RealClimate logo


Freeman Dyson’s selective vision

Filed under: — david @ 24 May 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two recent ones about global warming, but his review is mostly shaped by his own rather selective vision.

1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.

2. Economic estimates of the costs of cutting CO2 emissions are huge. In an absolute sense, this is true, it would be a lot of dollars, but it comes down to a few percent of GDP, which, in an economic system that grows by a few percent per year, just puts off the attainment of a given amount of wealth by a few years. And anyway, business-as-usual will always argue that the alternative would be catastrophic to our economic well being. Remember seat belts? Why is it that Dyson’s remarkably creative powers of vision (carbon-eating trees for example) fail to come up with alternatives to the crude and ugly process of burning coal to generate electricity?

3. The costs of climate change are in the distant future, and therefore should be discounted, in contrast to the hysterical Stern Report. I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now. Remember that the lifetime of the elevated CO2 concentration in the air is different from the lifetime of CO2 to exchange with the biosphere. Release a slug of CO2 and you will increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental tenet of civil society is to protect people from harm inflicted by others. Are we a civilized species, or are we not? The question is analogous to using economics to decide whether to abolish slavery. I’m sure it was very costly for the Antebellum Southern U.S. to forego slave labor, but it simply wasn’t an economic question.

4. Majority scientists are contemptuous of those in the minority who don’t believe in the dangers of climate change. I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR. We have documented Lindzen’s tortured and twisted representation of the science to non-scientists here and here. If Lindzen had a credible argument to support his gut feeling (and apparently Dyson’s), I can promise that I for one would take it seriously. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about. If Lindzen were right, no one would be happier about that than me. But I do get contemptuous of BS.

596 Responses to “Freeman Dyson’s selective vision”

  1. 451
    JCH says:

    Mark,

    In part I was just pointing out the spat was occurring on the anniversary of D-day at Normandy.

    If you mean that many Hollywood movies (and even some American historians) have overstated and distorted the role of American combat troops in determining the outcome of the war in Europe, I would have to agree.

    I may have this history incorrect, but the cost of the war was essentially given for free, and that cost dwarfed the post-war money to Britain. That is what I was pointing out. The combat in which my uncle, and millions of others from several allied countries, participated, was given freely: lives and equipment, and there was/is no obligation for that. The money sent on terms was mostly for post-war reconstruction (Canada also made a large post-war IOU to Britain). The reason it took until well past 2000 to finish paying them off was the generous terms; a 2% interest rate. Nobody in their right mind pays off a 2%’er early.

    If Nordhaus had been around you most likely would have paid at least 4%, or perhaps even MC-Visa rates.

  2. 452
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #451. JCH: worth mentioning that Hitler declared war on the USA, not the other way round? That for Eurasia to be dominated by a single power (either Nazi Germany or the USSR) would have been very much against US interests?

    [Response: OK guys, this is interesting but straying way off topic. Please find someplace else to continue this discussion. –raypierre]

  3. 453
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Mashey,
    The question of Peak Oil is not one to be laid aside lightly (nor, with due respect to Miss Parker, thrown aside with great force). Economists tend to assume that new resources will be available as old ones price themselves beyond economic viability. Certainly this is not a given–especially when it comes to replacing as valuable and unique a resource as petroleum. It is not even clear if coal could be made a viable substitution.
    However, if we cannot make the economy grow at something like historical rates, we will have a very difficult time paying for the investment needed to circumvent or mitigate damage due to climate change. In some ways, this is no more audacious than assuming a solution exists in the first place. Those looking for hope can find it. People are responding rationally as gasoline tops $4 per gallon. I hear you can’t even trade in an SUV at a car lot these days. The people of Juneau Alaska managed to cut energy consumption by roughly 30% on a dime recently when their access to hydropower was interrupted by avalanches. Both Presidential candidates are on record as supporting cap and trade type systems to address climate change–albeit with very different levels of ambition and philosophies. Unfortunately, though, I think most people–especially Americans–have yet to grasp the direness of the situation. Our legislative leaders are still more interested in covering their behinds with feelgood legislation rather than dealing with reality, and I don’t see that improving until we can breed a smarter voter. Finally, there’s nothing like the investment we need in future energy sources. Those with money are more interested in speculating on petroleum futures than in creating a future without petroleum.

    [Response: If we stuck with conventional petroleum, the price rise of liquid fuel would probably take care of conservation all by itself. It’s already starting to do that, even in the US. What concerns me, though, is that at current prices coal to liquid is almost certainly economically attractive, if you don’t factor in the environmental damage from the increased carbon emissions. Even more so for tar sands. Without carbon pricing, I don’t think you’ll see peak oil. Instead, you’ll see increasing use of coal to liquid and unconventional oil, which will tend to cap the price rise, at the cost of greatly increased carbon emissions. So, to Hansen’s to-do list, you need to add stopping coal-to-liquid to the goal of stopping conventional pulverized coal power plants. That’s the decision point we’re at right now: are we going to a coal-to-liquid and coal-electric future, or a decarbonized clean energy future? Both require substantial investments, but without carbon pricing, probably the first alternative is the path of least resistance. –raypierre]

  4. 454
    Geoff Sherrington says:

    Right of reply claimed;

    As I wrote in #299 on June 2 above,

    ” To beneficially affect the carbon equation, you have to increase the mass of carbon per unit land area – and you have to keep that increased mass in perpetuity, otherwise if it reduces it will give off GHG and the whole exercise would be a transient bit of theft by smooth talking promoters.”

    Show me wrong, please. If you can’t, many of the forestry proposals above are indeed a transient theft.

  5. 455
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Sherrington, So you’re replying to yourself? Well, have a nice conversation.

    Seriously, though, I don’t believe you’ve told us anything we don’t know. Forestry can at most provide some breathing space. However, as it will take time to develop mitigation strategies, technologies and institutions for dealing with ghg, breathing space is not unwelcome. I’ll happily pay for more time to save civilization.

  6. 456
    David B. Benson says:

    Geoff Sherrington (454) — At the end of the tree’s useful carbon accumulation period, cut it down. Convert into a carbonaceous material such as biochar, torrified wood or possibly even biocoal via hydrothermal carbonization. Bury the resulting material quite deeply in a carbon landfill or abandoned mine.

  7. 457
    Hank Roberts says:

    It doesn’t have to be land, it can be ocean as well.
    It doesnt’ have to be trees, topsoil lasts longer and has been hugely wasted over the past several centuries.
    It doesn’t have to be perpetuity, a few centuries is how long we’ve been in excess.
    It doesn’t have to be theft, it can be accounting.

  8. 458
    Hank Roberts says:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/314/5806/1773
    “Fisheries have removed at least 50 million tons of tuna and other top-level predators from the Pacific Ocean pelagic ecosystem since 1950,…”

  9. 459
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Raypierre, I believe that what needs to happen is that energy resources need to start reflecting their full cost–including environmental degradation. Whether that is via cap-and-trade or via a carbon tax is less important. I’m a bit leary of subsidies to particular technologies, as I don’t think it is wise to prejudge the outcome for what new technologies will emerge. However, I think R&D seed money is definitely warranted. Unfortunately, right now, capital is so risk averse that all people can think to do is inflate the oil bubble even more. The risk here is that if the bubble doesn’t pop soon, you might start stimulating enough production that when the boom busts, you could have a few more years of cheap oil. People seem to have forgotten that the way to predict the future is to create it.

  10. 460
    John Mashey says:

    re: 453: raypierre

    Yes, this is exactly what I’m worried about, i.e., the possibility that:
    1) Most of the economic models say BAU = consistent growth like we’ve seen.

    2) That assumption gets baked into the strategies [in preference to all-out efficiency & decarbonization], and then

    3) OOPS. Turns out not to be true, and in desperation, we see more coal in all its forms, not less. [I.e., we wreck the economy, try to restore it, and get really bad climate effects as well.] Rapid changes are always tougher on the economy.

  11. 461
    John Mashey says:

    re: 453 Ray

    It certainly isn’t understood as widely as it needs to be, and that’s scary.

    On the other hand, I do live in California, and there are serious people in industry, government, utilities, universities, and venture capital firms here who do understand and are investing. Silicon Valley is in hard spin-up mode on greentech. It’s nowhere near enough, but it helps, especially if we don’t have to sue the EPA and DOE all the time to get anything done. The biggest help would be for PUCs nationwide to adopt rules that incent utilities to make money via more efficiency and less CO2.

  12. 462
    Geoff Sherrington says:

    Re # 455 Ray Ladbury

    Then, if you have all the answers, please answer these from 1 June 08.

    “Can someone please educate me about GHG emission trading. You take money from GHG emitters and give it to worthy causes. The problem is, I cannot think of many worthy causes. Almost all money that is spent on physical activity (as opposed to share trading, for example) generates GHG almost by definition.

    Sure, some emission trading can result in more efficient energy generation like closing brown coal power stations and replacing them with nuclear. Some say we should plant more trees, but unless we manage their larger mass forever we have caused just a temporary blip in the cycle of Nature.

    So, what can we buy with emission credits that is TRULY a gain? At the moment, it seems like the Gates to Scamland are wide open. The flow of money is potentially incredibly large and the ways to spend it wisely incredibly small.”

    (Ive removed the bait about water being a GHG).

  13. 463
    Nick Gotts says:

    I think the most recent rapid rise in oil prices is in large part a speculative bubble, as money has been pouring into commodities generally – food and metals as well as oil – as the dollar falls and property prices in the US slump. The measures the Fed took in an effort to avoid recession have exacerbated this, as the lowering of interest rates has hit the dollar badly. Being a bubble, it is bound to burst sooner or later, and prices will fall – although not back to the level of a couple of years ago. So anyone starting coal-to-oil production on the assumption that prices are going to stay as high as they are now will probably get burned.

  14. 464
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Mashey,
    I am curious about the underlying dynamic behind Rosenfeld’s law, which (for the benefit of those not familiar) states that the amount of energy needed to produce $1 of GDP decreases by 1% per year. For the more familiar Moore’s law, there is (or at least was) a physical basis–CMOS scaling. This was a sufficiently reliable guide at least into the ’90s that CMOS devices from that era would have been recognizable to engineers from the ’70s. From the mid-90s onward, Moore’s law has been more a guideline of economic necessity than a recipe for building transistors. The physical implementation of this economic vision has relied in no small measure on activities loosely governed by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors.
    In contrast Rosenfeld’s law has held for >150 years–with no coordination or planning, so evidently we are still in the organic phasw. So what is the underlying driver? Would it be possible to accelerate the rate of energy savings and take advantage of the underlying trends through coordinated action? Do you know of any research that’s been done along these lines?

  15. 465
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Sherrington, how about increased efficiency? How about diversification of our energy sources so that we are not dependent on a few families in the Middle East for energy security? How about research into new energy sources? How about a new transportation infrastructure that is not dependent on petroleum? And yes, reforestation projects at the very least buy time, and time is a very valuable commodity? Need I continue? The problem is not in finding worthy projects for expenditures, but rather on keeping the system efficient and preventing politics and special interest from prejudging the outcome.

    In any case, the purpose of either cap and trade is to ensure that energy resources reflect their true cost–and that includes environmental damage such as climate change. (One might also factor in the cost of maintaining a navy in the Persian Gulf to ensure unimpeded access to energy, but that is probably a bit more controversial.)

  16. 466
    Rod B says:

    I know this is dragging on too long, but people trying to get things done through other entities really should understand them through something other than myopic agendas. I’ll try to be simple. Nick (441) quotes part of a statute establishing the legal framework for a corporation that discusses how the directors and officers are to focus on the interest of the owners, meaning functioning as a legally bound fiduciary. To the legislatures drafting legal statements about a legal business entity and actually using words relevant to that (Well, Duh.), he somehow finds nefarious. Presumably the legal parameters establishing corporation shouldn’t say anything about directors not stealing owners blind, and instead should have emphasized, say, being nice to children, no swearing or cussing, planting flowers, and helping old ladies across the street. Get real. Even then the reference is magnitudes away from the original bone of contention that corporations “…are not allowed to care about anything beyond shareholder profit…”, and “…legally bound to consider only maximising shareholder value…”, or that corporations are “legally bound to..” destroy the environment, kill employees and customers, and “prepared to sacrifice untold lives in pursuit of [their] own selfish interest” (my emphasis), or CL’s “…maximizing returns for shareholders, regardless of detriment to everyone else…” none of which bear any semblance to reality.

    Nick, I did initially think you were calling all business people psychopathic, but corrected myself when you explained the personal characteristic of psychopathology, incredible as it states, was actually given to inanimate objects like corporations. Frankly, sounds like a bit of a dodge, but I might be wrong…

  17. 467
    JCH says:

    Nick, my on-topic point was that 2% is a very low interest rate. Nordhaus used 4%, and Dyson called that conservative, which is a dubious claim at best. I don’t know if one can characterize 2% as a social discount rate (probably not {some might call it sort of kind and gentle!}), but it looks to me like the generation of Americans and Canadians who made the deal with Britain gave up some of their 1946 financial comfort for the betterment of later generations in all three countries.

  18. 468
    Rod B says:

    CL (446) and Nick, et al, a more composed response is this. It makes no sense to award a corporate charter to an entity (of people) that wants to make widgets only if they put something totally different, like planting trees (to make up an example), at a higher priority. Why would anyone who knows about making widgets that people want, want to invest in an entity that primarily has to plant trees? Society would end up with neither widgets nor trees. It is infinitely more simple and effective to apply legal ground rules around a corporation’s (or any business entity) operation — done all the time– to incent them to make widgets in a socially responsible way. You do not have to (and I say should not) alter the corporate charter mechanism to force the widget maker to clean up the state’s rivers; but you certainly can, with ease and minimal but worthwhile disruption, make sure the widget maker doesn’t dump tons of nasty pollutants in the river.

  19. 469
    Rod B says:

    raypierre (453), interesting. I have a sandbox-1 question. Are you saying that coal-to-liquid and tar sands base produce more CO2, joule for joule, than “regular” oil? And/or that it takes more energy (and CO2 emissions) to extract coal-to-liquid and tar sands, joule for joule?

  20. 470
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ah, here’s the website, Rod, you can find discussion material here. Good place to go to read up on and talk about opinions on that:
    http://www.thecorporation.com/index.cfm?page_id=38

  21. 471
    John Mashey says:

    re: #464 Ray

    I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to the question about Rosenfeld’s Law, which is definitely only a rough guide, as there have been plenty of local jiggles. A good chart is Figure 2.3 of Vaclav Smil’s “Energy at the Crossroads” (good book). It shows Canada, US, and UK on roughly parallel (decreasing) tracks for energy/GDP [UK being most efficient].

    Japan is shown as roughly *increasing* it’s energy/GDP until ~1970, then decreasing and flattening, but at about 2X lower (better) than US.

    For sure, there are country and regional differences as well as policy differences.

    I’ve got to run out, but:
    1) Robert Ayres + Benjamin Warr “Energy & work as drivers of economic growth” is a good book that talks about a lot of this in great detail. I have a pre-publication copy, but it’s pretty extensive. So that’s research from the biohysical economics side.

    2) As to research about explicit efficiency actions, coordination, etc see my post #216 [rummage around in Rosenfeld’s talks, see the talk I linked to]. Then see California Energy Commission, especially the topics listed at the right side of their page. Among others, Stanford & UC Berkeley both have substantial research efforts.

    3) Would it be possible to accelerate? sure. California manages to be almost as good as Japan, despite the very different conditions. There are state-by-state differences, but if the US as a whole managed a few more of the same policies, we’d accelerate strongly. Just the change in PUC rules alone would make a huge difference. Have you checked the PUC rules in your state? Do utilities make more money by creating more megawatts or do they get rewarded for efficiency? That sort of thing helped CA flatten KWh/person since 1970s, while US average (including CA) rose 50%.

  22. 472
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #468.

    [edit – please keep the rhetoric down. It may make you feel good but doesn’t aid dialogue]

  23. 473
    Rod B says:

    Hank! Hank! Hank! There are no discussions there. Only prejudiced rants and selling of books and movies.

  24. 474
    Rod B says:

    John (471), did you just forget? Or do you think the California way, with blackouts, energy companies going bankrupt right and left because of the State’s actions, some going out of business, building no new or upgrades in power plants, transmission lines, oil refineries, and only a piddly pipeline or two for near decades, etc., etc., etc., and the State itself struggling to stay alive and getting virtual handouts from the rest of the country… is a good thing?

  25. 475
    David B. Benson says:

    Rod B (469) wrote “Are you saying that coal-to-liquid and tar sands base produce more CO2, joule for joule, than ‘regular’ oil? And/or that it takes more energy (and CO2 emissions) to extract coal-to-liquid and tar sands, joule for joule?”

    Yes. Yes.

  26. 476
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., Hmm, let’s see. California generates 13% of the US GDP. If it were an independent country, it would rank 8th in the world. I wouldn’t say they’re hurting too badly. What is more, as energy prices rise, energy efficiency is likely to become a critical factor in economic success–and possibly a growth export market.

  27. 477
    Hank Roberts says:

    > California … State’s actions

    Yep, it was a terrible mistake for the State to deregulate the public utility system and require the utilities to divest their rate-controlled generation sources and sell them to outsiders who could manipulate the market by limiting power to boost prices.

    Look what happened. The IEEE, among others,
    http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/freeabs_all.jsp?arnumber=1466909
    points to the lack of price caps and the mess that resulted:

    “California deregulated in 1998 but the deregulated market was not structured efficiently and allowed some companies to manipulate the market by sending the power out of California and then reselling it back into the state. The utilities were not allowed long-term contracts and were required to sell many of their existing plants. California’s experience is unique; in fact, when done well, the success stories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, England, and Japan show the benefit to both consumers and sellers from electric utility deregulation. Deregulation has been successful in New York, Virginia, and Ontario by protecting the customers from price volatility by price caps. By definition, price caps are not effective in a deregulated market, however, a price cap (i.e., a little regulation) to protect consumers in the transition period to deregulation is good. The price caps can be removed at a later date when the deregulated industry has matured like the power market in New Jersey…..”

  28. 478
    Joseph Hunkins says:

    John Mashey: What was your question and reply from Nordhaus?

    Ray wrote …energy resources need to start reflecting their full cost–including environmental degradation. Whether that is via cap-and-trade or via a carbon tax is less important. I’m a bit leary of subsidies to particular technologies, as I don’t think it is wise to prejudge the outcome for what new technologies will emerge. However, I think R&D seed money is definitely warranted…

    Ray these are both very good points.

  29. 479
    John Mashey says:

    re: 476 Ray

    In 2001 balance of payments, CA paid the biggest subsidy (Taxes to Fed) – (Recvd from Fed), -$63B, with NY 2nd at -$47B. In subsidy/capita, CA was 13th (-$1,869/capita), with CT 1st at -$4,333. There are of course plausible reasons for many states to be net recipients. On the other hand…

    AK (which has no income tax, and sends money to everyone every year) somehow also managed to get $2,900/capita more than they sent. [And their legislature wants to spend $2m of that to hire researchers to prove polar bears are just fine.]

    re: 479 Joseph Hunkins

    I haven’t contacted Nordhaus. I certainly need to do some more work first.

  30. 480
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rod, re The Corporation, I’d made an earlier post before the movie’s website — it must be hung in the spam filter. Search Google Scholar using the name of the book and its author — you will find several academic studies and discussions based on it, in business journals, and some other places where discussion will be possible.

    Sorry that post didn’t show up. Another try:
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?&q=Bakan+Corporation+movie+book&btnG=Searchhttp://scholar.google.com/scholar?num=100&hl=en&lr=&newwindow=1&safe=off&q=Bakan+Corporation+movie+book&btnG=Search

    The list Scholar provides of papers citing the book is a good start:
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?&cites=14291858687210066050

  31. 481

    Rod B #468:

    You do not have to (and I say should not) alter the corporate charter mechanism to force the widget maker to clean up the state’s rivers …

    Methinks you’re declaring war on a strawman here. The problem isn’t that corps are single purpose organizations aimed at maximizing profit within the law — that’s the only sensible way for them to work.

    The problem is that we as a society have given them powers they are unequipped to handle, like freedom of speech (which constitutionally includes campaign financing in the US), which they are obliged under law to abuse as serves them best. This is poison to a functioning democracy.

    They wouldn’t dare to do the things they’re doing (and yes, for some that includes killing people) if they couldn’t “own” decision makers and opinion builders!

  32. 482

    Rod B writes:

    Or do you think the California way, with blackouts, energy companies going bankrupt right and left because of the State’s actions, some going out of business,

    I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the blackouts of the early 2000s were caused by Enron-controlled power plants being told in phone conversations to shut down briefly or reduce power. I’ve heard the tapes of some of those conversations. They were creating artificial shortages in order to jack up the price. I think that’s one of the things Enron officers were convicted for.

  33. 483
    CL says:

    Rod B (466) wrote :

    “…or CL’s “…maximizing returns for shareholders, regardless of detriment to everyone else…” none of which bear any semblance to reality.”

    Whose ‘reality’ are you living in, Rod B ? I find your injunction ‘Get real !’ gratuitously offensive. Perhaps there’s a clue to your position on ‘reality’ when you complain about the hardships of living in California.

    There are many millions on this planet whose lives (and whose reality) are blighted by multi national corporations. The crimes and detrimental irresponsible conduct of corporations are well documented.

    http://www.corpwatch.org/

    http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=170

  34. 484
    Nick Gotts says:

    Rod B,

    I note that you have ignored almost all the points I made in support of my view in #441.

    Robert Hinkley, whose article I linked to in #441, suggests amending the statute I quoted so the relevant passage would read:

    “…the directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the corporation and of the shareholders, but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the communities in which the corporation operates or the dignity of its employees.”

    Would you have a problem with such an amendment? I would consider it a considerable, though by itself insufficient, step in the right direction.

  35. 485
    Ken Milne says:

    Re: Tim McDermott Says:

    Wind Energy Myths from the US Department of Energy says

    “Rates for electricity from wind plants being installed today are comparable to wholesale electric power prices of 2.5¢ to 3.5¢/kWh.”

    and

    “2. Wind energy requires a production tax credit (PTC) to achieve these economics. True, but every energy source receives significant federal subsidies; ”

    This is complete twaddle. Which justifies people’s skepticism over other claims governments make (as if there isn’t enough evidence to that effect already)

    First this $.025/KWhr number is only operating costs. If you want to get the % of wind up in the US you have to BUILD more plants. When you factor in the capital cost for an entity constructing a wind farm it needs about $.13 to $.14 per KWhr over at least the first 15 years to pay off the investment plus the operating expense. It’s just lying to compare a wind farms operating cost to the all-in costs of other technology and say they’re equal.

    Traditional energy facilities (coal, natural gas) DO NOT receive government subsidies except sometimes in the form of reduced real estate taxes to the local town, which is a rounding error on the other costs of building a new facility. There is no Federal government subsidy of any type for coal and natural gas.

    But all this obscures the question of where dispatchable energy comes from under draconian cap and trade or other CO2 schemes. Costs aside, neither wind nor solar can power a modern economy yet those favoring steep and immediate cuts in fossil fuel use blithely toss out renewables as the answer. This is more fantastical than Dyson’s CO2 eating trees.

    How about a couple facts, as inconvenient as they are.

    1) Wind doesn’t reduce GHGs. Because the wind can stop blowing at any time, coal and gas plants have to keep spinning even though they reduce their output to let the wind power onto the grid. They’re still burning fosil fuel. (Except in unique cases like Denmark where connected hydro ramps down quickly, but where’s the GHG saving in that, you’re just substituting one non-fossil fuel source for another?)

    2) Wind doesn’t blow when you need it to. Just last year, for example, ERCOT (the system operator for the Texas grid, one of the most promising wind resources in the country) determined that only “8.7% of installed wind capability can be counted as dependable capacity”.

    Wind, and solar, are not the answer. There may be other technologies further off, and building a lot of nukes will help, but there really isn’t a good solution today.

  36. 486
    JCH says:

    Ken Milne:

    ” At the same time, wind does not blow at a constant level, and in Texas is often at a low level at the time of the peak electrical demand during summer afternoons. ERCOT studies the availability of wind generation using its historical wind generation data. Using 2006 data, ERCOT has determined that 8.7% of the installed wind capability can be counted as dependable capacity during the peak demand period for the next year. Conventional generation must be available to provide the remaining capacity needed to meet forecast load and reserve requirements. …” – ERCOT

    They’re talking about air conditioning Texas in the summer.

  37. 487
    Rod B says:

    Ray, I was talking of California then when it was running out of energy while simultaneously bankrupting or stifleing most of their energy producers. I don’t know what effect on their GDP — then.

  38. 488
    Rod B says:

    Hank (477), all accurate, aggravated by the knee-jerk caps the State put on Utilities were lower than their cost (partly due to what you said) — not a good business plan.

    I’ve always been dubious of utility deregulation, but the successes (seemingly and so far…) you cite and California’s disaster remind me of an old business saw with more truth than humor: Anything you want to do is neither good nor bad so long as you recognize only two ways to do anything: 1) smart; 2) stupid.

  39. 489
    Rod B says:

    Barton (482), yes, Enron played their little part in aggravating and taking undue advantage of the California situation. As did a bunch of others. But laying the entire responsibility on them is just buying into the conventional (but wring) wisdom and the State’s exploiting a ready scapegoat “devil” to pass their responsibility off on.

  40. 490
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ken Milne wrote: “… neither wind nor solar can power a modern economy …”

    Multiple studies have show that they can, your unsupported assertions notwithstanding.

  41. 491
    Rod B says:

    CL (483), If you think State corporate charters require them to kill people, destroy things, etc., or that you can correct all corporate evils and get them all to act and do as you wish (which I admit might be nice — but nirvana) by simply changing the State charter system, you’re living in La-La Land. That’s what I clearly meant by ‘get real’. Has nothing to do with the bad actors that anger you so.

  42. 492
    Rod B says:

    Nick (484) re the suggested charter wording, “…the directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the corporation and of the shareholders, but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the communities in which the corporation operates or the dignity of its employees.”.., repeated here for precision.

    Yes, I think this wording is faulty and virtually meaningless. Does it sound good and desirable? Yes. But here’s the problem: the officers and directors have no idea what they are expected or supposed to actually do. I don’t mean in the platitude realm like Miss America’s ‘I want to eliminate poverty in the world’, which sound good and may even be serious. I’m talking about what they do where the rubber meets the road, exactly what they do when they show up at their desk at 8am Monday morning. Does the CEO decide to make widgets to make a lot more money (while satisfying the public’s appetite for widgets, btw)? He/she can’t. He first has to figure out the effect on the environment (with almost unbounded parameters), if it detracts from any human right (got to do that one at a time, after the list is in hand), if it hinders public safety, messes up the city, or annoys all or some employees (and, btw, in my experience there is not a single thing that a company decides to do that doesn’t bother at least one employee) — none of which he/she has the faintest idea how to do with any specificity. So he can’t make widgets, completely contrary to the shareholders interest. Can’t do anything! The CEO has no explicit direction to follow. Doesn’t know who to call or email first; what meeting with which attendees needs to be held; even if it’s O.K. to even drive to work.

    Nor can you say that the State will simply subjectively monitor and assess intent. This never works in the real world. It’s how we got quotas from an EEOC plan that only required “good intention and effort”. (This was not some sneaky gotcha. It was completely pragmatic. The EEOC had no possible method to measure effort, other than counting numbers.)

    It sounds good, but has no practical use. As I have contended before, all of those things are infinitely easier to do (and are done) with real effect by simply passing laws that bound a corporation’s actions, which btw, if criminal, the corporate officers and directors are not shielded from liability. If you want more effort to mitigate global warming, offer any company a 100% tax credit to, say, build photovoltic cells. You’ll get a pile. Like T. Boone Pickens, former oil/gas tycoon, investing $1B in a North Texas wind power farm relying in part on the operational cents/kWh subsidy. Put “mitigate GW” in the charter, you’ll get zilch, nada, nothing.

    I tried to address post 441 in 466.

  43. 493
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 485 Ken Milne “Wind, and solar, are not the answer. There may be other technologies further off, and building a lot of nukes will help, but there really isn’t a good solution today.”

    One possible solution for the future is synthetic organic solar cells: http://www.richardcorfield.com/pages/other_writing/moving_finger/18-20photosyn.pdf
    [The author, Richard Corfield, is an earth scientist and writer based at Oxford University]

  44. 494
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, you would do well to read up on the Enron debacle–much of the energy shortage was a creation of Enron to drive up prices. Yes, there are NIMBYs in CA, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on them.
    As to corporations, I think people often forget that their actions are dictated more often than not by shareholders, and shareholders think quarter to quarter or at most year to year rather than long term. And shareholders (both institutional and individual) are “encouraged” to think year to year by the tax code and by other artificial constructs (figuring growth annually for mutual funds, etc.).

    Now there are certainly some corporations like Enron that are pathological and ruthless, but many corproate leaders may be tempted by such behavior because the market rewards it. Likewise if things were constructed to reward longterm thinking and sustainability, we might better encourage such behavior.

  45. 495

    There are many millions on this planet whose lives (and whose reality) are blighted by multi national corporations. The crimes and detrimental irresponsible conduct of corporations are well documented.

    CL this is correct, but since it is also true that hundreds of millions are advantaged by corporate behavior and hundreds of millions more are “blighted” by Government and non-corporate behavior. Reason demands that we look at the balance of all these forces. Like most who study this extensively I see the balance sheet as favoring corporate style capitalism with some modifications rather than a complete overhaul. Humanities shame is the extreme poverty we allow to continue for about 1 billion people. Generally they are not in a state of multinational exploitation, rather they are *not participating* in our multinational economy. Bringing them in should be the priority rather than killing the gooses laying all the golden eggs. It’s not a fixed sum game, so how do we maintain the production while doing a better job of providing for those who are poor? The answer is to bring them into the game ASAP.

  46. 496
    Hank Roberts says:

    > bring them into the game

    The game is what’s been eroding topsoil and breeding antibiotic resistance in farming.

    What’s needed? A game that doesn’t degrade but restores life on the planet.

  47. 497
    CL says:

    Joseph Hunkins (495) My remarks were in response to Rod B’s comments, which I find reflect the complacent, BAU, attitude, and which remerges in another guise in his post 492

    “…So he can’t make widgets, completely contrary to the shareholders interest. Can’t do anything! The CEO has no explicit direction to follow. Doesn’t know who to call or email first; what meeting with which attendees needs to be held; even if it’s O.K. to even drive to work.”

    So, what are you saying, Rod B ? CEO’s are just too dumb to be able to cope with the difference between right and wrong ? Maybe you are correct.

    http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/top100.html

    Joseph Hunkins, I recognize that corporations are not the only problem, and I have already conceded that not all corporations are unethical. My point was (about a mile up the page) that the way they are structured is intrinsically incompatible with sustainability. You’re not going to raise the standards for the poorest billion by wrecking the total ecosphere. How does one get large rich powerful entities like DuPont to comply with basic ethical conduct ? Perhaps someone can tell me ?

    Rod B has argued that I’ve cherry picked some atypical rotten apples, because I live in Lala Land, and don’t understand that widget makers like Monsanto and DuPont have CEO’s that are just to busy and too dumb to be troubled about morality…I don’t think that this kind of attitude is acceptable; Everybody’s future is effected by what these corporations do. They have power without responsibility, e.g. concerning DuPont :

    “The company has consistently treated the long-term interests of humanity as largely irrelevant” Curtis Moore, Former Counsel to the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

    [Response: Enough of this. We’re not a blog on corporate law or corporate ethics — the Editors]

  48. 498

    Ken Milne posts:

    Wind, and solar, are not the answer. There may be other technologies further off, and building a lot of nukes will help, but there really isn’t a good solution today.

    Wind and solar are a big part of the solution. Solar thermal power plants (not photovoltaic power plants) store excess heat in molten salt and release it at night; some achieve nearly 24/7 operation that way. And don’t forget geothermal, which is also available 24/7. And regional grids would level out local wind inconsistencies. We need to build a direct current transmission system starting immediately. And let’s not forget ocean thermal power, wave, and tidal, and sustainale biomass fuels (not corn-to-ethanol, obviously). Wind and solar can’t do it all now, but they can do it all eventually if we invest that way.

  49. 499

    In response to John Mashey on low carbon taxes.

    A lot of energy decisions happen at the margins, and a small tax on carbon can flip the economic decision from “use carbon fuels” to “use alternate energy fuels”. Residential solar is circa $0.22/kwh for optimally designed fixed position systems, last time I checked. Add in tracking, or switch over to wind, and the marginal difference for coal generated power begins to decline. It’s that marginal difference, not the absolute magnitude, that matters most.

    I’d expected to see a far greater drop in oil consumption when oil reached $130/bbl. On the other hand, I’d thought it would take longer to get here. The next few years ought to be interesting.

  50. 500

    1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for.

    Uh, we already have “carbon-eating trees”. They are called “trees”.

    This gets back to one of my earliest posts here — we should be sequestering any carbon we can get our grubby little fingers on. We have a ready source of abundant heat (the sun) to convert anything containing carbon into carbon blobs. How many square miles of land are needed to produce how many tons of “carbon-eating trees”, and how much does it take to fell a tree and carbonize it if someone doesn’t care about knot holes or whatever?