Climate Change Part Three – Economic and Social Aspects

In Parts One and Two, I reviewed how I became interested in the topic, the arguments for and against global warming, climate change, and human involvement in the climate system. To recap very simply: I think that the evidence supports the assertion that climate change is real. My belief, based on the studies I’ve read and the evidence I’ve seen, is that cyclical changes in climate are naturally occurring phenomena. I do NOT believe that humans are the cause of climate changes.

There’s No Such Thing as “Settled Science”

 

“Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming” (CAGW) and “Human Caused Climate Change” are scientific THEORIES that are subject under the scientific method to continual testing, review, assimilation of new evidence, re-testing, re-hypothesizing and further study. They are NOT “settled facts” regardless of what the climate change alarmists say.

Scientific theories are always subject to review and possible invalidation. Some theories that have been held in the past that are now superseded include:

  • Spontaneous generation
  • Preformationism
  • Caloric theory
  • Aristotelian physics
  • Newtonian physics
  • Steady State Theory
  • Open Polar Sea theory

Indeed, even Steven Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds in physics, now has revised his own theory surrounding black holes to say that there are no black holes, only grey ones, which contradicts Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The bottom line is scientific theories are always subject to revision. Theories surrounding something as large and complex as our planet’s climate system, for which we really only have accurate measurements going back about a hundred years are going to continue to evolve and change over time, as new data is gathered, as real-world results intervene and as science becomes more sophisticated.

I find it disturbing that a video like this one by Bill Nye “The Science Guy” pretends to be a serious look at climate theory and is promoted by the august Smithsonian Institution on their website. The earth’s climate system is much more complex and complicated than two little globes in jars with heat lamps. This video is not only misleading, it is insulting to any person of intelligence.

Economic Impacts of Climate Change Belief

 

Because our President, the political party which controls most of the government and the vast unelected bureaucracy believe that CAGW is a settled “fact”, they believe that we must limit our carbon emissions (regardless of the fact that other large “polluting” countries like China, Russia and India have no intention of doing so) by limiting coal burning to produce electricity, by reducing car and truck use, by requiring more energy efficient cars and other measures.

While some of these goals are commendable in and of themselves (like more energy efficient cars and trucks) others are unrealistic and impractical; and would cripple our already struggling economy.

In June of 2014, the Obama administration through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced – unilaterally and without due process or involvement from stakeholders – some severe restrictions on coal-burning power generation plants.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that these restrictions will:

  • Lower U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $51 billion every year through 2030,
  • Lead to 224,000 fewer jobs every year through 2030,
  • Force the average household to pay $206 more PER MONTH for electricity every year through 2030,
  • Cause household disposable income to decrease by $5,000 per year through 2030

As with other politically motivated laws and regulations, any proposal that touts itself as “commonsense” as this one does is one to automatically be wary of.

Incentives to reduce car and truck use are implemented by progressive policy makers more at the local level. As it was revealed recently in Denver, local government officials have made it public policy to make it “harder to use your cars”. As anyone who has suffered through a rush hour in Denver will testify, they have succeeded admirably.

Making cars more fuel efficient is a good thing because they are cheaper to operate and use less of a non-replenishing resource. This is one goal of the climate change folks that I agree with.

What about a substitute? If climate change alarmists hate coal-generated power because of carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas-generated power because of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and carbon-dioxide emissions, what does that leave us? Burning wood (which is as dirty as coal and leads to deforestation), or going without power (their true goal?) One idea would be to look to nature’s building blocks as a power source.

The Case for Nuclear Power

 

Thanks to scientific inquiry spurred by wartime research during World War Two, in the mid-20th century humankind learned how to harness the power of nature’s building blocks – atoms – for destructive purposes (bombs) and for good purposes (power generation). The first nuclear power plant was built in the USSR in 1954. It was online for 48 years and had a capacity of about 5 megawatts (MW).

Nuclear power plants generate electricity and burn no fuels that emit greenhouse gases. As of 2013, nuclear power accounted for almost 20% of electrical generation in the United States. If the US were to increase nuclear generation capacity, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut substantially. Nuclear power is safe, clean and above all, less expensive.

The drawbacks to nuclear power are the possibility of accidents. There have been three notable nuclear power accidents: Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011. The Three Mile Island incident was a partial meltdown with some release of radioactive gases. It was caused by mechanical failures compounded by human errors. There were no deaths, however the incident galvanized anti-nuclear activists and precipitated a slowdown in nuclear power plant construction.

The Chernobyl incident was the worst nuclear power plant incident in history and was the result of an explosion and fire, resulting in the release of a large cloud of radioactive particles over the western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Thirty one people died as a direct result and the further toll due to cancer and other effects is not known.

The Fukushima Daiichi incident occurred in March 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami struck the facility, causing a containment breach and releasing a large cloud of radioactive gas. There were no direct fatalities reported, though many people died as a result of the tsunami and earthquake.

Nuclear power does pose some risks, however the number of deaths directly attributable to nuclear power since inception is far less than with any other commercial power generating method. With appropriate safeguards and construction techniques and modern technology there is no reason that nuclear power could not be a viable alternative.

Unfortunately, the TMI incident has damaged the nuclear power industry in America. Expanded use of safe, clean nuclear power may not be politically possible given the strident opposition of environmental activists.

How to Power Our Modern Industrial Society

 

Taking a look back through history, we can see that ever since humans discovered fire, it has been used for many things from providing warmth and light to scaring away predators to cooking, forging metal, and other uses. Fire does not spontaneously appear, it arises from the combustion of fuel. For much of our history, that fuel was wood, sometimes animal fat and dung, bones, and coal. All of these fuel sources are “dirty burning” (i.e. give off considerable smoke, particles and carbon dioxide and other pollutants) and except for coal are derived from sources that our society wants to protect: forests and animals (especially whales). (It was the discovery of oil which could be refined into kerosene that caused a drop-off in the whaling industry in the late 19th century). Reverting to any of these fuel sources is not viable, and would in fact harm our environment more than current energy sources.

Coal was the primary fuel that was used to power steam engines and power plants providing electricity until the advent of natural gas. It still accounts for 40% of America’s electrical generation. All Americans benefit from coal, whether they like it or not. The problem is that coal is a “dirty” fuel.

Coal burning accounts for almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. While natural gas is taking on more of the power-generation load, the activities of environmental activists opposed to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), referred to henceforth as “fracktivists” are seriously jeopardizing the future of natural gas gathering in the United States and abroad.

Hydroelectric power is employed in some locations of the United States, but in order to have hydroelectric, it is necessary to have a river. Again, environmentalists and downstream users generally oppose the building of new dams for power generation.

Oil is burned for power generation in only a small number of locations and is a dirty burning fuel as well. In addition, oil is used to heat many homes in the Northeast, at higher cost in terms of money and carbon emissions.

This graphic shows the primary energy sources and uses in the US in 2013.

Energy Sources and Uses
Source: www.eia.gov

The table below shows the sources and costs of the fuels used to generate electrical power as of 2012.

Energy Source Table

What If Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change Is Real?

 

Now I am going to stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, that the alarmists are right: climate change is “real”, humans are the cause, and we must DO something. What then, are we to do?

Since electricity generation accounts for 39% of carbon emissions in the United States, we should cut out air conditioning, tall buildings, server farms (say goodbye to Twitter, Facebook, and the entire online world). Other ways to reduce electricity use include not using electric lights during the day, and possibly at night. Perhaps we can start hunting whales again for the oil needed to light lamps at night.

Transportation uses account for the second most carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, so private cars should be eliminated immediately. Air transportation will have to be eliminated as well. People can use buses, light rail (even though that requires electricity), horses, bicycles, and their two feet for transportation. Except for the wealthy, of course. They can continue to drive their luxury cars and fly around in private jets while telling the rest of us to cut our carbon emissions.

Since fracking is so bad, we must ban it immediately. This will serve to lower the inventory of co2 emissions by fuelnatural gas, driving prices up. Even though natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel source, gathering it is bad, and burning it is bad. Higher natural gas prices will hurt the poor the most – the very demographic progressives claim to be “fighting for”. It is said that 76% of Americans live “paycheck to paycheck”, and cannot absorb higher energy costs. I can remember not too long ago when gas prices were higher and the local utilities were soliciting customers to join in helping the poor with energy bills. If we allow anti-fracking bullies to achieve their goal to ban fracking, we’ll all need help paying higher energy bills.

Do these past three paragraphs seem too extreme and unrealistic? They are. Yet many of these things are being advocated, proposed, agitated for and demanded by some environmentalist group somewhere (except whale hunting, of course). Some of them are being implemented through regulations of the United States government, which is clearly in the grip of climate change alarmists.

For example, as I mentioned earlier:

  • Recent EPA coal emissions standards will raise the cost of electricity by 178% on average for all American households. Plants currently providing electricity will have to shut down if they cannot meet the new standards or face prohibitive costs to come into compliance. Thousands of jobs related to coal production and use will be lost, putting American families into unemployment and poverty.
  • Coal-powered electrical generation is being curtailed in the U.S. As an alternative, using natural gas to produce electricity is in the rise. As mentioned before, natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, and the least expensive, thanks to fracking.
  • The EPA requires cars to be ever more fuel efficient. I’m actually OK with this, except that it raises the prices of new cars, making new cars less affordable for the poor.
  • Because the potential for catastrophic environmental damage attends the use of nuclear energy, I understand why some people want to ban nuclear energy. Even though it is the cheaper than coal and increasing nuclear power generation capacity would reduce carbon emissions, we as a society must evaluate that risk and choose accordingly. What I do not understand is the activists who wish to ban hydraulic fracturing.  These “fracktivists” want to ban the means of producing the safe, clean, inexpensive energy that burning natural gas produces. They claim it is for “Mother Earth” and “future generations”, but I have not heard one of them propose any reasonable alternatives to burning natural gas except “renewable” energy sources such as wind and solar. We’ll look at those next.

Wind Power and Sunshine

 

Wind. It’s always around. For millennia ships harnessed the wind to explore and travel the world. In our current time it is a “renewable” or “sustainable” energy source. It’s “free” and it doesn’t cause any carbon dioxide to be emitted to the atmosphere. But it is not without drawbacks. For one thing, it is not very economical. Onshore wind power costs $86.6/MWh to generate, while offshore wind power generation is a whopping $221.5 per MWh. For onshore wind power there is a cost in terms of land use. Each wind turbine (or “windmill” to be more quaint) uses a quarter of an acre of land. Needless to say, many people object to having these installations on or near their property.   Finally, there is the cost in terms of dead birds. Every year, almost 600,000 birds including over 80,000 hawks, falcons and eagles are killed by these machines, yet environmentalists and PETA are strangely silent about it. The EPA will move heaven and earth to protect field mice, but I guess sacrificing birds on the altar of climate change is just dandy with them.

Despite these drawbacks, I think that wind power does make sense within a balanced energy generation portfolio, if it can be economically and sensibly deployed.

Sunshine. Thanks to the star the earth belongs to, we have heat and light. The sun shines on some part of the planet all the time (and is the primary agent of global warming). Why not use this “free” and plentiful resource? Solar energy capturing devices (solar panels) are proliferating every day. Unfortunately, similar to wind, solar photovoltaic (PV) energy is expensive, costing $144.3/MWh in generation costs, while solar thermal costs a much higher $261.5/MWh in generation costs.

Solar PV is expensive to install (for example, it would cost me over $20,000 after rebates, tax credits and incentives to put a solar PV system on my roof) and the cost per kWh is still much higher than coal, natural gas or nuclear. As with wind, I believe that including solar power generation in a balanced portfolio is desirable to the extent it is economically and otherwise feasible.

The Climate Change Debate Is Not Going Away

 

After studying the issues of climate change, global warming, energy production and use, and having been involved in the political fight surrounding fracking in Colorado, I realize that this issue is not going to be resolved or go away any time soon. I believe that the ‘sound and fury” will continue to increase and that environmentalists and fracktivists will continue to clamor that humanity commit economic and “quality of life” suicide in the name of a disputed scientific theory.

If all the environmentalist desires are met, we will be living nasty, brutish and short lives in primitive conditions. Respect for the planet and responsible and sensible stewardship of the resources we have been blessed with is a completely desirable goal. I think that the environmental movement was a good start – it got our society thinking about the Earth, how we use it, and how it benefits our and future generations to be good stewards of the planet. But now they have gone too far to the other end of the spectrum and are becoming increasingly unreasonable in their demands that human activities make no impact on the environment. This is not realistic or acceptable to the vast majority of us living on the planet.

I think that humanity should continue to develop new, alternative sources of energy – wind, solar, nuclear, and yet-to-be-invented – not because of climate change, which is, after all, due to natural causes; but for this simple reason: fossil fuels are a non-renewable, ultimately finite resource. Someday, there will be no fossil fuels left to mine, gather, process, harvest or otherwise use. Before that time, they will have become prohibitively expensive to develop and use. It is incumbent upon our generation to develop new sources of energy to enable future generations to enjoy the benefits of modern and continually evolving technology and life.

This was to be the third post in a three-part series. However, as I learn more and observe the political controversies surrounding these issues, I am motivated to write a fourth installment about the politics and hypocrisy surrounding climate change, which will be published at a later date.

By Richard D. Turnquist

August 17, 2014

Link to Part Four

Further Resources:

For more data about energy than you can possibly imagine, visit the site of the U.S. Energy Information Administration www.eia.gov

It is one of my new favorite websites, if only because it appears to be free from bias and is extremely easy to use.

 

 

 

 

 

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