Since I spent most of my last appearance on Sirius’ Blog Bunker and all of the previous post talking about oil without too much emphasis on the greenhouse gas part of the equation, I think it behooves us all on the left side of the political spectrum to deal with the fallacies of global warming politics.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I am focusing on the problems with “our side” of the global warming debate, as it were. I’m doing this because there are many better researched and comprehensive sources which explain the fallacies involved in global warming skepticism, which is essentially political and not scientific in nature.
Historian Naomi Oreskes has what I consider the best freely available and technically accessible overview of this topic, which you can watch on YouTube. The point about climate change skepticism is that it’s an ideological battle against regulation, literally run by the same people the tobacco companies hired to tell you the science behind the tobacco-cancer link is “inconclusive.”
All the same, I tend to stay way from discussing global warming when it comes to oil prices, because thn you get sidetracked int a whole new debate (at least when it come to more doctrinaire conservatives).
My goal in this post, on the other hand, is to combat the optimism with which the greenwashing movement has sold itself, because that’s the kind of contrarian I am:
- Carbon dioxide is the most harmful greenhouse gas.
- $4 gas is good.
- Moving to a hydrogen economy will fix global warming.
- We need to lift restrictions on Brazilian ethanol.
- OK, but we still need to invest in biofuels anyway.
- Hydroelectric power is carbon-neutral.
- The Kyoto Protocol will fix global warming.
- Al Gore’s energy plan is too ambitious.
- We need to reconsider our objections to nuclear energy.
- Humans need to live in more harmony with the planet.
Actually, water vapor is the most harmful of the greenhouse gases, contributing more than a third of the heat-trapping action known as ‘the greenhouse effect.’ Usually, this is good, because without the greenhouse effect, the Earth wouldn’t be habitable. It’s easy to forget that it isn’t warming itself which is the problem, but the increase in warming. (But remember that next time you talk to some fool who doesn’t believe in global warming.) No, the problem is that the environment wants to maintain equilibrium, so when the amount of heat in the atmosphere increases, all sorts of other things in the climate (and we don’t really know what else) start to change to achieve a new equilibrium. That’s why, besides the fact that methane and several industrial by-product gases are more powerful heat-trappers per molecule, I’d say that the most harmful greenhouse phenomenon is not actually emissions, but deforestation. You see, a tree processes, on average, about 64 pounds of carbon dioxide into oxygen a year. But given the massive deforestation and environmental chaos which human habitation caused, it’s not only that there’s more CO2, but less capacity to process it all.One of the problems in dealing with global warming is that the science behind it is so complex, and it’s easy to make generalizations that can be picked apart. I mean, look at the twists and turns of calculating share of greenhouse effect by substance in the Wikipedia article on greenhouse gas effects:
By this particular measure, water vapor can be thought of as providing 36% of the greenhouse effect, and carbon dioxide 9%, but the effect of removal of both of these constituents will be greater than the total that each reduces the effect, in this case more than 45%. An additional proviso is that these numbers are computed holding the cloud distribution fixed. But removing water vapor from the atmosphere while holding clouds fixed is not likely to be physically relevant. In addition, the effects of a given gas are typically nonlinear in the amount of that gas, since the absorption by the gas at one level in the atmosphere can remove photons that would otherwise interact with the gas at another altitude. The kinds of estimates presented in the table, while often encountered in the controversies surrounding global warming, must be treated with caution. Different estimates found in different sources typically result from different definitions and do not reflect uncertainties in the underlying radiative transfer.
The rise in gas prices reflects a variety of factors, but they can all be summed up as follows: extracting oil from the ground keeps getting harder. Whether it’s the uncertainty that comes from political unrest or the pirce of exploration and new drilling technology, people are consuming oil faster than the earth can make it. Now, there’s a huge amount of oil and we’ve been at it for a long time. In bible, they talk about ‘bitumen pools’, in which oil used to just bubble up to the surface in some areas. Humans have used petroleum for a very long time, as sealant, fuel, medicine, construction material, and so forth. And the reason you don’t see black gold bubbling up into pools any more is that all the easy sources of oil have been tapped already.Oil has become exponentially more important to humanity, and so when we build an infrastructure based on cheap gas, more expensive gas hits the poor the hardest, while we turn to ever dirtier and more expensive methods to extract fossil fuels from the earth. The higher gas prices go, the higher the ceiling for extraction costs, which basically means than drilling itself becomes less efficient and worse for the environment. As we have already seen, $4 gas just makes it easier for oil companies to drum up support for ANWR drilling and so forth, and forces more of our (and China’s) energy production into coal.
On the other hand, nothing else, in the absence of government action of some sort, has the direct power to get Americans to drive less.
Hydrogen not only is less efficient than plain old electricity to create and transmit along pipelines, but its use (at least in today’s incarnation of H fuel cells) creates water vapor, which, as we know is one of the most important greenhouse gases. The reason you don’t hear that much about it is that water stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than carbon dioxide, both of which are produced when you burn gasoline, for example. But if we all switched to a hydrogen economy tomorrow, we’d be loading the atmosphere with more water vapor than ever before on a constant and increasing basis. The only way H can be said to help global warming is if it doesn’t succeed on a large scale.Not to mention that the principal way to manufacture hydrogen industrially is to use fossil fuels like methane or coal.
On the other hand, if we just affix a condenser to the exhaust from a hydrogen fuel cell, and found an efficient process for electrolysis (the conversion of brine [salt water] to hydrogen) and then figured out how not to lose another third of its energy to be compressed into a liquid and transported via pipeline…
As I mentioned above with regard to deforestation, Brazil’s ethanol industry, while impressive from a political and economic viewpoint (they’ve achieved independence from “foreign oil”), it’s killing off the rainforest, which recycles about 20% of the world’s oxygen from carbon dioxide. And even though the land is being used for photosynthesis, sugar cane doesn’t absorb as much CO2 as old-growth forest.
Using land that should be growing food to grow fuel is a waste of natural resources, particularly considering how little arable land there is as opposed to land that receives proper sunlight but has poor soil.What is slightly more promising when it comes to biofuels is waste recycling; landfill gas, cow manure, trash and so forth can be burned with less carbon than other fuels in the grand scheme of things, but really it’s probably best to work on real carbon emissions processing (not sequestration) for all combustible fuels rather than drive up the price of staple foods world wide to fuel ethanol vehicles at a very small energy efficiency rate.
There’s been interesting work done with algae (more biofuel technology) and turning CO2 into baking soda. Let’s work on that, because nothing the biofuels industry does is going to stop the US and China from burning massive amounts of coal.
It turns out that the artificial lakes created by these huge dam projects lead to massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. When the lakes were created, they just flooded the existing flora (and fauna), which drowned and began to rot on the lake bottom. As decay continued, gases were released and rose to the surface, they continue to rise and contribute to global warming. And of course, we’re talking about methane and other very powerful greenhouse gases.Of course, as with agriculture, if we figured out some real capture technology, we could recover and use that methane the way we do from landfills now.
As global warming science has continued, since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in the 1990’s, it has shown us that changes have already begun; furthermore there may be a tipping point beyond which climatic catastrophe lies.The deal with Kyoto is that it’s not about reducing total emissions or the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; it’s about reducing projected emissions. It is woefully outdated and not based on today’s global warming science, besides the fact that it isn’t really designed to work.
Bottom line: ‘cap’ might have a chance, but ‘cap and trade’ just demonstrates that there’s leeway with enforcement for political reasons, not scientific ones.
Gore wants to replace fossil fuels—72% of America’s total energy consumption—with renewables within ten years (the number chosen because that was the NASA project plan for the moon landing in the 1960’s).The math of this is really daunting at first glance, but along with the estimates I used from David Butcher’s Solar Calculator, it’s a bit easier to figure. According to the government, Americans consumed 101.6 quadrillion BTU, or 29,768,532,083,211,251 kilowatt-hours of energy last year, 72% of which is 21.4 quadrillion kWh. To meet America’s fossil fuel needs with the highest efficiency solar panels on the market today (22% of light converted to energy), for example, we would have to optimally position about 22,500 square miles of solar panels, a little less than the total area of West Virginia.
In fact, if we covered two lanes and the median of our interstate highway system with 40% efficient solar panels (which have been demonstrated), we could generate almost half of the energy America’s drivers need—if they switched to plug-in vehicles.
Look at it this way; each American consumes 98,740 kWh per year on average, which works out to 270.5 kWh per day. In order for ordinary Americans to generate that kind of power, we’d each need an optimally positioned solar panel the size of a Lafayette, Indiana Journal & Courier newspaper, operating at 40% efficiency.
But that’s just the supply side of the equation; if we are to take Gore’s challenge seriously, we need to look at demand. As Gore himself has recently estified befre Congress, the future is distributed, small-scale renewable energy (a.k.a. “micropower”). As this summer’s upcoming blackouts will testify, our national power grid is in bad shape and getting worse every year. But even at peak efficiency, we still lose up to a third of the electricity we generate in transmission—i.e., powering the lines themselves. The farther you are from the source, the more power you lose in the cables. Some forms of micropower (the nasty burning kind) can also recover what at a large plant would end up as waste heat, which is not economically feasible to transport.
I would also be remiss if I forgot to point out that another big problem with energy is that Americans are being attacked by vampires, all across the country. I am referring, of course, to standby or ‘vampire’ power, which is the kind your appliances suck out of the wall when they are plugged in but turned off (or “mostly off,” the state in which your big fancy electric machine functions as a digital clock instead of, say, a microwave). Standby power supposedly makes up 5% of our total consumption, and who knows how much more energy could be saved by replacing most of America’s energy-hogging gadgets with more efficient ones over the next 10 years.
China builds a new coal-powered plant on an avergae of 1-2 every week. Can’t we do the same thing with solar plants? It can’t be THAT hard.
In summary, even if Gore’s 10-year plan doesn’t work, trying to achieve it will still help a hell of a lot more than the Kyoto protocol. Which, I suppose, is why Gore is now behind it—a taciturn admission that our current efforts are a little underwhelming.
The problems with nuclear energy is that while it’s a very efficient process in and of itself, the real costs involved in building and running more nuclear plants is far too great.Here’s a great article from AlterNet that says most of what I would have said about nuclear power: it’s simply not safe.
Nevermind the tons of radioactive waste; a terrorist attack on Indian Point [full disclosure: Casual Asides is nuclear powered] might leave New York uninhabitable for decades. And even if the terrorists never successfully attack a nuclear plant, the cost of security, not only for the premises and equipment but for fuel, workers and the waste products, only rises. And as that the article I mentioned points out, the massive water requirements and America’s unease with other countries developing nuclear technology make it a poor candidate to solve the world’s energy problems.
One of the ways to mitigate the risk factor is to build the nuclear power plant far away from populated areas. The problem is (as I talked about before) that the farther away the source, the more power is lost being sent over the miles of wires.
As the late, great George Carlin once said about the slogan ‘Save the Planet,’ the planet will be fine. It’s the people who are fucked. Global Warming is a natural response to the pressures of a well-adapted species’ unprecedented success. Nature doesn’t know us personally or pass judgments on our lifestyle, it’s just a feedback loop that has no qualms about killing or torturing us. Fighting global warming isn’t about letting nature take its course, it’s about beating back climate chaos.The big danger of global warming is the dreaded “positive feedback loop,” which is a way of saying that warming can feed on itself in a vicious circle—more heat leads to environmental changes which lead to more heat. But then again, nature responds as only it can, with repercussions we describe as natural disasters, even if humans started it.