Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On carbon neutrality

Let's start with the links. Here's Wikipedia on the subject. And here's a killer bit about Al Gore's supposed carbon neutrality - note particularly that he's apparently buying his offsets from a company of which he's cofounder and chair. And of course here is a piece about Bush's Crawford ranch, with its geothermal climate control, rainwater collection system, graywater recycling, and modest size.

What I bring from these stories is a Lenten theme, weirdly enough. It's the injunction to pray in secret, to wash your face and smile on the street - not to be like "the hypocrites" who hire people to beat drums ahead of them on their way to make their offerings at the Temple. It'd be so much easier to take the Terrible ThreatTM of (anthropogenic?) global warming seriously if its Jeremiahs were less ludicrous.

Instead, as I've said before, my position on global warming, cooling, spinning, magnetic-pole-changing, etc., etc., is that the Earth has been doing these things, willy-nilly, for some five billion years now; it behooves us, as a species that may (for the first time in global history) have some modicum of control over its destiny, to try to make ourselves and our society as adaptable as possible to major changes. We know that we as a species already survived ice; we know that large numbers of people already survive heat, though there are obvious problems such as disease, crops, and how to get everyone to like warm beer. We already genetically engineer lots of plants to suit our current needs; is anybody working on genetically engineering very heat-tolerant and cold-tolerant and drought-tolerant and wet-roots-tolerant strains of foodstuffs? If not, that's where our concentration should be. Water purification and desalination: another no-brainer. Inoculations against diseases more common in lower latitudes, especially those horribles for which the main therapy right now is "get the uninfected out of Dodge and wait for it to play itself out."

When the Earth's climate changes, it will be beyond us to stop it - and any efforts we make that have an actual effect, however small, are bound to have other, unintended consequences as well (see: rabbits, Australia). If we limit our attempts at ginormous changes to the social and technical, it seems obvious to me that we also limit those unintended consequences. That alone, even leaving aside the do-ability factor, brings me to my firmly held opinion that our better course is to prepare ourselves, not to try to hold back the tide.

Social engineering, then? No... I'm agin' it. But if we're going to try to take some kind of major action, I vote for explicitly setting out to build a resilient society rather than (a) giving very rich people feel-good points plus a free pass to contribute as much carbon to the equation as they like, (b) setting up a "carbon underclass" of people who, because they can't afford a "carbon usage tax" or magical (if ineffective) offsets, simply have to live as our grandparents and great-grandparents did, and (c) holding down the development of the undeveloped and underdeveloped world in the name of The Environment. And as I (and others, I'm sure) observed somewhere (I'm sorry, it's after midnight and I don't recall whether it was in some blog post of mine or a comment left elsewhere), if those selfsame Jeremiahs actually believed the drivel they're spouting, they'd be doing things differently: if Gore thought we were decades from "buh-bye Manhattan," he'd be living... um... the way Bush does.

So it comes down to power, as always. Sometimes I imagine Gore in his carefully offset obscenely energy-hungry mansion, giggling like a little girl over how much more influence and exposure he has now than he did as a Presidential candidate.

6 comments:

Gahrie said...

So..how do I make arrangements to test my ocular delicacy?

Cobra said...

Jamie,

Is this a war on science, or a war on liberals?

We know for a FACT that man-made chloro-flourocarbons destroy the ozone layer, to the point where there's a massive hole over Antartica...

>>>"Over Antarctica (and recently over the Arctic), stratospheric ozone has been depleted over the last 15 years at certain times of the year. This is mainly due to the release of manmade chemicals containing chlorine such as CFC's (ChloroFluoroCarbons), but also compounds containing bromine, other related halogen compounds and also nitrogen oxides (NOx). CFC's are a common industrial product, used in refrigeration systems, air conditioners, aerosols, solvents and in the production of some types of packaging. Nitrogen oxides are a by-product of combustion processes, eg aircraft emissions."

http://www.atm.ch.cam.ac.uk/tour/part1.html

Now, as you probably know, the ozone layer serves a real purpose...it shields the Earth's surface from harmful UV radiation. You probably also know what kind of devastation to the food chain an overdose of that radiation can cause, not to mention, cancer risks in humans.
Never the less, there have been measures taken to LIMIT the use of chloro-fluorocarbons in propellants and coolants over the years, allowing the ozone layer time to naturally "repair" itself.

How come the attitude towards chloro-fluorocarbons is apparently "OK" to conservatives, (since I don't hear a peep from them about it), but that of carbon based emissions is looked upon as heresy?

--Cobra

Jamie said...

Cobra, if I'm not mistaken, the inference that CFCs caused the hole in the ozone layer is just that: an inference. When the hole was discovered in 1979, it was on the basis of observations beginning only in 1957. See the problem? What if the ozone layer periodically develops holes, which form then dissipate all by their lonesome? This isn't to say that CFCs, which are human-produced and more effective ozone-depletion chemicals, because insoluble and able to be carried high into the atmosphere, than most naturally present chlorine sources, don't exacerbate the depletion of ozone... but rather that it's disingenuous to claim that humans, and humans alone, cause depletion of stratospheric ozone when we know that at least 18% or so of the ozone-depleting chemicals present in the upper atmosphere do have a natural source. Was banning CFCs the correct move? Yes, I think it was - because in contrast to the COv2 question related to global warming, their effects were demonstrable and disproportionately harmful as compared to natural sources, and because they could be banned without a giant reduction in quality of life of humans.

I believe that concern for human life trumps concern for the environment, because the environment has far greater buffers (such as the oceans) than human society has and because high quality of human life enables time and resources for research that can reduce human impacts on that environment. If we all have to take a giant step backwards to our grandparents' time, innovation takes that giant step backwards with us.

You can't escape supply and demand: ask California. Oil shale in the 1970s was not feasible because it couldn't be developed at the prices available for oil at that time; oil sands are now feasible, both because extraction technology has improved and because prices are high enough to make it worthwhile. Ironically, supply and demand goes for carbon offsets too; there was no market for them until recently; you couldn't have sold them for a dollar. Now, though, the campaign to drive the common consumer (or his elementary school children, as I know to my sorrow) into a panic about the terrible things humans have done and are doing to the world has been sufficiently effective that there's a demand for the dang things. Silly as they are, ineffective as they are. Planting a tree, for instance, does not permanently sequester carbon: it sequesters the carbon only for as long as the tree lives, but in the process, that tree takes up space that might be used for other, more productive purposes than assuaging Al Gore's environmental conscience.

I'm waging no wars. As a scientist myself, I resent and distrust the efforts on the part of global warming activists to stifle debate by claiming "consensus." Consensus is all well and good, and over time, repeatedly confirmed results that agree with a scientific consensus can rise to the level of theory or even, after a LOT of time, to "natural law," but consensus is not the stuff of science. (One more example: until the '50s or so, there was an unshakeable consensus that human beings had 48 chromosomes, 24 pairs. This consensus was based on actual observations of chromosomes by many people, from 1921 to 1955, when it became utterly clear that we have 46, 23 pairs.)

Cobra said...

Jamie writes:

>>>"I'm waging no wars. As a scientist myself, I resent and distrust the efforts on the part of global warming activists to stifle debate by claiming "consensus." Consensus is all well and good, and over time, repeatedly confirmed results that agree with a scientific consensus can rise to the level of theory or even, after a LOT of time, to "natural law," but consensus is not the stuff of science. "

And I would defer to your superior knowlege on science, as I am NOT a scientist. My problem comes from those who buck the consensus with a conflict of interest. There is plenty of money to be made if you're a scientist who "doubts" global warming. I'm not saying those who buck consensus are ALL on the take, but scientists are human beings too, and many follow the money.
If Brazil can utilize it's homegrown resources to be completely energy independent after only 20 years, what besides CORPORATE GREED is preventing the US, the most technologically advanced nation in history, from doing the same?

I certainly don't have all the answers on this one, but I do have a whole lot of questions, when I see nations like Brazil outflanking us on clean energy.

--Cobra

Jamie said...

Cobra, there's money everywhere; don't kid yourself. And your arrow of causation could just as easily run in the opposite direction: a scientist who already believes that there are grounds to "buck the consensus" may find an audience, and funding, on the side of oil companies, rather than the scientist prostituting himself to them preemptively and then magically coming up with data that buck the consensus. Do you see what I mean?

Brazil and its ethanol... Brazil's latest energy consumption numbers (that I can find) show 8.3 quadrillion BTUs used annually; the United States, in 1998, used 94+ quadrillion BTUs. Brazil's GDP is about $619 billion, versus the US's GDP of $12 1/2 trillion - Brazil produces 5% of what the US produces, with a population only a third smaller than the US. Brazil is at best a "developing" nation. That's one reason Brazil can be energy-independent today. But watch this space: if Brazil is successful at creating a greater manufacturing base, and achieves "developed" status, it'll find energy self-sufficiency based on ethanol a fast rabbit to chase. Development runs on energy, and besides nuclear power, fossil fuels offer the best bang for the buck - the greatest amount of energy in the smallest and most stable storage space - known so far. Better storage batteries help, and more efficient machinery helps - but there's still nothing like fossil fuels to keep a manufacturing and/or technological economy running.

Energy independence is something I ought to post about. In short - even though fossil fuels pay our household bills, I'd like to see successful alternative energy; but as somebody or other said, nobody had to pay people to give up their horses once cars were economical. We'll get there. But innovation is a lightning strike: you kind of have to set up the right conditions and then wait for it. I think we're getting the right conditions in place: more expensive oil, the example of smaller countries and communities, a wide variety of alternative energy sources now on the market even if few are at all economic. Priuses couldn't come about until some genius invented the hybrid engine (which is why nobody but the truest believers had the lame-o electric cars of the previous generation) - and I have great faith in genius.

Jamie said...

You know, I ought to add that of course people - people at giant agribusiness corporations, no less - are hard at work development ever more hardy strains of foodstuffs. Because it benefits them. Self-interest isn't the only motivation on the planet or in the human heart - but you'll seldom go wrong if you count on its being in the mix.