Sunday, May 22, 2011

Think Global, Act Local, American Style

Via Christian P., the free-market solution to climate change:


Picture's from Vicksburg, Mississippi. The only thing that would make it better, is if there were a golf course in there.

22 comments:

  1. you can play golf in that "lawn" ...

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  2. HA! You got dat right.

    Here's a whole photoshow of 9 home made levees.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/05/20/136495797/photos-come-high-water-homemade-levees-may-save-the-day

    Aaaaand we hung you onto today's Ladder
    http://noladder.blogspot.com/2011/05/get-storm-supplies-tax-free-saturday.html

    Thanks yous,
    Editilla

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  3. It’s scientifically untenable to link the stochastic noise of a single Mississippi flood to global warming, as you ought to know. Instead of sneering at a farmer for trying to save his home—no, not his golf course—you might try considering the grave responsibility of left-green romantics for impeding progress on the climate front. Take your source, Christian Parenti. In his alarmist reporting on nuclear power, Parenti has been doing his level best to block the one technology that might actually halt climate change. (See his anti-nuke articles in the Nation on Fukushima, nuclear economics, “Zombie Nukes,” the tritium leaks at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, etc.) While he’s peddling a sensationalized book about global warming, he’s also calling for the closure of CO2-emissions-free nuclear power plants, which will be replaced by natural gas plants that each pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Thanks for that, Christian—and thanks, Josh, for taking such a thoughtless approach to the great problem of the 21st century.

    willboisvert@aol.com

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  4. @ W. Boisvert
    I think there are two problems with your reasonong:
    1) You take for granted that we cannot ever downsize our consumption of energy; for example, that we cannot use much slower but much less consuming cars, or even bikes.
    2) More importantly: you take for granted that, if we use nuclear energy, we can do without gas plants or other "worse" sources of energy; but in facts as long as there are no economic limits to the increase of the energy used (as in all energy becoming very expensive) all incentives are to increase the total consumption, so that we'll end to use BOTH nuclear plants and gas plants (and coal and oil etc.).

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  5. It’s scientifically untenable to link the stochastic noise of a single Mississippi flood to global warming

    Come now. It is literally true that we can't attribute a given flood to carbon emissions, but only in the same sense that we can't attribute a given case of lung cancer to smoking. What we do know is that global warming will lead to an increase in a variety of extreme weather events, including floods. And even if you could show that the frequency of Mississippi floods was not increased at all by global warming, it would still be the case that the responses we see to this flood, are informative about the responses we can expect to the future floods that climate change certainly will cause.

    On nuclear power, it happens that I agree with you, and disagree with Christian -- as I've told him on various occasions. (Comrades do sometimes disagree.) But I don't see what that has to do with this post. We need to support all kinds of approaches to reducing carbon emissions, including both technological solutions like nuclear power as well as social and economic reforms to reduce our energy; consumption; and we need to support forms of adaptation to climate change that are more collective and egalitarian than the build-your-own-damn-levee default of American capitalism. Because otherwise the adaptations to global warming may be even more destructive than the warming itself, as Tropic of Chaos powerfully shows.

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  6. Editilla-

    Thanks for the link.

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  7. @Random Lurker

    1) I’m certainly on board with conservation and efficiency, as long as we’re clear about what that requires. Compact fluorescents and Energy Star appliances won’t quite do it. Energy efficiency means just two things: no one drives cars and everyone lives in big apartment buildings instead of detached, heat-wasting houses. In essence, it means the Manhattanization of America: because Manhattanites live in apartment buildings in a city that’s dense enough to support walking and biking and subways, their carbon footprints are 75 percent smaller than the average American’s. I heartily endorse that socio-economic transformation. I’ve written on it, I live it, and I support a policy prescription for it: heavy and steadily increasing carbon taxes with a per-capita rebate.

    Unfortunately, the idea of conserving our way to sustainability won’t fly, because even Manhattanite efficiencies are not enough. America wastes a lot of energy, but poor countries don’t use nearly enough. Every ounce the developed world can conserve will be offset and then some by the desperate need for more power in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Add in population growth of three billion over the next fifty years, and there’s no getting around it: the world will use more energy in the future, not less. So even assuming the most severe conservation measures, the world will still need stupendous new supplies of clean energy. Then there’s the politics. I like Manhattanization, but most Americans despise the notion; they will die and kill and vote Republican to avoid it. (And not just heedless suburbanites; almost all greens believe that sustainability means living in a rural cabin and eating locally, even though that is the most wasteful, auto-dependent, land-squandering and environmentally destructive settlement pattern bar none.)

    2) There’s a lot of fissile energy in the world, and even more once we build utility-scale breeder reactors: orders of magnitude more energy than in our entire fossil fuel reserves. We can power the world for millenia on nukes.

    Voluntary austerity programs are simply not politically feasible. If austerity comes, it will come only after people have burned up every last ounce of fossil fuels. So to wean civilization off fossil fuels, we have to provide ample energy supplies from some other source. Nukes don’t demand austerity or civilizational upheaval or collective spiritual rebirth; they just plug into the existing power grid and churn out clean energy. By making sustainability palatable, they make it politically possible.

    Make no mistake: the world will eventually go nuclear. The only question is whether we do so before or after we’ve exhausted our fossil fuels and melted the ice caps.

    willboisvert@aol.com

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  8. @ Josh:

    Your lung cancer analogy is off-base. Climate science is simply not precise enough to tell how global warming will effect weather patterns. (Except that it will melt the cryosphere.) There’s no way to tell whether GW will increase or decrease rainfall in the Mississippi basin, or leave it exactly the same. For all we know, GW may have prevented floods that would otherwise have occurred. Also, your interpretation of the photo as an example of America’s sink-or-swim individualism is inapt. Misguided as some of its measures may be, the Mississippi flood-control system is one of the great achievements in collective problem-solving of the age. The response to the current flood has featured resolute, though agonizing, trade-offs between greater and lesser public goods, for example in the breaching of some levees to flood farmland so as to protect cities. Yes, the farmer is trying to save his home on his own, but he’s doing so within an overall context of individual sacrifice for the public good. If only this really were the way the world approached climate change in general.

    No, we should not pursue every conceivable approach to solving GW, only the effective ones. Since nuclear power generates far more clean energy per dollar spent than do wind and solar, we should defund wind and solar and use the money to build nukes, instead. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.

    Parenti, whose book you advertise in the post, goes beyond even that level of irresponsibility to the really shocking extent of calling for the shuttering of existing nuclear power plants. While you are blaming capitalism for the ravages of climate change, you might at least mention that it is not capitalists who are insisting that we abolish the largest source of clean energy on the planet, but left romantics like Parenti. To add to the irony, Parenti, in his misleading writings on the economics of nuclear power, (See “Nuclear Dead End: It’s the Economics, Stupid” The Nation, 4/18/2011) loves to cite Wall Street analysts on the alleged inability of nukes to compete in the free market. (An egregiously deceptive claim.) I haven’t read his book; the blurb says he manages to pin “the iconic death of one man” in Kenya on global warming, which is sensationalist nonsense. But however destructive the fallout from global warming will be, Parenti bears a heavy responsibility for enabling it.
    willboisvert@aol.com

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  9. Bill, I agree with almost everything in your second comment. In particular, I agree that solutions to climate change need to appeal to interests -- not just our common interest in a habitable planet, but people's concrete self-interest as it's defined under capitalism, in a job, in the forms of consumption that we rely on for status and self-worth, and firms' interest in profit.

    The one thing about nuclear power I would push back on is that it's not just a technological question. The pattern of costs in the industry -- with a potentially very large, but uncertain liability cost late in the plant's life -- is not very well suited to private investment. The government's risk-bearing capacity is far greater than even the biggest utility's, so it doesn't really make sense for the government to be passing the tail risks of nuclear to the private sector -- or in other words, the subsidy required to encourage private development of nukes is likely to be very large relative to the cost of direct public investment. So I think it's wrong to blame greens for the stalling-out of the nuclear industry. It is, rather, a political culture that prefers private to public investment, no matter how large the practical advantages of the latter -- which, come to think of it, is kind of the point the picture was making in the first place.

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  10. On your third comment, I think you are seriously underestimating the state of the art in climate science. In fact, we can say quite a bit about changes in rainfall associated with global warming, which are absolutely increasing seasonal flooding in some areas (and drought in others.) For instance, here is a recent paper in Nature that finds that attributes the observed increase in heavy precipitation events to the effects of global warming:

    Given that atmospheric water-holding capacity is expected to increase roughly exponentially with temperature—and that atmospheric water content is increasing in accord with this theoretical expectation, it has been suggested that human-influenced global warming may be partly responsible for increases in heavy precipitation. ... Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas.

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  11. seems like that would fill up like a fishbowl if it got rained on...

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  12. I am very interested in this debate because in Italy, where I live, we are going to have a referendum next month about allowing/not allowing the building of nuclear power plants in Italy.
    I was pro-nuclear but now I have big doubts for those 4 reasons:
    1) Nuclear power is likely cleaner than fossil fuels but is not completely clean
    2) When the Italian government tought it could build nuclear power plants it redirected subsidies from cleaner energy sources (such as solar) to nukes. I fail to see how nukes are better than solar.
    3) If nukes were going to substitute fossil fuels, this would be an obvious enviromental advantage, but as I said in my previous comment, and as highlighted by point 2, there is no sign that nuclear would substitute dirtyer energyes, only that it would add to them
    4) Many people here in Italy sustain that nuclear is by now, less efficient in economic terms than other power sources like solar and wind.
    I would really appreciate comments on the 4 points above.

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  13. @random lurker

    The points you raise are important ones, and I will try to address them in a few days when time permits.

    willboisvert@aol.com

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  14. On flood pictures:

    The Nature article you reference looks interesting. Perhaps I overstated the imponderability of rainfall patterns. I note again that the picture you ran is of a Mississippi river ruled by vast public flood-control projects. It only exemplifies the ascendancy of private over public investment if we view it without context and understanding.
    willboisvert@aol.com

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  15. @Josh:

    Re greens and nuclear finances:

    You’re right that public financint lowers nuclear capital costs, although you got the details wrong. Big, incalculable liability costs do not come late in the plant’s life. Late life-nuke costs—mainly decommissioning and long-term waste storage—are modest and readily calculable. They are costed into operating revenues via payments into a decomissioning fund and a 0.1 cent / kwh tax that used to go to Yucca Mountain before Reid shut that down. In fact, late in their lives, after construction costs have been paid off, nukes tend to be trouble-free cash cows unless hit by epic tsunamis.

    The large, uncertain liabilities come early in the plant’s life, before it starts operating. There are problems with cost over-runs, especially with first-of-a-kind builds, and construction delays that extend the time before the mountain of borrowed capital can begin to be repaid out of operating revenues, with huge interest costs accruing.Some of this problem is due to a chaotic regulatory regime that changes design specifications during construction.

    Greens are indeed to blame for some of the problem. Green lawsuits add to costs, and slow construction; green political opposition also prompts state and local officials to intervene to delay or halt the build (in one case, to close a brand new plant after it was finished). These construction delays and cost overruns,very much influenced by green opposition, are a main reason for the large risk premium demanded by private investors.

    Greens have also fought hard to block quasi-public financing models that could reduce the financial risk and cost of nuclear builds. They have opposed government loan guarantees for new builds, which cost the government nothing unless the operator goes bankrupt, and are insured by hefty fees paid upfront by companies. More seriously, they have very successfully fought the use by public utilities of Construction Work In Progress financing for nuclear reactors, which allows utilities to charge rate-payers for current construction costs and thus by-pass expensive private capital markets. In the nuclear-economics article I referenced above, Parenti gets in a disparaging dig at CWIP financing by falsely insinuating that it is a blank check for unlimited cost over-runs with no oversight.

    So while greens demand exorbitant public financing for the trickle of energy wind and solar produce, they militantly and successfully oppose less costly schemes of public investment in nukes. That’s on top of green political opposition that has succeeded in banning nuclear outright in Australia, Austria, now Germany and Switzerland, some U. S. states, etc.
    willboisvert@aol.com

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  16. @ Josh: re greens and nuclear financing

    The large, uncertain liabilities come early in the plant’s life, before it starts operating. There are problems with cost over-runs, especially with first-of-a-kind builds, and construction delays that extend the time before the mountain of borrowed capital can begin to be repaid out of operating revenues, with huge interest costs accruing. Some of this problem is due to a chaotic regulatory regime that changes design specifications during construction.

    Greens are indeed to blame for some of the problem. Green lawsuits add to costs, and slow construction; green political opposition also prompts state and local officials to intervene to delay or halt the build (in one case, to close a brand new plant after it was finished). These construction delays and cost overruns,very much influenced by green opposition, are a main reason for the large risk premium demanded by private investors.

    Greens have also fought hard to block quasi-public financing models that could reduce the financial risk and cost of nuclear builds. They have opposed government loan guarantees for new builds, which cost the government nothing unless the operator goes bankrupt, and are insured by hefty fees paid upfront by companies. More seriously, they have very successfully fought the use by public utilities of Construction Work In Progress financing for nuclear reactors, which allows utilities to charge rate-payers for current construction costs and thus by-pass expensive private capital markets. In the nuclear-economics article I referenced above, Parenti gets in a disparaging dig at CWIP financing by falsely insinuating that it is a blank check for unlimited cost over-runs with no oversight.

    So while greens demand exorbitant public financing for the trickle of energy wind and solar produce, they militantly and successfully oppose less costly schemes of public investment in nukes. That’s on top of green political opposition that has succeeded in banning nuclear outright in Australia, Austria, now Germany and Switzerland, some U. S. states, etc.

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  17. I wasn't proposing public financing, actually, but direct public ownership. And the liabilities I had in mind were the costs associated with catastrophic failure. The point about front-end costs is important, too, and indeed, the case for public ownership of utilities in general is quite strong. The possibility of very large costs at the end of the plant's life seems more unique to nuclear power, and makes the case for public ownership there even stronger.

    Also, while I agree with you that nuclear power looks much more likely than wind (and even more so than solar) to be able to replace a substantial fraction of fossil fuel energy, there are enough uncertainties on both sides (higher than expected costs for nuclear, lower than expected for solar and wind) to make it worthwhile to support both, IMO. To suggest that there is a hard tradeoff between expanded use of nuclear power and development of other non-carbon energy sources is just perverse.

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  18. Random Lurker,

    It seems clear that electricity demand is sufficiently price-inelastic that an increase in supply from nuclear would certainly reduce use of power from other sources.

    The other point I would make -- both in response to you and to WB's latest -- is that the specific form of subsidy matters. In particular, there is a strong case for public ownership of utilities in general and nuclear power in particular. The very long-lived capital, the difficulty of creating genuine competition, the structure of costs, and the strategic importance of power to other industries mean that regulated monopolies and public ownership are almost the only viable options. Liberalization, as we've seen over the past two decades, practically guarantees disinvestment, technological stagnation, and wildly fluctuating prices. I'm far from an expert, but I did happen to do some reading in this area for a project I was working on recently.

    For instance, Sterlacchini (2010) finds that R&D spending at private and privatized utilities has fallen by 60-70% since 1990, while R&D at public utilities has been roughly stable. Lonborg (2005) draws the same conclusion from a study of Danish utilities, finding that public ownership favors higher levels of investment and R&D. "The arguments [against public ownership] of the property rights theory have no relevance to the utility sectors in Denmark." Cambini and Rondi (2009) point out that it is very hard to devise a regulatory structure that encourages regulated-monopoly utilities to invest in efficiency; as for the supposed advantages of private ownership, they find that "although theory predicts that private ownership boosts investment incentives, we found no empirical evidence for this within the European energy industry." And Thomas (2010), looking specifically at nuclear power in the context of the liberalization and privatization of British utilities, points out that "nuclear facilities had to be excluded from the reforms because their risks and very high fixed capital meant that private investors were unwilling to operate them in a competitive market.

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  19. ... one implication being, again, that it isn't the mostly powerless greens who are the main obstacle to nuclear power. It's neoliberalism.

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  20. @ Josh:

    Potential catastrophic costs are not a significant element of high nuclear risk premiums in the United States. The Price-Anderson Act indemnifies nuclear plants against catastrophic costs above a $300 million insurance fund per plant and an additional $11 billion industry-wide self-insurance pool funded out of operating revenue. (These self-insurance pools have never been exhausted.) It’s the upfront costs that matter, and the potential competition from gas, (not renewables).

    You write:

    “To suggest that there is a hard tradeoff between expanded use of nuclear power and development of other non-carbon energy sources is just perverse.”

    Kindly tell that to Parenti. In his nuclear economics article he cites a study purporting to show precisely that, which further argues that we must therefore ban nuclear because it crowds out renewables by being cheaper. Also, your statement is politically naïve: The pot of money for non-carbon energy is a finite one, and it’s divvying up is inevitably viewed as a zero-sum game. Given the imperative to act now, it’s crucial to make hard-headed decisions about which technology gives the most clean energy for the least money.

    You don’t cite any cost figures to justify your uncertainty about which way to go. Here are two: Contracted price of electricity from the proposed Massachusetts Bay off-shore wind farm: 18 cents per kilowatt hour, subsidized. Although quadruple the going whole-sale price for juice, it was agreed to because of a Massachussets law requiring the purchase of renewable energy by utilities. Price of electricity offered this year by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which Parenti wants to shut down: 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour, unsubsidized. That last was rejected, even though it is below market rates, because the utilities assumed that, indeed, greens will succeed in shutting down Vermont Yankee, as Vermont’s governor, under green pressure, has vowed to do.
    willboisvert@aol.com

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  21. Nuclear is not sustainable on a long-term basis. It requires an in-ground fuel just as other fossils. Yes, you can use breeders or thorium reactors to extend the lifetime of nuclear energy, but there will hardly be a day where the sun doesn't exist or the wind stops blowing for good.

    Nuclear is only "renewable" on a shorter human timescale of a few hundred years at best. There are those of us who question the total replacement of one limited source of energy with another limited source of energy.

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  22. @ Tim:

    Your estimate of fissile reserves is a bit pessimistic. Current reserves of about 6 million tons of profitably extractable uranium will last 80 years at current levels of use; much more could be profitably mined at a higher uranium price. With Breeder technology, which turns the 99.3% of uranium that is non-fissile U238 into fissile Plutonium-239, we can increase fissile reserves by a factor of 60 or more. Assuming a 20-fold increase in reactors for a comprehensive nuclearization of the energy supply, that gives us about 300 years of power just from current "economically recoverable" uranium stocks. We could certainly get more uranium from currently unprofitable low-grade ores (uranium is just too cheap right now to make prospecting much worth it)and other sources like seawater, which contains 5 billion tons of uranium that is technically extractable, though at a high price. Then there's thorium, which is 3 times as abundant as uranium and can be used to fuel thorium breeders. (Breeder reactors still have some kinks, but working prototypes have been built, some at utility scale.)So it's realistic to project that fissile reserves can power civilization for thousands of years and probably much longer. But, yes, after that we'll have to go back to burning coal. (Unless we mine the asteroids....)

    The renewable dream of surfing unlimited diffuse power fields is wrong-headed. It takes money, material and more energy to reverse entropy and concentrate these diffuse power streams into usable forms of energy, especially if they are chaotically intermittent like the sun and the wind are. It is much cheaper and more efficient to scavenge the nuggets of concentrated energy that Nature has seeded throughout the universe. When, after eons, we exhaust local reserves, we will fly further afield to find them and so, like restless magpies, o'erspread the galaxy. As the sun darkens and the wind stills, we will be out there, searching.

    willboisvert@aol.com

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