The Straight Dope on Global Warming

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Cecil Adams speaks on climate change to millions of readers of alternative weeklies.

Fact is, there's little that can be done to reduce CO2 emissions regardless of their impact on the environment. CO2 isn't just an incidental result of human activity that you can get rid of with smokestack scrubbers. Rather, it's an inherent product of the combustion of carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil. The only practical way to produce less in the short term is to use less organic fuel….

Kyoto calls for drastic cuts in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases–5.2 percent below 1990 levels, or 29 percent below projected 2010 levels. These numbers alone suggest the implausibility of the goal. To brutally oversimplify, greenhouse-gas emissions = energy use = economic activity. (Again, I'm speaking short-term–long-term we'll switch to nukes and other inorganic energy sources.) To produce fewer emissions now your one choice is to shrink your economy, i.e., become poorer. (Russia, to cite a grim example, is among the few industrialized nations that can meet its Kyoto target due to its economic collapse since 1990.) No nation is going to voluntarily impoverish itself, however noble the cause….

A more realistic approach is to say, OK, we're going to burn this fuel and cope with whatever dire result, but let's put the stuff to good use while we've got it. That means distributing improved technology to use energy more efficiently and pollute less. Amazingly, just such an approach was agreed to last year when the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which may go down as Dubya's saving grace after having screwed the pooch in Iraq.

Whole thing here.

My take on the Asia-Pacific Partnership here.

Many thanks for Sean Higgins for the heads up.

NEXT: Schumer's Praiseworthy Punt

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  1. As much as I like his writing, I have found that the more I know about a topic, the more obvious it is that Cecil don’t know much about what he is talking about. But he does know how to google and use an encyclopedia, so you should, of course, take him as an expert.

  2. It’s my understanding that burning biofuels doesn’t introduce extra CO2 into the atmosphere the way burning fossil fuels does.

    I know that just because something is profitable doesn’t mean it has the same profit margin as something else, or the same return on equity, or the same cash on cash return, etc. …but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done profitably either.

    I maintain, by the way, that the trasition costs should be paid by entrepreneurs and their customers, as always. …and, for the record, I’m no fan of Kyoto.

  3. long-term we’ll switch to nukes

    If the sea-levels rise too much, we can nuke the Pacific; the bomb will start a chain reaction in the water, converting it all to gas, and letting all the ships on all the oceans drop down to the bottom.

  4. Don’t cry Kyoto, Mother’s only loocking for a handfull of snow.

  5. “A more realistic approach is to say, OK, we’re going to burn this fuel and cope with whatever dire result, but let’s put the stuff to good use while we’ve got it. That means distributing improved technology to use energy more efficiently and pollute less.”

    I have recently become convinced that increases in efficiency actually result in higher level of energy consumption, not less.

    Ultimately, scrubbers, catalytic converters, and alternative energies such as nuclear and solar are what we’ll have to use if we’re to reduce greenhouse gasses.

  6. er, higher levels, rather.

  7. My God, a sane, reasoned and well thought out post about global warming on Hit and Run. Pigs must be flying somewhere. Amazing

  8. Shot them out of my cannon just now, actually.

  9. “It’s my understanding that burning biofuels doesn’t introduce extra CO2 into the atmosphere the way burning fossil fuels does.”

    All fuels are hydrocarbons: they are combinations of hydrogen and carbon. Coal is only carbon. Hydrogen gas is only hydrogen. The hydrogen is converted to water and the carbon is converted to carbon dioxide. Biofuels will produce less CO2 per unit energy than coal, and they will produce more than hydrogen. Small chain hydrocarbons, such as methane or CH4, have a lower CO2 per unit energy than longer chain hydrocarbons such as octane. In the case of biofuels, one much add the energy and CO2 cost of making the fuel.

  10. err: one much add should read one must add.

  11. how much is Cecil paying you, Ron? πŸ™‚

  12. In the case of biofuels, one much add the energy and CO2 cost of making the fuel.

    I appreciate that. …I was going more for there’s a huge difference between burning the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere by way of biofuels and pumping huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere that wasn’t already there like we do when we burn fossil fuels.

    Ultimately, scrubbers, catalytic converters, and alternative energies such as nuclear and solar are what we’ll have to use if we’re to reduce greenhouse gasses.

    I can imagine people burning biofuel in diesel generators as a secondary to solar. When I mention that to people here in Southern California, they look at me funny. …but they’ve never lived in the Northeast, and they’ve never lived with heating oil.

    Biodiesel for automobile use makes so much sense…

    There are other substitutes too. Burning wood makes sense. …Wood’s as good as Biodiesel in its own way. We can design buildings better. …People may choose to live in warmer climates with lower energy costs, should they rise.

  13. How would scrubbers and catalytic converters deal with greenhouse gases? Since CO2 is the fundamental combustion product, you’d run into 2nd Law issues.

  14. People may choose to live in warmer climates with lower energy costs,

    So they can use more air conditioning?

  15. “A more realistic approach is to say, OK, we’re going to burn this fuel and cope with whatever dire result, but let’s put the stuff to good use while we’ve got it. That means distributing improved technology to use energy more efficiently and pollute less. Amazingly, just such an approach was agreed to last year when the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which may go down as Dubya’s saving grace after having screwed the pooch in Iraq.”

    Millions of readers of alternative weeklies in the US are now in the Land of Nod. (As if they weren’t already.)
    That’s a good thing. Heaven forbid they should wake and get riled like the whippersnappers/alternative weekly readers of France.
    France suffers from a lack of hard liquor… too much vino over there, not to mention the underground mushroom pigs find.
    What is it called?

  16. So they can use more air conditioning?

    Maybe I’m speaking too much from experience–my folks moved to San Diego from DC back in the early/mid-eighties. They’ve never had air conditioning in that house, and they don’t miss it either. …perhaps I should have said that people may choose to live in a more temperate climate?

    ..and please note, this was suggested as one substitute of many. Reading Adams, some might think it to be the case that economic activity and greenhouse gases are an either/or proposition–I do not believe that to be the case.

    By the way, I don’t believe we need to adopt some Kyoto like protocol in order to save ourselves either.

  17. I think you’re speaking of truffles, Ruthless.

  18. Maybe I’m speaking too much from experience–my folks moved to San Diego from DC back in the early/mid-eighties. They’ve never had air conditioning in that house, and they don’t miss it either

    There’s a huge difference between San Diego and say, Atlanta or Houston in the summer. Southern California is approaching liveable when things get hot. Outside of coastal areas, the Southeast isn’t. One of the major causes underlying the South’s economic and demographic growth is the spread of AC.

  19. Fascinating point, Shem. …Maybe that’s what I meant when I said, “too much”? Still, some places are more temperate than others. …and there are still other substitutes.

  20. My God, a sane, reasoned and well thought out post about global warming on Hit and Run. Pigs must be flying somewhere. Amazing

    This must be an example of genuine irony…not that *other* irony.

    There’s no reasoned argument about [man-made] global warming that advocates action be taken to curtail CO2 emissions. If I am wrong and you know of one, please direct me to it.

    I rarely hear anything about the medieval warm period where average temperatures were quite a bit higher and it was actually good for humans living in more northerly regions. Those that account for it don’t seem to be worried about man man global warming. The alarmist mentality seem to want to focus on recent “warming” and ignore that very recent time that was much warmer were human CO2 emissions were obviously not required to get it there.

    If the warming is not man made, it will simply continue on its own to some reversal point unless we can counteract it and force an early reversal. There will never be stasis.

    What about all those global cooling concerns in the 70’s?

    Let’s see, if the earth warms up…global warming! If the earth cools off into an ice age…global warming! If nothing happens… enough global warming just hasn’t happened yet, but it will! Whatever happens…global warming and it’s all our fault.

    There will always be a trend line in the data…except when the trend is precisely zero.

  21. I think I’ll just wait until I’m an old man to make any decisions on this issue. I’ve heard so much bullshit one way or the other I figure this is one of those things that only time can settle.

    All I know is I can still breath, and I don’t really feel any hotter or colder than I used to (caveat: I do feel hotter in the summer since I moved to Phoenix).

  22. SY

    How would scrubbers and catalytic converters deal with greenhouse gases? Since CO2 is the fundamental combustion product, you’d run into 2nd Law issues.

    Remember Maxwell’s Demon? Well, he must have been real after all. πŸ™‚

    But you’re right. Scrubbers and converters do nothing to reduce the level of CO2. Their purpose is to either remove or convert other things from exhaust gases. Usual targets are NOx and SOx. You know, the stuff that causes acid rain.

  23. Ken,

    I was going more for there’s a huge difference between burning the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere by way of biofuels and pumping huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere that wasn’t already there like we do when we burn fossil fuels.

    I’d suggest you take a cue from Douglas Fletcher.

    I’ve heard so much bullshit one way or the other

    That’s a true story.

    I was in grad school at the end of the “Energy Crisis” era. Most of my master’s degree courses were in thermal-fluids sciences and energy conversion. I also used to work for a gas and electric company in the NE. This is a subject I know a thing or two about.

    As somebody said above, if you burn anything with carbon in it, you get CO2. Doesn’t much matter where the carbon came from, you’re adding it to the atmosphere. And the funny thing is, most things humans burn contains lots of carbon. Including biofuels.

    The problem with biofuels is that, in general, they burn relatively cold. This means their efficiency is lower. Sure, you may get less CO2 per pound of “biofuel” burned than you’d get from burning a pound of Chevron Supreme Gasoline (dig the tune). But you also get less net energy out of the biofuel per pound burned, plus you get lower efficiency out of the engine. End result is that you need more pounds of biofuel than Chevron Supreme to do the same amount of driving.

    In the end, you can actually generate more CO2 with a “biofuel” than you would have with gasoline. But at this point, we’d have to be a lot more specific about what “biofuel” actually is.

  24. In the end, you can actually generate more CO2 with a “biofuel” than you would have with gasoline

    I would think this would hold only if fuels using sequestered carbon (coal, natural gas, etc.) were used somewhere in the manufacturing chain. If all the fuels used were created from carbon or using carbon already in the atmosphere and then that same carbon is re-released then net is zero.

  25. Ken,

    There are other substitutes too. Burning wood makes sense. …Wood’s as good as Biodiesel in its own way.

    The problem with wood is the same as the problem with biofuels. “Wood” can mean anything from pine to oak to iron wood. Amongst different kinds of wood there’s a huge range of energy content per pound, and stoichiometric combustion temperature (which is an indicator of upper limit of possible efficiency).

    Burning hardwoods could make some sense, in some cases. Burning softwoods could actually be a step backward.

    If what you want is to minimize combustion emissions, then maximize efficiency. To maximize efficiency in an engine, you need to pick fuels with high combustion temperatures.

    So, then, coal and oil are good choices from an efficiency standpoint, because they burn pretty hot. Problem with them is, they tend to contain N and S so you get NOx and SOx. So now you need scrubbers and converters and that eats up money (which is akin to eating up a fraction of the useful energy).

    It really isn’t a simple problem to solve. And this

    We can design buildings better

    is a popular myth, most commonly propagated by our government (i.e., yours and my tax dollars).

    The truth is, the big money in energy conversion processes has never been in buildings, or in residential consumption. The big money, and the big energy flows, are in industrial processes like chemical plants, aluminum and glass plants, paper mills, and stuff like that.

    Fact is, most of the buildings built today are pretty good. People don’t build them better because they couldn’t possibly save enough in energy costs to recover the additional initial construction costs.

    Believe me, back in the ’80s people squeezed everything they could possibly get out of both commercial and residential buildings, from an energy efficiency standpoint.

    btw, high energy efficiency and cost effectiveness are not synonymous. The law of diminishing returns is real.

    ___________________________________

    If you want to push up the efficiency of electricity generation, there’s a way to get there. Do the R&D to develop materials that make super critical steam power plants practical. It’ll add in the neighborhood of another 10% efficiency to electricity generation.

    The money savings from this, and the net CO2 reduction per KWH generated, would rapidly dwarf the potential savings you’d get from upgrading every house and commercial building in the country to today’s energy codes.

    I’m not sure the materials to build super critical power plants are all that far away, either. Back when I was still working in the utility industry, it was just a distant dream.

    If you want to cut emissions, focus on the big energy streams. The place to find them is industrial production. You might be surprised how much energy it takes to run a Ragu spaghetti sauce plant for a day.

  26. If all the fuels used were created from carbon or using carbon already in the atmosphere and then that same carbon is re-released then net is zero.

    Like I said, “biofuel” has to be defined. I’ve seen lots of different things get called “biofuel”.

  27. Ken,

    By the way, I don’t believe we need to adopt some Kyoto like protocol in order to save ourselves either.

    Bravo for that.

  28. Kahn Said:
    I’ve seen lots of different things get called “biofuel”.

    I’ve seen things like wood and cooking oil get called “biofuel” — and that makes sense to me since the cabon cycle is relatively quick and potentially complete — but I’m curious about the more dubious ones. Like what?

  29. We will not be burning dinosaurs en masse for much longer. It is dirty, inefficient, and is requiring us to dig deeper and deeper for increasingly marginal product every day. The price will head up steadly. In the meantime, the price of the alternatives is generally falling. This leads to one pretty obvious conclusion – one day, the lines will cross, and there will be little the government could do to STOP people from becoming green.

    There are things the government needs to do. Either dropping all the huge subsidies for dino-burning, or at least equalizing the subsidies with respect to clean technlogies would be a start. Forcing dino-polluters to pay for all of the health consequences of their actions would be another. Just these two acts alone would be enough to tip the balance in favor of renewables and start the landslide.

    Global warming is real. I refer anyone who believes otherwise to Science and Nature, where there are literally hundreds of papers confirming this and none that substantially contradict it. However, the future projections of warming are overly negative, because they underestimate the rise in dinofuel prices, underestimate the power of new technologies, and overestimate population growth.

  30. M’Tuklavier,

    I’m curious about the more dubious ones. Like what?

    That’s a question I was putting out to you guys. “Biofuel” might be anything derived from plants (alcohol or wood), or it might be derived from garbage (compost) or sewage. But whatever it is,

    If all the fuels used were created from carbon or using carbon already in the atmosphere and then that same carbon is re-released then net is zero.

    I still have never really followed the logic that you’re releasing “less” carbon, hence CO2, with biofuels than with other fuels.

    Like I said, biofuels have a wide range of combustion properties. And if you burn them, then you’re essentially taking them out of the biological cycles they were part of. Let an ear of corn rot in the ground (or eat it, and eventually let it rot in the groud), and that’s one thing.

    Distill it into alcohol, then burn it, and that’s an entirely different matter. The plant conversion processes required to reuse the C are totally different.

    Plus, unless you’re talking about slow growing hardwoods, the C and H-C chains in biofuel are fairly simple (i.e. short). As a rule, shorter and simpler chains burn colder. This lowers net efficiency of engines so you have to burn more fuel to get the same work done.

    I’ve never quite followed the logic that says “biofuels are better for the environment”. It takes some serious leaps of faith to make it true.

    Caveat: biofuels might make sense for applications like heating buildings, where you don’t need high quality fuel. Colder stochiometric flame temperatures do the job just fine (though again you may need more fuel).

    But anywhere you’re doing work in a process, like an engine, the quality (combustion temperature) of the fuel is a key indicator of cycle efficiency. It’s thermodyanamics that just can’t be gotten around.

  31. btw, I’m not saying biofuels don’t make economic sense. There are situations where they can make lots of economic sense. I’m just saying, they don’t make sense if your goal is to reduce net CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.

    Let’s suppose the only way there was to remove CO2 from the atmosphere was plants. Well, anything you burn increases the CO2 load on the plants of the world. It really doesn’t matter what you burn, the CO2 they have to process has gone up.

  32. One possible solution is to legalize Nuclear Energy. Yeah, I know nuclear energy is not technically illegal, but for all practicle purposes it is. If we had a halfway sane policy on nuclear energy, like France, we could maintain our industrial lifestyle without producing CO2.

  33. Chad,

    There are things the government needs to do…. Forcing dino-polluters to pay for all of the health consequences of their actions would be another.

    Turn that “need to do” into something that has objective, concrete, quantifiable terms. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

    You won’t pull it off, but you can try if you want.

    What you’ll “do” with this is impose something not much different from Kyoto.

    We really don’t need to “do” that.

    Global warming is real. I refer anyone who believes otherwise to Science and Nature, where there are literally hundreds of papers confirming this and none that substantially contradict it.

    I am unconvinced that they’ve shown a clear understanding of the problem yet. Their claims and conclusions are highly premature. Which is part of why their predictions are so dire.

    You can predict anything you want, and nobody can argue it, if the whole science behind your case is a big fuzzy ball of inconlusiveness.

    And if you think the scientific community is immune for being PC, and immune to group-think, you’ve got a great big surprise coming.

    90% of the environmentalist movement today is not much different in character from religion.

  34. Rex,

    One possible solution is to legalize Nuclear Energy.

    That could work for base generation capacity, though we’d still be burning conventional fuels for peak load (daily). Nukes don’t like to be throttled back, the way can a fossil fired plant.

    I think we might come up with some rational ways to deal with radioactive waste. But it’d be very interesting to see what the cost of handling that waste turned out to be in a true free market.

    btw, when I worked for the gas and electric company we had all types of power plants, including a nuke. Given the choice, I’d have lived next door to the nuke over any of the others, except natural gas fired. The nuke had far less impact on its immediate surroundings than oil and coal fired plants do.

  35. That could work for base generation capacity, though we’d still be burning conventional fuels for peak load (daily). Nukes don’t like to be throttled back, the way can a fossil fired plant.

    You could always build enough reactors for peak usage. Use the power in non-peak times to desalinate water or something like that. Or charge less during non-peak hours, encourage heavy industry to operate in non-peak hours until usage levels out. Those things may not be politically acceptable, but there is no technical or economic reason why it can’t work.

    I would be more interested in smaller, local nuclear reators myself. I read about a small self -contained pebble bed design that fit into a standard sized cargo container. Designed to transport to the third world to provide cheap energy. Drop one off in a village every couple years, then pick it up a couple years later and give them a new one.

    I realize, of course, there is no way in hell you could have small portable reactors in the U.S. … but it is a legal problem, not a technical or safety problem. I wouldn’t mind if my condo building had a little reactor in the basement, or office buildings had little reactors. A submarine style reactor could certainly fit into the basement of an office or appartment building.

  36. Rex Rhino-

    Call me a Luddite if you will, but I’d rather not have portable nuclear reactors in the third world either. Or at least not in key parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Even if the material isn’t suitable for nuclear bombs, there are other nasty things that you can do with a large supply of radioactive material.

  37. I think I’ll just wait until I’m an old man to make any decisions on this issue. I’ve heard so much bullshit one way or the other I figure this is one of those things that only time can settle.

    Some of the biggest breakthroughs, in terms of applying technology, seem to come by way of hobbyists–think the airplane, the personal computer, television. …say hobbyists and entrepreneurs, and I think we can throw in the light bulb, the phonograph, and many other things too.

    …So much of what we hear on the topic is filtered through academia, advocacy groups and large corporations, all of which are prone to spew so much hot air (no pun intended) and, historically, aren’t likely to much to the practical solution. …and we’ll be better off, I think, the more we can keep the government out of whole process.

    I’d consider making a bet that the solution, when it comes, will come by way of someone not attached to a large corporation, academia or an advocacy group, but, once again, I suspect the required technologies may already be in place. …infrastructure and a competitive return on equity is another story.

    …but if someone engineered an algae that didn’t slow down on the replication side as it used its energy to build lipids, or maybe just perfected a better process for raising an already existing strain, well that would be great.

    Kahn,

    Biofuel as opposed to fossil fuels? …there isn’t anything complicated about this. When you take fossil fuels out of the ground and burn it, you’re introducing CO2 in the air that wasn’t there before; when you burn Biodiesel from algae or palm oil or when you burn alcohol from corn or wood for heat, you’re only releasing what the plant sucked out of the atmosphere already.

    For whatever reason, people don’t seem to understand this.

    One day, regardless of global warming, oil will become scarce to the point that other fuel sources will replace it. …and not just because it will be competitive on cost, but because there’s a finite amount of fossil fuel out there. Once we burn through it, we’re gonna have to turn to other sources. Sometimes when I listen to different advocacy groups, they make it sound like we’re goin’ back to horse and buggy days once the well runs dry. …but that isn’t the case.

    I see the problems associated with global warming as much more fundamental than the debate over whether the problem is actually occurring, and I think any solutions are likely to be much more practical than what the global warming alarmists I hear seem to be advocating. If global warming really is a serious problem, we need to do our best to keep the government the hell out of it so that the solutions will come as quickly, be as thorough, be as efficient and be as inexpensive as is possible.

  38. Kahn, thanks for posting in this thread. Your info has been illuminating.

  39. Sam,

    Why go through all the crap that you mentioned, when if we just adopted widespread use of nuclear power, we have the largest chunk of the problem solved? Don’t give me crap about meltdowns or waste. We can build reactors that are incapable of meltdown, and putting the waste in the ground isn’t any more dangerous than leaving the damn uranium in the ground in the first place.

    The real reason that we “can’t” use nuclear power, and we have to go with the Soviet style central planning model of CO2 reduction, is because the goal isn’t to reduce CO2. It is to establish state control over all natural resources and industry. It is because “Global Warming” is simply a weapon to fight the free-market economy. Solutions that preserve the free-market economy, no matter how effective, are not going to be considered an option, because your goal is to destroy the free-market, not to stop global warming.

    Call me a Luddite if you will, but I’d rather not have portable nuclear reactors in the third world either. Or at least not in key parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Even if the material isn’t suitable for nuclear bombs, there are other nasty things that you can do with a large supply of radioactive material.

    Once again though, it is a problem with perception. A “dirty bomb” is a psychological weapon, that exploits our fear of radioactivity… no one suggests that these things are that dangerous. The reason why they are a worry is because of the panic and irrational behavior that they would cause. If them evil terrorists wanted to mess us up, they would be much smarter to think in terms of Bhopal India than increasing people’s cancer rate from 5 in 100,000 to 10 in 100,000 over a 10 year period!

  40. Sam,

    Why go through all the crap that you mentioned, when if we just adopted widespread use of nuclear power, we have the largest chunk of the problem solved? Don’t give me crap about meltdowns or waste. We can build reactors that are incapable of meltdown, and putting the waste in the ground isn’t any more dangerous than leaving the damn uranium in the ground in the first place.

    The real reason that we “can’t” use nuclear power, and we have to go with the Soviet style central planning model of CO2 reduction, is because the goal isn’t to reduce CO2. It is to establish state control over all natural resources and industry. It is because “Global Warming” is simply a weapon to fight the free-market economy. Solutions that preserve the free-market economy, no matter how effective, are not going to be considered an option, because your goal is to destroy the free-market, not to stop global warming.

    Call me a Luddite if you will, but I’d rather not have portable nuclear reactors in the third world either. Or at least not in key parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Even if the material isn’t suitable for nuclear bombs, there are other nasty things that you can do with a large supply of radioactive material.

    Once again though, it is a problem with perception. A “dirty bomb” is a psychological weapon, that exploits our fear of radioactivity… no one suggests that these things are that dangerous. The reason why they are a worry is because of the panic and irrational behavior that they would cause. If them evil terrorists wanted to mess us up, they would be much smarter to think in terms of Bhopal India than increasing people’s cancer rate from 5 in 100,000 to 10 in 100,000 over a 10 year period!

  41. …fear of radioactivity…

    My grandmother won’t even stand near a microwave while it’s on for fear of being irradiated. She closes the cupboard doors over it and stands back about 10 feet. <cheap_shot>But she is a democrat so no suprise. :0</cheap_shot>

    I guess technically petroleum is a biofuel but the time to get the carbon back into crude is millions of years and not just a growing season or whatever. Burning fossil fuels just increases the supply of non-sequestered carbon for turning into biofuels– look on the bright side. We wouldn’t want a carbon shortage now would we?

  42. We can build reactors that are incapable of meltdown

    How would they do this?

  43. The real reason that we “can’t” use nuclear power, and we have to go with the Soviet style central planning model of CO2 reduction, is because the goal isn’t to reduce CO2. It is to establish state control over all natural resources and industry. It is because “Global Warming” is simply a weapon to fight the free-market economy. Solutions that preserve the free-market economy, no matter how effective, are not going to be considered an option, because your goal is to destroy the free-market, not to stop global warming.

    I’ll drink to that.

  44. putting the waste in the ground isn’t any more dangerous than leaving the damn uranium in the ground in the first place.

    One of the smartest ideas (my opinion) I remember hearing, is the idea of mixing nuclear waste with glass and dumping it in the “deserts” in the Pacific. There are “deserts” on the ocean floor, places deep in the Pacific where there’s no signs that there’s ever been life. Caste the nuke waste in glass, which is largely impervious to salt water, and the stuff isn’t going anywhere.

  45. The interesting thing about disposing of nuclear waste is that you have to keep the whole big picture in perspective.

    Do you want the problem of disposing of a whole lot of pretty toxic stuff, or do you want the problem of disposing of a little bit of increadibly (much more) toxic stuff?

    Coal ash is nasty stuff, though not near as nasty as spent nuke fuel rods. If you go the coal route, then you’ve got a whole lot more waste to get rid of than the nuke route.

    Like I said, it’d be really interesting to see how the economics of all this worked out in a true free market.

  46. “90% of the environmentalist movement today is not much different in character from religion.”

    This is the sort of fantasy that seems to crop up on nearly every environment/energy/global warming H&R thread. It would be so sexy for the do-nothing crowd to have such a hapless enemy. This might have been true decades ago, but I think that since greens have had a good long look at the benefits of their compromise w/industry with emissions trading under the Clean Air Act, I’d say most environmentalists are pretty pragmatic. I’d also add that environmentalists are the polar opposite of religious fanatics who denigrate the here-and-now for the rapture or 72 virgins.

    But hey, I guess it amounts to a mega-dittoes or strawman pinata sort of thing.

    It cheapens an otherwise worthwhile discussion.

  47. Rex,

    You could always build enough reactors for peak usage. Use the power in non-peak times to desalinate water or something like that. Or charge less during non-peak hours, encourage heavy industry to operate in non-peak hours until usage levels out. Those things may not be politically acceptable, but there is no technical or economic reason why it can’t work.

    Here, you’re hitting on some ideas that could have big impact. If you could figure out how to actually make it work.

    They call it “load leveling” in the utility industry, and utility companies have been trying to do it for decades. The problem has always been finding an economic use for the power during the off peak (in most places, that’s night time).

    In principle and in concept, load leveling is possible. Utilities throughout the country have offered discounted commercial and industrial electric rates for off-peak consumption, since at least the 1970s. The problem, however, is harder to solve than you might think.

    Say I’m trying to load level NYC. What the hell do you do about the fact that the difference between peak and base electricity demand is a factor of two, or 2.5, or even 3, on any given day? And what do you do about the fact that as an electricity producer, you cannot predict what the peak demand curve is going to look like over any 24 hour period? It’s worse than trying to predict the weather.

    So, suppose you wanted to run desalination plants with the off peak demand power. The problem, in a nutshell, is that as an electricity producer, you cannot know what the day’s demand curve is going to look like. So you have no way to promise the desalination plant how much power you’ll actually be able to give them.

    If you’re talking about large scale industrial processes, in general you’re also talking about large capital investments. That capital has to pay for itself or you can’t justify it.

    It’s nearly impossible to justify the capital investment in something like a desalination plant, when you have no good way of predicting how many hours a day this plant is going to be able to operate. If you build it, assuming it’ll run and use all the off-peak power, you are to an extent gambling with the investment.

    It’s an uncertain enough proposition that venture capitalists usually won’t do it.

    What I tried to do here was demonstrate the general problem with a specific example. Hope I didn’t loose the forest for the trees.

  48. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I’d rather not have portable nuclear reactors in the third world either. Or at least not in key parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    I’ll drink to that too.

    Geez, I’ve been doing enough of it tonight that I hope Luddites drink.

  49. Shem,

    We can build reactors that are incapable of meltdown

    Good question.

    Somebody, I think maybe Switzerland or Sweden, built a reactor under a lake. With the gravity feed there’s no way you could run out of coolant.

    Problem is, if the emergency happened then you’d have a nice radioactive lake. Happy Holloween. πŸ™‚

    We can make reactors pretty darned safe if we wanted to. But I’m real hesitant to say we could actually make them incapable of meltdown.

    One of the problems with nuclear reactors is that the radiation breaks down materials. In large scale commercial operation we could treat it the way we currently treat airline maintenance. It’s a problem we could deal with and be confident of pretty high safety standards.

    But personally, I think we’d need at least a couple decades of experience running lots of commercial plants, before we’d really understand the materials problems well enough to be sure we could build small, “local” reactors that would operate safely with minimum attention.

  50. Ken,

    when you burn Biodiesel from algae or palm oil or when you burn alcohol from corn or wood for heat, you’re only releasing what the plant sucked out of the atmosphere already.

    Who told you that the only place a plant gets carbon from is the atmosphere?

    Ah doan theenk so, omeego.

  51. Ken,

    To be on the up-and-up, biology isn’t my field and I’m getting out of my league here. But look at it to a first order.

    The atmosphere is (about) 78% N2, 21% O2, and the rest trace gases. CO2 is part of the 1% of the trace gas.

    Look at tree. I know from studying combustion chemistry, there’s a hell of a lot of carbon even in a lowly pine tree.

    I find it incredibly hard to believe that a pine tree sucks enough carbon out of the atmosphere to generate itself.

    Anybody know more about this than I do? I’d be curious to know how good my “first order look” is.

    And now, if I can beat a drum I’ve beaten so often before — here is one of the fundamental problems with our understanding of “global warming”. It’s highly multi-disciplinary. I know about energy conversion processes, but I don’t know much about biology.

    It isn’t easy to pool all the knowledge of a dozen different specialties into one place, and be sure that you’ve integrated all the info into a coherent body of knowledge.

    This is one of the reasons that you’re right, hobbyists have contributed much to the advent of technology. You’ve got all kinds of people tinkering in their garages, and every here and there somebody hits on something that works.

    I love it, that’s part of the beauty of a free market.

  52. Why go through all the crap that you mentioned, when if we just adopted widespread use of nuclear power, we have the largest chunk of the problem solved?

    Did I exclude nuclear power???? nope The only reason I have any dislike (and this is minor) for nuclear power is that it is a centralised utility; ultimately a minion of the Man. And in order to address the global problems of poverty and nimbleness with respect to climate change, one would need more mobile and/or safely and easily handled sources of energy. Nukes can be cheap, walk-away-safe, useless to terrorists and weapons use, andrecyclable/safely disposable…if we really want. Once Oil and NatGas Peak, they will be screaming for it fast.

    The real reason that we “can’t” use nuclear power, and we have to go with the Soviet style central planning model of CO2 reduction, is because the goal isn’t to reduce CO2. It is to establish state control over all natural resources and industry. It is because “Global Warming” is simply a weapon to fight the free-market economy. Solutions that preserve the free-market economy, no matter how effective, are not going to be considered an option, because your goal is to destroy the free-market, not to stop global warming. what?
    a) I take personal offense at that last statement (though you may have been generalizing)
    b) The whole point of my post is that LIbertarians don’t have a real platform to address climate change. If we are afraid of Teh Evil Global Warmers using Co2 to establish control over our lives, then the Libertarian party needs a real platform which addresses the popular issues. Paranoia and Climate Denialism is not a valid platform.

  53. The whole point of my post is that LIbertarians don’t have a real platform to address climate change.

    You might have a good point there. I’d echo the same thought on many fronts.

    If only we libertarians could develop a platform, we might actually start getting somewhere.

  54. I find it incredibly hard to believe that a pine tree sucks enough carbon out of the atmosphere to generate itself.

    See, I think we have a semantics problem, and I’m tryin’ to get around it. …so please bear with me.

    I’m not sayin’ that there’s enough carbon in a tree to do this or that; I’m sayin’ that when I burn a tree, the only carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is the carbon dioxide that the tree took out of the atmosphere. So with trees and BioDiesel and alcohol from plant material, there’s no net carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. (Anytime you burn anything, there’s a little bit of somethin’ that goes up in the smoke, but relative to fossil fuels, this’s negligible.)

    …but that isn’t the case with fossil fuels. When I burn fossil fuels, I’m putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that wasn’t there before, or, rather, hasn’t been there for millions of years. …and I’m pumpin’ it into the atmosphere, relatively speaking, all at the same time.

    That’s what I mean when I say that BioFuels don’t add any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Burning them only releases whatever it took out. Burning fossil fuels, on the other hand, pumps new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere–and if increasing the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is going to cause big global warming problems, then the way to fix it is to stop burning fuels that put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    Please note, I’m not saying people will go back to only burning wood for heat–that’s something some people will do some of the time in places and at times when it’s cost effective to do so. …and security concerns aside, the expanded use of nuclear energy seems like a great way to generate electricity to me minus all the extra carbon dioxide. …but in terms of transportation, I think BioDiesel and alcohol are going to be in our future.

    …anyway, that’s basically what I was tryin’ to say.

    P.S. I admit I like the idea that with pure BioFuel, my money goes to some American farmer or entrepreneur somewhere rather than going to prop up the cash flow of some vicious dictatorship in the Middle East or some anti-American scumbag in South America.

  55. I’m sayin’ that when I burn a tree, the only carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is the carbon dioxide that the tree took out of the atmosphere.

    I thought that’s what you meant. I’m just not convinced it’s true. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my mother dresses me funny too.

    It’s only true if the bulk of the carbon in a plant (whatever kind) comes from the atmosphere.

    I find it hard to believe that’s really the case. I admit this is outside my training and I could be wrong. But wow, think about it, just from the standpoint of a mass balance.

    The density of a tree is many orders of magnitude greater than the density of the atmosphere. And the carbon content of the atmosphere is pretty thin, considering the fact that CO2 is only some fraction of the 1% fraction of the atmosphere that isn’t N2 or O2.

    Thinking in terms of nothing but pine trees — consider the C content that the pine trees on the planet must contain. If they got all their carbon from the atmosphere, then how could there be any CO2 left anywhere?

    Seems like you’d hear this little sucking sound whenever you stood near a pine tree. The sound of a pine tree sucking up carbon. SSSSSSSSS!!!!

    πŸ™‚ It’s enough to crack me up just thinking about it. It IS Maxwell’s Demon! He lives, he lives! And he’s a F’ing PINE TREE! AHHHH!!!

    But in my current mood I’d probably crack up about almost anything.

  56. It’s been years since I read about Maxwell’s demon, but for those of you who don’t know the story it goes something like this.

    Back when Maxwell was trying to prove that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is valid, he argued that if it wasn’t valid then there could exist a demon, who could consume energy, do useful work, and excrete nothing. If this demon existed then he would grow without bound until he had consumed everything in the universe.

    The horror of it! AHHHHH!!! I’ve been consumed!!

    Sorry, it’s just Engineer Humor. Ignore it, it’ll go away soon.

  57. thoreau,

    I’d rather not have portable nuclear reactors in the third world either. Or at least not in key parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Much as I agree with you, did you know that in 1857 US congress contemplated a law banning the internal combustion (IC) engine for civilian use. They were afraid that if people got to use those things unsupervised, they’d have so much power in their own hands that they’d destroy the world.

    175 years ago there was mass hysteria about how the human race was going to destroy itself and the world with the IC engine. This was somehow taken to be proof of just how depraved human nature really is.

    Today, it’s global warming and nukes.

    πŸ™‚ See, I figure global warming is a lot like a Madonna song. Here today, gone tommorrow. It’s just got a little longer shelf life is all.

  58. Well, barring any major technological disccovery, it’lll be gone in 20,000 years when the peak of the next ice age hits.

    Thinking in terms of nothing but pine trees — consider the C content that the pine trees on the planet must contain. If they got all their carbon from the atmosphere, then how could there be any CO2 left anywhere?
    but one can’t consider nothing but the pine tree. One has to also think about the root system and how it eats away at tundra; the soil system, especially water and nitrogen; the albedo of the leaves, and how it absorbs or reflects; and the whole kit&kaboodle of Co2’s relationship with the ecosystem.

  59. It’s only true if the bulk of the carbon in a plant (whatever kind) comes from the atmosphere.

    If a pine tree can grow in soil that is almost entirely sand (white pines do in Michigan), there is no doubt it gets the bulk of its carbon from the atmosphere. There’s not a hell of a lot of carbon in the volume of its root ball…no way. Rain won’t provide it except in dissolved gasses which of course came from the atmosphere as the drops formed and fell to earth.

    Cellulose is 44.4% carbon by mass, so a million pound redwood would contain about 444,000 pounds of carbon. I just don’t believe the dirt that has contacted its root system in its 600 or so years contained remotely that much.

  60. Let’s see, since there’s engineers here, a redwood tree 1,000,000 pounds made from 100% atmospheric carbon and 100% cellulose (crude!):

    About 454,545kg
    So .444 x 454,545kg = ~201818kg of C per tree

    Atmosphere contains about 0.053% CO2 by mass and 0.00029% methane by mass [1]. It seem there no other significant level carbon containing compounds.

    H = 1.00794 g/mol
    C = 12.0107 g/mol
    O = 15.9994 g/mol
    [2]

    CO2 = 44.0095 g/mol – 27.2911% Carbon by Mass
    CH4 = 16.0425 g/mol – 74.8681% Carbon by Mass

    0.0005300 x 0.272911 = 0.0001446428300
    0.0000029 x 0.748681 = 0.0000021711749
    ————————————–
    0.0001468140049 or 0.01468140049% Carbon by mass

    So about 6811.34 kg of atmosphere contains a kg of carbon.

    ~1,374,651,000 kg of Atmosphere contains ~201,818kg of C.

    At a density of about 1.2kg/m^3 at sea level, a million pound redwood would take about 1,145,542,500 m^3 of atmosphere to make.

    Total mean mass of atmosphere is about 5.1480×10^18 kg so it would take about 1/5,000,000,000 of the atmosphere to make a million pound redwood tree. Seem plausible?

    Sources:
    [1] From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth's_atmosphere#Density_and_mass.
    [2] Google search.

    I hope I didn’t screw this up. Check my approximate maths if you care to. There’s obviously water content and such but the wood is the bulk of the mass.

  61. Yes, the C in trees does come entirely (on net) from CO2 in the atmosphere. No, unlike SOx, the NOx from burning fuels doesn’t come from N in those fuels, it comes from N2 + O2 in the air that’s cooked.

    But what I want to know is why, if hard mineral coal, petroleum, and natural gas are truly fossil products of photosynthesis, the O2 content of the atmosphere hasn’t budged as those fuels have been burned.

  62. robert,
    the biological forces of the planet have incresed their uptake capacity to absorb about half of the anthropogenic Co2 output. In doing this, they convert water as well; they take the H to combine with Carbon to form stuff, often sugars. Whie some of itt is used, the O2 is often given up as a waste byproduct. more Co2=more bioactivity=O2 returned to the air; If bioactivity can’t keep up with the growth of fossile Co2, then things will warm up more, unleashing near surface Methane (often in Tundra)…a greenhouse gas with predictable results.

    I am not sure if there is any evidence that O2 levels have changed or not, as that is not the focus of climatology…it’s just not a greenhouse gas. And there is a huge amount of it (as comparred with Co2 that there hasn’nt been any worry. But I think it is a good question. But don’t forget that the proportion of gases is one thing, the total amount of gasses is another; 80 million years ago the the oxygen content (IIRC) was 35%, but the air was consiberably denser, especially with water content. To follow Jennifer’s analogy from a different thread, a much thicker blanket, but the material and construction were different.

  63. Huh. Okay, I was wrong about plants.

    M’Tuklavier, you forgot to calculate the total volume of the atmosphere on the planet, and compare to your estimated tree consumption. Just to make sure it seems at least reasonable.

    Jeez.

  64. “The changes we are measuring represent just a tiny fraction of the total
    amount of oxygen in our air – 20.95 percent by volume. The oxygen
    reduction is just 0.03 percent in the past 20 years and has no impact on
    our breathing,” Langenfelds. “Typical oxygen fluctuations indoors or in
    city air would be far greater than this.”

    Atmospheric Oxygen Levels Falling

  65. Kahn-

    We can make reactors pretty darned safe if we wanted to. But I’m real hesitant to say we could actually make them incapable of meltdown.

    I sort of thought this would be the case. Meltdown-incapable (as opposed to *extremely* safe) reactors sounds like something that vastly underestimates the capacity for stupidity found in the average human. The Swiss reactor sounds like one of the more elegant ideas I’ve heard in a long time, tough.

  66. …you forgot to calculate the total volume of the atmosphere on the planet, and compare to your estimated tree consumption. Just to make sure it seems at least reasonable.

    Jeez.

    *LOL*

    I thought the relative volume was implied in the relative mass figure and I’d let you take it from there. It was ~way~ early, or late depending on what you’ve been up to all night.

  67. Yeah, well, yesterday was kind of a special event and this morning I was hung over, for the first time in many years. So I wasn’t thinking real clear myself.

  68. To Kahn:

    Turn that “need to do” into something that has objective, concrete, quantifiable terms. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

    There have been plenty of quantifiable, peer-reviewed economic and health studies done on the consequences of just about every pollutant imaginable. It is not difficult to get a pretty good handle on the total health costs of spewing NOx, SOx, and particulates in the air, divide them among the total amount of fuel used, and slap on a tax. We have no pollution tax at all on gasoline or diesel right now (the tax that exists pays for roads). One could rightly quibble with the economists over whether the correct tax is 50 cents or a dollar, but is is absolutely not zero. The correct response to lack of perfect information is not to stick your head in the sand, and you know that.

    What you’ll “do” with this is impose something not much different from Kyoto.

    I wasn’t talking about Kyoto, but yes, we should slap on carbon taxes (or cap and trade). Polluters should pay. Why do you have a problem with this? What is your fetish with allowing the tragedy of the commons?

    I am unconvinced that they’ve shown a clear understanding of the problem yet. Their claims and conclusions are highly premature. Which is part of why their predictions are so dire.

    Well, anyone who could put up some good evidence to back up your claims would be an instant scientific wonder. Plenty of incredibly smart people are trying every day. They are all failing. Must be “group think”…right…

    I find your ability to dismiss thousands of peer-reviewed publications, many in the premier scientific journals in the world, because you do not like the conclusions.

    “90% of the environmentalist movement today is not much different in character from religion.”

    I agree, assuming you define “environmentalist” narrowly enough. But that doesn’t include me at all. I am a libertarian, a scientist, and a general pain in the butt.

  69. We can make reactors pretty darned safe if we wanted to. But I’m real hesitant to say we could actually make them incapable of meltdown.

    It is called a pebble bed reactor, and it is physically incapable of meltdown. As the pebbles heat up, they expand, thus reducing their density, and reducing the speed of the reation, and slowing the reaction down. They naturally hit equalibrium.

    Not only are they physically incapable of meltdown, but the nice thing is that they don’t require any sophisticed kind of control system. You just build the reactor, and the reactor produces heat, until the fuel is spent.

    They ARE less efficient that big centralized nuclear reactors… but oh so much much more efficient than coal or oil.

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