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April 13, 2006

Realists, Not Hysterical Hypocrites

The evidence for human induced global warming is less conclusive than proponents say, but it is impressive. Some argue that we need not act until the threat is imminent, but if we wait for it to fully and perhaps suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations may come too late. So what do we do?

If you look at the literature and even entries on other parts of this blog, you will see that a common response to the politics of global warming is to indignantly claim that it is the fault of Bush, Republicans, the U.S. or big corporations. The subtext is, "If only THEY weren’t so greedy, WE could address this problem." The idea seems to be that if we would just sign on to Kyoto, or legislate properly, the problem would go away. It won't.

Proper regulations and government incentives will be required. But these are means, not ends. Legislations by itself will do nothing. What is it that we want the legislation to do? There are several things that are required.

Raise the price of energy. Why do we depend on oil? We use oil because it is cheaper and easier to use than the alternatives. If there was a cheaper alternative, we would already be using it. One of the pernicious effects of cheap oil is that it preempts development of alternatives. Worse, the price of oil tends to drop as soon as alternative look promising and the would-be alternative producers are driven to bankruptcy. We need to guarantee a high price for oil and gas.

A high energy price is the fastest way to encourage conservation. We saw that historically. Energy efficiency increased when prices were high in the 1970s and 1980s and flattened in the late 1980s and 1990s when oil was cheap. The presidents' policies seemed to have little effect. We saw it recently when the prices went up after Katrina. Suddenly SUVs were out and hybrids were in. Price succeeds. Politics fails.

Go nuclear. It is a paradox that so many environmentalists oppose nuclear power. Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gas and no pollution. It is safe (nobody has ever been killed in an American nuclear power accident). And we don’t need to import anything from the Middle East. We can solve the waste problem or at least not using nuclear power is a greater risk.

Beyond that, a revived nuclear industry can be a growth and export industry for us.

Share technologies. The big polluters of the future are China, India and other developing countries. We need to partner with them to make sure they don’t go the dirty route. President Bush’s proposed deal with India and the Asia Pacific Partnership are good steps. Kyoto addressed the problems of the past and was outdated the day it was negotiated and the sooner everybody figures that out the better.

Encourage and protect biotechnology & nanotech. Biotech may make it easier to process cellulose (wood chips, switchgrass etc) into methanol. It may produce other forms of energy. Biotechnology and nanotechnology are the future. Don't let a misguided precaution strangle innovation in the cradle. If/when climate change does occur, biotechnology will allow the rapid development of new varieties of crops suited to the new conditions.

I didn't mention research into alternatives, because I don't have to. If we do the things above, price and the market will encourage the changes. If you insist on putting some government money into R&D, that’s fine. Just don't expect much.

So let's cut the foolishness and get to work. The solution is not easy, but it is simple.

BTW - some of you might recognize the cadence in my initial post. I think the situations are parallel.

Posted by Jack at April 13, 2006 10:29 PM

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