With stories such as this and this becoming more common, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would show why energy security is no longer a winning issue for climate change advocates. Today, Michael Lind makes the case in Salon:
As everyone who follows news about energy knows by now, in the last decade the technique of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” long used in the oil industry, has evolved to permit energy companies to access reserves of previously-unrecoverable “shale gas” or unconventional natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, these advances mean there is at least six times as much recoverable natural gas today as there was a decade ago.
Natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal, can be used in both electricity generation and as a fuel for automobiles.
The implications for energy security are startling. Natural gas may be only the beginning. Fracking also permits the extraction of previously-unrecoverable “tight oil,” thereby postponing the day when the world runs out of petroleum. There is enough coal to produce energy for centuries. And governments, universities and corporations in the U.S., Canada, Japan and other countries are studying ways to obtain energy from gas hydrates, which mix methane with ice in high-density formations under the seafloor. The potential energy in gas hydrates may equal that of all other fossils, including other forms of natural gas, combined.
This is all fairly mind-blowing, and is sure to scramble global warming politics and policy. Here’s Lind sketching out the big picture:
If gas hydrates as well as shale gas, tight oil, oil sands and other unconventional sources can be tapped at reasonable cost, then the global energy picture looks radically different than it did only a few years ago. Suddenly it appears that there may be enough accessible hydrocarbons to power industrial civilization for centuries, if not millennia, to come.
So much for the specter of depletion, as a reason to adopt renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind power. Whatever may be the case with Peak Oil in particular, the date of Peak Fossil Fuels has been pushed indefinitely into the future. What about national security as a reason to switch to renewable energy?
The U.S., Canada and Mexico, it turns out, are sitting on oceans of recoverable natural gas. Shale gas is combined with recoverable oil in the Bakken “play” along the U.S.-Canadian border and the Eagle Ford play in Texas. The shale gas reserves of China turn out to be enormous, too. Other countries with now-accessible natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. government, include Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, France, Poland and India.
Because shale gas reserves are so widespread, the potential for blackmail by Middle Eastern producers and Russia will diminish over time. Unless opponents of fracking shut down gas production in Europe, a European Union with its own natural gas reserves will be far less subject to blackmail by Russia (whose state monopoly Gazprom has opportunistically echoed western Greens in warning of the dangers of fracking).
The U.S. may become a major exporter of natural gas to China — at least until China borrows the technology to extract its own vast gas reserves.
The bottom line, according to Lind:
Two arguments for switching to renewable energy — the depletion of fossil fuels and national security — are no longer plausible.
Now that is a game changer.
Over at the new incarnation of Think Progress, Brad Johnson has given himself a tall order. He also sets down what he calls the “new reality”:
To preserve the promise of civilization, we must start anew.
My guess is that the new design bundling all the CAP blogs together under one site (which I like) will be mostly a palette cleanser for the two resident head knockers there. But who knows, maybe they will surprise me and start “anew” with some fresh ideas about how to make real progress on climate change, instead of always playing defense against the dastardly polluters and “deniers.” Maybe, just maybe, they’ll even stop trying to delegitimize those that offer different paths to what is ultimately the same goal.
Last week, NBC weatherman Al Roker caught a lot of flak (deservedly so) for suggesting that climate change was now causing tornadoes to strike urban areas.
Not all hope is lost for broadcast news, though. Last night, this segment on the PBS News Hour (the one place where talking heads can be relied on for intelligent commentary) provided a sterling discussion of climate change and severe weather.
Below is a guest post from Jonathan Gilligan, an associate professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University. He is also the associate director of Vanderbilt’s Climate Change Research Network. Gilligan works at “the intersection of science, ethics, and public policy with a focus on the ways in which scientific knowledge and uncertainty affect policy decisions about the environment.”
I have been struck by the similarities between the national impasse on climate policy and the breakdown of policy on nuclear waste disposal. The two cases are by no means identical, but perhaps we can learn useful things from both the similarities and the differences.
As Daniel Sarewitz pointed out years ago, in both climate politics and nuclear waste politics, policymakers have tended to “scientize” the issue by acting as though greater scientific certainty would solve problems that were fundamentally political. No advances in earth science, hydrology, materials science, or engineering will do much to reduce our uncertainties about how spent nuclear fuel will behave underground over the course of tens or hundreds of millennia. Neither do I think it likely that advances in climate science will give us great certainty about exactly how bad global warming will be over the coming centuries.
Fundamentally, the impasse over Yucca Mountain had a lot more to do with politics, values, and trust than with science. Congress had originally called in 1982 for ten prospective sites to be studied, narrowed down to six prospects, from which two permanent waste repositories would be selected, and states would have the opportunity to veto their selection as the home of a repository. But before those studies were complete new legislation amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which simply declared Yucca Mountain the only repository for high-level nuclear waste. This “Screw Nevada Bill,” as it came to be known, poisoned the whole endeavor as far as most Nevadans were concerned. Subsequent attempts to justify this political action in terms of science carried little weight in Nevada and the failure to openly acknowledge that the site was selected for political reasons made it impossible for proponents and opponents to have useful discussions.
Another aspect that was unfortunately neglected in most discussions of Yucca Mountain was the fact that people in Southern Nevada may well have been much more concerned about the prospect of frightened tourists choosing other resort destinations than they were about the health impacts to distant future generations.
The Yucca Mountain site was initially defended by ignoring the political and economic implications and instead, focusing purely on scientific health safety issues: It was estimated that water percolated through the volcanic rocks at a very slow rate of less than one millimeter per year, which would mean that it would take hundreds of thousands of years for radioactive material to reach the water table. The decision to store waste at Yucca Mountain was largely presented to the public as “the science is settled: the site is safe, so you don’t have any valid cause to complain.” The political opposition accepted this framing and proceeded to oppose the site by challenging the scientific certainty of the proponents. Evidence quickly emerged that water was actually flowing through the rocks at up to 30 millimeters per year.
As geologists and hydrologists continued to study the site, further controversies and uncertainties emerged. With the revelation that water could get from the repository to the aquifer fast enough to pose a problem, new questions were raised about the resistance of the waste containers to corrosion and there were proposals to modify the design to include an elaborate and expensive set of titanium drip shields to protect the containers.
In 2005, as this was going on, opponents of the repository unearthed emails between hydrologists working on the question of how fast water percolated through the mountain which seemed to indicate (much as the CRU emails would several years later), that the scientists were falsifying their data. Inflammatory exceprts, such as
I’ve made up the dates and names…. This is as good as its going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff…
I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep QA happy and the ones that were actually used.
with instructions to the recipient to “delete this memo after you’ve read it,” led opponents of the project to conclude that they couldn’t trust any of the scientific assurances the site was safe and the governor of Nevada to accuse the Department of Energy of having “intentionally fabricated” the data “in service of shoring up predetermined and politically-driven conclusions.”
Ultimately, much as happened in Climategate, a two-year investigation determined that no data had actually been falsified, that no one had actually committed misconduct, and that informal banter had been mistaken by overheated imaginations to be evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
But by then, it was too late. As the late Edward McGaffigan, a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the Las Vegas Sun,
Bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad science policy, bad personnel policy and bad budget policy [meant that] there is no chance Yucca can go forward under current statute. I would go back to the beginning. When you go out of process it’s a problem, it’s a huge political problem. If a process is done fairly, I think you have a shot.
So what are the lessons? I’m not sure, but here are some thoughts: It’s popular to point to well-funded, carefully-organized media campaigns, supported by major industrial interests for the public’s distrust of climate change science and for the political paralysis on climate change policy. But the fact that similar tactics carried out by grassroots environmental activists and local politicians were equally successful at killing Yucca Mountain suggests that the success of inactivist propaganda on climate change may not be due to the power or malevolence of its sponsors.
In both cases, connecting policy action to scientific certainty was likely a bad tactical mistake. In both cases, there is substantial uncertainty about the things we most care about and in fact, in the case of climate change, Martin Weitzman’s Dismal Theorem concludes that calculations of the expected economic cost of climate change are dominated by the mathematical details of the low-probability/catastrophic-consequence tail of the probability distribution. (Weitzman’s theorem is controversial, but the controversy is over the mathematical form he chooses for the tail of the probability distribution.)
Thirty-two years ago, the Charney report on climate change concluded that
If carbon dioxide continues to increase [there is] no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. … A wait and see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.
Twenty-three years after the Charney report and thirteen years after the birth of the US Global Change Research Program, Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr., argued that we had known for a very long time that political action on climate change was necessary, but it had become politically convenient to spend billions on a futile task of reducing uncertainty as a way to avoid taking prompt action to address the dangers of climate change:
Motivating politicians and policymakers to improve energy policies and reduce vulnerability to climate effects may be challenging, but it does not require a reduction in uncertainty about the future climate.
Finally, there is a very important difference between these two cases. It is not a tragedy that Yucca Mountain was killed. Ultimately, we will need a place to store high-level radioactive waste, but there is no time pressure. Nevada Senator Harry Reid has argued that it will be fine to keep spent fuel in dry casks at reactor sites for as long as a couple of centuries while we deliberate on how best to dispose of it and while scientists and engineers develop new technologies to make the disposal safer and cheaper.
We do not have a similar luxury of time in the case of climate change. Every decade we fail to take serious action to clean up our energy supply we increase significantly the risk that we will cross some uncertain, perhaps even unsuspected point of no return for truly horrifying consequences. Our ignorance of whether such tipping points exist or at what concentrations of greenhouse gases should not be an excuse for delay, but more reason to act quickly. As climate scientist Wally Broecker has famously described the problem, “It’s like being blindfolded and walking towards the edge of a cliff.”
This essay by Bill McKibben is getting a lot of eyeballs. Originally published yesterday in The Washington Post (where it was among the most widely read articles for part of the day), it has since been reproduced in Salon and The Huffington Post. At the Washington Post, the piece thus far has generated over 1200 comments, more than 700 tweets, and been recommended nearly 10,000 times via Facebook.
McKibben’s piece is also the subject of an informal email dialogue between a group of journalists and science writers, which I am part of. One response by David Ropeik, author of a new book called, How risky is it really?: Why our fears don’t always match the facts, has jumped out at me. With his permission, Ropeik has given me permission to reproduce his email below.
McKibben’s writing, and this discussion, seem to be about winning “THE ARGUMENT” ““ is climate change real or not. Forgive me, but engaging in the argument is unproductive intellectualizing that is more likely to entrench opposing positions than persuade or advance mitigation or adaptation very much. THE ARGUMENT, while ostensibly waged with facts, is not really about the facts. The facts are just lifeless bits of data, meaningless ones and zeros until we run them through the software of our subjective interpretations. Knowing how that software works, and why it leads different people to different views of the same facts, is where solutions can be found.
The good news is that we know a lot about how the software of our risk perception works, about the underlying social/cultural identities and the affective/psychological risk perception characteristics and the subconscious mental heuristics and biases, that all help shape our views, our judgments, our opinions, about climate change or anything. The bad news is that we don’t apply this wisdom ““ our rich knowledge of how people perceive and respond to risk – to the challenge of getting the world to respond to the threat of climate change.
We study and argue the science and hard facts of this issue (and many risks) as though some truth will emerge to which everyone will agree, but we fail, at our peril, to recognize how naÃ¯ve (and slightly arrogant) this expectation is. We are victims of what Andy Revkin has called our “˜Inconvenient Mind’, so proud of our fabulous cognitive Cartesian powers of reason that we deny all we’ve learned about how limited our ability to coldly, objectively, dispassionately reason actually is. And so we argue, and argue, and…funny thing…the day after a seemingly influential OpEd, or an Academy Award winning documentary film, not much is different than the day before.
If I may humbly suggest, what we ought to do is move on, get beyond the polarized no progress-trench warfare of the intellectual argument battleground, and apply our understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological motivations (and the limitations on the human capacity to be perfectly cognitively rational about anything) that are the real reasons for THE ARGUMENT. That is more likely to bring us, sooner, to solutions.
I’ve been traveling, so I’ve only been keeping up with the news sporadically. But this front page NYT story from Monday, about Chicago (and other cities) preparing for climate change, deserves mention. It also highlights the parallel (but strikingly different) universes of the climate change debate. In her piece, Leslie Kaufman nicely displays the disconnect here:
“Cities adapt or they go away,” said Aaron N. Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment. “Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways. We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”
Across America and in Congress, the very existence of climate change continues to be challenged “” especially by conservatives. The skeptics are supported by constituents wary of science and concerned about the economic impacts of stronger regulation. Yet even as the debate rages on, city and state planners are beginning to prepare.
City and state planners, like U.S military planners, are taking climate science seriously. If this trend continues, persistent climate skeptics–the kind who are sneeringly dismissive of climate change concerns and antagonistic to climate science–are likely to find themselves increasingly marginalized.
It’ll probably take another few election cycles before the two parallel (climate) universes are more closely aligned.
Like a monster in a horror movie, oil might prove tough to kill off. This front-page story in today’s WSJ ought to give climate concerned folk the shudders. Because it’s behind a pay wall, I’m going to quote extensively from the piece, including this set-up:
The Arabian Peninsula has fueled the global economy with oil for five decades. How long it can continue to do so hinges on projects like one unfolding here in the desert sands along the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border.
Saudi Arabia became the world’s top oil producer by tapping its vast reserves of easy-to-drill, high-quality light oil. But as demand for energy grows and fields of “easy oil” around the world start to dry up, the Saudis are turning to a much tougher source: the billions of barrels of heavy oil trapped beneath the desert.
Heavy oil, which can be as thick as molasses, is harder to get out of the ground than light oil and costs more to refine into gasoline. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have embarked on an ambitious experiment to coax it out of the Wafra oil field, located in a sparsely populated expanse of desert shared by the two nations.
That the Saudis are even considering such a project shows how difficult and costly it is becoming to slake the world’s thirst for oil. It also suggests that even the Saudis may not be able to boost production quickly in the future if demand rises unexpectedly. Neither issue bodes well for the return of cheap oil over the long term.
Here’s the potential sequel to ‘easy oil’:
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are some three trillion barrels of heavy oil in the world, about 100 years of global consumption at current levels. The catch: Only a fraction of it–about 400 billion barrels–can be recovered using existing technology. New techniques like the ones being tried in Wafra could unlock more.
“When people talk about how we’re ‘running out of oil,’ they’re not counting the heavy oil,” says Amy Myers Jaffe, who runs the Energy Forum at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. “There a huge amount of resource there…It’s just a question of developing the technology.”
The whole article, which is lengthy and well worth reading, is a straight business/energy story. Not a mention of the climate implications.
Should there have been at least a nominal nod to climate change concerns, given the potential conseqences of this new oil frontier?