Matching Problems and Solutions

A very intelligent people created a great computer in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “to calculate the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” After 7.5 million years, it produced the answer, 42. “Forty-two!” someone yells.

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

I often find myself wondering what the question was when I read solutions, changes in technology and behavior that will solve our problems, I can follow the logic in the policy community. Their question is, how can we cut world GHG emissions some by 2015 (US by 10%? 30%?) and 60% or more by 2050 (US by 94%).* The problem they want to solve is preventing catastrophic climate change.

An example of a different sort of answer comes from one of the environmental organizations, from their climate change page. It included much better efficiency, renewables, and carbon capture and storage for coal power plants, which together, they estimate, will cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. So what is the question? Could it be, how do we cut GHG emissions in half just in the US (but not worldwide)? (But why ask that question?) Or what can we accomplish with these technologies alone before we figure out how much else we have to do? (But they vetoed other technologies as not being OK.)

Occasionally people produce even stricter answers, requiring all changes to be behavior changes, but again, I don’t know the question. If all Americans give up cars, and make no other changes in behavior, such as taking the bus, American GHG emissions go down 27%. What was the question?

My sense is that many in the public – and I count environmental groups – are more interested in their solutions than in solving any particular problem.

Suppose some of these individuals and groups are right, that there really is a solution that doesn’t require nuclear power. That is, we can prevent catastrophic climate change and we don’t even need nuclear power. I have two questions: first, what if there is a glitch in the analysis? If worries about wind power turn out to be important, or improvements in solar power or efficiency don’t come as rapidly as hoped? Secondly, why not prevent as much climate change as we can, not just catastrophic climate change?

Reconsidering opposition to nuclear power today can still alter the future. Regretting opposition to nuclear power after 2015, or even after 2010, may be too late.

*Assumptions: if the GHG emissions worldwide are 40% of today’s level, and population increases 40%, then per capita GHG emissions are 28% of today’s level. Since the US now emits about 5 times the world average, US emissions would be 6% of today’s level unless we continue to emit more than others.

2 Responses to “Matching Problems and Solutions”

  1. Paul Bennett says:

    One answer to the question of how we reduce carbon emissions to avoid catatrosphic climate change would be for the government to introduce strict quotas limiting the amount of carbon indivdual can use up in a year.

  2. Doug says:

    In fact, we are already in the future with some of us regretting that we did not continue a nuclear build-out back in the 70s. The result of this has not been some eco-fantasyland powered by renewables – the result is that the US still gets 50% of it’s electricity from coal.

    The eco-groups are not offering realisitic solutions.

    Conservation – good idea, but won’t get us to zero. Where’s the rest going to come from?

    Renewables – expensive, but OK, let’s pay the price. Problem: they are intermittent, so they cannot provide baseload power. There are no scalable answers to “banking” power for long periods to deal with that problem. Problem: some of these require huge areas of land or ocean to generate the power of a small fossil or nuclear plant.

    Either they don’t admit the problems of renewables, or if they do, then they jump into bed with the fossil industry and start talking about sequestration of CO2. Yeah, right, we’re really going to send tons of CO2 across country to pump it underground, and that’s not going to cost a fortune and use even more fossil energy. Plus, let’s face it, coal is another fossil energy source that will eventually start to run out – then what, guys?

    Eco-groups are painting us (and themselves) into a corner by thoughtlessly opposing nuclear power. Nuclear power is the only way we know of right now to produce reliable baseload power without significant CO2 emissions and without depleting a resource we’re going to start running short of in less than 100 years. We should get started now just in case some breakthrough in renewable fuels or electric power storage takes longer than we expect. Just look at how long fusion power has been “30 years away”.