Global warming skeptics: What do they have to fear?

Global warming skeptics worry environmentalism may cripple economies with assorted misguided energy-related boondoggles, Finley writes. Anti-nuclear environmentalists, Finley adds, have increased electric bills and greenhouse gas emissions, over fears of global warming.

By , Guest blogger

This video, titled "Debating The New Environmentalism" and hosted by Time senior writer Bryan Walsh, is from the SXSW Eco 2012 conference, held last October in Austin, Texas.

For one, climate skeptics fear that people who are not qualified to opine on the complex topic of energy production may cripple economies with assorted misguided energy related boondoggles. Is that a realistic concern? What are the odds? I’m going to argue here that the odds are not zero. I offer as anecdotal evidence, the above video Debating The New Environmentalism hosted by Bryan Walsh, which I will eventually parse below. Interestingly enough, all three participants are wearing nearly identical shirts. Only Bill McKibben thought to wear his red power tie.

Push Me, Pull You

On one hand, it seems unlikely that global warming activists will throttle economies in large part because, as McKibben said, “We are losing badly.” He was referring to efforts to reduce carbon emissions.  But consider this, from Ask McKibben Anything: What About Nuclear Energy:

Recommended: Think you know the odd effects of global climate change? Take our quiz.

The advantage of nuclear energy is that it is largely carbon free …

So why is he against it?

It’s like burning $20 bills to generate electricity.

I’m not against wind if carefully sited to minimize bird and bat deaths, which hasn’t always been the case, but because wind is also “like burning $20 bills to generate electricity,” this is a case of deception by omission.

The wind tax credit was just extended for another year. First enacted by the Energy Policy Act twenty years ago, it has been extended four, make that five, times. Every honest estimate I’ve seen suggests that this credit costs taxpayers roughly a billion dollars a year, for a total of roughly $20 billion and counting. 

$20 billion is roughly the price tag of three conventional nuclear power plants, capable of producing about a third of present wind capability just from the extra cost of building wind.  52/19 = 3/x, x = 1.1,  (104 reactors, average of 2 reactors/power plant, 19% of electrical energy from nuclear, 3% from wind, $6.7 billion per nuclear power plant).

If wind is economically viable (cheaper than fossil fuels), why do proponents always insist that the industry will collapse if it loses that credit? And wind can only scale so far before it becomes prohibitively expensive to compensate for its intermittency. We need other low carbon sources of energy to compliment it, and nuclear should be one of them. It may be more expensive than fossil fuels in the short run, but obviously, so is the “wind-enhanced combined cycle natural gas power plant.”

Nuclear can’t do it all, but neither can wind and solar.

McKibben continues:

It wasn’t really environmentalists who put the kabash on nuclear power. It was Wall Street

Make no mistake about it, McKibben is an anti-nuclear environmentalist. At this point, climate skeptics should be getting nervous because it wasn’t Wall Street that throttled the economies of Japan and Germany by using fear tactics and misinformation to shut down their nuclear. That was the result of years of effort by anti-nuclear environmentalists. Japan is experiencing an unprecedented trade deficit to the tune of $32 billion dollars because their nuclear is on hold, never mind the huge increase in GHG emissions. France, which gets 70% of its electrical power from nuclear, emits half the CO2 of Germany and that was before Germany started phasing out its nuclear (instead of coal).

A few years ago McKibben had softened his stance on nuclear. I’m guessing that Fukushima emboldened him again:

Ironically, McKibben is one of those rare environmentalists who is willing to admit that nuclear must play a part in preventing global warming. Interviewed last July at the SolarFest in Tinmouth, Vermont, where he was the keynote speaker, McKibben said he knew nuclear was essential to reducing carbon emissions but didn’t like to say so in public.

“It would split this movement in half,” he said, gesturing to the youthful crowd, many of whom had camped on a hillside farm for three days.

He was right. Half the gathering was there to celebrate solar energy while the other half was campaigning to close down Vermont Yankee, the state’s principal source of power.

In the debate above, McKibben said that global warming is “going to determine what life is like for the rest of creation” …yet he just can’t bring himself to support the low carbon energy source that supplies 20% of all electric power at affordable prices to the most energy hungry nation on Earth, because, like wind and solar, it costs more than fossil fuels up front. And keep in mind, that a wind turbine is actually just a part of a hybrid design that includes a natural gas power plant.

It must be somewhat frustrating for James Hansen to have a partner who is essentially neutralizing his own attempts to promote the use of nuclear. No wonder they aren’t getting anywhere.

Seeking Common Ground

Back to the video at the top.

IMHO, the most knowledgeable guy on stage was Ted Nordhaus. However, he could have done a better job of talking about what he knew. Friendly note to Ted; you managed to say “um” or “ah” 62 times in just 6.5 minutes, for an average of ten times a minute.

Human history is essentially the history of warfare. In anthropology class you will learn that the area between warring groups is called no-man’s land. Ted has the unenviable position of being that reasonable guy standing in no-man’s land, dodging the rocks being thrown by both monkey troops. Unlike McKibben, he received no applause.

He began by asking if there were any climate skeptics in the room. As he suspected, there weren’t. He then made three salient points:

  1. In this world that we live in you decide what you think then you go find the experts that back that up.
  2. We went to half of the country and said that you have to support massive expansion of the federal regulatory state and if you don’t support that you are a science denier.
  3. If this room were filled with climate skeptics, I could guarantee you that 80% of them would be rabidly pro-nuclear.

Nordhaus was suggesting that maybe environmentalists should drop the requirement to be anti-nuclear as a tribal marker. It is not only a proven low carbon source of energy, but it would provide some common ground with climate skeptics.

Fracking

Nordhaus then brought up the subject of shale gas, which he appears to be in favor of as a transition fuel to lower carbon sources of electricity, like wind. His contention is that the potential for methane to leak and to contaminate ground water is a simple matter of properly plugging leaks, which he sees as a much more solvable problem than those associated with attempting to scale renewables.

I view a wind turbine as essentially a component of a natural gas combined cycle power plant that is connected to it via power lines. The wind turbine, when the wind blows, is being used to improve the power plant’s operating efficiency. Wind farms without gas backup are as worthless as rooftop solar panels that are not connected to the grid. Obviously, the less gas costs, the less wind costs, ergo, all things being equal, low natural gas prices will facilitate the expansion of wind power.

McKibben countered by noting that there are lots of reasons to be against fracking, particularly the “horrible effects on the landscapes where people live.” Never mind that this is the exact same argument used by opponents of wind power.

McKibben also claimed that cheap gas is undercutting the move to wind much faster than it’s undercutting coal. I doubt that is true.

When Nordhaus tried to explain to McKibben that cheap natural gas prices are enabling wind, McKibben cut him off, saying that gas backup of wind is an example of “old dogma giving way to new science”  claiming that “we are beginning to lick these intermittency problems …”

Lick them with what? Go to 15:53 in the video to see the incredulous look on the face of Nordhaus. I couldn’t find the study McKibben was referring to with a quick Google search, but Nordhaus was familiar with it. When Nordhaus tried to explain to McKibben what the study actually said, McKibben attempted to reword what Ted was trying to say (15:57 into video). Ted continued to explain only to have McKibben try again to reword what he was saying at 16:15 into the video.

With Nordhaus gaining the upper hand, McKibben strove to regain the confidence of the audience by falsely proclaiming “I don’t think we are having a huge difference here” which belied everything he previously said. And it worked. Listen to the applause at 16:47 into the video.

Ted continued until McKibben interrupted him once again, this time to administer the coup de grace with a self-deprecating joke. Listen to the laughter at 17:28. Ted sputtered on for a another minute or so before being politely prompted by the host to give it up at precisely 18:22 into the video.

Sitting silently through all of this was National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger. We donate to the Nature Conservancy which tends to stick to what it knows best. Larry apparently knows even less about wind energy than McKibben.

He offered McKibben his support saying “I’m from Pennsylvania, so I’m living with the fracking, and I understand, Bill, what you’re talking about with landscapes. Some of my favorite places, in fact some places I helped protect for the commonwealth are now being butchered.” He then turns to Nordhaus, “So I take that very personally…”

Am I the only one here wondering how this president of a wildlife organization would like it if someone plunked a landscape destroying, bird and bat blending, natural gas-backed wind farm down in one of these favorite places of his?

After just listening to Nordhaus try to explain to McKibben that wind can’t exist without gas backup, Larry tells the audience that we should take the money being invested in natural gas power plants and instead …wait for it, invest it in wind.

He then tells us that the stock price of Vestas, the biggest wind turbine manufacturer in the world has crashed“as a result of our dash to gas,”  but according to Market Watch:

… better stock performance by rival wind companies suggests Vestas’s struggles have as much to do with investor confidence and perceived mismanagement as lack of demand.

And from Wikipedia:

It is the largest in the world, but due to very rapid growth of its competitors its market share decreased from 28% in 2007 to 12.5% in 2009.

He also said that combined cycle power plants would have life spans of 30-40 years, creating sunk costs that will create an economic reason to keep using them. This may or may not be true:

….newer combined cycles have not been run long enough to obtain life-span operational and maintenance data.

But if so, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Wind, assuming that is a good thing, cannot exist without natural gas backup.

Natural gas companies love wind because it creates a demand for their product. Coal hates natural gas and nuclear as much as McKibben does. Confusing, isn’t it?

For some reason, the moderator gave McKibben the floor for the rest of the “debate.”  Overall he talked for half of the allocated debate period, leaving three speakers to share the other half.

At 20:44 he finally mentions his partner Jim Hansen …but not the fact that he is pro-nuclear, again deception by omission.

See Larry applauding enthusiastically with the rest of the flock 24: 38 into the video seconds before McKibben makes his exit amid a standing ovation.

Conclusions

Not only have anti-nuclear environmentalists, by spreading fear and misinformation for decades, managed to significanlty increase electric bills in two of the biggest economies on the planet, Japan and Germany, they have also managed to significantly  increase GHG emissions.

They are betting our children’s futures on the untested hypothesis that wind and solar will one day be able to carry the load without help from nuclear. Yet, very few, if any, expert nuclear proponents are naive enough to think nuclear alone can carry the day:

…this is something a smart grid could more easily accommodate [wind and solar intermittency] and, if the will (and money) materialize to build out a smart grid, the issue of renewable intermittence and nuclear energy’s usefulness as a full throttle energy source will reconcile.

It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that McKibben’s anti-nuclear stance is doing his cause more harm than good.  He admitted that he would lose followers if he gave up the stance, but at the same time, look at the present and very real impacts on Japan and Germany.

In addition, although his stance may keep his followers from splintering, as Nordhaus suggests, it has also hardened opposition.

Source: What Do Global Warming Skeptics Fear?

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