Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prosperity and Global Warming

I am most of the way through "Waking the Frog" by Tom Rand. In it, he argues for strong, immediate, and concerted action to limit greenhouse gas levels with the goal of limiting global warming. His discussion of economics and carbon pricing is intriguing and he makes his case well.
I tend to agree with him that cap-and-trade would be an ideal solution to control carbon dioxide emissions. It is a market-based solution that requires relatively little government intervention. What most people who oppose cap-and-trade don't know is that it has already worked spectacularly in the case of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain. In the 20 years since the start of the SO2 cap-and-trade system, SO2 levels have plummeted to next to nothing. Another place cap-and-trade is working is in Europe, where it was begun in 2005.
You don't have to be an expert on the climate science to understand that mitigating the risk of global warming by controlling CO2 emissions is a good insurance policy. It's an uncertain risk with a horrific downside, so we ought to extra careful to hedge against it. An apt analogy would be that of the cold war. One could have made the argument that the US and the USSR would never use their nuclear weapons because of ABM, or mutually assured destruction. That did not stop anybody from being concerned about the prospect of nuclear war, nor should it have. It did not stop the push to stop nuclear proliferation and international treaties continued to be signed for arms control and reduction. Why? Because as illustrated in movies like "Threads" or "The Day After," the potential downside of maintaining the status quo was too horrific to ignore.
So it is with global warming. However, getting global warming under control is a little different than stepping back from a nuclear arms race. It is different because it hits people in the pocketbook. When you price carbon into the market, prices rise. This more than anything is one of the major problems people have with cap-and-trade. The reaction to any government initiative that will raise prices has only intensified since the Great Recession. Yes America is in recovery and the unemployment rate has gone down, but housing and groceries have gone up and the low unemployment rate hides the vast number of low wage jobs and the hordes who have dropped out of the workforce entirely. There are core fundamental weaknesses in our economy that have led many economic commentators to conclude that the "recovery" is only due to continued Fed intervention.
So the ethical argument that NOT pricing carbon is like dumping trash where you like instead of paying for proper disposal doesn't mean much when people struggle to pay for life's necessities. As a matter of fact, I've known a number of people who have had to move because of economic pressure and actually dump their unwanted stuff on the side of the road because they had neither the time nor the money to deal with it. The environment takes second place to personal needs. Perhaps this is why cap-and-trade could pass in countries with a strong safety net but fail in the US. If I remember correctly, the years leading up to the Great Recession in the US were characterized by increasing public awareness and concern for environmental issues. But then everyone lost their shirts.
Enter Peak Oil. The US peaked in March of 1971 when the Railroad Commission of Texas lifted production caps for the last time. Incidentally (and I believe consequently), real wages in the US have been on a long-term downtrend since right around that time. The volatility of oil prices since then is a consequence of our needing to source oil internationally.
Consider also that for most of history, mankind has never been able to combine the accumulation of wealth with systemic care for the environment. The fact that we have had the resources to turn around and pay attention to environmental issues at all is due to the massive amount of wealth and technology that has been made possible by oil: an incredibly dense, powerful, high EROEI fuel, until now.
EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested, also EROI) translates directly into economic growth, profits, and general standard of living. We are already challenged on all three fronts in the US; reducing the EROEI of fossil fuels through cap-and-trade is a hard sell. We could have done it in the 1990s. Now... I am not so sure. We have waited a bit too long as our combined EROEI continues to drop.
Back to the book, Tom Rand advocates for three baseline electric sources: next-gen nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and geothermal. Geothermal is a poor choice from an EROEI standpoint, and nuclear is off the table after Fukushima. It's no wonder the market prefers to power on with coal with CCS.
As a matter of fact, moving to more coal with CCS generation will bring unexpected benefits to global warming. As our CCS technologies get better and cheaper, we can use CCS to sink CO2 in the atmosphere and bring down CO2 concentrations.
Our population will not stand for any more across-the-board reduction in EROEI. Although the average person does not know the term, they know the effect: a reduced standard of living. Since the Great Recession, there is no more tolerance for this. (Europe's cap-and-trade started before the Great Recession.) Geothermal has low EROEI and nuclear is off the table. Oil's EROEI continues to fall. The best solution in this case is exactly what the market has been doing: electrify everything and increase electric generation from coal with CCS. Obama has been able to implement the kind of EPA regulation to push CCS in the right direction with his so-call "War on Coal."
Although I still support cap-and-trade, this is going to have to wait until people have something to give again.

I just had to add these quotes from this article:

"The transition to renewable energy can’t be achieved without massive fossil fuel expenditure and carbon emissions along the way. 'What we forget,' says Miller, 'is that the process of bringing renewable energy to mass scale requires huge fossil fuel inputs for extraction, manufacturing, and transport.'

"My friendly Cassandras have a point: The ecological and economic breakdown is already under way for most of the planet. For the economically secure in the wealthier nations, we can periodically wake up to the breakdown, but still ignore its systemic nature.  But if you’re a Bangladeshi farmer, you’re already trying to survive climate change and you’ve possibly become a climate refugee. If you’re a farmer in the Central Valley of California, you are wondering if your unprecedented drought is part of a 'new normal' with weather."

"The radical insistence on limits to growth seems the choice of privileged people who volunteer for a simpler lifestyle and then inflict it on others with far fewer choices."

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