Archive for September 2008

A Good Case for Government Intervention in Energy

September 25, 2008

The energy crisis is not going to solve itself without government intervention in the form of taxes and incentives. That’s because while the free market can potentially tackle the problem, many experts on climate change have said that it cannot do that soon enough before we are already in a devastating free fall. While many libertarians (or “religious libertarians”- those who stick to extreme libertarianism) opposed climate change precisely because its solution would entail government intervention, now even libertarians realize that the government will have to step in if big change has to be affected soon enough. In an informative and engaging interview with Charlie Rose, Thomas Friedman gives a good example of why the government needs to shape the free market to move to a cleaner future.

He gives the example of someone inventing the first cell phone and bringing it to you. You would be willing to pay 1000$ a piece and buy 10 pieces because it’s going to be enormously useful to you. But naturally as many people invest in this product the way you did, prices will go down and cell phones will become widespread and cheap. Why can’t the same happen for, say, solar power (I am not really a fan of solar power but this is an example)? Why can’t someone bring an expensive solar panel to your house, expect you to buy it and watch as the cost curve goes down? Simply because right now you don’t recognise a real need or advantage for solar power. You don’t really care where you get your electricity from because it’s cheap.

But the reason it’s cheap is because oil has been subsidised. So the oil and gas market has never even been a free market. Friedman asks what would happen if you were asked to pay the full cost of the oil and coal that power your house. This cost would ideally also include the cost of deploying troops to the Middle East to secure oil deposits as well as the cost of maintaining friendly relations with the big oil producers there.

If you really had to pay this cost and if there were no subsidies for oil, then powering your home with oil would become about as expensive as initially powering it with solar power. Then you would be willing to give solar power a shot, after which economics would slowly work its way down the cost curve.

Clearly we will have to get rid of subsidies and perhaps tax oil if alternative energy has to become cheaper. The other thing we can do is wait until desperation, global energy conflict and disastrous climate change make us painfully aware of switching to other sources of energy. By then it would have been too late. That’s why the best option is to start right now and have government shape the energy market that was previously designed for dirty oil. Then market forces will work their magic and we can soon see a landscape of clean alternative energy.

Obama on Bill O’Reilly

September 11, 2008

Not that I need to give any blog-time to that obnoxious weasel, but when he asked Obama about the missile system in Eastern Europe, the good Senator agreed with him that the Russians don’t seriously believe that their ICBMs face a threat from American missile interceptors so nobody needs to worry about it.

But that’s of course not the point. It’s about unnecessarily messing up relations with Russia and all for installing a system for defending the country from non-existent Iranian/N.Korean missiles. But most importantly, why, why didn’t Obama cite all those studies saying that the missile defense is technically not feasible. Won’t it be the easiest way to demolish the slanderous O’Reilly’s arguments?

I just feel sad that when it comes to missile defense, Obama doesn’t enumerate the essential problems, or perhaps is not aware of them.

Tipping Point

September 1, 2008

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity
By James Lovelock
Basic Books (2007)

In this clarion call to arms, eminent scientist James Lovelock warns us cogently and eloquently of the impending doom that we have forced upon our planet by global warming. Lovelock is well-qualified to offer such gloomy predictions; it was this extremely versatile scientist who in the 1960s and 70s proposed the idea of Gaia, the notion that the earth is a self-regulating organism whose regulatory mechanisms are intimately coupled to the activities of species in its biosphere. One species- man- has tilted the balance of these mechanisms and thrown them into disarray. The species that will pay the biggest price for this deed is also man himself. Through careful speculation and excellent scientific arguments about details, he rationalized this notion until it has now become widely accepted.

Lovelock’s premier argument is that global warming (which he amusingly always refers to as “global heating”) has already rendered our planet incapable of the self-regulation that it has admirably demonstrated for millennia. The temperature rises which global warming are going to bring about are beyond those which the earth can endure in a homeostatic manner, and its catastrophic effects are likely going to manifest within decades. There is a horrific precedent for believing this; the same kinds of temperature rises fifty five million years ago led to catastrophic mass extinctions and sea-level rises, inducing an ice age that lasted 200,000 years. We are in danger of inducing such a global pandemic by our efforts right now. The most serious manifestation of man-made global warming is in positive feedback. Two examples suffice; the well-known melting of ice which leads to less reflection of sunlight which leads to more melting, and the heating of the upper layers of the ocean that kills algae. These algae are crucial players in maintaining cooling by the emission of sulfur compounds that serve to reflect sunlight from clouds. Lovelock documents both these effects well as well as others that are resulting from the ‘double whammy’ that we are serving our planet; simultaneously emitting CO2 and depriving the earth of biomass that normally absorbs it.

While the first part of the book describes Gaia and how it’s been affected irreversibly by global warming, the second part basically deals with the muddle headed perceptions of energy, food sources and environmentalism that affect many in the political establishment and media, most prominently environmentalists themselves.

There is clearly a rift between environmentalists that threatens to slow down action against climate change. One section, unfortunately the bigger one, is the more vocal one consisting of organizations like Greenpeace, who have a wrong-headed and irrational perception of environmentalism. They tout phrases like “sustainable development” and “renewables” without really understanding their limitations. They participate in emotion-laden protests and demonstrations just to prove their point. Their environmentalism mainly deals with trying to save cuddly creatures and colorful birds in remote parts of the world, while there are organisms much more in need of saving, including the microorganisms and algae which play extremely crucial roles in maintaining the homeostasis of Gaia.

The second group of environmentalists is a minority, and Lovelock is one of them. They understand that global warming has already done its damage and our goal now should not be mainly “sustainable development” but “sustainable retreat”. They understand that much more important than saving a few endangered species in New Guinea is to prevent deforestation and use of more landmass even in developing countries. They know that debate about saving the environment cannot be dictated by emotion. Most importantly they understand that nuclear energy is the best short-term and perhaps long-term solution for our energy needs.

When it comes to energy sources that we should pursue, Lovelock’s thesis is clear and rational. Renewables (solar, wind, biofuels) may sometime make a dent in the energy equation, but renewables are not going to save us soon enough. The phrase soon enough is important here. Lovelock is a reasonable man and does not discard renewables entirely. The problem is in trying to find good energy sources as fast as we can. But each one of the renewables is currently fraught with problems of inefficiency, environmental unfriendliness and lack of scale-up plans. Solar panels are expensive and inefficient. Wind farms consume huge tracts of land, land on which forestation usually soaks up carbon dioxide, and in addition need back up from fossil fuel generators when the wind is not blowing. Biofuels struggle with maintaining energy balances and pose similar land-use problems. It will be at least 50 years before renewables make a significant contribution to our energy needs and their use becomes cheap and widespread. But by that time it will be too late. The single-most important factor here is time.

The answer is clear and rational; especially for the short term future, nuclear power is the most efficient, readily available, widely-implementable, environment-friendly and safe source of power. Even if the problem of waste disposal is not trivial, it pales in comparison with the benefits we will incur, and especially the catastrophe that we will find ourselves in if we don’t do it.

While Lovelock hopes fusion will become important soon, fission is currently our best bet. We already have the technology unlike that for renewables. Its efficiency is marvelous- a good numerical argument to keep in mind is this; global CO2 emissions for a year make up a mountain that is a mile in diameter and sixteen miles in height, a behemoth. In contrast all the nuclear fuel providing power for a year will constitute a cube that is sixteen meters on a side. It was Lovelock’s espousal for nuclear power that represented a break from the ‘green’ party line. But now, nuclear is going to be as green as we can think of. To stave off fears of nuclear waste, Lovelock has even offered to bury the waste from a nuclear reactor in his backyard and use its energy for heating his house. In addition to these facts, Lovelock also clearly describes the paranoia that the public has for nuclear power, while all the time they face risks and dangers much more damaging and insidious.

One very cogent point that Lovelock makes is about how religious faith has caused problems in enabling our stewardship of the planet. He correctly points out that all religious texts were written at a time when man and his life were the focus. At very few places in the Bible or the Koran or even the Eastern texts is there an emphasis on the planet. None of the major world religions put nature before man. Now however, emphasizing man is going to be meaningless unless we emphasize Gaia, because without Gaia we won’t be around. There need to be new “religious” principles, infusing the care and stewardship of the planet into children’s minds, instead of the narrow self-serving interests of man that will become irrelevant once the sea-levels rise or the North Atlantic current slows down.

The same factor- time- that makes a good argument against renewables, also makes the strongest argument against libertarian “solutions” to climate change. Libertarians argue that the free market will eventually find solutions to the climate change problem without government intervention. But even if this solution might work in principle, ‘eventually’ is not going to be soon enough, good enough for us. We may have a little more than 20 years to beat a respectable retreat. For that we need legislation against carbon emissions, against use of oil for transportation, against land use right now. The libertarian approach may have worked 50 years ago when we had time. Thinking about renewable sources could have saved us if we had begun 200 years ago. But now even if these solutions work, they almost certainly will come too late to save us. As they say, “operation successful, but the patient is dead”. To save the patient in time, we are going to inevitably have to make compromises, sacrifice at least some of our freedom to large scale government actions. We have to operate now in a manner reminiscent of how we operate in wartime. In times of legitimate (and in these times I stress the word ‘legitimate’) war, citizens don’t complain about sacrificing freedom because they know their lives depend on it. Now Lovelock says we face a similar scenario.

It is very difficult to find wholesome solutions to climate change. We seem to have now done a good job of recognizing the problem in the first place. But unfortunately it’s too late to implement quick fixes that will wake us up from this nightmare when we will find that everything is all right. In an age where politicians are pushing for more oil drilling, rapid action and awareness is essential. We have to beat a retreat and live to fight another day, unlike Napoleon in Russia in 1812. For that we need coherent and rational thinking and global fixes, with all the compromises that they might entail. Going nuclear, and perhaps even indulging in grandiose fixes like “space reflectors” which reflect sunlight from miles-wide arrays, may be possibilities. Lovelock sounds an alarm in his book that is backed up by evidence and grim prognostication. Gaia will do whatever it takes to establish her equilibrium, equilibrium that’s inherent in the laws of her physics and chemistry, equilibrium that will be established even if it means the loss of humanity. As a pithy line in an X-Files episode once put it, “You can’t turn your back on nature, or nature will turn her back on you”. It’s simple.