Archive for the 'environment' Category

Clean Coal Unrealistic?

Now I know there are some with a vested in clean coal, but this is a pretty scathing article from the Economist.  True?

“Despite all this enthusiasm, however, there is not a single big power plant using CCS (carbon capture and storage) anywhere in the world.”

“CCS particularly appeals to politicians reluctant to limit the use of coal. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels…Yet burning coal is one of the cheapest ways to generate power. In America, Australia, China, Germany and India coal provides half or more of the power supply and lots of jobs. Rejecting cheap, indigenous fuel for job cuts and international energy markets is seen, naturally enough, as political suicide. CCS offers a way out of this impasse.”

“The problem with CCS is the cost. The chemical steps in the capture consume energy, as do the compression and transport of the carbon dioxide. That will use up a quarter or more of the output of a power station fitted with CCS, according to most estimates.”


Conspicuous Consumerism

conspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgNorwegian American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Conspicuous consumption has been discussed in the context of addictive or narcissistic behaviors induced by consumerism, the desire for immediate gratification, and hedonic expectations. 

Our friend Jared Diamond recently wrote a piece in the NYT about American’s “Consumption Factor” (which is 32 times that of Kenya and 11 times China).  He writes: 

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

So what is it that we are so conspicuously consuming?

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

(Source: The state of human development, United National Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)
Other sources:
Data from the World Bank for 2003

Let the Cascading Commence…

In “The End of Oil,” I believe the term used was “information cascade.” As much as I am trying to maintain my personal environmental beliefs while working for the energy industry, I have to agree that global warm-mongering may be skewing our ability to look at the theory empirically.

From the New York Times:

In 2008, a 100 Percent Chance of Alarm
Published January 1, 2008

I’d like to wish you a happy New Year, but I’m afraid I have a different sort of prediction.

You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change – and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record – it was actually lower than any year since 2001 – the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, it was supposed to be a harbinger of the stormier world predicted by some climate modelers. When the next two hurricane seasons were fairly calm – by some measures, last season in the Northern Hemisphere was the calmest in three decades – the availability entrepreneurs changed the subject. Droughts in California and Australia became the new harbingers of climate change (never mind that a warmer planet is projected to have more, not less, precipitation over all).

The most charitable excuse for this bias in weather divination is that the entrepreneurs are trying to offset another bias. The planet has indeed gotten warmer, and it is projected to keep warming because of greenhouse emissions, but this process is too slow to make much impact on the public.

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television; we underestimate the risks of dying from a stroke because we don’t have so many vivid images readily available.

Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting – or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

Global warming has an impact on both polar regions, but they’re also strongly influenced by regional weather patterns and ocean currents. Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention – and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory – and image of Katrina – presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

It was, of course, the paper in the more obscure journal, which suggested that global warming is creating more hurricanes. The paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes. It was published in December – by coincidence, the same week that Mr. Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Gore didn’t dwell on the complexities of the hurricane debate. Nor, in his roundup of the 2007 weather, did he mention how calm the hurricane season had been. Instead, he alluded somewhat mysteriously to “stronger storms in the Atlantic and Pacific,” and focused on other kinds of disasters, like “massive droughts” and “massive flooding.”

“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.” But he was being too modest. Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier.

Thinking Outside the Turbine

With the recent upswing in ‘green awareness’, alternative renewable energy sources are being touted as the saving grace- and they likely are. But, they are not without their flaws.

For instance, as of April 2007 wind farms in the US were producing nearly 12,000 MW. But, at what cost? For many, the sight of a few wind turbines can be an awe-inspiring experience. But, you start to amass these monoliths across our sweeping plains and awe can quickly turn to disgust.

Enter Shawn Frayne, and his tragedy-inspired approach to harnessing the power of the wind. In 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State collapsed just months after it was completed. The cause? Mechanical resonance. The wind swept across the bridge like a bow on violin strings causing it to vibrate wildly until it disintegrated.

Shawn has applied this same concept to his next-generation wind-harnessing design, which can be seen here. If he’s able to scale this design out, the results would be dramatically less obtrusive and more cost efficient!

Shawn also received Popular Mechanics’ 2007 Breakthrough Award for his design.


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