Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am David Frum | 67 Comments |

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Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!

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67 Comments so far ↓

  • balconesfault

    escapereality: 70 percent of our foreign oil comes from Mexico and Canada.

    The US imports about 370 million barrels of oil per month.

    Canada supplies about 80 million, and Mexico another 40 million (July 2009 numbers).

    OPEC nations supply about 140 million, with Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Venezuela accounting for about 70% of that.

    Escape’s grasp on reality is at least consistent.

  • EscapeVelocity

    I stand corrected.

    However my contention that North America rivals Russia or South Asia in its oil reserves is accurate.

    There is an oil boom going on in the Dakota area, however, Im sure the Environutters will commence to killing the profitability there, as soon as possible.

  • mycelf

    Getting back to the topic posted …

    Can anyone support and explain the “nuclear is the only viable option” position? Or is that just a tenet of faith that must be dogmatically accepted as true?

  • balconesfault

    escapevelocity: I stand corrected.

    But you shouldn’t have to be corrected.

    These aren’t some buried archane details, requiring access to business confidential databases or government clearance to obtain. Finding that info took me 10 seconds to type “US oil imports by country” into Google, and about 1 minute of looking at a very well laid out data table in the second hit to see it had everything I needed to disprove your claim.

    Making a claim like that is not a matter of interpretation, like “are we importing too much oil from OPEC?”, or “is the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve a form of socialism?”. It is a matter of fact. And you should not post facts to buttress your argument unless you’ve done the minimum of due diligence.

    Slow down. Fact check. Think.

    Hell – you don’t even fact check when you cite yourself.

    Above you write: “Canada, Mexico, and the US do indeed have more oil than the entire Middle East or at least comparable amounts”.

    Now you say: my contention that North America rivals Russia or South Asia in its oil reserves is accurate.

    The problem you have here is that unlike, say, Beck’s or Rush’s ability to prattle on and on during their shows with fake facts and made up statistics with nobody to rebut them … you will have people checking your work here. Up your game, and quit using bluster as an ink cloud to cover your mistakes.

  • EscapeVelocity

    balconesfault,

    Are you going to dig my grave because I admitted an error?

    And you wonder why we cant have reasonable discussions, anymore?

    The fact of the matter is that Canada has the worlds second biggest proven reserves of oil. The Dakotas are loaded. Offshore, you bet…but the Chinese are going to get the offshore Florida oil via Cuba.

    You are playing semantics now.

    South Asia is where the most oil is, it includes Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Burma. I wanted to clarify intent.

  • balconesfault

    escape Are you going to dig my grave because I admitted an error?

    Nope. I’m telling you to up your game because you made an error on such an easily checkable fact. When one is so absolutely sure of everything as you are – it is advantageous to make sure that what you’re sure of is true.

    The fact of the matter is that Canada has the worlds second biggest proven reserves of oil.

    OK. You do realize that when the US buys oil from Canada, it still adversely affects our balance of trade, and thus erodes the long term value of the dollar, right?

    You are playing semantics now.

    I am holding you to a standard. For example, your claim was: Canada, Mexico, and the US do indeed have more oil than the entire Middle East or at least comparable amounts.

    I would like to see your data. My data says:

    North America – 210 billion barrels proven oil reserves
    Central and South America – 123 billion barrels
    Africa – 117 billion barrels
    Asia and Oceana – 34 billion barrels
    Eurasia (primarily Russia and Khazakstan) – 99 billion barrels
    Europe – 14 billion barrels

    and … wait for it …

    Middle East – 746 billion barrels

    (Oil & Gas Journal, January 2009)

    So again, you made an absolutely wrong claim. Unless you think that 210 is comparable to 746.

    In which case you must also think that Brady Anderson is roughly comparable to Henry Aaron as a prolific Home Run hitter.

  • mycelf

    @escapereality and baconsalt:

    and this supports (or refutes) the idea that nuclear generation of electricity is the ONLY VIABLE alternative to fossil fuels how?

  • EscapeVelocity

    balconesfault, I think that is an unproductive argument. The figures everywhere are suspect, and we should really be counting oil shale and unproven reserves in Canada Artic and off the coast of Greenland. Bottom line is Canada is sitting pretty, which means we are sitting pretty.

    Ill state it again, Im for energy diversification. Not artificial energy scarcity.

    Im pro effecient vehicle design. Im pro electric vehicle/hybrid. Im pro hydrogen.

    Im pro grid improvement.

    Im pro micro energy self sufficiency. Building level self sufficiency.

    However, I dont believe the Anthropogenic Global Warming Claptrap. And see no reason to move away from Carbon fuels based on that specious humbuggery.

    National and Economic security however drives my position.

    And one last thing, cheap energy is what allows us to compete and be so productive. Without it, wages plummet.

    And as Walter Cronkite used to sign off…

    “And that’s the way it is…”

  • JJWFromME

    The Cap and Trade post came after this. What happened to it, Mr. Frum?

  • sinz54

    escapevelocity: However my contention that North America rivals Russia or South Asia in its oil reserves is accurate.
    There are huge reserves of oil shale in Canada. Literally over a trillion barrels of oil.

    But the Canadians won’t be inclined to strip mine all of Alberta, just so we can drive Ford Explorers. Everything has its price–but the price they’ll charge us for their oil may well be exorbitant.

  • sinz54

    escapevelocity and sftor1: I dont believe the Anthropogenic Global Warming Claptrap.
    The following refutation of the AGW skeptics’ arguments may come in handy in this discussion:

    http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php

  • balconesfault

    The following refutation of the AGW skeptics’ arguments may come in handy in this discussion:

    But this morning, once again, during his drivetime bit Rush railed against any attempts by Congress to limit our greenhouse gas emissions (right now he’s attacking cap and trade specifically, but if we switched to a carbon tax his attack would largely be unchanged) … and concluded by mocking the idea of a human contribution to climate change.

    I suspect a toss-off line from Rush has far more weight in escape’s cosmology than anything you could link him to.

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: I suspect a toss-off line from Rush has far more weight in escape’s cosmology than anything you could link him to.
    And he’s not the only one.

    Look at the misinformation being spouted by posters on TownHall.com:

    “So tell me, what is so terrible about ‘dependence’ on ‘foreign oil?’ If the foreigners are willing to sell us their oil in return for the stuff we produce (and they always will be by the law of comparative advantage), what’s the problem?” [Learn about the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo.]

    “…develop the Baaken Field in MT, ND WY & Canada. More light, sweet crude than in all of the oil in Saudi Arabia.” [The Baaken Formation has only 2.1 billion barrels. Saudi Arabia has 260 billion barrels.]

    “Pathetic truth is… the planet is not warming.. CO2 is NOT a pollutant… GW opposition petition from 13,000 scientists is summarily dismissed. Our massive oil, shale, and coal resources are being restricted, regulated, and held hostage, so Cap and Trade scam can be implemented. Damn the science, full speed ahead! The trucking industry is staggering under high fuel prices and opressive regulation, and we pay the price! Natural gas is good, wind and solar is interesting, ethanol is a joke … oil and coal are infinitely BETTER! It’s all about the MONEY and governmental control!!! ” [See my link to refuting the arguments of climate skeptics.]

    “Trains run on oil which we have at ANWR, shale oil, and offshore oil which we have in abundance, but the Obambacrats won’t let us drill for OUR oil. ” [How much environmental damage would there be to strip-mine the West for shale oil? And how much would that oil cost?]

    And this was in response to a column by Emmett Tyrrell, a CONSERVATIVE columnist, in which he pointed out that America only has 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves, yet consumes 25%.

    http://townhall.com/columnists/EmmettTyrrell/2009/10/01/freedom_from_foreign_oil

    The posters just ignored that, and spewed forth their own misinformation.

    The problem is not that commentators like Limbaugh are continuing to voice their own (wrong) opinions. The problem is that the followers of Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin, have closed their minds to any contrary opinions. They trust these commentators because these commentators tell them what they want to hear: That they are the salt of the earth and the only bastion against a socialist collapse. (cf. “Joe the Plumber” and Sarah Palin exhorting small-town America as the “real America.”]

  • EscapeVelocity

    To the winners’s (George Soros) go the spoils!

    US to Subsidize Petrobras’s (Soros is a big investor) Offshore Drilling

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203863204574346610120524166.html

  • EscapeVelocity

    Sinz, my position is perfectly reasonable. Furhtermore, we will use up other oil sources first before moving to our glorious North American bounty. We are in a very good position in the long term, oil wise.

    That doesnt mean we shouldnt diversify our energy sources and especially work on vehicle effeciency, electrical powerplants for vehicles, battery technology, wind, solar, micro generation, expanding coal and oil exploration and production domestically.

    Im for all those things.

    However you and Ballyworld are stuck on “mindless drones of Rushbo” narratives. You sound like a broken record, oblivious to what is being said to you directly. HELLO!

  • SFTor1

    Sinz,

    I have not come by my current opinion on climate change without reflection, so please spare me the “how to talk to a skeptic” pamphlets.

    As a matter of fact, every climate scientist should be a skeptic. It comes with the territory.

    Here is why I am a skeptic:

    Our empirical evidence tells us that global temperatures are fluctuating within a range that has been established from recent history (8,000 years).
    It has been warmer before, with no help from us, on at least three recent occasions (Minoan, Roman, and Medieval Warm Periods.)
    The end of the 19th century marked the end of one particularly cold period. We are now a few tenths of a degree Celsius warmer than that. A few tenths of a degree is well within the parameters of natural variation. Neither the amount nor the rate of warming we see today is unusual in climate history.
    Global temperatures have stopped rising, and are in fact declining. Scientists are now predicting that this could go on for some years or even decades. Although this is the case it is not a demonstration of anything except short-term natural variability in climate.
    The latter fact poses significant problems for the CO2-driven AGW model that is used by most scientists. The climate computer models did not predict a fall in temperatures, yet we are seeing one.
    CO2′s greenhouse effect is logarithmic. If there is no CO2, a small amount CO2 causes a fair amount of heat trapping. At today’s level (385 PPM) the added greenhouse effect is negligible.
    The climate computer models in use today barely backtest, and have no predictive ability. This is not my opinion, but that of several research papers. The main reason they have no predictive ability is that global climate is a chaotic, non-linear, coupled system. It is by its nature largely unpredictable.
    The main internal climate regulator on the planet is water. 70% of its surface is covered by oceans. The water cycle is a major climate regulator that interacts with cosmic processes such as solar wind. The water cycle is incompletely understood and extremely poorly modeled. In most climate models it is included as a constant, and usuallly as a positive forcing.
    I believe that most scientists who believe AGW is upon us are well-meaning and sincere. I believe they have been caught up in a groundswell that has made dissent uncomfortable.
    There are more than enough serious scientists who do not agree with AGW in its current form. They have a bit of a problem getting heard, but their opinions and insights can easily be found online.

    Those are some of the reasons for my skepticism to many of the AGW claims being made.

    I am a committed environmentalist. I believe our most pressing problems is to regulate ocean fisheries around the world, now and not tomorrow. This is an urgent issue that will take a massive effort to solve. Water is another major issue in many areas. The American MidWest is in serious trouble, as they Ogallala aquifer is in danger of being depleted. Water is a serious issue for survival, especially for children, in many developing countries.

    Many AGW proponents argue that droughts, extreme weather, etc. will increase with rising temperatures. There is no support for this contention, and the opposite seems to be the case with for instance hurricanes.

    To anyone who is interested I would recommend watching Professor Bob Carter’s (James Wood University, AU) talk on CO2-driven AGW here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOLkze-9GcI

    He seems to be a reasonable guy. He does not cotton to the current AGW position.

  • sdspringy

    Nice post SFtor1, appreciate all the time that went into research and drafting. Disappointing though that the blog sponsor cannot find the same amount of time or intellectual honesty.