Global Temperatures, Political Temperaments

The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson is getting slagged all over the blogosphere for saying this:

From 2003 to 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that’s too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy. Unless we condemn the world’s poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else’s living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.

Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases. There are two ways: Improve energy efficiency, or shift to energy sources with lower (or no) greenhouse emissions. Intuitively, you sense this is tough. China, for example, builds about one coal-fired power plant a week. Now a new report from the International Energy Agency in Paris shows all the difficulties (the population, economic growth and energy projections cited above come from the report).

The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent. In electricity generation, the share for coal (the fuel with the most greenhouse gases) shrinks from about 40 percent to about 25 percent — and much carbon dioxide is captured before going into the atmosphere. Little is captured today. Nuclear energy increases. So do “renewables” (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal); their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.

Some of these changes seem heroic. They would require tough government regulation, continued technological gains and public acceptance of higher fuel prices. Never mind. Having postulated a crash energy diet, the IEA simulates five scenarios with differing rates of technological change. In each, greenhouse emissions in 2050 are higher than today. The increases vary from 6 percent to 27 percent.

…and for concluding this:

The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the engineering problem, we’re helpless.

Among the many responses to Samuelson’s argument, there was this from Charlie Cray on Huffington Post:

If Global Warming teaches us anything, it is that as a public policy tool we need a new type of economic way of thinking. Otherwise economics will become increasingly irrelevant to the facts as they exist. Key to this is the economists’ blind devotion to growth: Just as growth at all costs was the culture of corporations like Enron, so in living systems it is the ideology of the cancer cell. In a world of limits, it is a destructive paradigm.

Therefore, pretending that global warming is merely an “engineering problem” is to ignore the failure of economics to address the systemic causes in the structure of the economy. I agree with Samuelson’s that we have to address global warming as an engineering problem, but it’s much more than that. The problem is unlikely to be solved merely by a series of drop-in technologies, like Thorium-powered nukes. That’s just a convenient excuse to dodge these dicier political questions about the structure of our economy and the significant consequences of its failure to account for the common good.

So I ask myself, of two possible solutions to global warming, which is more likely to actually occur? A solution to “an engineering problem?” Or addressing “these dicier political questions about the structure of our economy?” Cray goes on:

Global Warming is the great challenge to this generation of Americans, just as the challenge for the last one was the defeat of communism. Our ability to develop a renewed sense of collective security — a security that is almost fractal — i.e. replicable at the local and global levels — will require us to toss out the old ideas of unity around national purpose at the expense of local health and global citizenship — i.e. the enterprise of war.

This is a big challenge. One that we have yet to even define very well. And one that will require all of us — economists as well as everyone else — to be courageous enough to take strong action and stretch our imaginations much further than we have so far.

I would have to agree with Cray that “we” have yet to “define very well” what he’s proposing. The comparison with the “defeat of communism” suggests he’s looking for an overthrow of the current economic system. Here’s the difference: When communism was overthrown, there was another model ready to be plugged in — the economic philosophy of the victorious side in the Cold War, democratic capitalism. Looking ahead, if — in the name of preventing a global environmental catastrophe — we overthrow the “old ideas” about the necessity of economic growth without knowing how we’ll replace them, how can we be sure the next system will work any better at limiting CO2 emissions?

I don’t see why an intelligent person can’t embrace both Al Gore’s sense of mission to wake up Americans and the world to the dire potential consequences of global warming, and Robert Samuelson’s search for technological answers. Why must we take on the additional mega-challenge of developing an entirely new economic system, especially when no one can tell us what it will look like? This is a test that intellectual, political and economic elites have failed in the past, and there are lots of reasons to lack confidence in those who occupy elite positions now.

One of Cray’s commenters, “runninute,” hits the nail on the head. (He’s a better thinker than speller):

China and India are not part of Kyoto. That doesn’t mean they haven’t signed up yet (they have) it means that Kyoto places no restrictions on their emission of greenhouse gases. How can expect to reverse greenhouse effects if the two largest populated nations with fast-growing economies do not have to participate in reversing the effects of man? It is for this major oversight that the US , Russia, and Britain refused to sign the Kyoto treaty. If China and India had been covered, the US government pledged to follow the guidelines. Wouldn’t that be fair?

Should we ignore Kytoto and other nations (third world or otherwise) and take independent action while we lobby others to join us? Yes. And we are doing this. However, we have a large group of environmentalists that oppose US initiatives at every turn. They files lawsuits to halt construction of wind farms, solar farms, nuclearl power plants, geothermal power plants, hydro-electric power plants and tidal power generation. They halt construction of plants that produce materials for use in “alternative energy” (such as solar cell plants which can’t be built in the US because of environmental protection laws and so must be built overseas).

Where is Al Gore on alternative energy? He has opposed nuclear energy, but he hugs Kennedy who shut down wind farms off Nantucket. Al kisses up to the environmental groups who shut down wind farms in California and Nebraska. Al makes speeches to groups who closed hydro-electric power plants and who opposed new plants. So what alternative energy are we to use?

Don’t tell me fuel cells or electric cars (EV1). Those technologies require generation of electricity to make them operate (you need electricity to get hydrogen and you need electricity for your EV1). We have to construct power plants in order to use those “emmission-free” technologies. Problem is, the electrical generation plants that make the technologies possible burn fossil fuels and there is a net energy loss due to entropy and the law of thermodynamics (ask a physicist).

Can we conserve more? Yes. Can we use less? Yes. All of these require increased costs and less public choice. We can say “you can’t have an SUV and all cars must get 80 mpg and carry only 2 people”, but is that the decision we want to make? Do we want to restrict choice in that manner? We could all live in “honycomb” houses (large high-rises that recirculate energy and are build out of materials that are energy efficient) which would save energy. We could restrict floor space to 300 sq ft per person. But do we want to place such limits on ourselves and limit choice to that degree? We could turn out street lights and advertising after 10 PM and put curfews of 11 PM on people to conserve energy, but are we willing to restrict individual decision-making to that degree?

Bureaucrats at Kyoto came up with a politically unsustainable solution to global warming. Environmental groups take internally contradictory positions that both push and retard the growth of alternative energy. There is a romantic element to all political elites, right and left, who think the answer to everything can be found in the beauty of their philosophy. The flip side of that romanticism is that “compromise” becomes a dirty word.

The attraction of Robert Samuelson-style “engineering solutions” is they are ideology-neutral. Go ahead, Charlie Cray, work up a blueprint of a new economic system, and then we can put it up for a vote. But in the meantime, Al Gore and others say we can’t delay acting on global warming. Is your new economic system going to be ready first, or will a new technological/engineering fix?

My bet is on technology. That doesn’t make me the enemy of the planet.

4 thoughts on “Global Temperatures, Political Temperaments

  1. I am an engineer, and I like technological answers. Before we diss on technology too much, let’s remember that technology has given us things like agriculture, metal tools, fertilizer, antibiotics, artificial light, the ability to fly, and a zillion other things. Technology is what transformed puny man into the master of the planet.

    I was the one who suggested to Samuelson that the abundance of thorium, utilized completely in a liquid-fluoride reactor, can provide hundreds of thousands of years of carbon-free energy. It can also do so while producing actinide-free nuclear waste that decays to background radiation in less than 500 years (a vast improvement on the actinide-heavy nuclear waste currently generated that requires tens of thousands of years of isolation).

    Apparently I was not able to make my argument sufficiently convincing for him, but you are welcome to come by my blog:

    Energy from Thorium

    and see what you think about the idea…

  2. I disagree with “runninute” (hmm; a University of Utah grad, yathink?). I don’t think environmentalists as a group try to prevent construction of wind farms, etc. Most of the opposition I’ve seen to those sorts of things come from NIMBY opponents (like the proposal for windmills in Long Island Sound).

    What environmentalists (or at least, this environmentalist) do want is for impact statements to be issued before tax breaks and other incentives are given to companies that want to build the things. Unintended consequences, and all that.

  3. Link,

    You’re right. The environmental leadership in DC doesn’t have an express policy to stop wind energy. But the movement also doesn’t have anything to say about the local groups who do. What I’m waiting for is for one of the brand-name environmental organizations to call for legislation to fast-track the process for approving wind energy projects in appropriate sites — overriding local control, to some degree. Wind energy is renewable and sustainable, but there is a scarcity factor in that only so many sites have enough wind of enough strength on enough days to make a project cost-effective. Proximity to the grid is another limiting factor. What I see happening is, one by one, the good wind sites are being pulled off the table. Who’s minding the store? Not the environmental community, that I can see.

    Here’s what I’d do: Commission a North America Wind Energy Map, color-coded to identify and rank the best sites. This map should be based on pure science. No Kennedy family exemptions. Then they should push for a crash program of getting projects built on those sites over a 10 year period, with federal legislation pre-empting local control to some degree.

    Sounds aggressive, even intrusive. But wind energy should be a no-brainer. It’s cost-effective compared to every other clean alternative. If we’re not even willing to push for the low-hanging fruit, there is no reason for the public to think the environmental community is really even all that serious about global warming.

  4. I like the Wind Energy Map, but even before that I’d like to see a Solar Energy Map. Sunlight doesn’t vary as much as winds do, and even in northern climates it’s there for 8-10 hours a day.

    I’ve got solar panels (Ok, it’s Hawai’i) which heat my water quite well, and I’ve got a controller which tells my water heater to start heating when the sun-warmed tank contents fall below a certain temperature. I think that could be done nationwide with tax credits for homeowners.

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