Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Energy Policy, Environmental Policy, and National Security

Climate change is a real, ongoing phenomenon and human action has contributed to its aggravation. That is a scientific fact. I want to get that out of the way before I begin to ramble in twelve directions at once. There are real environmental dangers facing the world and it is important that we are able to confront them; either we must find real ways to minimize our impact on our world or we must find real methods of dealing with the consequences of our mucking up the world. No sane or intelligent person should doubt or deny this.

That said, no one really has any idea how to successfully go about this. Not really, not yet. We know the problem but not the solution. This has created the usual dichotomy in such circumstances. On the right hand we have the people who deny, publicly at least, that there even is a problem or say that we can't do anything about it without more information. On the left hand we have the panic driven activists who suggest anything and everything to stave off global catastrophe.

Southern Beale has been writing about 'astroturf' fronts for the oil companies fighting the administration's cap and trade proposals. Her last three pieces (here, here, and here) have all been on the topic of the environment, the oil companies' attempts to create 'grassroots' opposition to the administration in order to protect what they perceive as a threat to their bottom line, and what environmentalists are doing in return. All of this has had me thinking about the issue a great deal. It occurred to me, during my one hour break between my two stretches of work this morning, that I haven't written a really obnoxiously wonkish and geeky policy piece for a little while.

So all the new readers over the last couple days (high guys!) get to suffer through this for the first time. Forgive my malicious laugh.

I am going to start, as I always attempt, with a statement of the real problem in critically realistic terms:

Climate change is happening.

Not my deliberate phrasing. I did not say 'climate change will happen', 'climate change is happening but', or 'we can prevent climate change by' or any other similar phrasing parsed to fit an agenda. This not about the advancement of agendas, this is about the critical appraisal of the reality of the problem.

Climate change is happening. Now. There is no reset button, no miracle cure, no magic whistle. That bird has flown and all that is left in the cage is the guano. Anyone, right or left, who tells you differently is selling something. There may or may not be ways to reduce the affect we continue to have on climate change in order to ameliorate the actual problems it creates or we may have to start planning to respond to those problems now. I am thinking both is the best bet. In other words, if you've been writing about polar bears drowning to get people aware of the melting ice caps, stop now. Start writing about donating to the World Wildlife Fund and creating a Russian/Canadian/American conservation program to save the polar bears. The ice isn't going to magically refreeze because we switch to solar panels tomorrow.

It is not my intention to take a deliberately fatalistic approach to the problem, but the simple fact is that the problem is not 'how to stop global warming.' Climate change is happening and one cannot just stop it or reverse it, human science does not have that power at this point in time.

This is not to say that we should not explore alternative energy. We should, for a wide range of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that while we may not be able to stop or reverse climate change we might be able to affect the degree of damage the process does to the world.

However, green activists need to keep quite a few facts in mind. There is no (and, more importantly, will never be) technology available to support modern civilization with zero impact on the environment. It doesn't work that way. Hybrid car batteries save fossil fuels and reduce air pollution. Their manufacture also creates toxic waste that must be safely disposed of, and the batteries themselves become toxic waste when exhausted. Hydrogen fuel cells are not an energy source, they are merely a means of energy storage and transfer. This means that a hydrogen car runs entirely clean... but the fuel cells must still be manufactured using electricity, gasoline, nuclear power, or some other primary energy source. Which means that there is still an environmental impact. Solar power requires a great deal of space for solar panels, takes a great deal of time to generate energy, and is difficult to easily store/transfer. Wind power is quicker, but it still requires a lot of space and has the same storage transfer problems. Both require technology that produces significant industrial waste. Hydroelectric power is amazing and versatile... but it has a massive environmental impact on watersheds and wildlife.

I think everyone gets my point. We have to either start the Luddite Revolution now, which I think would be awfully silly, or admit to ourselves that we are going to continue to damage our environment no matter how we finally decide to power our civilization. There is no 'green revolution' because nothing we, as humanity, develop will be truly green for at least the next few centuries.

Before the oil companies start donating money to keep my blog going, however, I have even harsher reality for them. The world's oil supply is finite. One can believe or disbelieve in the precise predictions made by specific economists and geophysicists using various models, but the fact remains that oil is not a renewable resource. This means it is absolutely necessary that the world adopt alternative energy models and that the United States adopt a comprehensive energy policy and plan for transition away from oil and coal as the primary energy supply for the economy for reasons entirely economic. Environmental benefits accrued from such a transition are difficult to predict for certain. It is possible that the effects of climate change could be moderated to some degree but impossible to predict that degree.

This all brings me to policy. For all the right wing claims about innovation in the free market, much of 'free market' innovation has been driven by government research grants, government contracts, or both. Television, as we know it, was developed by defense contractors before the military licensed the technology to private corporations and the original developer of commercial television technology for RCA worked on the government project first. Other television pioneers also received grants from either the US or foreign governments for their work. The number of valuable commercial patents that have been sold to private corporations by NASA is staggering.

Yes, all the innovation comes from the free market. Really.

We need a robust program of government grants for alternate energy sources and plastics technologies that do no require crude oil. Period. Natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, everything; we particularly need to finance hydroelectric, geothermal, and fusion research as there is still untapped or undeveloped technology in all these areas. Nuclear fission may be useful and necessary in the short term, as part of a transition away from oil and coal, but it is a dead end because of the expense and difficult of safely disposing of radioactive waste.

The corporate research labs spend their time on what is profitable now or will be profitable when easily perfected. They do not 'waste' time on what might be profitable in twenty years without incentive. They are making too much money one existing technologies to explore new technologies without incentive.

As much as possible, additional grants should be made available to scientists not affiliated with corporate labs in any way. If the government wants to sell the patents later, I suppose that's a price that may have to be paid (though I don't like it), but we need to have scientists who do not serve a corporate agenda working on matters this serious.

More than for any other crisis facing the world, the the energy and environmental crises are directly the fault of corporate profiteering. I don't think it's radical to suggest they might not be as interested in solving them as the rest of us.


Flying Junior said...

Only god can make a forest. Yet far and away the most efficient method of carbon sequestration is to create biomass in the form of plants. Entropy appears to favor desertification over forestation, but we may be able to save the greener areas we still have. Imagine the unameliorated brutality of global warming after rainforests have shrunk to a fraction of their present size.

Chris Richards said...

Well, this is why groups like the Arbor Day Foundation are so very important. It's not totally true that only God can make a forest. We may not be able to create trees, but we can sure as heck plant them.

This goes back to what I am saying. There are practical things we can do like reforestation (reforestation projects in the Amazon would go a long way, and the reforestation projects in parts of the US have been very successful), wildlife conservation,and the funding of technical research... but none of this will change what has happened or stop what is happening now.

What it will do is ameliorate the damage done by climate change, which is all the Neo-Luddite Revolution advocated by many 'greens' will do.