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We're Cooked

Union Station in Washington from 8th Floor of Heritage Foundation on September 22, 2009 

I went to a discussion of the costs of cap & trade. There were experts from Brookings, CBO, EPA, Energy Information Agency, the National Black Chamber of Commerce & Heritage Foundation, so we got the full spectrum of analysis.  Lots of the assumptions were different and the ideology was contrasting, but they all came up with the same ballpark conclusions: cap & trade as it is now formulated in the House bill will cost a lot and probably will not work very well to control climate change.

As I have written many times before, I favor a broad carbon tax, which is why I could never run for office.   I support cap & trade BECAUSE it is a type of carbon tax, albeit a less efficient and possibly corrupt way to do it, but it looks like there is enough inefficiency in corruption in the House bill to question it.

One flaw in the bill is that it includes almost nothing about nuclear power.  In the long run, we will need to go with renewable power.  In the medium run, there is no way to achieve the needed carbon reductions w/o nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas.  Many environmentalists stupidly reject nuclear power.    No form of power is w/o risks and costs, but if you believe that global warming is the existential threat some people say it is, doesn’t that almost certain risk of climate change trump the hypothetical risk of nuclear power?   Not one person has died in the whole history of nuclear power in the U.S.  Nobody was even seriously injured in the worst “disaster” in nuclear power history at Three Mile Island.

But a probably more serious problem is the phenomenal growth of emissions from developing countries such as China or India.  China is the world’s leading emitter of CO2 and their emissions are growing rapidly.   China adds the equivalent of two 500 megawatt coal fired plants EVERY WEEK.  In one year it adds the equivalent of the whole British power network and by 2030 China alone could emit as much CO2 as the whole world does today. In other words, if everybody else cut to zero, it wouldn’t matter.

Talk is cheap, BTW.  China has promised to cut emissions relative to GDP.  That is good.  But the U.S. has been cutting emissions relative to GDP since 1973 and in 2006, the U.S. was the only nation to cut emissions in absolute numbers during a time of economic growth. 

So my conclusion is that we are cooked.  We should think about adaptations to a warmer world.   And we should be working on alternatives AND building nuclear power stations.  Congress should go back to work and enact a true carbon tax that would get the government out of the business of picking winning and losing companies and technologies. Government has an abysmal record in doing this (consider the recent debacle re ethanol) and there is no reason to believe it has gotten any better. The current bill doesn’t inspire confidence. I like the idea of markets for environmental services in general. I was tentatively in favor of the climate bill. It has some good aspects, but it needs smarter leadership and some hard thinking.

BTW - the picture is Union Station from the window of Heritage Foundation, where the panel was held. 


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Comments

" In the long run, we will need to go with renewable power. "

In the long run, we will have to depend on nuclear fusion. The Boron-11 reaction is predicted to produce very little radioactive waste.

In the meantime, I agree that "we are cooked". There is no avoiding a rise of several degrees, with attendant mass extinctions, mass human migrations, etc.

What is more worrying is the possibility of a runaway positive feedback. I don't think the Earth will get as hot as Venus, but it could become uninhabitable by anything other than heat-resistant bacteria.

Did Venus once have a civilization like ours?

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