Climate & Energy


Dept. of Energy paints different picture of clean coal than president’s SOTU

Over at Solve Climate, David Sassoon is taking a nice leisurely stroll through the Dept. of Energy’s Carbon Sequestration Technology Roadmap and Program Plan (2007). Some astonishing sights await! First, he notices that despite some big talk in recent press releases, the DOE road map says frankly that "as a technology and a research discipline, carbon sequestration is in its infancy." Development and testing of key technologies is scheduled for as much as 12 years out. Then he notices that the DOE’s own estimates show that renewable energy is cheaper than clean coal. Then he notices, most hilariously of all, …

Brit's Eye View: Going nuclear

British government embraces a nuclear-powered future

Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, is the new author of Brit's Eye View, a monthly Gristmill column on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe. The column was previously written by Tuxworth's colleague Peter Madden. After much delay, the British government started the new year with an announcement on nuclear power generation. It seems they have finally succumbed to the prevailing industry logic, which says that we need big bits of power-generating kit to plug into the grid to provide base loading, and nuclear is the perfect low-carbon solution. And because investment in any other possible solution -- particularly energy-efficiency measures and renewable technologies -- has been so poor over the last 20 years, it is now the only answer to a coming crisis in energy provision. The crisis is with us because the existing fleet of stations in the U.K. is either already obsolete or coming up for decommissioning in the next few years. Paradoxically, this eases the question of where to build: most of the new plants will be built on existing sites. These sites are on the coast, raising interesting questions about the effect of sea-level change, but for now they're the obvious choice as, despite industry claims about improved safety, it will be very difficult to find new localities in which nuclear power plants are welcome. Presenting nuclear as the best option for the U.K. seems to require pretty healthy doses of both wishful thinking and faith in hope over experience. Bringing this new generation of power stations online in time to meet the gap in supply means they must be up and running in 10 years, very close to the theoretical minimum from decision to delivery. The only other station being built in Europe at present, in Finland, is two years into construction and already two years late, and $1 billion over budget. To speed things up, we have to wish away objectors and hobble the planning system, for which special legislation is already proposed. But the big debate at present is what the true cost of these installations will be. Who will pay for building, running, and more importantly decommissioning them, and management of the waste over the coming millennia? The British government is anxious to avoid any suggestion that the taxpayer will pick up the tab, despite the fact that no nuclear reactor in history has been built without state subsidy. Order-of-magnitude underestimations of costs -- some of which are simply unknown -- litter the history of the industry, and government bailouts have been the consistent consequence.

Concentrations v. emissions

Tackling the biggest source of climate confusion

Avoiding catastrophic global warming requires stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations, not emissions. Studies find that many, if not most, people are confused about this, including highly educated graduate students. I have personally found even well informed people are confused on this point and its crucial implications. We need to cut emissions 50 to 80 percent below current levels just to stop concentrations from rising. And global temperatures will not be stabilized for decades after concentrations are stabilized. And of course, the ice sheets may not stop disintegrating for decades -- and if we dawdle too long, centuries -- after temperatures stabilize. That is why we must act now if we want to have any reasonable hope of averting catastrophe. One 2007 MIT study, "Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults' mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter," concluded "Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change." Here is a great video clarifying the issue, which you can send to folks. It is narrated by my friend Andrew Jones: If you want to play the simulation itself, go here. They make use of the bathtub analogy: While atmospheric concentrations (the total stock of CO2 already in the air) might be thought of as the water level in the bathtub, emissions (the yearly new flow into the air) are the rate of water flowing into a bathtub.

Whither the alternative energy market?

Q&A with Eric Janszen on whether an alt-energy bubble is in the making

Eric Janszen Eric Janszen, the founder and president of, recently argued in Harper's Magazine that the alternative energy segment is a prime candidate for a massive asset bubble, potentially dwarfing both the dot-com and housing bubbles. I wrote about Janszen's prediction last week. This week, Janszen joins us for a question-and-answer follow-up.

Climate change leading to water shortages in U.S. West, says study

Remember water? We’re not quite at the point of calling it a thing of the past — but it sure looks to become scarce in the U.S. West, says a new study in the journal Science. It’s not natural weather variability or volcanic activity, say researchers, but quite clearly climate change that is leading to swiftly declining snowpack in Western mountains, which leads to rivers running dry, which leads to towns and cities short on what had been a consistent supply of power, irrigation, and thirst-quenching H2O. Climate change makes “modifications to the water infrastructure of the western U.S. a …

Tapper: still a hack; Clinton: still smart

Andy Revkin has a Dot Earth post today that reflects on Jake Tapper’s hackery and, in my humble opinion, lets Tapper off way too easily. Look at this: For his part, Mr. Tapper posted a series of updates through Thursday clarifying his intent, saying he found Mr. Clinton’s speech confusing and was posing questions more than offering criticisms. And his main point, he told me over the phone late last night, was to examine whether Mr. Clinton was portraying efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions as something that would blunt the economy. This is a point that other proponents of gas …

More than 1,500 schools participate in Focus the Nation events

As part of a national teach-in called Focus the Nation, more than 1,500 colleges and universities across the country yesterday put together panel discussions, workshops, and other events to build eco-action momentum among the yoots. Professors agreed to work climate change into their biology, politics, philosophy, and everything-else classes, and some schools brought local politicians in to speak. At California’s Loyola Marymount University, students dumped plastic bottles on the lawn to demonstrate student waste; at the University of California San Diego, a student dressed as a polar bear sat in a mock electric chair. The University of Oregon event was …

Oil industry barely hangs on, thanks to brave Republican defense of subsidies

You may recall that a couple of months ago, Republicans in the Senate threatened a filibuster to defend about $13 billion in oil company subsidies. In other news, Exxon Mobil just posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company in history — $40.6 billion. It also set a record for the largest ever quarterly profit — $11.7 billion. The second biggest U.S. oil company, Chevron, saw its profits rise 29% to $4.88 billion for the quarter. Clearly, this is an industry that desperately needs government help. Renewables are just going to have to wait until oil gets through this …

Green groups sue over delay in polar-bear endangered-species decision

Environmental and native groups have sued — as they are wont to do — in an attempt to force the Interior Department to rethink its decision to sell oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, which is prime polar bear habitat. The lease sale by the department’s Minerals Management Service is scheduled to go ahead next week; meanwhile, another agency in the department, the Fish and Wildlife Service, has delayed its decision on whether polar bears should be protected as endangered species. FWS Director Dale Hall told a Senate hearing Wednesday that while staff recommendations are complete, the agency …

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