On Global Warming: What Is Practical?

599px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17My goal is to propose a solution to global warming that creates the greatest good for the most without in anyway undermining individual freedoms. I propose a solution that is neither of the left nor the right, but instead that cherry-picks good ideas from across the spectrum of thought, and that would make everyone better off. I propose a reasonable balance of environmental effectiveness and cost effectiveness, that we can proudly pass on to our children and their children.

Some on the left propose solutions that are very expensive and will pass vast debt, inflation, and a greatly reduced standard of living onto our children. Some on the right choose to ignore the problem, saying it does not exist, having no thought for anyone but themselves, and don’t care if we pass on an ecologically damaged planet to our children. Neither approach by itself is helpful.

Environmentalism has, historically, produced many good outcomes for society, that were the greatest good for the most people. Lets review the record: Toxic compounds, such as dioxin, were banned, after causing a variety of cancers and diseases. Heavy metals, such as lead, which cause brain damage are no longer found in most consumer products. Recycling, especially, of energy intensive materials like aluminum and exotic ones like titanium, save a lot of money over mining and smelting new ore and are beneficial to all. Certain areas of only very minor interest to human development have been reserved for, or returned to nature, thereby providing some areas of natural scenic beauty for generations to come.

Currently some environmentalists are doing the world a disservice in their fight against global warming – because they are ignoring the effects of their program upon peoples freedom and their standard of living, both now and on into the future.

Lets review the facts: Environmentalists can show that the average temperature of the earth’s surface is rising, and will likely continue to rise for the foreseeable future. What’s more, they can show that human activity is by far the most likely and most significant of the several plausible causes of this warming. Finally they can show that certain harms will likely occur if this is left unchecked. These harms include increased severe weather, species extinctions, desertification of certain equatorial regions of the world and flooding of certain low lying coastal regions.

The conservatives can show that these harms would be offset by a number of goods: the loss of the arctic icecap means we can ship goods through that ocean, vastly reducing time and cost on shipments from Asia to and from Europe and the East coast of North America. Higher temperature means that Canada and Siberia become habitable, farmable and that the vast oil, gas and mineral wealth of Canada, Siberia, Antarctica and the area under the Arctic ocean become cheaper to extract and use. For example, in Greenland, people are able to grow vegetables for the first time. All other things being equal, plants, such as timber and crops, etc., grow faster and produce more, when its hotter. They also note that the earth’s geological record shows that the earth has warmed and cooled up to 10 degrees C or so on its own for millions of years – think of the ice ages. This geological record suggests that we are due up for another ice age sometime in the next millennium. Might a little global warming some day come to be a good thing?

To be fair, the good effects of global warming are not enough to offset its harmful effects. To continue to be fair, the net effect of all changes due to global warming are not anywhere near as bad as advertised. Global warming is a problem worth making a reasonable and honest effort to reverse. The challenge is to find cures that are not worse than the disease.

The following approaches offer sound solutions to global warming:

  1. Attempt solutions now that are simple, effective and cost effective such as: energy efficiency, recycling and substitution.

  2. Research into energy alternatives.

  3. Fund an insurance plan for those who will suffer harm despite a reasonable effort.

  4. Debate about funding incentives and tools for population control only for those who volunteer of their own free will.

1. We should pick the low hanging fruit. Energy efficiency in manufacturing is a key area of opportunity. Many industries use hot operations, such as steel making. Certain fuel cells are currently being introduced that cost effectively recapture some of the heat to generate electricity to power subsequent machining operations. Many factories could operate their processes at full power by using the waste heat of a neighboring industry. This is something effective and cost effective that can be done right now.

I also recommend home energy efficiency improvements as they are both effective and somewhat cost effective. You will not make as good a return as the historical 10.9% returned by the stock market during the 20th century – but you will be doing your part to make the world a better place for your children. For example, in 2007 and 2008, I thoroughly improved the energy efficiency of my house: First, I replaced all 26 windows in my house with Energy Star rated double pane windows. Second, I insulated my attic with cellulose to a depth of 19 inches (R-60) and my walls to 4 inches deep (R-13). Third, I installed weather stripping around all doors, and sealed all other places, with foam, any place that I felt cold air leaking into my house. Fourth, I installed a water heater blanket, and hot water pipe insulation. I did the entire installation myself, and my upfront expense, for all of this, was $6600, plus my time. My natural gas supplier reports I used 48.6% less Mil (thousand) Cubic Feet of gas in April 2008-April 2009 than in April 2006-April 2007 – the year before I began the improvements (88.5 MCF in 2009 vs. 137.1 MCF in 2007). Last year was also one of the coldest winters on record in the midwest, so I expect my savings next year to exceed 65% At $10 per MCF, 48.6% saves me $555 per year and 65% saves me $726. At $15 per MCF, the savings are $833 and $1114, per year, respectively. Theoretically, you should also save a little bit on your electric, because you are not running the furnace’s blower fan as much either (my electric usage did not decrease however). Assuming a $500 upfront tax deduction, a 28% marginal tax bracket and a special energy efficiency loan from your bank with a 2.5% rate of interest to pay for it, this pays for itself between 6½ and 14 years depending on the price of natural gas ($10/MCF or $15). If the government would allow the entire installation expense to be tax deductible, the payback period would shrink to between 4½ and 10 years.

Recycling of goods made from metals, glass, plastic and paper all save vast amount of energy over producing these items from raw materials. For example, recycling aluminum pop cans saves up to 95% of the energy of making a new one. The amount of energy needed to make a new 12oz aluminum pop can is roughly the same as the energy contained in enough gasoline to fill that pop can. Recycling saves a large amount of the energy used for many other goods too. There was a large interest in the 1990s in recycling, that has since waned and the percentage recycled remains low for many goods that could be viably recycled. This is because it is not as easy for individuals to recycle as to throw away, and because the total cost of recycling is often about the same as the cost of making new, so adoption remains low. A modest outlay for incentives might get the industry established permanently. Recycling is an effective and cost effective thing that we can do right now.

Many industrial gases are very potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere, such as sulfur hexafluoride, which is 22,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide per unit mass. Certain of these gases have effective substitutes. Since they are so much more potent, it would be a very good idea to substitute away from them immediately. This is an easy option that is both effective and cost effective right now.

2. Energy is a critical topic of the debates around environmentalism, and is vitally important for reasons other than the environment as well. The main problems with energy, in order of importance are (1) its expensive, (2) we will always need an increasing supply, despite the earth’s finite supply of fuels, (3) a significant portion comes from certain other scary countries, such as Russia or the Arab countries and (4) it pollutes. Any change to our energy supply must address all 4 issues very well, or its not worth doing. Energy is already very expensive due to the cost of generation and distribution. Environmentalists tout clean energy as the answer to all our problems. Environmentalists want to immediately increase the price of all other energy sources until they are worse than solar, the most expensive renewable, through various taxes and the cap and trade system (solar costs 10-15 cents per kilowatt hour to generate and distribute – compared to 2 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour for coal). Notice that requiring clean energy be used going forward helps with problems 3 and 4, but makes problem 1 and 2 much, much worse. There is not enough of it to meet demand, and much of what there is is very expensive. Fighting global warming, at all costs, is not making the greatest good for the most. It is making the greatest goof – an even greater goof than ignoring global warming totally.

Do we, as a society, understand that requiring only clean energy to be installed from now on means our standard of living will fall, by a quarter or more, depending on the energy used to produce what you consume? Do we want to pay 3 to 5 times more for our energy for the rest of our lives? Do we really want to reduce everyone’s standard of living? Shouldn’t we instead be increasing the standard of living, especially for the most impoverished? Understand that inflation is forever. Reductions in the standard of living can only be countered by increases in productivity – which is impossible to increase enough when your energy costs 3 to 5 times as much. As they say, payback is a bitch. Just as we do not wish to pass on a fouled environment to our children, we also do not want to saddle them with an intractable economic mess.

A better way is needed that is both effective and cost effective. Clean energy should have some place at the table, based upon its cost-effectiveness. Wind, geothermal, and hydro power are currently ready and cost effective. Industry has been receptive, and, for example, nearly all sites that are suitable for geothermal and hydropower in the world are in use or under development. Wind power use is making quick strides too in its cost and amount of wind needed to work. Unfortunately, the best wind sites are mostly away from populated areas where consumption occurs. It would be insane to invest huge sums of money building transmission lines out to very many rural wind-power sites, and then lose over 30% of the electricity to electrical resistance in the power lines over the long trip back to cities. These are good technologies, and they should be employed, as much as we can cost effectively do, because they address all four of the energy problems. Given a choice, we should always use these technologies whenever and wherever they are cost effective. Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough of these 3 energy sources to power the entire world.

The other renewables have very daunting issues. Solar power using photovoltaic cells costs about 10-15 cents per kilowatt hour compared with about 2-3 cents for hydro, 2-5 cents for coal, 4-5 cents for nuclear fission, and 4-6 cents for wind. A promising alternative form of solar power, using mirrors to heat a chamber of water to turn a turbine, instead of photovoltaic cells, is being researched, and should be considered at such time as it can be used cost effectively. Tidal power is still in proof of concept stages, and should be reconsidered at such time as researchers can identify its cost effectiveness. Biomass, from crops, are expensive in themselves, reduce the availability of food and increase its price. Ethanol has been shown to reduce cars’ gas mileage and destroy a variety of engines and related equipment. Toyota just had to recall vehicles because of this problem. (Second generation bio-fuels, such as those using crop waste as feed stocks to make regular diesel, should be developed, and deployed at such time as they become cost effective.) Nuclear fusion, is still being researched and developed. If fusion can be commercialized, it offers hope in the very long term. By the next generation of humans, we need to begin doing something to address all four of the energy issues, which were again: cost, scarcity, much of it comes from scary countries and pollution. In the meantime, we need to allocate enough money to research and development that at least some of these alternative energy sources can become both effective and cost effective.

Currently, coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fission make up the bulk of energy production. Excepting oil, these are cheap, and excepting oil and coal, they are decently clean. I agree with the environmentalists that we need to phase out heating and electric generation with oil, not for environmental reasons, but because oil is needed for plastics, chemicals, lubricants and transportation fuels. Coal and nuclear fission are amazingly cheap. They should be increasingly used while research continues into nuclear fusion and the renewables. Unfortunately, both generate a lot of opposition: coal for its pollution and nuclear for its waste. There is no further cost effective remediation of pollution from coal plants. That is OK – nothing can beat the cost per kilowatt-hour of coal – or its availability to power our country for hundreds of years into the future. Coal generated electricity should continue to be our main energy source going forward into the short to medium term. Given the many pressing energy problems we face, we should increase the use of coal – even if it worsens global warming a little bit in the short term. Once we have finished developing clean energy technologies that work at an acceptable cost, then we can and should begin to replace coal.

Nuclear fission, too, has much potential, particularly in overcoming the objections about its waste. Presently, we store radioactive waste in big containment ponds (of water). Why can’t we instead reprocess nuclear waste like the French? For decades, the French have safely reprocessed about 3/4 of their waste to reuse as fuel at a cost cheaper than disposing it and mining new uranium. Why can’t we dump the other 1/4 that is not reuseable into the ocean (a super-sized containment pond), like the Russians have for decades? A thin titanium skin, should encase each waste unit in a protective coating that would prevent the waste from dissolving into the ocean and entering the ecosystem. The vast mass of the ocean around it would absorb the heavier decay particles that are the overwhelming cause of radiation poisoning in life forms. (This would not cause radiation contamination of life forms, unlike Chernobyl or a bomb test, because the waste could never be released as small inhalable or ingestible particles.) With a little luck, we could dump the waste in a geologically active area, and hope it subducts under the crust of the earth and is stored there for the next few billion years (natural nuclear decay inside of the earth is a main source of the heat that makes geothermal energy possible). Nuclear fission can and should provide much of our future energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency, and others, should help spread best practices in safe nuclear power generation.

Energy is a hotly debated topic and requires much discussion. Those on the right say there is no return to spending money on energy R and D. This is obviously naïve. History teaches us that R &D spending, on average, produces a good return on investment. For example the money James Watt spent developing the steam engine, indirectly enabled the Industrial Revolution, and most modern consumption. The billions of dollars spent on space technology have yielded a variety of advances in materials and electronics. Some of the environmentalists want to jump in immediately to unproven technologies, spend a lot of money and create a lot of regulations thay ultimately will reduce everyone’s standard of living. As currently conceived, their cure is worse than the disease… Some environmentalists want to prevent global warming and related changes from occurring by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, emitted into the atmosphere by human activity. To accomplish this, some environmentalists want to reduce the use of energy by increasing its price, using a so called cap and trade system. That would limit the overall amount of carbon dioxide emission and charge business money for emissions. Some environmentalists also want to replace the use of carbon-dioxide intensive fuels like coal with renewables, that are currently very expensive to produce, by taxing fossil fuel energy until it becomes equally expensive. They also want to change the way consumers use energy, for example, by taxing it more heavily, and by reducing driving speeds and power of cars. Understand that amount of goods and services that can be produced by a given amount of energy is already increasing as fast as it can. Any increase in the price of energy isn’t going to make some genie appear out of his lamp and double our productivity. An increase in the price of energy is just going to increase the price of goods and services depending upon it (which is everything).

The right also points out that some environmentalists also want to put a lot of restrictions on the rights of people. (To be fair, I find it amazing that these are some of the same people on the right who support torture and warrantless wiretapping!) Recently it was proposed to reduce energy consumption by tracking people’s driving and billing them per mile. Last year, the governor of Oregon proposed to give each person a carbon dioxide allowance and punish anyone who exceeded it. These proposals are unacceptable, because they reduce liberty and privacy, which are the goods that most make life worth living. Why live life if you can not live free?

3. No matter how much is done to offset global warming, certain regions of the world will be severely effected. For example, no matter what we do, the Maldives islands will someday be submerged in their entirety. An insurance plan, should be funded by the governments of the world to help them relocate to somewhere else that is becoming more livable, such as Canada. Some environmentalists think many people will need help. Lets not be selfish. A key portion of this agreement should include provisions committing all countries to the same standards, of both insurance fund commitments and emissions, so that trade and production will be disrupted as minimally as possible. The exact method how should be left to the diplomats to work out.

4. Currently, most of the work on environment and energy focuses on how to reduce the pollution per person, while at the same time, producing more goods and services per person. Notice these 2 goals are inherently in conflict. What if we instead focused on capping the total number of people?

The Chinese, currently, are the only country that practices population control. Their harsh methods have given it a very bad image. What if other methods were used? Many lower income people, world-wide suffer impoverishment because they are unable to control their family’s births. For only those who are willing to try it, free condoms, spermicides etc., coupled with economic and educational incentives to limit births per family should help these problems all at once. We should, at least, debate about this idea.

Global warming is a legitimate problem that should be worked on. It is not as harmful as advertised, because it is being offset by certain inherent goods. It is not the only problem facing human society and it must be balanced with other concerns such as increasing the standard of living, particularly for the impoverished. Right now there are several easy things we can do to effectively and cost effectively reduce the global warming: recycling, production efficiency, and a balanced mix of current energy technology, including as many renewables as are cost effectively possible, and the remainder from coal and nuclear. Research and development needs to be continued into renewable energy so that it can become an increasingly larger part of the solution. In addition to devising ways to reduce carbon dioxide produced per person, it might be useful to give incentives to individuals to voluntarily slow the growth of total number of people on Earth. Whatever is done, it must respect the rights and freedoms of the individual, and it must not reduce peoples’ standard of living. My cherry-picked, compromise solution is not going to restore average temperature to what it was in 1700. It will allow us to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.

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