What People are Saying—Choosing technologies/ changing behavior

This is part 3 of the What People are Saying portion of the series on the culture wars, which began with Climate change is a concern: yes or no?

—Choosing technologies/changing behavior
Overheard in public discussions:

• Expanding nuclear power is best—it can supply most of our electricity and transportation (electric cars and trains).

• Nuclear power is bad. Opponents have a variety of reasons, but most seem to center on the dangers Big Business exposes us to, combined with insufficient government regulation.

• Carbon capture and storage is rarely mentioned.

• Solutions are best when they are small-scale, distributed, and part of building democracy. For example, Harvey Wasserman said:

At its core, the nuclear issue is a confrontation between corporate, technocratic domination and decentralized, community independence. The choice is closely linked to a broad spectrum of issues—to unemployment and high electric rates, to exploitation of Third World people and resources, to the plagues of nuclear armaments, environmental chaos, and our soaring cancer rates.

(“The Clamshell Alliance: Getting it Together,” Progressive, 41, 9 (September 1977), 18)

• The most important solutions involve food. We are advised to avoid meat (many advocates originally did not eat meat for other reasons) or/and eat organic or/and eat locavore.

• Solutions are best when they are natural. Probing further, it appears that sunlight is natural, but that rocks are not. Transgenic (genetically modified) crops are definitely not natural, while whatever food existed when I began paying attention is.

• Solutions are best when they are renewable. Many feel that we should eschew a technology available for centuries more (nuclear power) because we need to change some time and so might as well do it today. Many adherents of all-renewables appear to envision solar and wind, and dislike/ignore the relative importance biomass must place in an all-renewables world.

• The best solution is for all individuals to reduce emissions through behavior change. This will solve a number of other problems such as unsustainable rates of resource use. Some advocates for living-with-less solutions oppose technology solutions because people will ignore living-with-less if they perceive other options. Advocates rarely, if ever, address the difficulty of the goal: in 2050, 9 billion people with per capita GHG emissions under 10% of current US emission.

• Conservation makes us feel good but doesn’t do much (Cheney said something different: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”)

• The best solution is to strengthen community, eg, through transition towns.

Read in IPCC and other major reports from peer-reviewed community:
Policymakers welcome all solutions large or small, but what is the relative importance of the solutions?

The need for both nuclear and renewables was addressed in Cap and trade for greenhouse gas: yes or no? Efficiency solutions comprise the largest technological response, but we will still need electricity. Policymakers would like to see electricity decarbonized by 2030, and carbon capture and storage is perhaps the largest short-term solution for decarbonizing energy, including both electricity and industrial uses (eg, steel manufacturing). (See International Energy Agency Energy Technology Perspectives 2010, key graphs). One advantage of carbon capture and storage is that it can be built quickly: pipes can be attached to existing fossil fuel power plants relatively rapidly without the need for detailed oversight as would be true for nuclear power. See this EU analysis of carbon capture and storage (pdf) or the US Department of Energy carbon sequestration site.

Behavior change is necessary, if for no other reason than people generally do not rationally choose more efficient bulbs, cars and appliances except as part of behavior change (Leaping the Energy Gap, Science August 14, 2009 (subscription required). While policy experts do not oppose voluntary behavior change, they see no indication it can be depended on. Eating low meat diets does help, but so does reducing GHG from transportation. According to IPCC Working Group III,

Agriculture accounted for an estimated emission of 5.1 to 6.1 GtCO2-eq/yr in 2005 (10-12% of total global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases

Elsewhere, WG3 says,

In 2004, the transport sector produced 6.3 GtCO2 emissions … and its growth rate is highest among the end-user sectors.

Some of this includes freight, but this does not include the greater effect that flying may have, dropping water vapor, etc high in the atmosphere. Today, GHG emissions from all agriculture for 7 billion people are about the same as from transportation used by a much smaller number.

The legal definition of organic food is not mentioned in IPCC, rather, specific necessary technologies (eg, transgenic crops and low-tillage farming) are discussed. The legal definition of organic precludes transgenic crops. Locavore makes some sense, but can be a challenge to apply. Farmers’ markets, for example, can have greater associated emissions than the local grocery chain, due to higher waste and fuel use. Idaho potatoes traveling by train to the Northeast may have a lower GHG cost than Maine potatoes traveling by truck.

One of the challenges around behavior change, including choosing better technology, is public confusion, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report, Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings (pdf).

Policy experts rarely if ever address utility takeover by small public groups, but larger utilities benefit from greater expertise. Policy experts rarely address co-benefits such as mentioned by Wasserman, although co-benefits are frequently mentioned, such as reducing yearly deaths from direct pollution from fossil fuels, now in the hundreds of thousands (note: decentralized energy is almost fossil fuel, so Wasserman and policy experts disagree on their benefits). One challenge for members of the public promoting co-benefits is to establish whether the co-benefit is real (eg, many were surprised when a legal definition on organic foods led to agribusiness-produced organic food), whether the co-benefit will survive climate change (eg, building strong communities), and whether the co-benefit is an add-on or the main point (for some vegetarians, climate change is the add-on).

What People are Saying
part 1—Climate change is a concern: yes or no?
part 2—Cap and trade for greenhouse gas: yes or no?
part 4—Population reduction has to happen first
second part—What People are Saying—Population reduction has to happen first, part 2

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