guesswork—and in any case, it wouldn’t move the needle politically.
“How far should climate change be allowed to influence the development of energy policy? Is it the overriding consideration, trumping all others?”
My personal opinion? Definitely it should be one of the top considerations. But, in addition to the issues that Claire raises (cost-effectiveness, equitable distribution of costs, completing the project of providing modern energy to those without), there is the very closely associated issue of pollution from combustion — not just of fossil fuels but also of biomass, especially crude biomass by poor people in countries still undergoing development.
A recent study by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, University of Birmingham and University of University of Leicester estimates that air pollution and particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentrations in ambient air originating from fossil fuel combustion caused 2.5 million premature deaths in India alone in 2018. Note: The pollution levels used for the simulation were those of 2012. India’s pollution levels have steadily risen between 2012 and 2018 in most cities, hence the actual number of premature deaths is probably higher.
Another study estimates that the use of biomass fuels such as wood and crop residues for cooking and heating resulted in over 1 million premature deaths from air pollution in China in 2014.
Even in cities like Paris, and in Italy’s Po Valley, morbidity and mortality have been exacerbated by pollution from car tailpipes.
So, if phasing out the use of fossil fuels can be done in a way that allows humans to flourish, as Claire writes, I’m all for it — in no small part to reduce air pollution from combustion, and not just because that combustion also adds to the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere.
And that is the question: Is it even possible to phase out fossil fuels in a way that allows human beings to flourish? Perhaps it is, in the long—the very long—term. But for the foreseeable future—and let’s face it, nobody can see very far ahead—I would say that it’s not possible. Certainly the overall energy profile of a country like the US can be modified—more wind, solar and nuclear, less coal oil and natural gas—but only so far as that modification causes no major economic damage or social unrest.
This, to me, is the problem with the whole concept of priorities: What happens when the top priority meets resistance and generates pushback? Nothing good. That’s why I prefer to avoid setting priorities, particularly when there are so many unavoidable tradeoffs in play.
I certainly share the hope that policy makers can find a way to accelerate the energy transition in a way that “causes no major economic damage or social unrest”. Part of that is an education task, however.
Looming over all are the costs of INACTION. I’m not going to bear those costs as much as my son’s generation, and the ones that follow his. Many younger people are viscerally frightened of the world that awaits them, and the consequences of more violent weather, failed crops (this year’s wine harvest in France is predicted to be 30% lower than last year; yes, we’ll survive that one), rising seas. All that money going into rebuilding communities after floods and hurricanes, and moving coastal roads inland, has to come from somewhere.
In short, the social unrest I’m as worried bout as much any other is that from younger generations as they become ever more convinced that our generations could have done something to slow GHG emissions, but didn’t.
The economic damage and social unrest that may happen in the short term will always trump long-term considerations. This may be a sad commentary on human nature but it’s the way things are. So there needs to be a workaround. What might this be?
I admit this is a bit of snide and a partially political question but it is related to energy and thus this discussion but can someone, anyone Monique, Claire, Ronald, Toomas explain to me what makes the Gulfstream pipeline that runs under the Gulf of Mexico different than Nordstream 2. The Gulfstream pipeline obviously bypasses Northern Florida and the Panhandle heading direct to S Florida which often have far different voting patterns and politics than Southern Florida. So how is not Gulfstream political, and in the NS2 discussion I keep on hearing that undersea pipelines are uneconomic so why then was the Gulfstream pipeline constructed under the Gulf of Mexico.
In particular the Gulfstream Gas Pipeline was built in competition to an older land based pipeline that ran through Florida panhandle just like the older land based pipelines running through Ukraine such as the 1960s built Florida Gas Transmission system.
First, I am really enjoying the comments and insights in this subject.
Second, I am a proponent of nuclear energy but as a former geologist working on one of the DOE projects to locate a permanent nuclear waste repository site in the 1980’s, I have a unique insight into an aspect of the nuclear energy debate. Waste disposal and containment is an extremely contentious issue. Nobody wants it…..the energy- yes, the waste-no. All the time, energy, and money spent on that issue and still no consensus has been reached. (I could expound much more on this issue).
Third, global warming and cooling, have been occurring for millennia. No one really understands all the variables involved. 10,000-15,000 years ago glacial advance extended to and beyond the 48th parallel. In the Cretaceous period, 145-80 million years ago, the earth the entire earth was much warmer (at least 4 degrees C) than today.
(One final note on a tangent. After 9/11. The federal government had a heightened concerned about biological attacks and pandemics. Hundreds of medical people (including myself) were trained extensively on recognition and containment. Then the money dried up. We were never called up activated. Another resource spent, but never used.)
I’m curious if the authors will address the economic aspect of all this. It’s important the places in the world with rapid population growth experience rapid economic growth as well if we want to sustain global demand. Authoritarian countries can (or think they can) live in a world of eternally weak external demand, but not liberal democracies with rapidly aging populations. If we want the democratic West to survive we need developing countries to grow as rapidly as possible.
On the other hand, we don’t want an explosion of investment in coal, if for no other reason then the health effects might damage the ability of our precious future consumers to consume our stuff–I mean, could damage their productivity growth.
Great topic and I am impressed with the quality of the responses. Hope I dont sound like a crank.
I am an engineer in the nuclear industry. For the last ten years I have been reading all I can about climate change. I am going to state a series of observations and look forward to them being either corrected or validated.
1. There appears to be global warming taking place, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Not so clear in the South.
2. The conventional wisdom is that GHGs are causing it, primarily CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour. But other causes are possible. The sun’s activity or a change in ocean currents could also explain it. (Dr Ian Clarke, a researcher of Paleoclimatology at U of Ottawa, states there is a very good correlation between the sun’s solar energy and global temperatures. He also states that as temperatures increase, the oceans degas CO2, causing increased levels in the atmosphere. So, temperature may drive CO2, not the reverse. CO2 is not a thermostat that controls temperatures. And increased levels of CO2 from human activities may well have beneficial effects.)
3. What is clear is that predicting the effects of all the factors on climate is extremely difficult and the climate models require assumptions and simplifications. So far, the models have not been verified by empirical observations of the climate.
4. Activists claim, and the media repeats ad nauseum, that global warming is causing:
a. Increased forest fires
b. Droughts and floods
c. Increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms
d. Rising oceans to the extent that inhabited areas will be underwater.
e. Polar bears, the poster child for global warming, to struggle to survive in an Arctic without sea ice cover.
f. Myriad other ills which the media breathlessly reports, including racial inequities.
5. The Canadian Forest Service reports that the incidence of forest fires is lower than they have ever been. They show a steady decline over the last 50 years. I suspect if records are consulted, the forest fires in California, Australia, and Brazil, and in less reported Namibia, are all within historical norms.
6. There has been no increase in either droughts or floods in Canada.
7. A meteorologist from Environment Canada forwarded me a Science Brief News report dated March 2021, stating that due to the increased water temperature, models predicted that tropical storms would be bigger and possibly more frequent, and concluded that tropical storms would get bigger. However, included were quotes from the IPCC report stating that since 1900, no trend of increasing frequency or intensity has been observed. So, the models are not validated by empirical results.
8. Oceans have been rising at a rate of about 1 mm per year since 1860 and it is not increasing. In any case, these rates are very difficult to determine because continents rise and fall, and as temperatures change, the volume of water changes.
9. Susan Crockford, a zoologist at the University of Victoria who has been studying wildlife in the Arctic for 30 years, does not believe polar bears are in danger, and Inuit researchers agree. In fact, overall, their numbers are increasing.
10. Judith Curry, an American climatologist has debunked many of the claims of climate activists and is horrified at the lack of rigour in so much climate research.
11. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen to about 400 ppm, higher than they have been in recent history. This has no effect on animal life, and greenhouses sometimes increase CO2 levels to 2000 ppm to encourage plant life.
12. Millions of years ago CO2 levels were as high as 2000 ppm. Where did it go? It was consumed by plants and became one of the components of plant and animal life, and ended up captured as carboniferous rock, coal, oil and natural gas, all of which abound. Once CO2 levels reach about 130 ppm, plants struggle to survive. That would be the end of life on earth. Is it possible that putting CO2 back into the atmosphere is a good thing, regardless of any effect on the temperature?
13. History tells us that starting about 800 AD, the Vikings sailed across the North Atlantic in open boats, and settled in Greenland. They raised crops and cattle. At about the same time, grapes were being grown in England to make wine. This was the Medieval Warm Period, well documented. About 1200 AD, the weather grew colder. By about 1600, the Vikings had been wiped out of Greenland, by the Inuit, the cold and the lack of support from home. About 1630, Samuel Pepys’ diary records bitterly cold winters and the Thames froze. This was the Mini-ice Age. It has been warming ever since. The Roman empire reached its peak at a time of very warm temperatures. In travels in Ireland, I visited the site of an ancient agrarian culture, the Ceide Fields, from about 5000 BC. It thrived during a period of very warm temperatures.
14. But let’s assume we have anthropogenic climate change and CO2 needs to be reduced. What would be the impact of net zero carbon? In the developed West, we might be able to achieve this with huge disruption to our economies and our environment. There is not enough land for the necessary windmills and solar panels to power our economy. (See Bill Gates on this.) Nuclear is an option, but the number of plants that need to be built in the next 9 years (to reach 2030 targets) cannot be built in time, and require huge amounts of concrete and steel. Electric cars would reduce smog, but have their own environmental waste. (Note that coal can be burned very cleanly now, except for CO2.) Concrete and steel production? Huge emissions. Presumably, only flights to Climate Change Conferences would be permitted.
15. What about the developing world? The progress made in these countries is due to cheap energy, and the cheapest energy is coal. To deny them access to fossil fuels is to send them back to the Stone Age. Nuclear power plants are technically challenging to build and operate. They require sophisticated systems of education, regulation and quality assurance. Accidents happen in developed countries. Does anyone see nuclear power plants in 3rd world countries presenting the risk of terrorism, accidents or the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
16. The Chinese, the Indians and other Asian and African nations pay lip service to the efforts to control global warming in the hopes that money will flow to them, while they continue to invest in coal, oil and gas infrastructure because they need to feed their people and develop as fast at they can. The Chinese of course are world leaders in the manufacture of solar panels, which they gleefully sell to the West.
17. According to Patricia Adams of Probe International, China is desperate to secure long term supplies of oil and gas, hence its militarization of the South China Sea. Its only secure form of energy is coal, which accounts for 58% of its consumption. China built 38.4 Gigawatts of coal power last year and another 247 Gigawatts is planned. Chinese climate targets are pure propaganda.
18. Bjorn Lomborg, who accepts anthropogenetic warming, states that even if all the Paris commitments were met, which they will not be, it would only affect global temperatures by a fraction of a degree. And in a list of existential threats to humans and to the planet, global warming does not even make the top ten.
19. So why has the world gone crazy? Why do so many believe global warming is an existential threat? Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer of the UK, says politicians love it. They cannot cure crime in the streets, poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, the potential for nuclear war, or prevent pandemics, but hey!! We will solve Global Warming! We will be heroes, and by the time we are shown to be wrong, or to have failed, we will be gone.
20. And why has it become so politized? So many people on the Left, Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, the American Guru of Global Warming Michael Mann, academics and environmental activists, believe Capitalism is running amok, causing inequity and all manner of social ills. The existential threat of global warming fits so well with their view of the world. Governments must take control. Most of them have forgotten that their livelihood depends on the taxes from people who mine, farm, manufacture, construct and extract fossil fuels. Odd that the environment in the West is in better shape then it has been in centuries, and environmental degradation is most severe in former Communist countries, where governments have been in control.
21. Technically, we don’t know how to control the climate. If we did, politically I do not see the world agreeing to take whatever action might be required. And economically, the proposed solutions would be a catastrophe.
22. The only action we should be taking is to make our economies strong enough to be able to adapt to whatever changes come our way.
This is extremely helpful to those of us who don’t have any expertise in this area.
There have been a couple of items that feel missing from this discussion.
1. PV solar is not PV solar — as obtuse as that sounds what it means is that you cannot generalize about the cost per unit of energy from PV solar panels. It is completely dependent on the climate where the panels are installed. We have very strong real world data on this.
In Germany they produce vast amounts of Solar energy for a few hours a day during the mid-summer months and very little at all during the winter. Nothing at night and then it ramps to mid-day and declines into the evening. Its a temperate climate with a lot of weather and the weather is highly variable. Although Solar can produce MOST of Germany’s electricity needs during the day during the summer, about 80% of the time it produces close to zero electricity (nights, winter and bad weather days).
On the other hand, US PV solar installations in the Mojave Desert in CA and NV can produce electricy 8-12 hours a day year round. Winter is less than summer, but there is still a large amount of reliable electricity during that period. This area has very few weather events.
So, when talking about the value of solar you need to factor this in. You rarely hear this discussion.
2) Queuing models are real — if you rely on electric generation that is intermittent and not very predictable… you will have problems.
In the US, there have been mandates for wind and solar power in most states. This causes a set of queuing issues. Generally, nuclear and hydro power are added to the grid first to meet current needs. They are hard to turn off and on and if its on and you choose not to use it, it is wasted. The grid managers then add wind and solar to meet the government mandates. The remaining needs are met by filling in mostly coal and gas.
The impact of this is to make coal and gas generation less economically efficient. Those plants go away. Because they are running at far below capacity they lose money (and their owners are corporations, not governments). Nonetheless you still need them because of the intermittent nature of wind and solar.
It is not that easy to ramp gas and coal, particularly coal. There has been a movement to implement “peakers” which are gas plants designed to ramp quickly. However during the past winter you saw what can happen when the wind just stops blowing. Texas in the US gets quite a bit of its electricity during the winter from wind. At the point where the wind stopped blowing as a cold front blew in, wind production was very dominant. It had caused most of the gas plants to be idled. They could not ramp fast enough and you had a mess. No..the gas generation systems were not impacted by the cold. It was because they were not operating that it was hard to restart them.
Its hard to maintain your other electric generation capabilities at an economically eroded state when you heavily subsidize wind and solar and prioritize them at the expense of the other sources.
3. Solar production has not been advancing as fast as the media presentation would make it seem. After several decades of subsidies, PV solar is still only a bit more than 2% of US electricity production. Wind is doing better. Its about 8%.
If solar is so great and its cheaper than other alternatives and we mandate it, why is it so hard to get it off the ground? Its because the data that tells you this is theoretical and is not real world experience. 80% of the time its idle in temperate zones. Maybe 60% in a place like the Mojave Desert.
4. Nuclear costs are hard to estimate — they are overstated. The reason is that they are intrinsically tied up in regulation. You can regulate an industry out of existence. You can also litigate it out of existence. This happens a lot in the US. The cost of nuclear in the US has a very large constituent litigation and regulation component. Plants often get started and never completed because they spend 1-2 decades in litigation around the specifics of regulations.
The same thing happened with vaccines in the US. A vaccine could have a net huge social value, but if there were a small number of cases of problems (or perceived problems) they would be litigated to death. No one wanted to be in the business. The US created a “vaccine court”, actually not a court at all, that deals with vaccine claims and limits liabilities. The current batch of Covid vaccines would never have happened if the old rules were in place.
I am not suggesting that there should not be regulations for nuclear power, but that there needs to be a more balanced approach.
The lack of new nuclear plants has led to another problem. The US was once a leader in building safe nuclear power plants. In fact the locality where I grew up was ground zero for nuclear power engineering — Westinghouse Electric. That is all gone. The US no longer knows how to build nuclear plants… we have to go offshore for capability.
If we want to have a zero emission energy grid then nuclear needs to be a larger part and that means rethinking how it can be implemented more easily.
5. Hydro is a great source of zero emission electricity. The US gets about 7% of its electricity from hydro. We have added virtually no new hydro capacity in 50 years.
Is there no more hydro capacity in the US? I do not believe that.
6. There is no utility level electric storage capacity on the horizon. Some people here are saying this… if it was feasible it would be underway now. Part of the issue is that the amount of raw materials needed to create the batteries for both electric cars, utility level storage and consumer devices is vast. It would leave the few countries where the raw materials are mined as environmental disasters.
It takes 500,000 gallons of water to mine a ton of lithium. The primary sources of lithium are Argentina, Chile and Bolivia in salt flats in those countries. These locations are also mostly deserts… what is the cost of getting enough water there to mine the Lithium? What happens with the polluted water? Often into the groundwater.
Cobalt is mostly in the Democratic Republic of the the Congo…already an environmental disaster mixed with a heavy component of child labor.
The amount of lithium, cobalt and other minerals you need to make all cars electric and to produce electricity storage at utility grade levels is orders of magnitude larger than current production. That is not something that you can blithely ignore… in the real world it is an insurmountable problem for the foreseeable future.
If you really want to move toward zero emissions then you need to rethink the overall strategy. The current strategy of PV solar and wind is not producing anything like the needed levels of electricity for current needs, much less the needs generated by converting to electric vehicles. Its just producing an inefficient grid. I have often wondered if Germany’s strategy is to make electricity so expensive that people just use very little of it. They charge 3x the residential rate of the US.
We are not even having a real discussion about whether zero emissions is a real need. Anyone suggesting otherwise is just cancelled these days. So I will not go there, but that is the real discussion we should be having.