RealClimate logo


The Human Hand in Climate Change

Filed under: — mike @ 23 January 2007

Kerry Emanuel (whose influential scientific work we’ve discussed here previously) has written a particularly lucid and poignant popular article on climate change for the literary forum “Boston Review”. The article is entitled Phaeton’s Reins: The human hand in climate change. We thought it worth passing along.


248 Responses to “The Human Hand in Climate Change”

  1. 151
    S. Molnar says:

    Several commenters have (rightly, in my view) taken issue with Emanuel’s somewhat sanguine outlook on the agricultural effects of global warming, but there is more to adaptation than doing the same thing as now in different places: there is also the possiblility of doing something slightly different, but equally effective, in the same places. For example, regions that currently support cattle herds may be used instead to raise drought- and heat-tolerant camel herds. Camels can provide mainy of the same products, and considerable progress has been made in recent years in the production of camel cheese

  2. 152
    llewelly says:

    Martin Lewitt:
    As can been seen here the change in solar forcing is small compared to the change in forcing by well-mixed GHGs.
    The relevance of (or lack thereof) Solanki et al has been covered here previously.
    Your interpretation of Roesch has been refuted here previously.

  3. 153
    Karen Street says:

    Re #150, the obsession with nuclear — our goal, according to some, eg Hansen and Holdren, and they may be right, is to reduce GHG emissions worldwide by 2015 or 2012 to 2005 levels, even as population and per capita consumption increase. Goal 2 — reduce per capita GHG emissions to 3% of current US per capita emissions by 2050. Goal 3 — zero out the carbon to protect the oceans. Faster or even much faster would be less risky.

    Re #148 — ask yourself how many might die if the nuclear waste management more or less follows current plans, then ask yourself the same question for fossil fuel waste. Nuclear waste answer here.

    You won’t find anyone in policy who doesn’t want major investments in efficiency, solar, etc, though many consider some of the wind, biofuels, etc claims overly optimistic. But it’s pretty hard to find an analysis that has been peer-reviewed that says we can make the kinds of reductions advocated by Hansen and Holdren without nuclear. I’ve never seen such an analysis.

  4. 154
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#154,
    It still seems to be that if you have $4 billion to spend on non-CO2 producing energy sources, the better investment would be to build 40 solar-cell manufacturing facilities at $100 million apiece; for example see Honda Solar Factory; this would result in some 1,100 megawatts of solar cell capacity being produced per year, in comparison to a single nuclear power plant (typical power level: 600-1200 MW) being built.

    While some may claim that nuclear power is far cheaper, if you look at the history of nuclear power cost overuns, you see that $4 billion for a single plant is an underestimate; for example the Shoreham Nuclear Power station came in at $6 billion.

    Just to get back to the original theme of this post, it’s clear that human emissions of CO2 related to both fossil fuel combustion and deforestation are altering the climate. What I can’t seem to find is a reliable, widely accepted ‘human carbon budget’ (as compared to the ‘atmospheric carbon budget’) that separates out CO2 emissions from various sources: coal, oil, natural gas, cement plants, deforestation – let alone one that includes the other infrared-trapping gases, i.e. N2O, CH4 and CFCs – but perhaps it’ll all be included in the soon-to-be-released IPCC report.

    It also seems to be important to have a more widespread atmospheric CO2 monitoring system; there are indications of an accelerating rate of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere over the past few years, which could use some confirmation.

  5. 155
    Jim Dukelow says:

    In #150, Ike Solem wrote:

    “There is a limited supply of uranium as well; in the long run nuclear is just a stopgap measure – and I’ve yet to see a convincing method for safe long-term storage of the very hot fission products that result from the process. The real focus should be on stopping the use of coal and oil immediately, and perhaps using nuclear and natural gas until a completely fossil-fuel free energy infrastructure can be developed.”

    Actually the issue is NOT the “very hot fission products”, which all have short enough half-lives that the total radioactivity of spent fuel is less than that of the uranium ore that was use to produce the fuel after about a 1000 years of sequestration from the biosphere. A 1000 years of sequestration is pretty easy for all of the methods that have been seriously considered. The real issues, more political than technical, are the actinides produced by neutron capture during operation in the reactor. These tend to have long half-lives that mean they will be around for hundreds of thousands of years. They have geochemical properties that make it unlikely that actinides sequestered in deep geological repositories will ever reach the biosphere, but to careful scientists “unlikely” is not “impossible” and to too many in the public and in regulatory agencies, “possible” is not acceptable.

    The size of the uranium resource is not as limiting as Ike assumes. Existing uranium can be used in high-convertor or fast- or thermal-breeder reactors, expanding that resource by several orders of magnitude. In addition, thorium-232 is fissionable and its resource size is 3 to 4 times that of uranium.

    Nuclear reactors can be part of a “completely fossil-fuel free energy infrastructure.”

    Best regards.

  6. 156
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #154, for ways to reduce GHGs by 70%+, see http://www.natcap.org & http://www.rmi.org

    We mustn’t forget that almost all resource conservation (incl water) helps reduce GHG emissions. It’s not just the amount of electricity or gasoline we consume.

    And such reduction can be done with existing tech & principles like “tunneling through,” without reducing productivity or living standards. (Imagine what might be done with new tech breakthroughs.) And these should be given 1st priority. Then we can think about more nukes. If we just build more & more nukes, without implementing all possible conservation/efficiency measures — that’s, for one, economically a wrong direction.

    Now re nuclear power, when the ComEd man came to our church environmental group in the early 90s. Someone mentioned electric cars. The ComEd man got excited & said if lots of ratepayers were plugging in EVs at night, then the cost of electricity could be drastically slashed. Again, a matter of needing to run the nuke plants at fairly constant levels. And with EVs, maybe some coal-powered peaking plants (needed by nukes for peak time) would not have to be run or built, since the nuke plant could run at a higher constant level.

  7. 157

    Sorry about the ad-hom, and I now see, the misspelled pseudonym. Karen Street should not overlook the possibility of very substantial reductions, perhaps below zero, of net CO2 emissions. It takes a lot less energy to pull a CO2 molecule out of plain air and sequester it, essentially forever, than is yielded by the burning of one carbon atom’s worth of fossil fuel. Nuclear would certainly be helpful for the calcination part of that deal — search on “plumbostatic” for my earlier rumination — but is not required.

  8. 158
    Nigel Williams says:

    I must say I rather like Ikes idea of short term use of nuclear as a way to get off the fossil fuel kick, with the obvious caveat that it is just that – short term.

    The actual mass of the real bad nuclear fuel is not too much on an annual basis. If that fuel was put into a decent re-entry vehicle and slung into a retrograde orbit around the sun, then the waste problem is solved. The re-entry vehicle format is so that – in the event of ascent stage failure – we can find the slug intact and safe and try again. There are a few boosters that are quite capable of the heavy lift duty.

    That combined with improved industrial efficiency, enforced adoption of solar for all domestic heating and power requirements, and vigorous development of Green transport systems for the growing third world market, and we might stand a chance of making a useful change.

    The nukes would need to be pretty simple affairs to setup – maybe package plants centrally manufactured in a few locations with the requisite skills. They dont need to be particularly efficient – as on a short term basis using a bit of extra fuel is not a drama – as long as it reduces emissions overall. The sort of package plants I think of are those on ships – USS Enterprises nuke could run a city, so lets stick in an order for 10,000 of them, delivery by Christmas, please!

    I believe that a minor challenge with nuclear is that it takes a while to build – 10 years or so – cf 1 or 2 for a coal fired plant (both timeframes ignoring the issues of getting planning consent!), but in the context of all the above happening it is a fair enough idea, and one that may receive reasonable political support – considering the options that confront us.

  9. 159
    Charles Muller says:

    #146, 150 (and some others)
    Problems are orders of magnitude and energy-efficiency related to climate urgency. If you’re optimistic on the (low) climate sensitivity to 2 xCO2 and the (low slope) curve of world economic growth, you can progressively replaced fossil energies and fuels by renewable ones. But if you’re pessimistic (that is high sensitivivty and rapid growth), you need to include nuclear power in the mix. Have a look at EREC-Greenpeace (comprehensive) assessment “energy (r)evolution”: they succeed in a 2x reduction of CO2 emissions (2050) only by assuming a 14% increase of energy demand (instead of 100% BAU IEA scenario), due to a continuous improvement of energy savings by generalization of best practices in all sectors and all countries. But in my opinion, such a scenario is not realistic for the moment: it’s far more easy and competitive on short term to build coal plants in USA, China or India than to control / rationalize all private and public energy consumptions.
    http://www.energyblueprint.info/

  10. 160
    Jane Kloeckner says:

    Hello, Re: the nuclear and alternative power discussion thread. This thread has an overwhelming divergence of concerns and opinions. The GHG are increasing, the world needs to act and we have few plans. Good reasons for decreasing oil/coal/gasoline burning abound and good alternatives need development. No Action is unacceptable. Is it time to expand nuclear power or not?

    The IPPC considered a range of feasibile alternatives in the 2001 Mitigation Report from Working Group III, See http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg3/091.htm
    Some mitigation of CO2 for the Energy sector included:

    Grid-connected Alternating Current (AC) solar panels;
    Combined cycle gas turbines for standard electric power production;
    Distributed combined heat and power systems;
    Fuel cells for distributed power and low temperature heat applications;
    Conversion of cellulosic materials for production of ethanol;
    Wind-based electricity generation;
    Carbon sequestration in aquifers and depleted oil and gas wells;
    Increased coal bed methane and landfill gas use;
    Replacement of grid connected electricity by PV;
    Nuclear plants life extension.

    This list is from 2001. Interestingly, building NEW nuclear power plants is not on the list. It will be interesting to see what the new IPCC Report, WGIII, to be published in October 2007, says about extending old plants or building new nuclear plants.

    Surely, scientific analysis of nuclear power benefits include risk assessments that consider impacts to society, conomics and the biotic community (regional and global). The zero/infinity risks associated with nuclear power (e.g., relatively low chance something goes wrong, but high dangers/harm if problems occur), counsel reliance on the precautionary principle. Also, protecting against the low probablity of risk of terrorism/malfunction at nuclear plants will increase costs of this energy.

    Thanks to Lynn for the great link to “Natural Capitalism,” where nuclear power expansion is not the preferred alternative energy supply. See Chapter 12, http://www.natcap.org/images/other/NCchapter12.pdf

    Sincerely,
    Jane

  11. 161

    What is Jane Kloeckner’s evidence that there is a “relatively low chance something goes wrong” with nuclear power plants?

    The truth is they break down fairly often, but are much safer during failure*, than fossil-fired plants, hydropower, and to the extent we have experience with them, wind turbines.

    * Engineers once shortened “safe during failure” into the shorter term “failsafe”. I don’t know if they still do.

  12. 162
    Paul M says:

    What is feasable is covering up the melting artic bogs with a gigantic tarp and then sucking out the methane as it releases. This would stop it from going into the atmosphere and we would have a viable source of energy. Kung pow chicken anyone?

  13. 163

    Ike Solem (#149),

    I read the Hansen papers themselves, however, note in the web site that you reference Hansen states:

    “The large energy imbalance that we have found implies that the global temperature responds slowly to forcing agents, with much of the response lagging several decades behind imposition of the forcing.”

    This statement, based on an understanding of climate commitment, is why the argument that Solar activity has not further increased since the first half of the 20th century is invalid. The temperature response from that earlier increase can take up to a century, and the sea level response may take several centuries. The achievement of equilibrium with the new level of forcing may be delayed by other forcings or internal modes that may cause a period of cooling. In the case of this unusually high level of solar activity, we will probably never see the full response, since past history indicates that such an active period has less than an 8% chance of lasting until 2050 per Solanki, and the solar conveyor belt theorists project that the solar cycle after the next will be significantly weaker.

    llewelly (re #153), In the complex non-linear climate system, it doesn’t matter that the solar forcing is smaller than the GHG forcing, the forcings can’t just be added or compared linearly. They are coupled to the climate system in quite different ways, GHGs are coupled more strongly to the atmosphere and the cyclic solar forcing is coupled to 10s of meters of the ocean rather than just a skin effect, as well as to the land and certain components of the atmosphere.

    You are threatening the jobs of the climate modelers if you are arguing that you can know a’priori that model errors such as that diagnosed by Roesch are irrelevant. Those model errors are much larger than the energy imbalance causing the warming we are trying to understand. The globally and annually averaged model bias found by Roesch was 2.8 to 3.8W/m^2, the energy imbalance that Hansen attributes the recent warming to is only 0.8W/m^2. The question is do we need the models to be basically correct or not to project and attribute the climate, or can we use the “faith” or think method. I think we need the models, and they just aren’t there yet. Keep in mind that the errors that the Roesch IPCC diagnostic study found, while larger than what we are trying to measure, are small compared to other model errors found by the IPCC diagnostic studies. The Roesch significance is that it punctures the faith that the meta-ensembles will cancel out errors, and these correlated errors are a bias against solar forcing, the leading competing explanation for attribution of part of the recent warming.

    Ike, it was Dr. Emanuel that stated that reproduction of El Nino was an obvious hurdle for the models, so I would say your argument is with him, if I didn’t agree with him on this point. I agree with you that rainfall patterns don’t need to be replicated on a year to year basis, we want the models to have the same internal variability as the climate, but on multi-year ensembles, we want the models to get the precipitation patterns right at least regionally.

    One thing we learned from the Roesch study, is that seemingly small errors in snowcover and the timing of the snowmelt cannot be dismissed, because when globally and annually averaging the error, we see that it is larger than the quantity we are trying to measure, global warming. For several years, the descrepencies in the models have been particularly large at northern lattitudes, and it is reassuring to have the guidance of this study so we can resolve this in the future. Of course, the errors Roesch found, while “small” when averaged globally, they are extremely large locally, and the compensating errors introduced into the models to bring them back into energy balance may explain some of the local precipitation errors as well.

    Presumably the models get the total albedo of the earth system correct, so these positive surface errors are compensated by negative albedo errors in aerosol or clouds parameterizations. Could the cloud feedback be reduced in some of the models to compensate for these errors, and such errors have greater impact on future projections of GHG scenerios? If you know the answer to that, then we don’t need the models at all, but can your argument meet the standards of peer review?

  14. 164
    Eli Rabett says:

    Nuclear actually goes well with solar. The former is an optimal base load source, the later is great for peak demand periods. Most of the other stuff about doing the job without nuclear is right up there with fusion power, i.e. when I see it I’ll believe it.

  15. 165
    Ike Solem says:

    Coal, nuclear or solar? It seems solar is best; here’s why:
    The Four Corners power plant is a 2,000 MW coal-fired electricity generator located in the American Southwest. Every year the plant emits over 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide emissions and 590 pounds of mercury.

    Replacing this plant with 2GW nuclear power station… is that feasible? Well, problem number one is that such a plant will produce 60 tons per year of high-level waste consisting of Strontium-90 (28 years), Caesium-137 (30 years), Plutonium-239 (24,000 years), Caesium-135 (2.3 million years), Iodine-129 (15.7 million years) (from nuclearinfo.net)

    At the end of the hypothetical thirty years, you’d have a radioactive reactor and 1800 tons of high-level extremely dangerous waste to dispose of.

    On the other hand, assuming the solar panels produced had a long lifetime, at the end of thirty years of solar cell manufacturing at 1000MW/year you’d have an installed peak solar power output of 30 GW – dependent on sunlight.

    To make this work, however, you’d need a load-balancing system; for example, one could convert excess solar electric output during the day into hydrogen and oxygen via water electrolysis, and convert the H2 and O2 back to water and electricity at night in large fuel cells. This also applies to wind-generated electricity.

    Thus, it seems like solar and wind are far more cost effective then nuclear for electricity generation, and there are no catastrophic safety issues either.

  16. 166
    pete best says:

    Once again the IPCC’s up and coming report has been commented on by the scientists who have worked on it in the UK newspaper The Sunday Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2569944,00.html) with more dire predictions for our planet and how it will respond to increased CO2.

    Once again though I am struck by the similarity to James Hansens comments that he has made over the past few years regarding 10 years to mitigate dangerous climate change and the need to reduce atmospheric CO2 to no more than 450 ppmv. These IPCC scientists are now definately backing him up now and stating that it was a very accurate statement.

    The bad news is that it looks like 450 ppmv is unavoidable and that 550 ppmv is the dangerous limit that Hansen has spoken of. The really big stumbling block now comes from the disarray of world leaders who will not be able to agree suitable cuts in CO2 due to the only card that politicians have in this free market capatalist world, progress and having to cut it. Whilst mitigating CO2 remains and “lifestyle choice” for everyone and nothing is mandatory then these levels of atmospheric CO2 look likely.

    we are st 382 ppmv as of 2006 and hence we will be at 400 ppmv by 2016, 450 ppmv by 2041, 500 ppmv by 2066 and 550 ppmv by 2090 with current world growth and usage levels. Couple this now with the doubling of energy requirement and the world population going to 8 – 9 billion by 2050 and we can see that 2090 looks more like 2060.

    I doubt that without cutting progress by a major factor regardless of peoples love of renewables we are going to be getting some very warm summers and stormy winters here in the UK and lots of other places are going to change for the worse to it would seem.

    I wonder if this IPCC report will see a lot of climate arguments or capitulation by world governments at last.

  17. 167

    Re “As for the claim that radioactive wastes will “poison entire bioregions”, take a look at the so-called “Dead Zone” around Chernobyl. It’s a wildlife sanctuary: perhaps the healthiest & most biodiverse one in Eastern Europe.”

    If you don’t count all the kids with thyroid cancer.

  18. 168

    Re “that fuel was put into a decent re-entry vehicle and slung into a retrograde orbit around the sun, then the waste problem is solved.”

    Why retrograde? Unless you’re launching from the Sun’s equator, which direction you pick is irrelevant from a celestial mechanics point of view.

  19. 169

    Re “The truth is they break down fairly often, but are much safer during failure*, than fossil-fired plants, hydropower, and to the extent we have experience with them, wind turbines.”

    On the other hand, no one ever heard of a wind turbine killing thousands of people (as at Chernobyl), or even seven at a time (as at Windscale) or 3 at a time (as at SL-1).

  20. 170
    Craig Allen says:

    Re #162

    So having followed the links I find that the arguments are
    1) that wind power is more dangerous than nuclear because a workman once died falling off a windmill, and
    2) that hydro power is more dangerous because two people once drowned while sun-baking downstream from a dam wall when someone opened the gate. Hmmm, I remain unconvinced.

  21. 171
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #167, Pete, here’s the solution, we have to do this ourselves, despite government — do everything we can from taking a hanky to wipe hands in public restrooms (instead of using paper), to buying SunFrost refrigerators (which cost $2600, but save that much in 15 years in energy savings & less food spoilage — luckily I bought mine in 1991, so I’m just reaping in the savings now). We also need to try & impliment changes at work, school, church, town, state, nation, & world.

    See “The Low-Carbon Revolution Starts Here” by Mark Lynas for ideas about what a town can do — at http://www.marklynas.org or http://beta.marklynas.org or http://www.newstatesman.com/200701290024

    I do feel a revitalization movement is in the offing. People are stirring. There will be this big flood, a sea change. We’re just at the tipping point of a global warming revitalization movement. It will be chic to be carbon neutral. The naysayers will be jeered at (as I was for my environmentalism). It’s coming. Get prepared to hug a tree.

  22. 172
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#164, You say “This statement, based on an understanding of climate commitment, is why the argument that Solar activity has not further increased since the first half of the 20th century is invalid.”; well…there’s been no increase in solar activity (see my previous comment), but regardless, you are basing that on the Hansen quote, “….with much of the response lagging several decades behind imposition of the forcing.”. Several decades is not a century, in any case.

    However, the idea you are referring to is that the sunspot cycle strengthens the weak magnetic field of the solar wind (average magnetic strength on the order of 6 nanoTesla…but notice that the Earth’s magnetic field strength is on the order of 40,000 nanoTesla) and this miniscule variation in the solar wind supposedly prevents cosmic rays from causing clouds to form…whatever. Thoroughly debunked at Taking Cosmic Rays for a Spin. Sherwood Idso at CO2science is a big fan of the idea…

    As far as El Nino goes, it seems that coupled atmospheric oceanic GCMs do indeed reproduce the phenomena; for example see Jungclaus et al 2006, and global warming may lead to an increase in the strength/frequency of El Nino, as Australian paleoclimate studies show a correlation, and finally, El Nino’s have become slightly more frequent over the past decades. The GCM models rely on parameterizations of the sea surface-wind interaction that plays a dominant role in ENSO, due to grid size limitations, and the models can’t seem to agree on what the effects on El Nino frequency will be in a warming world. However, since there is paleoclimate data and modern data that support a link between increased frequency/strength of El Nino and global warming, attacking the models is the only route left for contrarians.

    Also, for the nth time, specific local precipitation patterns, i.e. weather, will never be predictable due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions, but the average precipitation for a region is part of the output of models, which predict drying of continental interiors and heavier precipitation in coastal regions, as I understand it.

    Finally, when you say “For several years, the discrepencies in the models have been particularly large at northern lattitudes”, what are you talking about? It’s an unreferenced statement that simply isn’t true; we are currently seeing dramatic warming in the Arctic and at high altitudes and the effects are also starting to show up in the Antarctic. If anything, the models seem to be underestimating the speed of changes in the Arctic.

  23. 173
    Hank Roberts says:

    This is the sixth great extinction. The impact of our species is comparable to an asteroid strike.
    That’s evident. Exclude people from an area and biodiversity increases. It doesn’t mean radiation, chemical toxins, or warfare are good for the environment.

    To paraphrase Shaw:
    We have already established what we are. Now we are quibbling over what we cost.

    Nobody committed to making a living in politics — the *bertarians and the *munists and the *berals and the *cants and the *crats — can be comfortable with science.

    The evidence is uncomfortable:

    http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/chornobyl/wildlifepreserve.htm

    “… removal or relocation of humans will most often facilitate a natural recovery of ecosystems even in the face of deleterious radioactive and chemical challenges. The observation that typical human activity (industrialization, farming, cattle raising, collection of firewood, hunting, etc.) is more devastating to biodiversity and abundance of local flora and fauna than is the worst nuclear power plant disaster …”

    The science is enlightening:

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1332674

    “… human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop in which food availability drives population growth and this growth in human numbers gives rise to the mistaken impression that food production needs to be increased even more.”

  24. 174
    Eli Rabett says:

    Such a rich stew.

    #166 Ike, Four Corners mostly sources power to So. CA, it is where it is because that is where the coal is found. It would make more sense to site a nuclear plant in California where near the ocean to avoid transmission losses. If you are putting in a solar plant, the Mojhave(sp??) has just as much sun. What you are proposing for base load is a kludge. What we need is a combination of solar/wind and nuclear. IMHO of course, but when have I ever been wrong?

    #167 Pete, we are already at 450 CO2 equivalent. Hansen’s strategy is to start by working on the other greenhouse gases, as their reduction may be simpler in the short haul. Seems sensible to me, but when have I ever been wrong?

    #169 Launches fail. Launching the waste into space is unacceptably risky, but when have I ever been wrong?

    #170 Barton, if you have enough towers to generate significant wind power, the number of people that fall off and die (many winning Darwin prizes) will mount into the hundreds if not the thousands per year. We know this from the number of construction workers that die in falls per year, but when have I ever been wrong?

    #172 Craig, do not confuse wholesale with retail. Look at the total number of deaths, but when have I ever been wrong?

    But alas I must go as Ms. Rabett (first appearance at Real Climate) is calling and pointing out several instances where I have been very wrong. In detail.

  25. 175
    Alexandre Lacerda says:

    Quoting KE: “scientists whose hesitations did not make a good copy”.
    I agree with that. The scientific community has been hesitant and shy before this issue. Major political decisions are needed to avoid the likely escalating AGW, and the necessary public support won´t come if the situation is not clearer to the common citizen.

    The layman often disregards its importance with an attitude like “well, I can bear 5 degrees more” without realizing the other implications.

    Paraphrasing the Portuguese writer Saramago, scientists have the responsibility of having eyes while others don´t.

  26. 176
    Oliver says:

    @ #175, Eli Rabett
    Re: having enough towers to generate significant wind power and people falling off

    Why don’t we have scores of people falling from cooling towers of nuclear plants? Answer: Not the least because the plants are guarded. But seriously, one can come up with all kinds of excuses.

    Fact is that all kind of energy production is likely to come with drawbacks -witness the geothermal experiments in Basel, Switzerland apparently hitting some high-tension rock layers, releasing the tension and thus triggering minor quakes -mind you, those could eventually have been one big natural quake. The question for me is: Are we finally willing to step up to our responsibility and act in a sustainable fashion in which we face the consequences of our decisions ourselves? Present approaches to nuclear power production to me look like an effort to sweep things under the carpet and pat our kids on the back “You’ll figure it out one day”

    This, to me, is practically the same approach that led to AGW to begin with -only that this time, we’re taking it in full knowledge of the fact.

  27. 177

    Craig Allen says

    … 1) that wind power is more dangerous than nuclear because a workman once died falling off a windmill, and
    2) that hydro power is more dangerous because two people once drowned while sun-baking downstream from a dam wall when someone opened the gate. Hmmm, I remain unconvinced.

    How about fossil fuel power? Any recent local problems there?

    Nuclear is not and for many years has not been subsidized; if it were countries that express a wish to shut it off could simply do so and have a little extra money. But wind turbines in the US get a 1.9 cent per kWh production tax credit; some of the resulting subsidy is, of course, oil and gas money, for those commodities are negatively subsidized. Their tax revenues support people who somehow just can’t see how real, recent fatalities that nuclear might have prevented trump real ones that it caused long ago, or in the case of the invisible corpse-drifts downwind of Chernobyl, are said to have caused, in untestable theory long ago, by theorizers with an interest in the competition. Or in the Windscale case, long ago in an alternate universe; remember or Google “Cockcroft’s folly” that wasn’t.

    Are the mentioned hydro and windpower fatalities the only recent ones in North America? Did the worker merely fall off the wind turbine, as Allen’s summary suggests, or was there more to story? Was his summary misleading in a way that helped him to “remain unconvinced”? Why yes, it was.

  28. 178
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Smart people can say really silly things when they are pontificating in areas they don’t know much about.

    For instance in #68, Secular Animist wrote:

    “Every country that has developed nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has done so as a spin-off of a “civilian” nuclear power program.”

    Well, this is just flat out wrong. The US, UK, France, Russia, China, Israel, South Africa, Libya, and Iran all had (or have) nuclear weapons programs outside the NPT and with no connection to a civilian nuclear power program.

    In #62 the UK Met Office and Phil write:

    “”surge heights are predicted to increase by up to 1.7 metres at Sizewell, the most affected site, and 0.9 metres at Hinkley Point, the least affected”

    “If you must build nukes, be careful where you site them ”

    In the US, at least, all nuclear plants sited on the ocean or large lakes, must be analyzed for the site’s and the plant design’s robustness against tsunamis, storm surges, and seiches. Existing plants have been subjected to all of these and have either operated through them or been shut down as a precaution with no significant plant damage or impact on the public.

    In #159 Nigel Williams wrote (not silly, but incorrect):

    “I believe that a minor challenge with nuclear is that it takes a while to build – 10 years or so – cf 1 or 2 for a coal fired plant (both timeframes ignoring the issues of getting planning consent!)”

    Actually, in places where “planning consent” is not an issue (Japan, France, China, and some others), four to six years is the normal amount of time required for nuclear plant construction. This also bears on the responsibility of the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental movement for the high cost of nuclear power plants in the US. Starting in the early 70s, they were able to use a variety of licensing, safety, and environmental challenges to delay the licensing and construction of dozens of nuclear plants five to ten years. This substantially increased the cost since utilities build the plants with borrowed money, which cannot be paid back until the plant is producing electricity.

    In #166, Ike Solem wrote:

    “Replacing this plant with 2GW nuclear power station… is that feasible? Well, problem number one is that such a plant will produce 60 tons per year of high-level waste consisting of Strontium-90 (28 years), Caesium-137 (30 years), Plutonium-239 (24,000 years), Caesium-135 (2.3 million years), Iodine-129 (15.7 million years) (from nuclearinfo.net)”

    This inclusion of Cs-135 and I-129 is fairly subtle sillyness. There are several factors that determine A radionuclide’s hazard to the biosphere. They include the types of particles and the energy of the particles in decay events, the physical half-life (which is what Ike is talking about), the biological half-life, its geochemistry, and its specific activity. Biological half-lives are frequently quite short, which means that the radionuclide doesn’t stay in the body long. Specific activity is the number of decay events per second per gram of material. It is roughly inversely proportional to half-life, which means that if the half-life is long enough (I-129, U-235, and U-238, for instance) the radionuclide is decaying so infrequently that it is coming close to not being a radionuclide.

    In #168, someone and Barton Paul Levinson wrote:

    “Re “As for the claim that radioactive wastes will “poison entire bioregions”, take a look at the so-called “Dead Zone” around Chernobyl. It’s a wildlife sanctuary: perhaps the healthiest & most biodiverse one in Eastern Europe.”

    If you don’t count all the kids with thyroid cancer.”

    Chernobyl caused something on the order of 2000 cases of thyroid cancer, mostly in children, and on the order of 20 deaths. In Poland, where children were given prophylactic doses of potassium iodide, there were very few cases. More to the point, the thyroid cancer cases and deaths don’t have much relevance to the question of whether Chernobyl “poison[ed] entire bioregions”. The thyroid cancer was caused by exposure to I-131, with a roughly 8 day half-life. Therefore after 80 days the iodine radioactivity was down by a factor of 1000, after 160 days down by a factor of one million. Studies of the genomes of wildlife near Chernobyl have shown genetic changes that are probably harmful to individuals, but those effects are overwhelmed by the benefits to the wildlife of getting the most of the humans out of the area.

    In #171 Craig Allen wrote:

    “2) that hydro power is more dangerous because two people once drowned while sun-baking downstream from a dam wall when someone opened the gate. Hmmm, I remain unconvinced.”

    Craig might look up the Johnstown Flood or, for a more recent event, Google “Henan floods 1975″ for information about the cascading failures of 62 dams in Henan Province in China that killed about 150,000 immediately and later another 75,000 from disease and starvation.” My guess is that his “convictions” will be impervious to contrary evidence.

    Best regards.

  29. 179
    pete best says:

    Re #175, because of the heat latent in the Oceans ?

  30. 180
    Charles Muller says:

    #173
    “However, the idea you are referring to is that the sunspot cycle strengthens the weak magnetic field of the solar wind (average magnetic strength on the order of 6 nanoTesla…but notice that the Earth’s magnetic field strength is on the order of 40,000 nanoTesla) and this miniscule variation in the solar wind supposedly prevents cosmic rays from causing clouds to form…whatever. Thoroughly debunked at Taking Cosmic Rays for a Spin. Sherwood Idso at CO2science is a big fan of the idea…”

    Ike, I don’t think that is the idea Martin referred on #164. More simply :
    – solar activity is highest in the second part of the XXth century than in the first, so far we take sunspots number as a basic proxy ;
    – delayed reponse of climate system (notably thermal oceanic inertia) implies that comparison of successive Schwabe cycles’ minima is not necessarily conclusive.

    For example, the signal of XXth century highest cycle (19) which peaked in the 1950s may be extended to several decades, even if the next cycle (20) was weaker. If you just compare 19 and 20, you miss that point.

    But IPCC AR4 will seemingly conclude that solar total irradiance forcing is weak – approx. 1W/m2 between Maunder minimum and XXth century, mainly from Lean et Wang 2005 (but anyway, not so far from Foster 2004, or Balmaceda, Krivova, Solanki 2007 in press). Such estimation implies a 1750-2000 TOA forcing of 0,1 W/m2, quasi negligible. Very interesting in my opinion, because it suggests we misundestand something in solar climate sensitivity (or other forcings, maybe).

  31. 181

    Ike Solem (Re: #173),

    The figures for a century and several centuries for climate commitment are from Wigley and Meehl, the quote from Hansen was just to use a source that was already under discussion and had been cited as an authority:

    Meehl G. A., et al. Sciencexpress, 10.1126/science.1106663 (2005).

    Wigley T. M. L., et al. Sciencexpress, 110.1126/science.1103934 (2005).

    No, I wasn’t referring to the sunspot cycle, the IPCC diagnostic study by Roesch, showed that ALL the AR4 models had a positive surface albedo bias, i.e., they were reflecting solar energy back into space. This is a bias against solar that is independent of the magnetic field and independent of any variation in solar activity.

    Yes, some models can reproduce ENSO behavior, but Hansen, et al, in this paper, not only used a model with the bias that Roesch’s study documented (the authors probably didn’t know it at the time), they used their model at a resolution that could not reproduce the ENSO behavior. Just search the paper for ENSO:

    Hansen, J., L. Nazarenko, R. Ruedy, Mki. Sato, J. Willis, A. Del Genio, D. Koch, A. Lacis, K. Lo, S. Menon, T. Novakov, Ju. Perlwitz, G. Russell, G.A. Schmidt, and N. Tausnev 2005. Earth�s energy imbalance: Confirmation and implications. Science 308, 1431-1435, doi:10.1126/science.1110252.

    As for the northern lattitudes, I wasn’t disputing warming in the climate, I was just noting the well documented problems that the models have in accurately reproducing the climate particularly at those latitudes. The IPCC probably commisioned the Roesch diagnostic study to shed light on those discrepences. The Roesch reference itself not only documents the levels of discrepancy, but is specific in the source of the discrepencies and the physical processes that need to be represented in the models to correct the discrepencies.

    Roesch A. (2006), Evaluation of surface albedo and snow cover in AR4 coupled climate models, J. Geophys. Res., 111,D15111, doi:10.1029/2005JD006473.

    In the complex non-linear climate system, the models are our means and hope of attributing and projecting climate change. Dr. Emanual admits that this requires “faith” in the models. That faith is unjustified, and the Roesch study documented correlated error that even meta-ensembles can’t be assumed to overcome. Frankly, I am an optimist and think that with model improvement, we can be justified in having faith in the models, but then if it were justified, it wouldn’t be “faith” would it? 8-)

    I’m just not the religious type, I guess.

  32. 182
    Eli Rabett says:

    Pete: No, because of other greenhouse gases such as methane, cfcs, hfcs, etc.

  33. 183
    C. W. Magee says:

    David,
    Re your comment up the top about the political bias in departments:

    If you can think of a way to convince a conservative, market-oriented, fresh-out-of-college geologist to take a PhD scholarship instead of a $75,000/yr entry-level job at a nickel mine, please let the rest of us know.

  34. 184
    Nigel Williams says:

    #179 Thanks Jim for your correction to the time to build a nuke. 4 years is excellent progress on a complex job, eh. Have to make the coastal ones portable though so they can cope with increasing sea levels, storm surges and receding shorelines, so its onto a barge – kinda like a gold dredge.

    #169 Barton; Retrograde to let it plop into the surface of the sun with the minimum expenditure of energy. (With apologies to the surface of the sun, of course! http://www.thesurfaceofthesun.com/ )

    #175 Eli. Yup launches fail – hence the re-entry vehicle format for the payload. Weather permitting, a Morton-Thiokol SRB could probably shift a decent payload to where it needs to go. The SRBs reliability issues seem to have been sorted.

    But, hey – dont take me too seriously – like most Im struggling to find the sweet-spot among all this gloomy news. Mother Earth is saying I Told You So! I dont like it any more than anyone else, but Im blowed if Im going to just lie down and take it!

  35. 185

    Charles Muller, (re: 181)

    There is another possibility beyond a misunderstanding of climate sensitivity or other forcings. We have very little understanding of solar variability. Our best physical solar models explain about 80% of the solar variation based on just two cycles, see the discussion we had on realclimate.org here:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/09/the-trouble-with-sunspots#comment-19145

    While Lean’s reconstructions may be the among the best we have, that doesn’t mean we should place much confidence in them, as physical models of the Sun show, we know too little to reconstruct past radiative forcing. Radiative forcing at recent solar cycle sunspot minima, may bear little relation to that at similar sunspot levels when the Sun was in its Maunder minimum state. Hopefully the second solar cycle out, is as low activity as solar conveyor theory suggests and resolves some of the mystery.

    Keep in mind also, that it may be CO2 climate sensitivity that we misunderstand. Models currently couple CO2 and solar in the same way to the whole mixing layer of the ocean, while physical understanding of the radiation wavelengths involved suggest that solar is coupled sometimes to 10s of meters of the ocean, while CO2 radiative forcing just penetrates a millimeter or so. Current models may be masking a significant non-linear difference.

  36. 186

    Re “Nuclear is not and for many years has not been subsidized”

    The Price-Anderson Act, as amended? Federal report for reactor research? No subsidies? You’re sure? If I page through a federal budget I won’t find any subsidies for nuclear power?

  37. 187

    Re “Actually, in places where “planning consent” is not an issue (Japan, France, China, and some others), four to six years is the normal amount of time required for nuclear plant construction. This also bears on the responsibility of the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental movement for the high cost of nuclear power plants in the US. Starting in the early 70s, they were able to use a variety of licensing, safety, and environmental challenges to delay the licensing and construction of dozens of nuclear plants five to ten years. This substantially increased the cost since utilities build the plants with borrowed money, which cannot be paid back until the plant is producing electricity.”

    Why, yes. If you don’t allow dissent, and if locals can’t protest plants being built in their area, you can build nuclear plants relatively quickly. There are all kinds of things the US could get done quicker and more efficiently if we just stopped people from protesting them.

  38. 188
    Luke Silburn says:

    The whole nuclear/anti-nuclear thing isn’t really OT for this website, so I won’t get into the gory details but I will recommend the writings of Jerome Guillet (who is, broadly and simplistically, pro-nuke and pro-renewables).

    He did a diary on the Daily Kos last year, laying out the background of the French civil nuclear programme which addresses some of the points that have been raised by SecularAnimist and others. He also runs his own website which carries frequent essays and commentary on energy policy.

    Definitely worth checking out.

    Regards
    Luke

  39. 189

    In comment 175 Eli Rabett includes,

    Launches fail. Launching the waste into space is unacceptably risky, but when have I ever been wrong?

    He is seldom wrong, but this is one time. Attempting to rocket nuclear waste into the sun, starting out over the ocean, and fumbling every load into the water would still be a completely safe and effective nuclear waste management strategy; it is wrong because there are so many other such strategies that are better, not because it would not be good enough if it were the only one.

    In fact, radioactive loads as hot as a full spent fuel cask may already have been launched. The recent New Horizons launch, and that of Cassini in 1997, carried no nuclear waste, but they did, respectively, carry 11 kg and 33 kg of plutonium-238 dioxide.

    This substance is made on purpose because its radioactivity is exceptionally intense and long-lasting: 403 thermal watts per kilogram, declining 0.79 percent per year. So now that Cassini is at Saturn — http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/index.cfm –its radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs), initially running on 13,182 W of heat, still have 12,340 watts.

    The radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel drops below 400 W/kg, below the specific power of the ceramic in RTGs, during its third hour of retirement.

    After 25 years it’s below 1.2 watts per kg, cf. table 7 of an NRC decay-heat document, so the New Horizons launch was equivalent to launching 3.7 tonnes of 25-years-cooled spent fuel. That must be fairly close to a cask-ful.

    But what if all the world’s 100 million kg, or whatever it is, of spent nuclear fuel rods were aimed near Jupiter, with the idea it would fling them into the sun, and they all missed and went in the ocean? How could the ocean endure the addition of 120 megawatts of radioactivity?

    This turns out to be a little like asking how the ocean has been able to endure the salt from Titanic‘s saltshakers. There is about 2,000 megawatts of natural radioactivity in the ocean; much less than in an equal volume of rock, but still a lot compared to a nuclear power station spent fuel pool, much more, even, than all such pools in the world put together.

  40. 190
    Hank Roberts says:

    Two words: transuranic; bioaccumulation.

  41. 191
    James says:

    Re #170: “…On the other hand, no one ever heard of a wind turbine killing thousands of people (as at Chernobyl)…”

    There’s just one minor problem in that statement: thousands of people WEREN’T killed at Chernobyl. The number killed as a result of the immediate fire & cleanup was probably around 30-50. (Because of Soviet-era coverups, it seems no one has exact numbers.) It’s quite possible that even most of those deaths could have been prevented had the Soviets bothered to train the emergency crews and provide them with protective gear.

    Since then, there have been a small number (under two dozen) who have died of cancer. However, it’s almost impossible to establish a definite causative link between any particular case of cancer and the increase in radiation. About the best you can do is compare the rates with those in other populations, and those don’t show any marked increase.

    Furthermore, if you’re going to be fair, you also have to take into account the comparative death rates from e.g. coal-fired powerplant emissions (which include a good deal of radioactive materials). The anti-nuclear folks are all too prone to assuming that the alternatives are all perfectly benign, which just isn’t so. Even leaving the climate effects of CO2 out of the equation, nuclear power’s safety track record is far better than any other major technology.

  42. 192

    [[There’s just one minor problem in that statement: thousands of people WEREN’T killed at Chernobyl.]]

    Not yet, no. Cancer can take years to kill people. Nonetheless, the estimated number of deaths from the Chernobyl accident is 4-8,000. I don’t find that acceptable.

  43. 193
    David B. Benson says:

    Well, if you really want to launch radioactive wastes, I suggest sacrificing a small crater on the moon and aim there. Much lower energy requirements.

  44. 194
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Here’s something in the media re uranium mining & its harms & costs (for clean-up): http://www.climateark.org/shared/reader/welcome.aspx?linkid=68044

  45. 195

    [There’s just one minor problem in that statement: thousands of people WEREN’T killed at Chernobyl.]]

    Not yet, no.

    This is a remarkable misunderstanding. The mass casualties of Chernobyl, if their number is positive, could well already have happened. There is no way to know. The range of numbers quoted represents uncertainty as to how large a number can hide untestably in the noise.

    Cancer can take years to kill people.
    Nonetheless, the estimated number of deaths from the Chernobyl accident is 4-8,000. I don’t find that acceptable.

    Then reasons to doubt the impartiality of those making the estimates should be welcome, as should be the thought that if they weren’t so petrolish, their estimates might range from 8,000 to -8,000.

    Interesting anecdote: CBC radio news said on October 21, 1993 that the Chernobyl nuclear accident “resulted in the deaths of” 8,000 people. By December 12, 2000, it must have believed half had been resurrected, for it then said 4,000.

  46. 196
    Karen Street says:

    re the topic of the human hand

    Revkin has said more than once,

    [FAR] is nearly certain to conclude that there is at least a 90 percent probability that human-caused emissions are the main driver of warming since 1950.

    In the TAR, it was very likely anthropogenic, from 90 – 99% probability. I doubt that FAR will be more cautious. Revkin is confusing more than elucidating.

  47. 197
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #182: Martin, I think you’re overstating the consequences of the Roesch paper.

  48. 198
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #197: Actually the TAR (penultimate paragraph here) said “likely” (66% to 90%), whereas the AR4 is (er, will be) “very likely” (90% to 99%).

  49. 199
    Karen Street says:

    Steve, oops and thanks

  50. 200
    Ike Solem says:

    RE#179,
    This is an informative site on the above mentioned fission products: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/Hbase/nucene/fisfrag.html Generally speaking, the biological half-lives are not short, because the body mistakes cesium for potassium and strontium for calcium, leading to bone cancer, leukemia, and so on. The toxicity of plutonium and uranium is related to that of other heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium – kidney damage, brain damage, etc.

    I think the economic life-cycle cost/benefit issue is what matters more; if the solar panel factory can build 1 GW of solar panel power per year, cumulative over 30 years, then it seems like a far better investment then a 1 GW nuclear plant, especially if the initial cost is the same.

    RE#182,
    What the Roesch paper actually says in it’s abstract is this (SCA=snow cover area)
    “The most pronounced underestimation in the interannual SCA variability is generally simulated during snow melt. The pronounced negative SCA trend that has been observed from 1979-2000 is only partly reproduced in the AR4 model simulations. Furthermore, the computed trends show a large spread among the models. Results from time slice simulations with the ECHAM5 climate model suggest that accurate sea surface temperatures are vital for correctly predicting SCA trends.”

    Thus, the models seem to underestimate the speed of global warming in the Arctic, and also the models are dependent on accurate sea surface temp data for their predictions; similarly, short-term weather models depend on inputs of atmospheric conditions for their predictions. I’ve never heard any of the well-known contrarians talk about the need for comprehensive ocean data collection systems on a global basis, but waiting to take action until more data can be collected would be a mistake.

    Regarding a related issue, NOAA decided to switch to the 1971-2000 period for their ‘baseline’ in 2000 for the calculation of temperature anomalies; the main effect of doing this was to greatly reduce the ‘observed anomalies’ in the Arctic as compared to using the 1961-1990 period as the baseline; I’m curious to see what time period the IPCC report uses. The problem arises in looking at NOAA’s 2005 Arctic Climate Report: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/pubs/PDF/rich2952/rich2952.pdf (Figure 6)

    Now compare this figure to that in the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report (made up of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America) http://www.acia.uaf.edu/PDFs/ACIA_Science_Chapters_Final/ACIA_Ch02_Final.pdf (Figure 2.6)

    The NOAA figure is quite different and seems to show a much lower warming trend, and is also followed by the unsupported statement “The run of unusual conditions observed for 2000-2005 may be coming to an end…”

    Someone at NOAA made the decision to switch to the new baseline in 2000 because they wanted “normal” to represent the most recent period – which doesn’t seem like an unbiased viewpoint; it seems like manipulation of data to show a lower warming trend in the Arctic then would otherwise be the case. The 2005 NOAA report reads like an attempt at rebutting the 2004 ACIA report, as well.

    Since politicization of climate science has been a prominent topic of discussion, here’s a link to The Senate Hearings featuring NOAA Adminstrator Adm. Lautenbacher and Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye, 2006


Switch to our mobile site