David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

A leap of faith

Can we make a power shift without nuclear power?

Yesterday I noted that Judith Lewis' otherwise excellent piece on nuclear power elided what is, from the environmentalist's point of view, the central question: Could we achieve the same power shift away from fossil fuels without nuclear power? Latter-day green proponents of nuclear power say we couldn't, but that's all they do: say so. Why can't we get some kind of definitive answer? Lewis, in an email, says the question is just too damn vexed: The thing is, I could find people who could show you the math that says wind and solar could replace coal next year, and an equal number of sane and competent experts who would argue, convincingly, that they aren't. I don't think we'll know who's right until someone actually does it -- someone with huge piles of cash to pour into distributing renewable power on a large scale. That sounds about right to me. I've seen confident claims that plug-in hybrids alone could solve the energy problem, and equally confident claims that nothing -- no mix of solar, wind, nuclear, whatever -- is going to make up the difference from oil. I've seen a lot of confidence, but nothing that strikes me as dispositive. So how to puzzle through this question?

Eco-terrorist

The Seattle PI found one. (via Judith Lewis)

Late soul

Some six months after the cool kids did it, the American Prospect gets around to running an excerpt from The Soul of Environmentalism. I'm not saying. I'm just saying.

Lewis on nuclear

I highly recommend everyone read the Judith Lewis story (cited by Biodiversivist below): "Green to the Core?" It's as fair and comprehensive a look at the resurgent nuclear question as anything I've read. Oddly, despite the subtitle -- "How I tried to stop worrying and love nuclear power" -- one reaches the end of the piece not at all sure that Lewis has stopped worrying. In fact she seems more worried than ever. I have but one (rather large) quibble with the piece. Here's how it reads: It's a long examination of the very real dangers and pitfalls of nuclear power; and then, looming on the other side, you have Stewart Brand saying, "global warming would be worse." Almost all green pro-nuclear arguments amount to this environmental Sophie's choice. Either you accept nuclear power or you get global warming. Pick your poison. But Lewis doesn't really examine the very first and most important question: Must we accept that choice? Is it really true that only nuclear power can ramp up fast enough to roll back CO2 emissions? Is coal the only other realistic alternative? Lewis breezes past the question with a single quote from James Lovelock: "We cannot continue drawing energy from fossil fuels, and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time ... we do not have 50 years." Why should we simply accept what Lovelock says? It's fashionable to say something along these lines: To get the power we now get out of coal from wind you'd have to "carpet the Midwest with wind turbines" or some such. But this is a rhetorical gambit, not an argument. The real question is: Could we achieve the same power shift, with the proper investment of resources, with a combination of conservation, wind, solar, and hydrokinetic power? I'd like to think so. And I've yet to see a convincing argument that we couldn't. Shouldn't it be incumbent on advocates of nuclear power to make that argument convincingly before we hand over the keys to the shop?

Peak oil: Not an environmental silver bullet

Something's been bugging me about peak oil, and today we got a letter to the editor that crystallized it. I put it below the fold -- give it a read. It's this: Environmentalists seem to have a somewhat naive faith that once the concept of peak oil sinks in, people will move -- as though by the force of tides -- to support renewable, decentralized energy. But why should that be true? A much more natural, predictable reaction would be to push like mad for more drilling and for more coal gasification. Both more drilling and more coal-to-liquid-fuel production would fit better with our existing infrastructure and practices, however environmentally malign they may be. The economics of peak oil will scare and motivate people, but there's no particular reason the environmental aspects of it will grip them. You know? Anyway, read the letter.

Blogging from COP MOP

As I'm sure you all know, COP MOP started today up in Montreal. Several young bloggers are writing about their experiences at the non-official portions of the summit -- the rallies, the marches, the street-hockey games -- over on It's Getting Hot in Here. Check it out. (But people? The proper spelling is "herre.")

Political circus to distract from COP MOP

Oh fer chrissake. The COP MOP meeting in Montreal starts Monday. Guess what else is happening Monday up in Canadaland? ... Monday is also the day that Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party government is expected to fall in a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. Many of the Canadian cabinet ministers and other members of Parliament who were supposed to attend the conference will now be scurrying to the campaign trail instead. "It's the nightmare scenario that environmental activists around the world have been hoping would be avoided," said Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. Great. And it gets better. Meet Canada's environment minister, Stephane Dion: Mr. Dion, a mild-mannered man who wears a windmill pin on his lapel, has been credited by many environmentalists for his diplomatic skills with China, India and the Bush administration. He has pushed for international efforts to increase technological innovation like hydrogen fuel cells and methods for ... carbon sequestration, and planning for droughts and floods that he says will be consequences of the existing buildup of the heat-trapping gases. "What Canada will attempt to do is reach a rapprochement," he said. But about that rapprochement ... funny story: Should the Liberals lose the vote now expected in January, a minister from the Conservative Party - which is critical of the Kyoto Protocol and rooted in oil-rich Alberta Province - would probably replace Mr. Dion as president of the conference for the rest of the year. And I'm sure that Alberta oilman be working doggedly for an extension of Kyoto's mandatory CO2 targets. Can someone tell me why acts of fate keep sandbagging our biggest chances for progress on climate?

Geeks and peak oil

If you want to know what the young, internet-residing, tech-savvy crowd -- an influential if lamentably self-regarding demographic -- thinks about peak oil, read through the comments on this post over at Digg. Eye-opening, and not all bad.

The Man and the bus

Well, this is sure to increase ridership on public transit!

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