Reason for a New Age

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    What you will expect to see here are discussions of politics and tangentially economics. This blog will do its best to present a rational look at the world of today, how the modern world came into place, and the issues that are currently being discussed in the public realm.
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About Climate Change – Part 4

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/01/06

While I have, I hope, made a convincing argument of the pointlessness of attempting to reduce CO2 emissions, I now intend to present the reasons for doing just that, nevertheless.

I think many people have not actually seen the measures actually proposed to try and deal with climate change/reduce CO2 emissions. During the last presidential election, I went through and took note of all of the candidates’, on the left side, suggestions. These are they:

1) Move to alternate energy sources both on the national infrastructure and portable motor front. Develop oil-independence.
2) New coal energy plants need to capture CO2 emissions.
3) Design buildings that are more energy efficient, retrofit older buildings as possible.
4) Increase the energy efficiency requirements of new electronics. (E.g. try to phase out incandescent lights.)
5) Update the national power grid to be more efficient.
6) Work with developing nations to get them on the newest, cleanest technologies as they come up.

You might note that “planting trees” and “going without washing your clothes for three weeks” aren’t in there at all. This isn’t to say that I think all of them are particularly grand ideas, but I think people tend to believe that nebulous, “let’s all live in caves and become vegetarians”, sorts of ideas are the sort of things being proposed by the global warming crowd. And certainly there may be some loonies who are into that sort of thing. But any real solution has to take into account the fact that Americans simply aren’t going to give up the comforts of their life that they are used to, and our level of energy use is going to continue to grow.

Oil Dependency
A general idea of economics is that trade is good. Trade builds bonds (which are good for preserving peace) and it lets the various parties specialize in whatever it is that their home economy is most suited to, getting everyone the best product, and overall it increases everyone’s wealth. I will cover this basic idea in more depth in a future post.

The problem is that not all nations should be given more money. If a country which does not have a free market and which is lead by a dictator is given money, that money doesn’t go into commerce, research, or the general good. Instead it is either embezzled and wasted or used to purchase weapons and training that makes this country a viable threat. There’s no substantive difference between Middle Eastern and African nations except that the African nations don’t have enough money or clout to be a danger to anyone but themselves.

Ultimately, pumping money into unstable areas is something that should be avoided if at all possible.

But so then the question is whether this is possible?

Hybrid and electric vehicles seem to be nearing competitiveness to fuel cars. A few technological leaps seem to make it likely that battery powered cars will soon (within the decade?) lose their current demerits of charge time and weight at which point they become the clear winner of alternative options.

It appears that we spend, on average, about $1 million per soldier per year to keep them active in hostile territory. With about 160,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re spending about $160 billion to subdue people armed with weapons bought with money made by selling us fuel. Our total spending (local, state, and federal) on transportation is about $250 billion per year. The US is spending $58 billion to bailout General Motors.

Now if you say that that $58 billion is dependent on their leading the way towards new technologies, hybrid or otherwise, then we’re still left with $102 billion to spend on hydrogen pumps, battery R&D or whatever else. A 40% increase in our transportation spending can almost certainly achieve something fairly impressive.

If I litter, I am penalized for it. Yes, it may be more hassle to find a trash can and properly throw away whatever bit of trash it is that I am holding.

Simply put, if you have no issue with the illegalization of littering, there isn’t much argument to be made that companies and people, where it is technologically feasible, shouldn’t muck up their surroundings. This doesn’t have anything to do with saving the polar bears or anything else. It’s possible to behave in a manner that doesn’t have any side effects (or at least less so), and so we should do that.

And you can say that trying to rein in CO2 emissions will drive everything to China, but we’re talking about cars and power plants. I can’t offshore my commute to work, and I doubt anyone has any immediate plans to pump the US supply of electricity under the Pacific ocean.

You might also say that this will raise the price of energy in the US and hence take away from money that could have been spent on things of more importance. This is true, but one point that I didn’t bring up before is that while current climate change is not really a true worry for the world, at some point it will be. Frankly, there’s no knowing at what point some sort of feedback mechanism might suddenly cause our entire climate to go haywire. Until that point you might say that you can’t really see anything unsightly so arguing that it’s litter makes no sense, but at some point it will be. One or two cigarette butts on the sidewalk doesn’t make the city look disgusting, but once every other footstep is coming down on crud, you’ve got a problem. Again, this is the Law of Toos.

But now you might remind me that I have already said that whether the US does or doesn’t cut our emissions, global warming is going to occur.

In Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, there is a place where one character comments that one day the Sun will run out of energy and go cold. The other character says, “Yes, I’ve heard that, but I never worried because by the time that happens, mankind will be able to create a whole new Sun.” I’m dubious about whether there will still be any living, intelligent remnant of humanity in a few billion years, but I do appreciate that sentiment. Personally, I think that we should be able to control the weather on Earth. There have been times where the natural state of the Earth was inhospitable to man. Perhaps one day it will return to such a state unless mankind intercedes. We may as well start that process now. In the long run, such an ability would almost certainly increase the productivity of the world, and as noted, it could save us from all sorts of possible catastrophes, natural or no.

You might think that being able to control CO2 levels is a rather pointless goal compared to other attempts to control the weather. But let me point out that the theory of CO2 induced heating was originally considered to be a “good thing”. The IPCC report expects an overall increase to global food production for increases between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius. Being able to reach and lock in on the global optimum for production would be a significant boon to humanity’s future.

New Technology is Good
As I will point out in a future posting, the central goal of the free market is to raise the rate of production via, generally, technological improvement. The more easily it is to produce something that is useful, the more free time mankind has, and the more toys we have to play with. All around, the world becomes a better place.

But for various reasons, often, new technology isn’t moved to regardless of whether it is perfectly reasonable to do so. Take for example, nuclear energy. Nuclear power is overall cleaner, safer, and more efficient than coal.

The problem with nuclear energy is that people are afraid of it.

A nuclear power plant which is decided to be built today will go online 20 years from now. Most of this time will be spent fighting anti-nuke and NIMBY suits in court. Overall spending on fighting these obstructionists ends up amounting to more than 50% of the total cost to build the plant. Without this obstruction, the price to go online would be similar or possibly slightly in favor of nuclear.

Right now the government (via tax money) is offering cash incentives to power companies to go nuclear. Without that, it would generally be considered too risky to venture into nuclear production. But once you remove legal and obstructionist costs, the startup prices are already equal and long term the operating fee is about 2/3rds of a coal plant. Rather than raising tax money to fight obstructionists, legislation which limited the feasibility of such behavior would be comparatively free and ultimately has the potential, by making nuclear the preferable alternative, to reduce our spending on electricity by a significant amount.

Currently, 48.5% of our power is generated by coal. Replacing that with nuclear would reduce the average cost of power by about 17%.

Now, looking back at the list of items that I pointed to at the top of this post, one thing you might notice is that the word “efficiency” is used in half of the suggestions. And as I pointed out, the whole purpose and greatest thing about the free market, is the strive for greater efficiency.

Obviously, any added efficiency needs to pay itself off before it’s replaced with even newer technology, which is why I might wonder about the practicality of item 3, but items 4 and 5 are perfectly doable.

Updating the US power grid I’ve seen priced around $60-75 billion. In return, the cost of electricity in the US would drop by something like 20%. On average, we pay about $28.6 billion on electricity every month. A 20% saving would be $5.7 billion. In a single year, we would have recouped our initial cost, and of course it would be all money saved after that point.

Ideas on efficiency standards for electronics are…say interesting. I haven’t seen enough on the topic to really comment. But one area that does seem to be open to improvement is light bulbs. With CFLs and LEDs affordable and emitting equal or more light, the old incandescent light is comparatively inefficient and costly. For a greater down price, in the long run you’ll save money, and all it takes to achieve this change-over is government leadership. There is no extra cost to anyone to achieve this change. And of course, we can expect the cost of these sorts of lights to decrease as manufacturing increases.

Even if it doesn’t matter what our level of CO2 emissions may be, cutting costs and gaining future savings is good. Leadership of this sort should be applauded.

It might be noted that the plans to update our power grid and to phase out incandescent light are both currently underway. It is unclear, but it seems that perhaps the time-to-construction of nuclear power plants has also been significantly reduced. Hybrid vehicles are on their way and will continue to become the mainstream, especially if fuel prices continue to increase.

Regardless of whether you think global warming should be fought, the technology to fight it is newer and more efficient and will almost certainly be changed to for precisely those reasons. A desire to pull out of the Middle East, militarily and economically, is not something that anyone has any issue with and will also, likely, occur on its own.

Obstructing all this is counterproductive to everything. The only item on the list of suggestions that I have issue with is #2, and even that is because I find centralized, massive air scrubbers to be more worthwhile, and even desirable.

Like everything, any suggestion for a thing should be considered on its own merits. If you have no actual objection to any of the methods proposed to accomplish a purpose, whether that purpose is worthwhile or not is entirely besides the point. Attempting to shoot down legislation based on party politics without actually examining what is being suggested is short sighted and counterproductive.


4 Responses to “About Climate Change – Part 4”

  1. uncommonscolds said

    Thoughtful post. I agree with most of what you say, but I have trouble with this line: “Personally, I think that we should be able to control the weather on Earth.” Why “should” we? I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

    If “should” was an emotional response, I certainly understand the sentiment. We have big brains. We “should” be able to do many things, but, alas, humans are still basically stone age creatures with short term goals and an inability to play nicely with others. Worse yet, we’ve already squandered much of the earth’s riches.

    For example, my research indicates that resource depletion–water, topsoil, fossil fuels, copper, many precious metals necessary for high tech stuff–will soon severely crimp the development of industrial civilization. It’s likely already doing so.

    Moreover, the significant probability of fossil fuels becoming increasingly scarce sooner rather than later will hinder everything from transport to fertilizer production. That, along with what we’ve done to the water supply and topsoil, means it will be increasingly difficult to grow the food needed for the human population.

    When I read some UN report on the need to up food production by something like 50% by 2050, I rolled my eyes. My guess is we’ll be lucky if we can keep 2050 food production to 20% or so below what it is now.

    Then thing’s get really “interesting.”
    Starvation leads to wars and usually increases resource depletion. I think people “should” grow up and act rationally, but I know they won’t because rationality is only a small part of human behavior.

    I used to worry about CO2, but now I’ve shifted my focus to the more basic aspects of human survival–water, food, and basic shelter. I don’t expect us to become cave-dwelling vegetarians. With luck we’ll be able to keep hot water and some basic comforts, but, as is, I doubt that humans of the future will have the education or time to plan systems of control weather unless one counts rain dances and such.

    Have you read William Catton’s now classic _Overshoot_?

    Sorry for wandering off to my obsessions. As I said, I’m in agreement with almost everything you said.


    P.S. Tiny correction: The usual phrase is “rein in,” not “reign in.” The way I teach riding “rein in” is shorthand for shorten the reins, sit straight up or “sit deep” in horseman’s jargon, and push the horse into the shortened reins with leg pressure to slow down or stop. Trust me on this one.

    • “Should” in the sense that it’s cool and theoretically useful. If it’s within our capability and financially feasible, then there’s only anything to be gained. Obviously the question comes down to whether it is possible, and what that cost is.

      And yes, while I did comment on the slight value of a larger population in this post, I’d be perfectly happy to start shrinking the number of humans on the planet. I’m not sure whether resource depletion is a terribly large issue since the question isn’t so much of where we can find stuff so much as how much effort we have to go through to recycle all the materials we’ve already dug up and used. Even if we’ve extracted every mineral there is in the Earth’s crust, there’s still always the refinement of techniques for maximizing what we get out of the same resources.

      As technology progresses, really the only resource we need is energy. If we wanted to live through a nuclear winter underground, so long as we had a source of energy we could have light to farm by, circulating air with filters, and everything else. Battery technology is likely going to jump the hump to viability for powering vehicles within the next decade, which really removes the need for fossil fuels of any kind. Once you have batteries for locomotion, you can turn all of your electrical production to fission or fusion reactions. Fusion energy is at most 40 years off and humanity isn’t going to die off before that point, I’m fairly sure.

      • uncommonscolds said

        “’Should’ in the sense that it’s cool and theoretically useful.”

        OK. But isn’t “cool” a judgment rather than a reason. Also, to me, something is theoretical
        right up to the point someone makes it and it’s actually useful, e.g. a perpetual motion machine is theoretically useful.

        “As technology progresses, really the only resource we need is energy.”

        Are are you sure technology will progress? If it does, for how long? And with what sort of energy?

        You might be interested in the recent posts by John Michael Greer’s on The Energy Bulletin:


      • ’Should’ in the sense that it’s cool and theoretically useful.”

        OK. But isn’t “cool” a judgment rather than a reason[?]

        Well yes, but hence prefacing the original statement with “Personally, I think that…” It was never anything more than personal opinion.

        Also, to me, something is theoretical right up to the point someone makes it and it’s actually useful, e.g. a perpetual motion machine is theoretically useful.

        Yes, and hence why I said that it needs to be within our capability and financially feasible. I don’t think that full weather control is within our grasp, but CO2 control may be. If it is and if it’s reasonable to do so, I don’t see the downside of taking advantage of that fact.

        Are are you sure technology will progress?

        After all invention ends, you still have refinement. Invention is an exponential force, while as refinement plateaus. At the moment, invention is still in the lead and showing no particular signs of slowing, and once it ends, we’ll still have another 50 to a 100 years of refinement time afterwards. Even if all of the physicists announced tomorrow that they couldn’t think of any more tests to try and understand the makeup of the universe and they were stumped, we still have plenty of invention to go. I can think of 4 or 5 entirely feasible future technologies that will have vast effects on the world.

        Your worry about topsoil, for instance, is quite possibly on the way out. Vat-grown steak means that we will no longer need farmland. All we need is a source of energy and raw minerals to create meat and vegetables. We’ll need to mine and to recycle our own waste (which we already do) to get those minerals, but all or most of the farm and pasture land currently in existence will be perfectly free to return to its natural state. No pesticides, no runoff. We’ll be able to centralize production so there’s less need to transport stuff about. All our food might end up in rectangular shapes like a stick of butter, but so be it.

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