Global Warming – The Rest of the Story
One of my children has asked for a redo of my May 15th with additional information especially about the politics of Global Warming so this is my response.
The bottom line is that Global Warming is real, and the world is going to change for the worse over time if we do nothing but continue to burn fossil fuels to support our civilization. The key points here are “do nothing” and “over time”. The world is huge, and the CO2 buildup is relatively slow with several CO2 sinks in operation (especially lakes and oceans which absorb CO2 gas, plus rocky outcroppings which absorb CO2 to form limestone). So don’t expect a rapid increase in average temperatures or a decline in the environment that some “green warriors” are spouting. You will see definite incremental changes over your lifetime but no catastrophic loss of food supplies or lives. Note, that global weather and global warming are not the same thing. Global weather varies over ten-to-twenty-year cycles such as the El Nino/La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean which brings extended periods of drought to the western United States and very wet winters to my area in the Pacific Northwest. Global Warming can exacerbate La Nina, but it doesn’t cause it, despite what politicians in California are telling you.
I remember the “Limits to Growth” (LTG) crises back in the 1970s. Computer modeling done at MIT was showing that the world population growth was far outstripping the growth in food supplies and other resources and unless the world stopped having babies, we faced mass starvation and a general collapse of industry and starting in 2020. See figure 1 below.
Figure 1 – Limits to Growth World3 Modeling Results
The computer modeling, then as now, said we faced certain disaster, and the Democrats were funding Zero Population Growth (ZPG) organizations and talking about mandatory birth controls, while the Republicans were saying technology growth can handle the problem and there is no need for the government to act. Does this sound familiar? The Chinese, who were struggling with food and resource shortages during the 1970s, took ZPG one step further and instituted a one-child policy in 1980 where if your first child was a boy you were to abort any further children. This has seriously backfired for them in that each adult is now responsible for the welfare of eight grandparents (the Chinese don’t have a social security program), and their population is aging very quickly and will start to decrease very soon.
Why were the LTG models wrong? The simple answer is advancing technology. Engineers found substitutes for many critical materials that were a limiting resource, and biologists bred superior seeds to greatly increase the yields for basic food crops (by factors of two and sometimes three). So, by the year 2000 Limits to Growth had ceased to be an issue. Meanwhile, improved education worldwide has contributed to declines in the World’s birthrate to where we expect the globe to reach ZPG before the year 2100. Hence, it doesn’t appear that LTG is going to make a comeback.
It is my opinion that Global Warming has become a political issue just like Limits to Growth and our political parties have taken positions much like they did during the 1970s and 1980s. Once again, the Democrats are using the issue for political gain and control, and the once again the Republicans believe it will become a non-issue in a decade or two. Who is right? I would wager that they are both right and both wrong. Limits to Growth was exceedingly easy to solve. All it took was some brilliant people in the private sector and their financial rewards were generous.
Limits to Growth was really a modelling problem. The MIT LTG models didn’t include a factor for technology improvements and that negated their final results. Global Warming has similar problems in that their factors for technology improvements are not well defined (it has is hard to define something that hasn’t happened yet), but Global Warming is more than a modeling issue and will not be solved easily.
I’m a System Engineer and solving hard technical problems is what I did for a living for fifty years. The main issues to be solved with Global Warming are to: 1) stop the increasing the flow of Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere, 2) reduce the total Greenhouse Gases currently in the atmosphere, and 3) reduce the Earth’s average temperature during 1) and 2) so we don’t melt enough ice to flood major cities and island populations. There are several proposed approaches to solve each of these issues, but they require technology breakthroughs and massive amounts of investment.
The key to solving problem 1) is reducing the cost of alternatives to fossil fuels. In most of the world power generated by fossil fuels is cheaper than power generated by wind or solar. You can see this in figure 2 below that plots the levelized cost of power for natural gas, solar, and onshore wind over time. Levelized means the availability of each source is included (solar provides 25% of rated power on average and onshore wind provides 33% of rated power over time). In the USA reusable power is subsidized. Subsidies are not included in figure 2.
Figure 2 – 2018 $/MW-hr and value/cost ratio for new Powerplants (2020-2050)
It is apparent why natural gas combined-cycle powerplants are the majority of new electrical generation powerplants funded for construction in the last five years as shown in figure 3 on the next page. What surprised me in this figure is how few nuclear powerplants are being developed and how far down the development Geothermal Powerplants are.
Figure 3 – Recent U.S. Power Plant Capacity Added
The solution for problem 1) is twofold. First replace all of the world’s oil and coal-fired electrical powerplants by natural gas combined-cycle powerplants as soon as it economically feasible starting with the older powerplants first. This reduces the overall CO2 emissions because natural gas burns cleaner and is more efficient (less CO2 per megawatt hour). This is the cheapest way to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions.
Secondly, while replacing all of the old oil and coal-fired plants spend adequate research monies for a low-cost zero-emission replacement for the natural gas-fired powerplants. This could be hydro, nuclear, or Geothermal, but nuclear is realistically the only option since both hydro and Geothermal have limited sites where they can operate. The nuclear powerplants I would propose are not like the large pressurized-water fissions reactors currently in use, but relatively small, factory-manufactured, metal-cooled reactors using partially-enriched uranium
or thorium to eliminate most nuclear waste and proliferation issues. The key development issue is reducing the cost of these fission powerplants to where they are cost competitive with the natural gas plants they are replacing. If they are significantly more expensive than the natural gas plants, I fear a large portion of the world will stick with natural gas.
If fusion power can be demonstrated in the next five year (definitely a possibility), then we try to develop small factory-built fusion plants to be cost competitive with natural gas plants.
I believe that Global Warming can be solved and relatively easily, but it is going to take time and money so the Democrats are going to have to face the real issues and develop a measured plan, and Republicans are going to have to acknowledge a real problem exists.
Our main hurdle to solving Global Warming seems to be our own government. Instead of funding advanced research and development for essential base power options like geothermal, fission, and fusion they are conducting a war against fossil fuels guaranteed to inflate the cost of living and please their political donors. This is not right and is going to slow down real progress on reducing global warming. Somehow, we need to introduce a solid development plan into the Global Warming debate. Next is the data defining the underlying problem.
Our government has focused on using carbon taxes or production limitations to increase fuel prices, discouraging people of limited means from using fossil fuels. I believe this campaign to be unethical. A primary problem in the world today is poverty. Energy is a basic good, both in itself, and because food prices, being highly dependent on transport costs, largely track fuel prices. All sales taxes are regressive, but because they target basic goods, and do so on the basis of mass, rather than cost, carbon taxes are ultra-regressive. A $50 discount store dress incorporates the same amount of carbon in its production as a $500 high fashion dress. A conventional sales tax would hit the expensive dress 10 times as hard. A carbon tax would increase the cost of both by the same amount. So really, carbon taxes can be viewed as a scam for transferring the tax burden from the rich to the poor.
With respect to problems 2) and 3) there are several methods to reverse the Earth’s rise in average temperatures. One is to capture the CO2 from the atmosphere and either pump it into reservoirs underground or turn back into something useful like plastic, but that is currently too expensive using existing technologies. The third option is to inject aerosols into the upper atmosphere to increase the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), thereby decreasing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and reducing the average temperature even with increasing CO2. This happens naturally whenever there is a major volcanic eruption. For instance, the year without a summer (1816) was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.
Current Green-Warrior’s dogma embrace the first two solutions, but absolutely forbids any work or even mention of the third possible solution. I don’t profess to understand why Geoengineering a solution to Global Warming is absolutely forbidden, but they shut down a preliminary Geoengineering test using a balloon proposed by MIT to fly in Sweden last year.
Current energy generation projections (figure 4) show the magnitude of the problem.
Figure 4 – Projections of Global Energy Consumption by Energy Source
If you look at projections of global energy consumption worldwide, the burning of natural gas, petroleum, and even coal is predicted to increase out past 2050 and there is no hope of eliminating fossil fuels before 2080 without hundreds of trillions of dollars investment in nuclear powerplants. The data in figure 4 is from the organizations building and operating the current energy infrastructure. They know what is required, what is available, and what it is going to cost. They can see fossil fuels are not going away without tremendous breakthroughs in technology and prodigious increases in funding. It is just not going to happen, and the Biden administration is ignoring their own published data because it is politically inconvenient.
The alternative to nuclear power is building enough batteries to make solar and wind powerplants a reliable source of power. There are two problems with this. The first is cost. Adding enough batteries to make a solar farm generate power through the night triples the cost, making it only cost competitive with current nuclear powerplant numbers, but not competitive with natural gas. The second problem is materials availability. There is not enough lithium and cobalt readily available on the planet to convert all the gas-powered cars into electrical vehicles, let alone back up all the windmills and solar plants needed by 2080.
Now, one would think that environmentalists, concerned about “the existential crisis of climate change,” would support nuclear energy. But of course, they do not. In fact, they seem to hate it with a passion—even exceeding their animus towards fossil fuels and all other technologies. Many people are understandably baffled by this. But the reason for it is simple. The environmentalists hate nuclear energy because it would solve a problem they need to have.
The Biden administration, unfortunately, is beholden to environmentalist organizations for a significant chunk of its electoral funding and support. So, it cannot cross them. Thus in February 2022, even as Putin was gearing up his fossil fuel funded invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to curtail the duration of the operating licenses of several nuclear power plants.
This summarizes where we are now. It is not a pretty picture. What approach would I recommend?
First, I would do away with the Biden rules to increase the cost of fossil fuels. Given the war in Ukraine and the fact that the world will be burning fossils fuels until at least 2080, it is stupid to not increase production in the U.S. and reduce the free world’s energy costs. This is especially true for natural gas.
Second, I would fund a “Project Warp Speed II” to build and test compact, factory-built, fission reactors to get the capital costs down below those of solar farms plus batteries. The goal is to convince third world countries to replace their fossil-fuel powerplants with nuclear powerplants. As part of that effort, I would provide supplemental funds to many of the private companies in the U.S. currently building and testing fusion test reactors. If a cost-effective fusion powerplant were available fossil-fuels will disappear even faster.
Also, I would make funding available to the most advanced private companies designing and building carbon sequestering devices. They are a longshot, but innovation could bring a breakthrough.
Finally, I would approve preliminary testing of some Geoengineering concepts. It is dangerous to mess with the world’s weather, but if we understand how to control it, we could make the environment less painful while we wind down the Earth’s CO2 content.
The bottom line is that Global Warming is a serious threat to some parts of the world, but it’s not happening soon, and there are solutions out there to mitigate the risk. Unfortunately, it has become a political pawn to play and that is obfuscating the real work that needs to be done to solve the problem.
Thanks for Reading and Stay Safe,