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There is a New Form of Climate Denialism to Look Out For – So Don't Celebrate Yet


#1

There is a New Form of Climate Denialism to Look Out For – So Don't Celebrate Yet

Naomi Oreskes

After the signing of a historic climate pact in Paris, we might now hope that the merchants of doubt – who for two decades have denied the science and dismissed the threat – are officially irrelevant.

But not so fast. There is also a new, strange form of denial that has appeared on the landscape of late, one that says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs.


#2

Dr. Oreskes's polemic is interesting put commits the error of the truncated graph, i.e., tunnel vision. Our problem is not just the amount of CO2 produced by the final act of energy production and its heat generating capacity. Our problems are the amount of waste heat produced versus the amount heat Earth can neutralize without altering ecosystems and the amount of warming built into the system from past atmospheric disposal of waste and reducing land and water ecosystem services.


#3

Oreskes has done more than anyone else, as an eminent science historian, to firmly establish the 97% scientific consensus behind the fact that current global warming is human-caused, and to expose the nefarious network of disinformers sowing fear, confusion, and doubt.

But, in her haste to dismiss fellow scientists (such as James Hansen) who strenuously advocate next-generation nuclear power, she ignores the only real path to stemming carbon emissions: energy austerity. When she says renewables can meet "our energy needs," she neglects any scrutiny of what that phrase really means. History amply demonstrates that we need as much energy as we can get. In the absence of an absolute prohibition on fossil fuel extraction, more renewable energy only means an upward redefinition of "our energy needs."

Sadly, Oreskes endorses here the very techno-hubris which is destroying Life on Earth. There are no technical solutions to the predominant spiritual problem with modern man, regarding Earth as a "resource" for subjugation to luxurious whims.

Earth happened to devise a means of compressing hundreds of thousands of years of sunlight into the very cheap, convenient form of fossil fuels. Now solartopian technologists claim they can do better in real time, even without considering the externalized cost of planetary destruction from greenhouse gases. It's not unusual for engineers to make extraordinary claims. This one entails truly breathtaking hubris, but it's readily believed by those who think endless, cancerous growth is just part of human nature.


#4

There are great advantages to nuclear power over fossil fuels. Nuclear power produces substantially less greenhouse gas emissions as part of the power production cycle and far fewer injuries/deaths are attributed to mining/extraction accidents. As such, it is not surprising that nuclear engineers, people involved with the energy sector, and environmentalists do seem to be increasingly calling for the expansion of nuclear power production.

There is, however, an unfortunate tendency, of advocates of particular energy sources, to dismiss the viability of other forms of energy production, to denigrate those who propose alternatives as being 'out of touch with reality' or 'lacking in scientific knowledge', and to promote a particular form of energy production without elaborating on how energy needs can be met while transitioning to sustainability.

The science related to the environmental impacts of energy production is complex. Nuclear power requires the extraction of radioactive ores from the earth, enrichment, 'disposal' of tailings, transport, the production of significant quantities of building materials, and management of used fuel. Wind and solar require extraction of raw materials (steal for wind turbine towers, silicon for photovoltaics), transport of materials, processing of materials (ultra-strong and low weight turbine blades and ultra-doped silicon for photovoltaics), and periodic replacement of components. There are also numerous economic and political issues relate to increased generation of nuclear, wind, and solar energy.

Mark Jacobson, and his research group, provide well researched and detailed proposals for transitioning to a energy production based, primarily, on wind, solar, and ocean wave power without the need to develop increased nuclear production.


#5

This article is right on the money - in more ways than one. First it is correct. We can migrate to solar and wind and off fossil fuels and surprisingly cheaply. Waste heat is not a problem - greenhouse gases that trap heat below them and keep excess heat from venting into space are the problem.

We are confronted by a unexpected controlling personality but not in a person but in governments and in a ruling class and governing elites. They no longer desire nor trust democracy nor decentralization and local control of anything. We seem fixated by corporate control instead of community control.

Like a patriarchal or matriarchal family head, when it comes to local energy production we are told that someone must be in charge - that someone must have complete authority - that there must be someone to control things!

So a nuclear plant seems to fit in perfectly. It is almost as if say a community of 100,000 homes, each of which could be provided with solar roofs and small local wind turbines is told that they have to pay for an expensive nuclear plant because we just can't have the chaos of everybody just having their own sources of energy.

What chaos? The chaos is in the minds of corporate and governmental oligarchs and controlling personalities. Computers can remotely run your home turning on appliances and cooking dinner and whatnot while you are stuck in traffic but somehow have a home solar roof connected into the grid automatically is chaos? Like each home having an electric meter or a water meter is chaos too?

The bottleneck is that there is no need for the central authority model of development in this case. Each local unit whether a home or a small community or town etc can do it themselves. Think of plugging in a lamp into the grid. People will simply have their homes plugged in to the grid like now but with the one difference being that their roofs will be providing them with their electricity and when not being used accumulating electricity credits like for drawing electricity from the grid at night.

Change always scares people ... particularly controlling people who feel threatened when THEY aren't controlling.


#6

Hi jhoj72,

Could you please elaborate on the issue of waste heat generation?

Are you referring to energy consumption patterns or energy generation?

If you are referring to energy generation, please explain the source of this heat generation. Unlike fossil fuels, which convert stored chemical potential energy to heat and useful energy, wind turbines, photovoltaics, and ocean wave turbines convert radiant power (solar) or power of moving fluids into electrical power. While these renewable average in efficiencies of less than 20%, this is due to the inability (ultimately bounded by the 2nd law of thermo) to convert power to usable form.


#7

"Earth happened to devise a means of compressing hundreds of thousands of years of sunlight into the very cheap, convenient form of fossil fuels. Now solartopian technologists claim they can do better in real time, even without considering the externalized cost of planetary destruction from greenhouse gases. " - AlephNull

Could you please give details to these solartopian technologists claims.

The claim from Mark Jacobson's group is that, given the radiant power solar incident on the earth's surface of the US, the power of wind over the US ground and coasts, and the ocean wave power present along the US coasts, it is possible to use a realistic fraction of this available power to satisfy the electric power consumption of the US (at expected growth with moderate efficiency measures).


#8

More specifically, the claim that renewables can just plug into our current pattern of boundless economic growth, displacing fossil fuels, is not credible. There are credible renewable energy advocates who do not subscribe to "green growth" delusions.


#9

Yes. Switching electric production to solar, wind, and ocean wave, may help limit climate change, but, the perpetual growth in consumption, natural resource depletion, waste production, and environmental devastation associated with the present capitalist economic system, is not sustainable and will inevitably trash the planet. I agree completely.


#10

It's true that renewable can't replace all the energy from fossil fuels, at least not quick enough to limit climate change, but much of the energy obtained from fossil fuels is wasted. So we really can meet our needs with far less energy than we are using. The key is rapid improvement in energy efficiency. With perhaps a 40-50% improvement in energy efficiency then it may be possible for renewable energy to meet our needs. However, a big problem with improving energy efficiency is that to a large extent it has to take place for the building sector one building at a time which means decisions made by millions of individual home owners and people who run businesses, schools, etc. So meeting out needs with renewable energy while not impossible will be very difficult.


#11

I believe that both Scott Morton and Tim Garrett have published about atmospheric heating.

Scott Morton and M.P. Sharma's paper was titled "Thermodynamic Considerations in Determining World Carrying Capacity". They looked at humans as heat engines, i.e., users of energy. They compared that to Earth's capacity to dispose of the heat we generate. From that they gave a population range for different sources of energy. The largest population can be supported by keeping carbon in the ground because the least amount of carbon is added to the atmosphere. But even that kind of severe energy austerity will support sustainably a population at most only about 1/2 half the current population.

Tim Garrett assigns heat value to all economic activity. Each 1980 dollar of economic activity produces 10 milliwatts of energy. He goes back to zero C.E. From there, he concludes, as I understand him, that we are where we are because of the amount of economic activity over the past 2000 plus years, though even that time frame is arbitrary.

William Ruddiman goes back even further in his take of when did humans first begin warming the climate.

We can't build our way out of Global Warming with solar and wind. Turbines and photovoltaics still have to be manufactured. We switch from mining fossil fuels to burn them to mining minerals to convert them to turbines and photovoltaics. The heat generated in mining, manufacturing and the inefficiency of converting one form of energy to another.has to be included in the cost. We can leave out the needs of the miner and factory worker.

Hope I haven't danced around your question.


#12

This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.


#13

Thanks for the sources.

The jist of what I got is that the researchers point out that, human activity can be associated with energy consumption. As you note, even with renewables, there are environmental impacts and production of greenhouse gases. So their point is that there is a limit to the amount of human activity, and associated greenhouse gas production and other environmental impacts, that can take place before major environmental/ecological systems are disrupted. This is a very important point.


#14

Thanks. And please note that Morton, Garrett, and Ruddiman discuss Global Warming as being independent of any economic system.


#15

This business of "our energy needs" is an odd concept. Do we really imagine that there is some fixed and intrinsic human need to burn hydrocarbons outside of our bodies?

I do not mean to deny that by abusing energy we are galloping into a crisis or that people will suffer and die by having no heat, no transport, reduced communications, and so forth. It is just that these were provided by different expenditure for thousands of years, and are still provided at widely varying levels of energy use in different places and under different circumstances today. The problem is not that there is a level of human need and that supply will fail it. The problem is that we have devised a system that squanders these resources and then fails without them, all because it "made money"; and we are busy quibbling about status and trinkets as the flames spread through the lower floors of our casino, to use an old image.

Even if we amend the notion to something like "to maintain our current lifestyle," this is apt to be misleading. In most contexts, this may be taken as "to live comfortably" or something of that sort. We might live far, far more comfortably by living very differently than we do, and this sort of talk of lifestyles becomes very misleading if that is not acknowledged and understood.

Nuclear plants, then, are a terrible idea, first because they are neither a necessity nor a solution, but also because they bring their own problems. Not only are they slow and expensive, not only are they subject to catastrophic accident and horrifying toxicity in daily use, they are an intrinsically centralized design that will continue to breed centralized control of energy and human existence, and the usual sorts of abuse that is endemic to such practices.

However, the clear fact that there are other ways suggests that we ought to use them if human suffering, including our own, means anything much to us.

There are technical spot-solutions to specific circumstances sprouting up all over, but there is also a fairly coherent methodology of response to all this that goes under the name permaculture. It assembles principles of design and methodology that have solved these things as consistently as they have been applied in many localized tests. The ideas are worth looking at and amending to circumstance where necessary because they do provide a way forward.


#17

Its not capitalism that is the problem. It is perpetual growth which about 1800 went past Earth's systems capacity to absorb and repair our depredations. And Tim Garret has written that without growth civilization collapses. And as Guy McPherson has written without civilization to maintain the nuclear reactors we have built, all those reactors melt and spew their ionizing radiation everywhere and kill all above surface multicellular life.


#18

"There is also a new, strange form of denial that has appeared on the landscape of late, one that says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs."

Um, no. The eco-nuke position is that nuclear power plus renewables are far more likely to cut into fossil fuel use than renewables alone. But currently, nuclear power plus renewables aren't even projected to halt the continuing growth in fossil fuels through 2030, at least, because the growth in nuclear and renewables are failing to keep up with the growth in demand--particularly in regions which have historically had energy poverty.

"four climate scientists held an off-site session insisting that the only way we can solve the coupled climate/energy problem is with a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power."

Their position was that the transition to clean power needed to include an expansion of nuclear power. They were not proposing nuclear power as the only solution, excluding renewables.

"More than that, they are blaming environmentalists, suggesting that the opposition to nuclear power stands between all of us and a two-degree world."

Blaming anti-nukes is not blaming environmentalists. There are anti-nukes who are not environmentalists, and there are environmentalists who support the development and deployment of advanced nuclear power.

"Numerous high quality studies, including one recently published by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, show that ...We can transition to a decarbonized economy without expanded nuclear power, by focusing on wind, water and solar,"

The Jacobson proposal is physically possible, yes. Is it socially, economically, and politically likely? Hardly.

"In fact, our best studies show that we can do it faster, and more cheaply."

Only if it is compared to the most expensive forms of legacy nuclear. But that's not what nuclear advocates are calling for.

"The reason is simple: experience shows that nuclear power is slow to build,"

1) This only matters if nuclear plants can only be built sequentially (they can be built in parallel) and if building a reactor somehow prevents building some faster alternative. This argument would apply with at least as much force to hydroelectric dams, and I don't hear Oreskes saying we should do without them. 2) It isn't slow to build everywhere. In China, nuclear generation is being built about 30% faster than wind when compared on the basis of actual generation and equalized on investment per year. 3) If we were to develop forms of nuclear which can be deployed faster, this argument would cease to apply.

"expensive to run"

The dominant cost problem with current nuclear is the capital cost. Otherwise, operational expense would be competitive against the cheapest fossil fuels. Even moreso with better forms of nuclear.

"and carries the spectre of catastrophic risk."

Hydropower has that too. But the nuclear and hydropower catastrophic risks combined are utterly dwarfed by the non-catastrophic kill rate from fossil fuels. And nuclear proponents are also advocating for safer forms of nuclear power.

"It requires technical expertise and organization that is lacking in many parts of the developing world"

As if building and operating a smart grid won't require technical expertise and organization. This is a rather patronizing objection, but dealing with it would be almost trivial compared to overcoming the problems with the Jacobson plan. People with technical expertise could be imported. Simpler reactors could be developed. Or indigenous people could receive education and technical training.

"As one of my scientific colleagues once put it, nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water."

And Ivanpah was cheap and simple I suppose. And we know of ways to have nuclear power without boiling any water. As for expense, the world leader in producing cheap solar and wind power is China, and they are embarking on a massive nuclear development and build program. Why would they be doing that if renewables alone can do it all and do it cheaper?

"The only country in the world that has ever produced the lion’s share of its electricity from nuclear is France"

Versus zero industrialized countries who have made a similar transition to renewables-only.

"and they’ve done it in a fully nationalized industry"

Which I think was also smart.

"a model that is unlikely to be transferable to the US"

If the only global solutions were ones which could be implemented in the US, the situation would be utterly hopeless. Fortunately, the nationalized energy policy approach will be highly transferable to countries like China, India, and Russia. And low carbon power for China and India in particular would be a big help for the planet.

"particularly in our current political climate."

And given that political climate, how likely is it that the Jacobson proposal could be implemented in the US? This argument against nuclear power utterly flattens the proposed renewables-only alternative.

"Even in the US, where nuclear power is generated in the private sector, it has been hugely subsidized by the federal government,"

Which undercuts the argument that nuclear power would find no support in our current political climate.

"which invested billions in its development in order to prove that the destructive power unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be put to good use."

Atomic energy is heat energy. Reactors make use of that heat energy. Atomic bombs use that heat energy for destructive power. Reactors don't use the destructive power of bombs any more than a Prius makes use of the destructive power of the firebombs which wrought even more destruction on Japan than the atomic bombs did. The fact that a form of energy can be used for destructive purposes does not mean that any alternative use would therefore be utilizing of the destructive potential of that energy

"The government... took on the task of waste disposal – a task it has yet to complete."

And anti-nuke obstructionists are largely responsible for that too. But another word for that "waste" is "fuel"--if we deploy reactors which can use it as such.

"There have been important signs of late of cracks in the Republican rejection of climate science"

I live in Texas, surrounded by climate change skeptics. But they have no problem at all with low-carbon sources of energy. We've got big wind farms, large and rapidly expanding solar farms, and we have nuclear power, and none of the people I've spoken to here would object to the expansion of any of those, nor to funding research to find better ways of doing low-carbon power. When it comes to saving the planet, I find it much easier to work with climate change denialists than green nuclear denialists.


#19

"... [Oreskes] ignores the only real path to stemming carbon emissions: energy austerity. When she says renewables can meet "our energy needs," she neglects any scrutiny of what that phrase really means. History amply demonstrates that we need as much energy as we can get. In the absence of an absolute prohibition on fossil fuel extraction, more renewable energy only means an upward redefinition of "our energy needs." Sadly, Oreskes endorses here the very techno-hubris which is destroying Life on Earth. There are no technical solutions to the predominant spiritual problem with modern man, regarding Earth as a "resource" for subjugation to luxurious whims."

Thanks for continuing to hammer at this point Aleph. Folks at every level of society and of "the economy" appear mesmerized by this technological hubris, that turns the Earth onto raw material for a giant machine, and promises us nothing less than complete fulfillment of our human needs and desires in return.

As i replied in another thread, even BEFORE the long-predicted climate chaos finally kicked into gear in this millennium, this giant human-economy energy machine was chewing up the Earth to such an astonishing degree that OVER HALF THE ANIMALS HAVE DIED. Is that a wake-up call or what? Apparently not.

We need MUCH MORE economic restructuring than simply "unplug fossils, plug in renewables." There are much deeper forms of denialism at work here.


#20

Excellent contribution, challenging the entire mythological but unquestioned construct of "our energy needs."

And thanks for promoting permaculture, which is a FAR MORE REALISTIC paradigm for solving the real problems caused by the "endless growth" industrial human economy on the Earth. Permaculture is a methodology, a system of design principles, which is based in "principles of natural design," or in other words, design principles that are based in the way the Earth actually works. Everyone should do some reading, and find folks who are teaching and practicing permaculture in your own community.


#21

"When it comes to saving the planet..."

The planet was descending into a mass-extinction event caused by humans, long before the long-predicted onset of climate chaos finally kicked in in this millennium.

When it comes to "saving the planet" we need MUCH MORE economic restructuring than simply "unplug fossils, plug in renewables (or nukes)." There are much deeper forms of denialism at work here.