Archive for August, 2005


Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Johan’s second suggestion as to why some oppose nuclear power discusses a trait many here in the US pride ourselves on: anti-authoritarianism (read his entire comment). In an interest group where I ask people where they get information, what information they see as reliable, one person listed alternative sources, as if alternative were a badge of correctness.

We live in a society where many on the right attack scientists as immoral because they believe in evolution. Many from both the right and the left attack scientists because the body of scientists (though exceptions can be found and are frequently cited) have chosen the “wrong problem”, or chosen the “wrong solution”. We have created a society that will not find solutions to climate change and other pressing problems, because it is scientists who alert us to the problems, it is scientists who alert us to some of the solutions.

We absolutely must question what we hear, until we understand what is true and what is not, what is important and what is not. Questions are needed for us to clarify our understanding, for others to clarify their explanations. The value of skepticism is to enhance understanding.

The New York Times is running a series on Intelligent Design. “For the institute’s president, Bruce K. Chapman… intelligent design appealed to his contrarian, futuristic sensibilities… More student of politics than science geek, Mr. Chapman embraced the evolution controversy as the institute’s signature issue precisely because of its unpopularity in the establishment.” Individualism at its worst.

An aside

Promoters of Intelligent Design, the most popular version of creationism today, agree that the universe is 13.6 billion years old. According to the ID people, God devoted time and consideration to improving? advancing? lower species, as well as leading most to extinction, many hundreds of millions of years before He brought forth man. According to ID, God devoted considerably more time to several non-human species than He has spent with us. It’s surprising that this is compatible with creationism.

How much will addressing climate change cost?

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

I’m interested in seeing good analysis, please send recommendations.

Remember, the goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 70% worldwide in the next 20 – 25 years, to reduce by more than 90% each in the US. This will cut carbon emissions to the amount the oceans can absorb, and keep atmospheric carbon levels below 400 parts per million. Afterwards, we need to cut carbon emissions further in order to protect the oceans.

Some costs will be negative, that is, more efficient air conditioners and light bulbs cost more initially, but soon more than make up for it in energy savings. Some pundits make this appear the only way to go, but at some point, it costs a lot of money to save a very little money.

All analysis shows that there is absolutely no way to address energy costs or carbon emissions without major improvements in efficiency; progress will require both research money and legislation. When I last looked, the difference in price between the most expensive and the cheapest model of refrigerators was made up in a year or so of use, so why is the cheapest model even manufactured?

Additional energy can be saved by simple behavior changes, such as turning off lights and air conditioner in unused rooms. In one interest group, someone said this isn’t rocket science, but personal choices often follow paths that don’t help the person making them. So we may need techniques that go beyond clear rational explanations to see changed behavior.

Other changes require some thinking just because the ideas may be new: paying upfront for improved building or industrial construction, such as insulation, light colored roofs where air conditioning costs are high, better layout. Better construction usually costs immediately and saves later, often, not much later. Unfortunately, the costs of the building are too frequently handled as a separate consideration, and buildings that will stand for decades or more than a century are not constructed with an adequate consideration of the costs of maintenance and operation.

As energy is saved by these methods, the most expensive methods of reducing carbon emissions can be discarded or delayed, and the average price of energy will be substantially lower. We save by buying less energy, we also save because the price is lower. (To lower gasoline prices: buy half as much gasoline in the US through a combination of improved mileage and fewer miles, and gasoline prices will drop.)

The costs of limiting atmospheric carbon levels to 400 ppm will be high, the costs to failing to address our behavior will likely be much higher, and could be horrendous: the costs to us, to future generations, to peoples who haven’t contributed to the problems and who aren’t able to pay for the solutions.

After we make the simple changes, the cost of addressing climate change will depend on other behavioral decisions. The more we find and use methods of reducing energy use, the cheaper it will be for us to accomplish this goal.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Thanks to Johan, who responded to requests for reasons why people oppose nuclear power. I will be addressing his second point in a future post.

More on nuclear power

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

I would appreciate any insights as to why people oppose nuclear power.

Some say they are concerned about nuclear waste.

Since Three Mile Island, some two million Americans have died from fossil fuel waste, just the particulates. Many more have suffered from heart, and respiratory diseases, and cancer. Fossil fuel waste has other problems, and ozone in particular will become increasingly a problem as temperatures rise, and more of it is created.

Ozone causes breathing problems for people with asthma. It causes pulmonary edema and pulmonary fibrosis. Ozone is responsible for 10% to 20% of respiratory emergency summer hospital admissions in the Northeast. Even low levels of ozone can reduce lung function in healthy adults 15% to 20%, and can weaken plants. It rarely kills directly, but rather weakens both animals and plants so that another illness/pest/stress causes death. Ozone costs the U.S. 1 to 2 billion dollars annually in crop losses. The effect on forests and other ecosystems is commensurate; ozone is particularly harmful to long-lived species (trees).

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to the formation of ozone. NOx cause cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, but can harm other parts of the body as well. They, along with sulfur dioxide, are a major cause of acid rain (15% to 25%). NOx harm the soil, with great cost to both agriculture and forests.

Sulfur oxides (SOx) are the major cause of acid rain. Distilled water has a pH of 7 (neither acid nor base). Normal rain is somewhat acidic with a pH of 5.6 or higher, between milk and tomato juice. The average rain on the East Coast has a pH of 4.5, and can be as acid as vinegar or lemon juice. Acid rain kills fish in the lakes (fish don’t reproduce if the pH is below 5.4). Acid rain appears to be responsible for the 20% to 30% decrease in growth rate for several species of trees on the East Coast. In Germany, where average rain pH is 3.4, about 70% of trees are damaged. Significant damage to metal and stone is blamed on acid rain, which harms cars, houses, monuments, and Mayan artifacts.

Other problems with fossil fuels include health problems from carbon monoxide from transportation fuels, and heavy metal poisoning of people and the environment.

A typical coal plant produces 100 times the radioactivity of a nuclear power plant, but that’s too far down the list of coal’s sins for anyone to worry about.

Then there’s the carbon. Climate change on our current trajectory is expected to cause problems everywhere on Earth, and possibly accelerated, runaway, or abrupt climate change.

So people who oppose nuclear power did not get there from comparing the relative dangers of nuclear waste and fossil fuel waste.

Some will say that we can get there by improvements in efficiency and the use of solar and wind. I have not seen any analysis that indicates that we can reduce carbon emissions substantially, let alone 70% worldwide in the next few decades, even with nuclear power, without widespread population decreases in the first world or/and behavioral change on a large scale.

Some oppose nuclear power because they see a connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons/proliferation. This is the argument as I’ve heard it: if the US models giving up nuclear power, and the rest of the world gives up nuclear power, then when a country engages in ambiguous behavior, we would all know they were trying to get nuclear weapons, presumably because no one would try to sneak nuclear power by the world, and then we could possibly do something, not sure what that is.

There are the traditional answers that pretty much all of the countries with nuclear weapons acquired them previous to or/and independent of nuclear power. That the only reason that we can inspect Iran and other signatories to the non-proliferation treaty is that we’re trading nuclear power technology for that right. That other countries are not going to give up nuclear power because we do, and that indeed, many countries are increasing their use of nuclear power.

BTW, I am completely comfortable, as is much of the world, in assuming that all ambiguous behavior implies an attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.

A F/friend answers that a better symbolic step from the US, one more likely to appeal to countries worried about their security, would be to rapidly reduce our nuclear arsenal (ditto for Russia and even some of the minor nuclear arsenals such as Britain, etc), and open the remaining weapons to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections. Also good is to cut back on gratuitous threats to countries like Iran, so they don’t feel a security need to have nuclear weapons.

She is unclear why Iran and North Korea would cease making nuclear weapons because the US and other countries forego nuclear power. (Lots of us don’t get this point.)

Healthy disagreement allows us to test our understanding. It is vital to academic advancement. Many of the disagreements the public has with scientists (with scientific bodies, not with such practices as individual scientists testing medicines and failing to report bad results) do not appear to be attempts to test our understanding.

These disagreements appear to some extent to be a way of establishing identity. Group identity is important; if nothing else, it gives us a practical method of getting through overly long ballots. But it can have down sides. Jared Diamond emphasizes the effect of group identity on decision-making in his magnificent book, Collapse. Not only did group identity in Greenland and Australia facilitate decision-making, it led to ultimately poor decision-making, because “people like us do such-and-such” is not always a good reason.

Currently many on the right attack scientists as immoral because they believe in evolution. Many on the left attack scientists because they (the scientific bodies, not individual scientists) have chosen “the wrong” problems or “the wrong” solutions. We are attacking the people warning us of incredible, and possibly unsolvable, problems, we are attacking the only group that can provide us with the technical solutions. We as a society are not going to be able to find our way to solutions under these conditions.

Recommended references on nuclear power:

David Bodanksy’s the 2nd Edition of Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects

Nuclear waste: National Academies Press, written by the National Research Council Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges (2001).

And because I suspect that much of the opposition to nuclear power comes from a lack of awareness that people who are pro-nuclear power tend to be anti-nuclear weapons, some of the groups addressing proliferation issues:

Arms Control Association

Program on Science and Global Security
They also publish a journal: Science & Security

Center for International Security and Cooperation

Institute for Science and International Security

Managing the Atom program (Harvard)

More on peak oil

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

There has been considerable discussion in recent months on peak oil. Nine of us visiting Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to discuss climate change learned that she had been hearing about oil.

Much of the recent publicity comes from Richard Heinberg, author and founder of Post Carbon Institute, local groups that plan to address the coming peak (2007!) with recycled solutions from Y2k. There are a tiny number of geologists who also predict early oil peaks; more commonly, predictions range from next decade to the 2030s, some into the 2040s. The underlying principle is that when oil from a field is 50-60% gone (variations depend on characteristics of the oil field), both the cost and difficulty of extracting oil increase. (This will have an impact on climate change — currently 0.1 gallon oil required to deliver a gallon of oil to you, and 20% more carbon emissions are produced. This will increase.) Yet the scientific community is much less interested in this problem than in climate change. Why?

The short answer is that the urgency and problems from climate change are much greater than the problems from early oil peaks, in part because fossil fuel based alternatives to oil exist.

Estimates on when oil production will peak worldwide are the matter of much debate, and estimates range from 2007 to four decades from now. Uncertainties include A) the amount of Middle Eastern oil — the official energy groups believe that OPEC countries overstate their reserves in order to be allowed to sell more oil, B) the state of oil wells — how much damage are some countries doing to their infrastructure? C) much uncertainty about how much oil there is any particular well — some well reserves (estimates of easily extractable oil at current prices) remain the same even as oil is extracted over a period of decades.

Cheap fossil based alternatives exist. Both natural gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids (synfuels) promise decades of fuels at comparable or slightly increased prices to the consumer. While the costs of manufacture are considerably more than the costs of drilling Middle East oil (all estimates are below $10/barrel), the costs are less than the current price of oil.

Scientists are much more concerned that we will continue to burn oil as if it will never run out, meaning that A) we will emit an immorally high amount of carbon from oil, B) become invested in gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids infrastructure and be unwilling to give up this investment to switch to biofuels and hydrogen, and C) emit even more carbon per gallon with these alternatives.

See previous post for why 400 ppm has been picked as a cap for atmospheric carbon levels. We are on track to reach that level in 2015.

Climatologists and people in energy policy and people in all the -ologies dealing with plants and animals and people that will suffer from climate change are considerably more concerned about dramatic, rapid decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, than the fact that many decades from now, we will run out of fairly cheap fossil fuels at the pump.

Someone I know had suggestions for the current strong interest in peak oil (note that when he talks about big problems occurring 50 – 100 years from now, they may be inevitable a decade from now):

“I think there are some pretty straightforward reasons for this. One is the time frame… The ability to worry 50 or 100 years out is limited to small fraction of the privileged world who, to be frank, don’t have anything more pressing to worry about. Not that we shouldn’t be worrying about it, but that most people have bigger problems (or at least feel that they do).

“Another big one is the nature of human experience. We know what it is like for things to run out, or to not have enough of something. Those of us who grew up in more modest circumstances (especially at the international level, but even here in the US) know what it is like to worry about not having enough. It seems that scarcity is a fundamental human experience, certainly not on the same level as something like love or anger, but pretty close. Thus, when you say “oil is going to run out” you have an instant reaction that is guttural and real. It pans out, for most people, to “I won’t be able to feed my kids.” Can’t get more real than that.

On the other hand, climate change is pretty darn abstract, of a huge scale, and based on science that is not always intuitive… there is not a potent metaphor that captures what is going on, at least not as potent as an empty pantry or an overdrawn bank account. Whether or not one is a bigger threat than the other is immaterial: people don’t understand it like they do scarcity, so there is, in essence, “no story.””

It may be human nature to pay attention to upcoming scarcities, but it more important to pay attention to the high level of carbon emissions in the US and worldwide. By 2015, the Earth is expected to reach an atmospheric carbon level of 400 ppm. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels, at whatever level they are stabilized, and hopefully it’s 400 ppm or less, we need to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 70%, to the amount that the oceans are currently able to absorb. If everyone in the world is allowed to emit an equal amount of carbon (about 0.3 tonnes with today’s population), this means that we in the US will need to reduce carbon emissions by more than 90% per person. To protect the oceans, we need to slash carbon emissions even further.

Daniel Yergin wrote in the Washington Post, “There will be a large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years. Between 2004 and 2010, capacity to produce oil (not actual production) could grow by 16 million barrels a day — from 85 million barrels per day to 101 million barrels a day — a 20 percent increase.” and “The oil industry is governed by a “law of long lead times.” Much of the new capacity that will become available between now and 2010 is under development. Many of the projects that embody this new capacity were approved in the 2001-03 period, based on price expectations much lower than current prices.”

Why the worry about Heniberg’s message? Many will hear from Heinberg that we have to cut back on oil, along with coal. Others will react when 2008 comes and go without a dramatic increase in the price of oil that those scientists — and Heinberg is not a scientist — and their disaster predictions, they got it wrong again, I can’t trust them. Those who get the first message simply have reinforced climate change concern, but the second group could slow down awareness of environmental problems even further.

Re biofuels and hydrogen, neither is carbon free. The last I read, biofuels produce something like 1/4 the carbon emissions of gasoline, and pollute as badly as gasoline — but don’t quote me on the carbon emissions numbers. High mileage cars are seen by people in energy policy as the best alternative in the short run, plus switching away from driving and flying. The hybrid label no longer assures high mileage, so check the mileage.