Climate of Fear XX.

The global temperature has risen by 1 degree over the pre-industrial level (c. 1750). As a result, glaciers and sea ice are melting and weather patterns are changing. What will happen if the globe’s temperature rises by more than 2 degrees Celsius/3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the pre-industrial level? The sea-level will rise by at least two feet as polar ice melts. In addition, climate scientists predict record high heat, drought, and famine.[1]

Is there a way to prevent these misfortunes? Yes/No. Global warming is caused by the emission of the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide as the result of burning carbon for energy. Currently, the world is headed toward emitting 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. This would push global temperatures over the 2 degrees Celsius mark, probably to 4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. Climate scientists and the government officials whom they have persuaded of the danger hope that an international agreement will reduce emissions to 40 billion tons per year by 2030. That is a one-third reduction in emissions over the next fifteen years. However, that probably would hold the temperature rise to a 2.7-3.5 degrees Celsius rise above the pre-industrial mark. In short, well beyond the tipping-point.

A conference on climate change is scheduled for Paris in December 2015. In the run-up to the conference, the United Nations asked all 195 countries to submit a specific target for their reduction in emissions by 2030. The United States has committed to cut emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025 through shifting energy production from coal to solar and wind, and by increasing the fuel-efficiency of vehicles. China has committed to reaching peak carbon-burning and drawing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. In addition, 148 other countries have submitted targets for reducing emissions.

Fine, that’s the good news. What’s the bad news? There’s plenty.

First, the Obama Administration doesn’t want the agreement reached in Paris to be a “treaty” that would be legally binding on its signers. Treaties have to be approved by the Senate. President Obama knows that he couldn’t get such a treaty through the Republican-dominated Senate.[2] However, that would leave the application of the agreement to whoever wins the election in 2016. In short, it would be no commitment at all. For that matter, the US reductions themselves are to be implemented by executive orders and regulatory changes, not legislation.

Second, India will not play ball. All it has is coal and 1.3 billion people (most of them very poor) who want a better life. Although it is already the third-biggest coal burner, India plans to double its coal production by 2020.

Third, very recently, China was “shocked, shocked to discover” that it has been burning far more coal than it had told the world. Hence, it’s commitment to reach peak carbon burning by 2030 is starting from a much higher base than had been supposed and the peak will be correspondingly higher still.

In sum, whatever agreement is reached at Paris in time for Christmas, isn’t likely to hold the line against climate change. Either an even more serious and costly effort will have to be made in the future or we’re just going to adapt to a changed environment.

The Woodrow Wilson-Barack Obama and the Versailles Treaty-Paris Climate Accord analogies will soon be flying like snow-flakes. Well, they would be if global warming hadn’t messed up the weather.

[1] “A crucial climate summit,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 13.

[2] For one thing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is incensed by President Obama’s plan to wreck the major industry in his state.

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Climate of Fear XIX.

Once Mao had died and his myrmidons had been shoved aside, Deng Xiaoping launched China on a drive for industrialization and integration into the world economy. Over the last twenty years, that effort has born remarkable fruit: China has the second largest economy in the world; millions of people have been dragged out of dire poverty and living standards have risen for all Chinese.[1]

However, all progress comes at a cost. Some 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal-fired generators. China’s energy consumption rose by 50 percent just between 2008 and 2013. In 2014, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 passed those of the European Union. Twenty years of industrialization have turned the air over Chinese cities into thick dark clouds of smog.

The health effects have been devastating, with half a million people a year dying of pollution-related causes. There may be economic effects as well. It is getting more difficult to move people out of the comparatively healthy countryside to work in industrial cities that are themselves “dark, Satanic mills.” Perhaps most serious, from the point of view of China’s Communist leadership anyway, is that the pollution is stirring low-level political unrest. There have been an estimated 50,000 environmental protests a year in recent years. Many are of the “Not in My Back Yard” variety, protesting the actions of local factories or generating plants. However, these have the potential to grow, to coalesce, and to turn into a more general criticism of the Party’s leadership.

The convergence of these forces is driving China to limit carbon emissions. In 2009 China committed to reducing the role of carbon emissions in its energy production by 45 percent by 2020; China has invested $90 billion in renewable energy in 2015 alone[2]; China has announced the implementation of a cap-and-trade policy for emissions by 2017; and China has agreed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030.[3]

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems to be solved. One problem is how to connect the “green” generating sources with the consumers of energy. Most of the non-carbon generating capacity is located in remote areas, distant from the main industrial cities. As the crow flies, it is 1,200 miles from the southern edge of the Gobi Desert to Shanghai, and almost 1,400 miles to Guangzhou. Power lines aren’t going to run as the crow flies. So, there is a big engineering project there. Another problem is how to match generated energy with timely use. That’s a storage problem. The Chinese haven’t been any better—so far—than have Western countries at developing reliable storage batteries.

China’s drive is easing co-operation with President Barack Obama’s push for an international agreement to curb climate change. China’s agreement to limit carbon emissions breaks from its refusal to do so that torpedoed American ratification of the 1991 Kyoto Protocol.

Two worries remain. First, can China’s leaders solve the technical problems of storage and transmission? Second, can China expand green energy in pace with the demand for rising living standards from it citizens?

[1] “China’s green revolution,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 11.

[2] China has built solar farms in the Gobi Desert. This year alone it has increased the generating capacity of these farms by 18 gigawatts. That’s equal to total US solar generating capacity. China already leads the world in wind power generation, but plans to double the generating capacity by 2020. Half of the world’s hydro-electric dams are in China, but the Chinese are still building at a rapid clip. .

[3] The efforts now under way make it likely that China will be able to reach peak carbon emissions by 2025.

Climate of Fear XVI.

Coal is an important source of fuel: 38.7 percent of America’s electricity comes from 600 coal-fired generators.[1]

The trouble is that coal is bad for you and other living things. Coal burning for power generation in the United States gives off about 1.575 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That feeds the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Burning coal is worse than burning other fossil fuels. All the gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States give off about a billion tons. Burning natural gas gives off about half the carbon-dioxide as does burning coal.

No one is talking about having passed “peak coal”: there is a lot of coal still in the ground. People concerned about global warming want it to stay there. As the former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu memorably phrased it “there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

However, the coal industry looked to be in decline for the same reason that gasoline prices have fallen recently. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has succeeded. Natural gas prices have fallen by 74 percent over the last ten years. Natural gas, emitting half the carbon dioxide as coal, is now price competitive with coal. Thus, a shift from coal to natural gas would achieve a substantial reduction in emissions without harming anyone—except the coal producers of course. The economics certainly tilt in that direction: 150 of the less efficient coal-fired generation plants have shut down already.

For these reasons, it may have looked like an opportune time to push for a reduction in coal-burning. The Obama Administration is pushing hard to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from the 2005 level by 2030. In June 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a Clean Power Plan to limit coal burning in the United States. Each state would be required to reduce its carbon emissions. The logical thing to do would be to switch to other forms of energy generation ranging from nuclear to natural gas to “renewables” (solar, wind).

The EPA plan has elicited hard push-back from coal-mining states. The efficiency of coal-mining techniques has increased with the introduction of “open cast” mining (knock off the top of a mountain and excavate the coal with machinery). Coal miners will be thrown out of work[2] and coal mine owners will see their investments destroyed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has denounced the president’s “War on Coal.”[3] A dozen states have sued the EPA, claiming that it has exceeded its authority.

One way to smooth the path from coal would be to invest more in research into “clean coal” technology. So far, research has shown the process to be expensive and difficult. An experimental “clean coal” plant in Kemper, Mississippi, cost five billion dollars. However, it could both pacify the coal interest and find an international market.

The industrialization of countries like India and China are powered by coal. An estimated 82 percent of global coal reserves are still in the ground. China, which recently promised to reach peak carbon-burning by 2029, plans to build 363 new coal-fired plants before then. India is planning to build more than 450 coal-fired generating plants in years to come. The carbon dioxide emissions from these plants will overwhelm any reductions in the United States. Finding a way to “clean coal” might be one way to avert disaster.

[1] “The end of coal?” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 11.

[2] Although employment in coal mining in Kentucky has fallen from 38,000 in 1983 to 17,000 in 2012.

[3] Bearing mind the importance of both tobacco and coal for the state’s economy, maybe they could find a new slogan for Kentucky license plates: “Kentucky is for Respirators.”

Climate of Fear XIII.

A decade ago, back when climate change began to emerge as a serious concern, scientists and environmentalists composed a menu of possible future alternatives to burning carbon. Both solar power and wind power seemed likely to be massively expensive. In contrast, biofuels—the conversion of plants into fuel—seemed like it might be a low-cost winner. Both the government of the United States and European governments have invested billions of dollars in developing biofuels. In Britain, for example, subsidies and mandates were used to stimulate a shift to burning wood pellets made from sawdust and tree waste.[1] In the United States, the government mandated and subsidized the mixing of ethanol—a biofuel made from corn—with gasoline. Anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of America’s corn crop now goes to ethanol.

In fact, costs for wind and solar power dropped sharply over the same period that biofuels were being developed. However, until we transform battery technology it will not be possible to use solar or wind power for transportation. Many people continue to count on biofuels as a substitute for carbon-burning.[2] A 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urged replacing carbon with biofuels as an affordable means to hold back climate change. The International Energy Agency speculates that it may be possible to provide over a quarter of world transportation fuel needs by 2050. More immediately, the United States projects that 12 percent of its transportation fuel will come from biofuels within a decade. Similarly, the European Union projects a sharp increase in the role of biofuels to power transportation between today (2.5 percent) and 2020 (10 percent).

Now people are re-thinking this strategy.[3] For one thing, biofuel production has turned out to be massively inefficient: a huge amount of land is required to produce a meager amount of energy. (The 30-40 percent of the American corn crop devoted to ethanol reduces gas consumption by only about 6 percent.) The energy content of all current biomass (food crops, fodder for animals, lumber, biofuels) is about 220 exajoules. The IPCC estimates that the biofuels component alone will have to reach 250 to 300 exajoules by the end of the 21st Century to hold back climate change. This implies a massive expansion of biofuel acreage.

Skeptics believe it unlikely that farm productivity can actually be increased much on the ground, as opposed to on a chalk-board. The world faces an increasing demand for food as both population and incomes in developing countries rise. These will more than eat up any increase in productivity, leading to continued expansion of lands devoted to crops. The American bet on ethanol has driven up world food prices. Harvesting trees for biofuel seems like even more of a losing proposition. It reduces the amount of carbon dioxide captured by trees while increasing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions to the climate problem. It is going to take time to discover the best approaches, even though we seem to be short of time. Government hasn’t entirely succeeded at picking “winners” from among contending solutions. Decisions can have unanticipated consequences that turn out to be hard to un-do. Rather like the origins of the climate problem in the first place.

[1] The chief beneficiary of this effort may have been the members of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, which supplies much of the European demand.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “A Biofuel Debate: Will Cutting Trees Cut Carbon,” NYT, 11 February 2015.

[3] Justin Gillis, “New Report Urges Western Governments to Reconsider Reliance on Biofuels,” NYT, 29 January 2015. The story reports on a World Resources Institute study released on Friday.

 

Thoughts for the New Year.

I don’t know anything. So, here are my thoughts on a couple of issues.

Climate change is a grave reality. However, I doubt that people can entirely hold back (let alone turn back) global warming. Carbon-burning is central to the industrialization of developing-economies. There aren’t a lot of cheap and ready-to-use alternatives. Instead, there is going to be a long period of adaptation to worsened conditions. It is going to make environmentalists, intellectuals, and other “progressive” people very angry that there will turn out to be market-driven profit opportunities when statist restrictions might have provided more desirable outcomes.

In terms of foreign policy, Vladimir Putin is considerably more of an adult than are American leaders. Balance-of-power politics and spheres of influence are realities in world politics. Power and influence are not the single and permanent prerogative of the United States. For one thing, Ukraine is to Russia as Mexico is to the United States. (“Pity poor Mexico. So far from God, so near the United States.”) For another thing, Putin has tried to help the US out of a couple of ditches into which American leaders have driven it. Syrian chemical weapons and a possible solution to the Iranian nuclear problem are the key examples. All the while he has been vilified because he isn’t a democrat at home and he’s resisting the onward march of Western power around the borders of Russia.

In the Middle East we are witnessing a re-writing the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Iraq is fragmenting into Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish enclaves. This fragmentation is being papered-over during the current emergency. The Shi’ites will never be able to repair their behavior during the Maliki period. Syria is going to fragment into Alawite, Sunni, and Kurdish enclaves. A Kurdish state will emerge. This new country will have trouble with both Turkey and Iran. Will Jordan or Saudi Arabia absorb the unstable and impoverished new Sunni micro-state in western Iraq?

The “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict isn’t. Israel cannot afford to have a Palestinian state created. That state would be implacably revanchist, regardless of whatever professions its spokesmen might make in order to obtain sovereignty. Over the centuries, many people have felt that the problems of the world could be resolved if only the Jews would die and stop bothering people. Well, the Israelis aren’t buying this line.

The United States gets much less from the US-Israel alliance than does Israel.

ISIS isn’t a serious problem. The enthusiasm for “jihad” among many Muslims is a serious problem. It is likely to be around for a long time. I’m not sure that it can be de-legitimized by Western propaganda. I’m not sure that playing military whack-a-mole with every new outbreak will solve the problem.

Much as I agree with the objectives being pursued by President Obama on some key issues, I don’t believe that he has the authority for some of his actions. The Supreme Court is likely to overturn the authority-grab carried out by the EPA. The immigration problem wasn’t/isn’t a crisis. It’s just a stick with which to beat the Republicans and an effort to keep Hispanic-American voters on the side of the Democrats. American liberals are going to rue the day that they celebrated his unilateral actions on coal-burning energy generation and immigration. One day, a Republican president will invoke the Obama example.

A Marina on Baffin Island.

Global warming is causing the polar ice-caps to melt. There is forty percent less summer ice now than in the 1970s. By 2030 the Arctic could be free of ice during summer. And I ask, “What is the good in this?” Well, it creates all sorts of opportunities. Some of these come from resources exploitation. Some of them come from adapting to climate change.

In the case of the North Poles, this is freeing up access—after a fashion and in relative terms—to the seas north of Canada, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries.[1] In 1982 the United Nations adopted a “Convention on the Law of the Sea.” This grants signatories ownership of undersea resources up to 200 miles off their shores. One area of interest is oil and natural gas drilling.[2] Because the ice cap and terrible weather prevented people from exploring for gas and oil beyond Alaska’s North Slope, geologists are not sure how much oil and gas might be found as the ice cap retreats. One estimate is that 20 percent of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered gas and oil lay under the Arctic ice. This might include a third of the world’s natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil.[3] Oil companies have rushed in to explore where angels fear to tread: Exxon, BP, Statoil (Norway), and Eni (Italy) have all begun exploration of the fields north of Russia. Since the “Deepwater Horizon” disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they have been giving a lot of thought to how to deal with the inevitable spills that will happen in such a harsh environment. So far, they don’t have any good answers.[4]

Similarly, the retreat of the polar ice caps is liable to open a mining boom in Arctic areas. Ice, snow, permafrost, and brutal winters have kept people from exploiting some of the Earth’s resources. Russia stands to profit from a warmer, greener Siberia. Separatists in Greenland are already speculating on seeking independence from Denmark.

Some of the adaptive responses have a comical note to them. Artificial snow-machine makers face rising demand from imperiled ski resorts. Others responses have potentially bigger pay-offs. Environmental disasters in the 1950s spawned ideas that have great relevance today. In 1952 the British forester and conservationist Richard Baker proposed creating a tree-belt along the southern edge of the Sahara to hold back desertification. In 1953 a gigantic storm in the North Sea led to massive flooding in Holland and eastern Britain. Holland responded with a thirty year campaign of dike and storm surge barrier construction; Britain built the Thames Barrier downstream from London.[5]

In 2002, the African Union adopted Baker’s idea of a tree barrier against the Sahara. Then it was taken up by the African Union. To make this plan work, somebody is going to pay to plant a belt of trees thirty miles deep and four thousand miles long. Foresters, nurseries, and irrigation engineers will be in demand. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated New York City’s vulnerability to storm surges and rising sea levels. Builders experienced with massive sea-gate flood control projects are likely to be in demand in a host of places.

If people don’t adapt to climate change one way, they will adapt another way.

[1] It hasn’t become the Gulf of Mexico yet. In summer there is still a lot of drift ice floating around for the high winds to blow into off-shore rigs; in winter the temperature still drops to 50 degrees below zero and the whole place ices up.

[2] The US Senate has not ratified this convention. Which isn’t the same as saying that the US will not defend what it conceives to be its national interests.

[3] So, you burn the gas and oil; that heats up the planet even more; it gets progressively easier to access the gas and oil. Neat. Sort of.

[4] “The battle for the Arctic,” The Week,” 6 December 2013, p. 11.

[5] McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2014).

Climate of Fear IX November 2014.

India is bound to be a big loser from global climate change. The air pollution in Delhi is worse than that in Beijing; sea-level rise could forcibly displace 37 million Indians by 2050, and water for farmers could be affected by accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas or disruption of the monsoons. So, India has a deep interest in limiting climate change. However, India is also one of the principle forces causing climate change.[1]

Burning coal for generating electricity is central to India’s strategy for economic development. The country has huge coal deposits (the fifth largest in the world), but little oil or natural gas. Consequently, India launched a ten year plan for building coal-burning generating plants back in 2009. Generating capacity has already expanded by 73 percent. In 2013 India burned 565 million tons of coal. Most Indian coal has a high ash-content, so it pollutes more than do some other commonly used types of coal. This makes India the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2019 the government plans to burn more than a billion tons a year. “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” the government’s Minister of Power has asserted.

It will be difficult to argue that India should adjourn its plans for development. Three hundred million Indians have no electricity at all, and many more have it only in fits and starts. On a per-capita basis, Indians consume only one-fourteenth as much electricity as do Americans. In a country with hundreds of millions of people living in grotesque poverty, making do with less isn’t much of an option. Electricity powers industry and industry raises incomes.

India’s coal-fired industrialization effort alarms environmentalists elsewhere. “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.” said one climate scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There isn’t much ground for expecting push-back by Indian environmentalists. For the most part, Indians seem to accept both air pollution and the physical displacement of populations in the countryside to make space for more coal mines. The environmental movement in China seems to have more support behind it and, therefore, more influence with the government than is the case in India.

Nuclear power and solar generation offer alternative energy sources. A lot of Western India is cloudless for much of the year, so a lot of solar energy the ground. The government of Narendra Modi has said that it will launch a program of constructing solar-energy plants. Whether this can be carried forward fast enough and on a large enough scale to replace India’s reliance on coal is hard to tell.

So, that’s a problem. Still, China currently burns as much coal as every other country in the world combined. Can India’s coal-burning really pose more of a problem than does that of China?[2] The recent agreement between the United States and China called for China to cap its greenhouse gas emissions before 2030. The Chinese may continue to shovel on the coal until then, but they also might begin to shift from a reliance on coal to other energy sources. If that comes true, it will be a lot more significant for the climate than is India’s continuing development of coal. If the rest of the world moves in one direction, then India might find a way to follow. There’s a couple of big “Ifs” there. Still, the prospects look better than they did a little while ago.

[1] Gardiner Harris, “Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance of Climate Change,” NYT, 18 November 2014.

 

[2] China produces 46 percent of the world’s coal and imports more; India produces 7.7 percent of the world’s coal, but has been developing its own reserves because of the cost of imports. See: “Climate of Fear IX.”