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Smith next talks with legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens about his scheme to build a gigantic wind farm in Texas involving 2,500 wind turbines rated to produce 4,000 megawatts of electricity. "He's expecting to gross hundreds of millions of dollars a year," says Smith. And a lot of that money would come from federal production tax credits worth 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour generated. Pickens also needs the government to open transmission corridors so that he can sell his power to distant markets. "You can't go in and invest a huge amount of money and not have a way to get your money back and make a profit," says Pickens. It surely helps if the government agrees to hand over taxpayer dollars to guarantee that one makes a profit.
Heat briefly considers nuclear power as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Smith hints that nuclear power is now hugely expensive due to over-regulation in the United States. By comparison, France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity using nuclear power, has some of the lowest electricity rates in Europe. I'm not suggesting that this is the proper model, but the French government owns most of the country's electrical generation capacity and thus makes sure that its own regulations don't get in the way.
Again, Smith points to the differences between the two major party candidates—McCain favors building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030, whereas Obama worries about plant safety and wants the waste storage problem solved before allowing more nuclear plants to be constructed.
Heat ends with the Warner-Lieberman Climate Security Act debacle on Capitol Hill this past June. This legislation would have mandated that carbon dioxide emissions be cut by 60 percent from where they were in 2005 by 2050. The bill would have set up a cap-and-trade scheme to ration carbon dioxide emissions. Such rationing aims to increase the price of fossil fuels relative to carbon neutral sources of energy and thus encourage consumers and energy producers to shift to higher-priced climate-friendly energy. The bill's proponents had the bad luck to propose it just as gasoline prices were soaring to historic highs. Senators McCain and Obama did not show up to vote on procedural motions that aimed to push the bill forward. "The candidates were hiding. The candidates both support the concept of cap and trade, but neither of them showed up," says Eric Pooley.
Heat does a good job illustrating the interplay between politics and economics that drives and stymies global and domestic energy and climate policies. But there is one glaring flaw. Heat treats cutting greenhouse gases as the only way to deal with climate change. There is another strategy—adaptation. Adopting policies that encourage people to build better roads, erect more hospitals, supply sanitation, improve farming practices, raise sea walls, construct superior houses, provide access to electricity, and expand communication networks would make them less vulnerable to whatever weather disasters a changing climate might bring. The best way to do this is the old-fashioned way: encourage economic growth and free trade to alleviate poverty, illiteracy, maternal and infant mortality, and so forth. Heavy-handed government efforts to cut greenhouse gases could easily result in lowered economic growth and thus diminish humanity's ability to adapt to climate change. The big question that Heat does not attempt to answer is: Is global warming worse than what governments might try to do about it?
Heat airs this evening (Tuesday, October 21) at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations. Check your local listings.
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.
Disclosure: I was interviewed for this documentary, but I ended up on the cutting room floor. I bear the producers no malice. Also, I have in the past been accused of being a climate change denier.