Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Knowing Warming

I want to argue that ignorance rather than carelessness is the main reason for the global warming problem. It is true that hummers are wasteful when they are not used for their intended purpose: muscling through tough terrain. And, we could get much more efficiency out of the way we use fuel. Market induced efficiency gets us to arguments like "the cost of home heating fuel makes insulated windows pay for themselves." So there is a trade off between the cost of fancy widows and fuel use and one is not being careless, exactly, if one waits for the payback time to be short enough to meet some other consideration such as how soon you think you'll move or how much more you might gain by investing the money you'd spend elsewhere.

In the seventies, people began to consider the idea that fossil fuels were a depletable resource and began to use the argument that we should use less in order to prudently preserve the resource for future use. This was sometimes countered by the argument that we should go full speed using them because the growth would help to finance development of a replacement: inexhaustible fusion. People concerned about environmental damage largely conceded the need for cars and power plants but wanted them made cleaner and thus safer.

In the eighties it was pretty easy for people like me to see a potential warming problem with fossil fuels because I studied planetary atmospheres then and the example of Venus and the theory of why it had no oceans tickled the mind with regards to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. That was a concern at that time about a runaway greenhouse and I have to say that the much more imminent issue of nuclear winter dominated my activism. However by the early nineties I'd thought of a potential solution to global warming involving sequestration of CO2 in Antarctica which I kept to myself thinking that it would be a desperate measure and fusion was still an out. Others have thought of potential sequestration solutions that might work better than my scheme which takes advantage of the cold in Antarctica an one of Bucky Fuller's favorite ideas about the relation of surface area to volume. For example, sequestration through mineralization makes some sense because it imitates the geological carbon cycle we have been interfering with.

I say that this kind of thinking was easy for people like me. But, there are not so many people trained so broadly in the relevant sciences. Astronomy is, in many ways a hopelessly complex subject, and we (joyfully) throw everything we can at it. It was only by the mid-nineties that atmospheric scientists began to arrive at somewhat robust conclusions that global warming is a near term problem. In February we'll see firm consensus statements that it is happening and that the consequences are likely to be severe.

It is true that there has been some carelessness in fossil fuel use, but I would argue that even if we had been 20% more efficient in our fuel use, we'd still be in trouble. We would have had to know in the fifties that fossil fuel use had clear and quantified global warming implications to be accused of carelessness. What we have been is ignorant up until just about now. We have been as children playing with matches, unaware that we might burn down the whole house, and even unaware that we're not suppose to play with those neat little paper packages because no one could have told us of the danger.

So, here we are, in trouble and finally aware that we are in real trouble. What do we do?

We have known since the seventies that we should not be playing with the particular pack of matches called nuclear power. We might have beguiled ourselves with the dream of Yucca Mountain but it was truly irresponsible not to have continued the Clam Shell Alliance work and shutdown all the plants until the waste problem was solved. Yes, this would have added to or present global warming problem, but you have to go with what you know. I was out of the country then so I don't know how we got to the insane position that letting the current plants live out their design lifetime was somehow OK. They are producing waste as they operate and there is no place to put it. Some very serious and hard working people have been working on the waste disposal problem, but it has been considered a very difficult problem with potentially no reasonable solution since the seventies and it makes no sense at all to continue to make more waste. We have been careless here.

What we don't do is make the same mistake that we have made with the nuclear plants. We should not say that the investment has been made in the coal, oil and gas infrastructure and it would somehow be unfair to investors to put all of that out of business before they see return on investment. Investing is risky, even in utilities, and the interests of shareholders is none of our concern. It is a false efficiency to let these things run out their design lifetime.

One thing I'm trying to do right now, and something that makes me both hopeful and excited, is to replace our infrastructure through market competition. This is not the whole solution, it only gets us to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without other efforts coming into play, but it does it very quickly, and that is what we most need right now since we just can't afford to wait.

Another effort that looks promising is Stepitup2007.org .

So, carelessness and ignorance are two distinct roots of the kind of trouble we get ourselves into. It seems to me that we can now learn from our real carelessness with regard to nuclear power to address our ignorance about how to respond to global warming. Don't give shareholder interests any weight at all!

1 comment:

mdsolar said...

I think it fair to say that we now know that we are responsible for global warming. The new report on climate change at http://www.ipcc.ch/ makes this quite clear.