How Serious Are the Climate Change Alarmists? (Updated)

The Washington Post has an article this morning that should shake you out of your post-weekend torpor. In order to prevent global meltdown as a species we’ve got to produce zero or near-zero CO2:

The task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures may be far more difficult than previous research suggested, say scientists who have just published studies indicating that it would require the world to cease carbon emissions altogether within a matter of decades.

Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

I won’t bother resorting to other papers that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals recently that claim that human-induced climate isn’t a major factor globally. Let’s just accept the finding quoted by the WP at face value. What measures would be required to achieve the stated objective?

Remember that China, already the world’s largest producer of CO2, is increasing its output at the rate of more than 8% per year. That means that in order to achieve zero growth without somehow persuading the Chinese to change their ways the rest of the world would need to reduce its output by more than 8% in absolute terms.

The only power sources that produce little or no carbon are nuclear, wind, geothermal, and, maybe, solar and tidal. Hydroelectric, i.e. damming rivers and using the force of falling water to move turbines that generate electricity. The dams produce lots of carbon in the form of methane released into the atmosphere from the slowed water behind the dam. Various alternative fuels, e.g. ethanol produced from whatever source and biodiesel also produce carbon. They’re no solution.

Actually producing solar cells produces carbon, too.

Wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal have similar problems, i.e. you’ve either got to transport the power to where the people who need it are or you’ve got to move the people to where the power is (or both).

The last nuclear power plant to come online in the United States took 25 years to build. I’ve heard claims of three years, minimum, to build a new nuclear power plant. The real number is probably somewhere in between, assuming no stumbling blocks put in the way of construction by well-meaning opponents. Not just any old construction company can build them and the risks are quite high cf. the “well-meaning opponents”, above. I wouldn’t hold out for a heads-down crash project to build nuclear power plants.

Remember, too, that it takes something like 20 years for the total fleet of cars and trucks to turn over in this country and even the number of hybrid vehicles sold last year is miniscule. The number of electric-only vehicles sold in the U. S. is very, very small although with the Indian electric-powered pneumatic car and some others coming into the market that may increase a little.

I do think that we should be going after greater efficiencies—that’s just good engineering—and I think that will happen as the cost of oil rises. But that won’t solve the problem of carbon emissions in the near term.

So, what’s your plan? Please relate ends and means. I honestly don’t see any way of achieving the goals being laid out in the article cited above although I see lots of ways of not achieving the goals with a maximum dislocation of society. I think that Tigerhawk put it pretty well:

…reducing carbon emissions nearly to zero would also constitute a global catastrophe, so if these guys are right we are actually completely and unavoidably screwed.

and by “we” he means our species.

Update

Could somebody please check my math? At the top of what’s actually a fairly decent post on energy alternatives (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) Arnold Kling has the following quote from Ray Kurzweil:

“[Electricity from solar power] is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

Shouldn’t that be multiplying by 1,000 in ten years? In one year it doubles. The second year it quadruples (2 x 2). The third year it’s increased eight-fold (2 x 2 x 2). In eight years it will have increased by 256 times (28), nine years twice that or 512, and in ten years 1,024 times. This is the sort of thing that bothers me about economists and some scientists.

Having an Emily Latilla moment. Never mind.

11 comments… add one

  • PD Shaw

    From what I can tell from the numbers, nuclear is not sufficiently cost-efficient in comparison to carbon-based energy given the availability of coal in the U.S., the existing plant and infrastructure, and the relatively flat projections of energy demand. Its easier to add a generator to a coal-fired plant or increase its efficiencies. In fact, mandating CFC lights probably hurts the case for nukes as much as anything. Electrics cars OTOH . . .

  • PD Shaw

    Since I don’t know what technology makes the most sense in the future (and most of the advocates are probably rentseekers), I’d assume tax carbon, offset the tax with cuts elswhere, and let the chips fall where they may.

  • Electric cars need to get their power from somewhere, we don’t have the excess capacity to power a fleet of electric cars, and the grid wouldn’t handle the additional power anyway.

    Plus, unless you plan to have the government give electric cars away, it takes 20 years for the fleet to turn over. That’s 20 years from the point at which most of the cars being sold are electric.

  • PD Shaw

    I guess my point was that a significant switch from fossil-fuel to nuclear does not appear likely without a drastic change in the basic economics. Either the government is going to have to subsidize nuclear far more than it does now, make its competitors more expensive with taxes, or the basic supply/demand curves need to be realigned. Mandating CFC lightbulbs is going to reduce demand (unfavorable to nukes) and electric cars are going to increase demand (favorable).

    Also, one of the reasons I favor Pigovian taxes is that it reduces the fleet turnover problem. When we mandate better efficiency standards in our autos, it makes the cars more expensive and encourage people to keep their existing vehicles. Taxes should encourage turnover.

  • Unfortunately, the party (Democratic) most likely to support reforms including Pigouvian taxes to encourage greater efficiency is also the party most likely to want to put loopholes into the tax so that the poor are less affected by it, thereby reducing the impact of the tax.

    Even less fortunately the Republican Party has put itself into an ideological box in which taxes in any form are anathema. That really reduces the arsenal for policy makers.

  • Hold up. Even assuming their conclusions are true (which I strongly doubt), you have missed something. You note that they want to reduce emissions to near zero, but then talk about China’s growth in emissions being 8% — it’s not that we have to cut more of our growth to offset China’s growth, but that we have to cut our emissions to zero because China’s will be non-zero. This is, flatly, not possible.

  • Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think we might look back on this as the moment when the climate change alarmists jumped the shark. And the bad thing about that is that they will put into disrepute a lot of the reasonable changes that we could make to be more efficient and less polluting.

  • Well Dave, you’ve summed up the dilemma quite nicely. The radical reorganization of the world economy – even if it were possible (and I don’t think it is) may, in the end, not be enough to prevent a global climate catastrophe if some of the “experts” are to be believed. Such a course of action has a serious potential to simply compound whatever negative effects climate change may bring – kind of like using a regular water hose to put out a liquid fire – the flames will only spread.

    If global warming is the crisis most say it is, and if we don’t have the time, collective will and technology to get rid of carbon now, then we need to look at more radical solutions. My vote is for global dimming.

  • Somewhere to the Left of legitimate policy concern and scientific projections about a complex planetary environmental system lies a zone of fanatical irrationality and inchoate hatred of the human race. Somewhere in between is a cynical grab for power.

    Zero emissions is not even physically possible given the current size of the world’s population. It’s a non-starter as we can neither recreate the edenic, continental “carbon sinks” of pre-1700 nor deindustrialize without causing *billions* of poor to starve and burn untold amounts of wood and coal beyond what they already do.

  • PD Shaw

    This is how I read it:

    2000 = 1
    2002 = 2
    2004 = 4
    2008 = 8
    2010 = 16
    2012 = 32
    2014 = 64
    2016 = 128
    2018 = 256
    2020 = 512

    Need a disclaimer: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

  • PD Shaw

    I see I skipped 2006.

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