Energy and climate change

Germany’s government says it will shut down its nuclear power industry by 2022. It  promises to reduce carbon emissions at the same time. To keep both promises through a combination of increased domestic output from renewable sources and lower demand for energy looks just about impossible. Most likely, Germany will have to import more energy–generated from nuclear and/or fossil-fuel sources. Quite what that achieves in terms of reducing the risk of nuclear accidents and diminishing global emissions of greenhouse gases would be hard to say.

Good editorials on the subject in the Washington Post (German’s nuclear energy blunder) and FT (The nuclear option).

Roger Pielke Jr draws my attention to this chart on relative radiation doses. Well worth a look.

With the restoration of power to the crippled reactors at Fukushima, and with the passage of time (allowing the nuclear materials to cool of their own accord), it may be that the worst is over. Let us hope so. Making sense of what has happened will take longer.

David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge, highlights our confusion over radiation risk in this excellent article for the BBC. The main thing we have to fear, he says, is fear itself.

It has been estimated that 17 million were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.

This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.

The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.

By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major.

Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging. You can pay £800 ($1000) and get a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up, but it can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.

Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

Meanwhile, in Taipei, a high-end restaurant is giving diners a geiger counter to scan their sashimi.

Expectations for the international climate change talks in Cancún are low, but not low enough. The failure of the previous gathering in Copenhagen ought to have ended any remaining doubt: the quest for a binding global treaty to cut carbon emissions, at least for now, is over.

Joel Kotkin has an excellent column in Forbes about the economic plight of California (thanks, RCP). The notion that the state embodies American enterprise and innovation at their most flourishing is seriously out of date. Broken government and a lagging economy have become mutually reinforcing, and the state seems to lack the capacity, or even the desire, to break the circle. As Kotkin says, California’s poverty and unemployment rates are two and three percentage points worse, respectively, than the national averages. Its income and sales taxes are very high–but not nearly high enough to cover the corresponding state-government outlays. A poll of more more than 600 CEOs ranked its business climate dead last in the US. People are moving out. Kotkin observes:

This state of crisis is likely to become the norm for the Golden State. In contrast to other hard-hit states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada, which all opted for pro-business, fiscally responsible candidates, California voters decisively handed virtually total power to a motley coalition of Democratic-machine politicians, public employee unions, green activists and rent-seeking special interests.

In the new year, the once and again Gov. Jerry Brown, who has some conservative fiscal instincts, will be hard-pressed to convince Democratic legislators who get much of their funding from public-sector unions to trim spending. Perhaps more troubling, Brown’s own extremism on climate change policy–backed by rent-seeking Silicon Valley investors with big bets on renewable fuels–virtually assures a further tightening of a regulatory regime that will slow an economic recovery in every industry from manufacturing and agriculture to home-building.

The state has placed a big bet on its “green jobs” strategy–a bet that voters endorsed on November 2 when they defeated Prop 23, which would have nullified California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. As a result, the state remains committed to a unilateral carbon abatement policy. This can have no perceptible impact on global emissions, of course. The case for the policy, aside from expressing solidarity with a cause voters believe to be right, is that the added regulatory burden on Californian businesses will stimulate the growth of new clean-energy businesses, and new green jobs. At least, this is what people tell me. A cruel delusion, says Kotkin:

Given the likely direction of the new GOP-dominated House of Representatives in Washington, massive federal subsidies for the solar and wind industries, as well as such boondoggles as high-speed rail, are likely to be scaled back significantly. Without subsidies, federal loans or draconian national regulations, many green-related ventures will cut as oppose to add jobs, as is already beginning to occur. The survivors, increasingly forced to compete on a market basis, will likely move to China, Arizona or even Texas, already the nation’s leader in wind energy production.

If California is an example of liberals living large, Texas–low taxes, friendliest business climate in the country, rapid middle-income job growth, net inward migration–is rather the opposite. They make for an arresting comparison.

The New Republic has posted some interesting pieces on the politics of climate change. Bill McKibben deplores the anti-science stance of the Republican party. Jim Manzi replies that McKibben and other climate-change activists have relied too much on stirring fear and exaggerating the costs of climate change–a strategy which, evidently, is no longer working.

This is the crux of problem with McKibben’s argument: According to the IPCC, the expected economic costs of global warming are about 3 percent of GDP more than 100 years from now. This is pretty far from the rhetoric of global devastation that McKibben, and so many others, use.

McKibben can use all the scare terms he wants, but this is not a prima facie case that we should want governments to reengineer the energy sector of the global economy coercively around the primary goal of lowering these projected future damages at the expense of, for example, more rapid worldwide economic growth.

Manzi is right about the disconnect between climate-activist rhetoric and the best estimates of what is at stake. The strongest argument for action is the the possibility of catastrophic outcomes much worse than the scenarios the IPCC and other modelers are discussing. Manzi dismisses this far too lightly. Attuning policy to this kind of small and unquantifiable danger is very difficult, but that is the challenge.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus take on the “green jobs myth”.

The Obama administration’s own analyses concluded that cap-and-trade would have resulted in net job loss, not job creation. That’s because the primary obstacle to building a clean-energy economy is not the absence of a carbon price, such as the one that would have been created by cap-and-trade. Rather, it is the vast price gap between fossil fuels and clean-energy technologies. While fossil fuels are energy dense, widely available, easy to consume, and supported by a well developed infrastructure, the alternatives are costly, cumbersome, intermittent, or all of the above.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus see little purpose in cap and trade, or other ways to raise the price of carbon. They want long-term public investment in green innovation instead. Must it be one or the other? These look like complementary approaches to me. Do both in moderation. The political challenge of bringing public opinion round has to be dealt with in either case.

I recommend the new movie by Bjorn Lomborg and documentary film-maker Ondi Timoner, Cool It, based loosely on Lomborg’s book of the same title. It is a reply to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and much better (effective though Gore’s movie was as propaganda). I went to a screening of the nearly final version at the Heritage Foundation yesterday. It is well done. Not just watchable but absorbing all the way through, and extremely persuasive.

I was a little concerned as the film got going that it would be essentially a profile of Lomborg. There’s a chunk of stuff at the start about what a nice guy he is. He has been a friend since I took his side in the controversy that followed the publication of the Skeptical Environmentalist–a terrific book–so I didn’t need to be told that he is conscientious, unfailingly courteous, and sweet-natured. Many others, I suppose, do need to be told this–since he is usually represented by environmentalists as a satanic figure, beguilingly kitted out in T-shirt and jeans, intent on planetary catastrophe. Still, I was glad the personal stuff quickly gave way to an urgent, intelligent, and entertaining account of the climate policy debate, with a strong focus on cost-effective solutions.

The report of the InterAcademy Council on the IPCC is a real step forward. The council, representing academies of science and equivalent bodies all over the world, assembled a review committee on the IPCC at the request of the UN and the IPCC itself. Its team was chaired by Princeton’s Harold Shapiro. How refreshing that it surveyed opinion very widely, and has grappled intelligently with the most persuasive criticisms that the panel’s adversaries have been pressing. I think it struck just the right balance between recognising the panel’s accomplishments and criticising its methods and organisation. The best part, though, is that its judicious stance may well achieve some useful results, because its recommendations are going to be difficult to ignore.

Climate-change sceptics are mostly celebrating a report that, they say, slams the IPCC. A little to my surprise, champions of the panel and its work see a report that, in the words of RealClimate, appears mostly sensible and has a lot of useful things to say. (The Washington Post, in one of the strangest pieces of commentary I have read in some time, sees the IAC report as an actual endorsement of IPCC procedures, as though the report calls on the panel to keep up the good work.) Contrary to what you might think, these apparently conflicting interpretations are encouraging. They mean that neither side is dismissing the report’s recommendations — which (whatever the Post may imagine) are substantive and far-reaching. Finally, consensus. Governments should get on with it, and make the recommended changes forthwith.

Everybody with the slightest interest in the subject should look at the executive summary, but the whole document is well worth reading.

FT column: Action on carbon is down the drain

My latest column is on climate change and the US

The Democratic leadership in the US Senate has suspended efforts to pass a climate change bill. It abandoned not only its planned comprehensive cap-and-trade measure, similar to one already passed by the House of Representatives, but also a more modest bill aimed at electric utilities. The Senate will most likely pass an energy bill of some sort, but this will barely even pretend to make progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

By way of preamble, let me remind you where I stand on climate change. I think climate science points to a risk that the world needs to take seriously. I think energy policy should be intelligently directed towards mitigating this risk. I am for a carbon tax. I also believe that the Climategate emails revealed, to an extent that surprised even me (and I am not new to this milieu), an ethos of suffocating groupthink and resistance to dissent. The scandal attracted enormous attention in the US, and support for a new energy policy has fallen. In sum, the scientists concerned brought their own discipline into disrepute, and set back the prospects for a better energy policy.

I had hoped, not very confidently, that the various Climategate inquiries would be thorough. This would have been a first step towards restoring confidence in the scientific consensus. But no, the reports make things worse, by failing to take seriously the charges that competent critics were actually making, and by failing to rule on the quality of the science, as opposed to the integrity of the scientists. The climate-science establishment, of which these inquiries have chosen to make themselves a part, seems entirely incapable of understanding, let alone repairing, the harm it has done to its own cause.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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