Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shoving the Overton Window Towards Reality

Aaron Sorkin, creator and maybe most everything else of the HBO series Newsroom has groked Richard Alley, who of very anodyne hearings on climate change said:

This is certainly not both sides. If you want both sides, we would have to have somebody in here screaming a conniption fit on the red end, because you are hearing a very optimistic side
Sorkin has given use a useful reading of the red side, and yes the vision is deeply troubling. Improbable at this time, but not as improbable as the fantasies of climate change deniers.  Below  a small clip from the show


You can view the entire scene on YouTube

Randy Malamud at the Huff Post says we really are in the end times, Dave Roberts at Grist more or less concern trolls the show, and Eli, Eli is with Ugo Bardi, at Cassandra's Legacy who points out that
So, we have always been careful to follow the instructions: avoid scaring people, avoid looking like scaremongers, avoid even hinting that things may be worse, much worse than anyone could imagine. We have been careful to end all warnings with a list of solutions; saying that, sure, it looks bad, but the problem will go away if you just insulate your home, buy a smaller car, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. What we need is just a little bit of good will.

To no avail: the climate problem is still there, bigger and more fearsome everyday. Nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing. Nothing even remotely comparable to the scale of the threat. And, sometimes, you feel that you have had enough; you feel like screaming that this is NOT a problem you can solve with double-paned windows and smaller cars; it is NOT a problem for the next century; it is NOT a problem for another generation, It is here, it is now, it is big, it is damn big, and it is out of control. You feel like screaming that aloud.
Now the busy bunnies on the denial of climate change side, somehow, Eli notices, they never shrink from telling everybunny near and far that if we do something effective about climate change, well the world will collapse, the economy will die, the commies will take over and everyone will be screwed.

There is a certain asymmetry about this, and it is high time to make it clear that climate change ain't beanbag.

As Rick Perlstein has pointed out the long con is based on a theology of fear or better put, on arousal of fear in the audience, and based on recent voting, a successful one, Anybunny on the mailing list of the National Review, Mark Steyn, or any "conservative" think tank gets their fund raising emails each morning, designed to get the blood rising and the money flowing.

So tell again, why Sorkin's shot is futile?


adelady said...

Let's face it. Sorkin's little scenario is just a tad more realistic than all those technutopians - I'm constantly amazed at how many there are - who tell us that we'll survive by travelling to other planets.

This scenario is pretty nasty. But, the longer we go down the path we're on, the likelier it gets. Whereas the "flight to interstellar space" is never going to be likely - at least at a population level.


Brandon R. Gates said...

Eli, thisbunny is feeling tired and cynical so what I'm about to write may come across grouchy and/or banal. The main futility of mitigation is economics and immediacy. People don't want to pay extra to counter a threat that doesn't invoke a visceral response. If the AGW hobgoblins wore towels on their heads and 'sploded themselves in public markets, fear of it would be a salable product to the resistance. Or, perhaps more realistically, they would be selling it to us. On general principle, we then might be the resistance.

On that last perhaps is the most intractable problem of all; ideological inertia. Specifically I don't see us getting out of this without building nukes. There's some political calculus there as well, we might come out ahead on political capital getting behind it and doing it properly.

One tiredbunny's opinion and lament.

Fernando Leanme said...

Brandom, I read many comments written by Americans and Europeans advocating nuclear power as a possible solution to this problem. I've reached the conclusion that nuclear power is a palliative for industrialized nations, and maybe for others such as India, China, Iran, and Brazil. But I'm not sure I would support nuclear plant construction in Congo, Venezuela, or Yemen. I do hope you guys give this serious thought and understand the implications.

Regarding the op, I'm more worried about the overall fossil fuel depletion pace. We can live with 3 meters higher sea level. But we can't live without cheap energy. A lot of people are going to die, and it won't be from global warming.

Brandon R. Gates said...


My advocacy for fission is pretty much limited to industrialized first world nations who reasonably have the control to prevent proliferation and the worst accidents. That it's not a viable global solution need not mean that it shouldn't be done in a major way by countries competent to do it.

Mitch said...

Nuclear is always one of the alternatives for burning fossil fuels for power. However, there is a mining problem with nuclear as well. If we stick to standard reactors, there is only about 60 years of uranium left with no increase in nuclear use. If we triple usage to replace coal, there is less than a generation's worth.

One needs either to have a different reactor (e.g. breeders or Th) or a much higher cost for uranium to extend this much. There is no free lunch

Tom Gray said...

There is a very wide gap between "everything's pretty much fine" and "there's no hope." I liked Mr. Sorkin's take, but it leaves a hollow feeling at the end--why not just eat, drink, and be merry, if everything is hopeless anyway?

I'd prefer something that ends more like this: "If you are watching now, stop doing whatever you are doing and do something about this problem. Write a letter, join a climate action group, weatherproof your home. Do it NOW, and then do the next thing you can think of that will help. This is the most critical problem we face, and it demands your attention. Not tomorrow. Right now. This minute."

Jeffrey Davis said...

The Newcomen Engine was the first step by Gaia in ridding the planet of homo sapiens. "What? You mean coal has a use?"

FL said, "A lot of people are going to die, and it won't be from global warming." I have no idea what he meant by that. People were never going to die from an increase of 2C of sensible heat. We were always going to die from the stresses surrounding agriculture: drought, killing heat waves, famine, and war. FL's statement seems unintentionally comic. Falling out of a plane isn't bad for you. It's hitting the ground at 175 mph that's deadly.

As for nukes, the commie Alexander Cockburn disbelieved in AGW and thought it a conspiracy cooked up by the nuclear energy industry. The solution that's as bad as the problem.

But that's the genius of using AGW to rid the planet of humans. By the time everyone agrees that the crisis is indeed upon us it will be too late to actually do anything. There are graphs that show how quickly the planet can warm coming out of a period of glaciation. Geologically, it's as quick as the snick of a guillotine. The fault is the lag between CO2 increase and temperature rise. You can imagine murderous Gaia quoting Whitman, "It's only the lull I like."

GRLCowan said...

The assertion that "... there is a mining problem with nuclear as well. If we stick to standard reactors, there is only about 60 years of uranium left with no increase in nuclear use", combined with the fact that today's uranium mining industry is a multi-billion-dollar one on an annual revenue basis, has an interesting implication.

The crux of the matter is, how many billions this year. At probably less than 60,000 tonnes U per year and about $100,000 per tonne, six. Six gigabucks per year.

That's a lot smaller than the Alberta tar sands operation. It's smaller than the royalties the Alberta and Canadian governments make on that operation. It's smaller, probably, than the cell phone ring-tone industry.

The implication is this: if the 60-years-left assertion were widely believed in government and other fossil fuel interest circles, they would figure they could just take over all the uranium mines and shut them down, forcing that $6B a year to be replaced by over $100B a year in natural gas.

However, it has been generally noticed that the Red Book estimate on which that 60-year story is based typically increases by 1000 tonnes per day between one Red Book release and the next. Thus, the linearly projected depletion time increases about ten years per year.

Also, Japanese research has demonstrated that in today's reactors, uranium extracted from the open ocean would be much cheaper (~$0.60/MMBTU*) than coal from today's terrestrial coal mines (~$2/MMBTU**). So even if they bombed all the uranium mines on land, they still couldn't curtail the long-term supply.



Russell Seitz said...

Are you trying to say that uranium ore is too cheap to meter?

Nothing would restore my faith in climate diplomacy more than seeing the Parties reconvening in Paris next year commit to having their energy economie equal or exceed the share of France's power presently delivered by nuclear reactors by or before 2050.

Brandon R. Gates said...


When shilling for the nuclear power industry I often tout the French programme as the gold standard of success to counter the whinging about the US' one-off-every-time plant designs and byzantine permitting process. I appreciate your comments if only to help me feel like less of a heterodox.

Canman said...

Here's a good nuclear article for everybunny:

Pekka Pirilä said...

In the best case nuclear energy is both highly economic and environmentally benign, but there are multiple obstacles for reaching the based case.

Very briefly on a good case, that of the four units operating since 1979-83 in Finland. There have been some problems (radiation hardening of the pressure vessel of the oldest unit, generator vibrations in the initial generators of two units), but the overall performance has been excellent. The levelized full cost calculated in retrospect has been really low (around 2 US cent/kWh). That includes also reservations for spent fuel disposal and plant decommissioning (I worked at one time in a position, where my duties included involvement in verifying the cost estimates on government's behalf). What could be considered as public subsidy has been minimal. What I have looked at did, however, not include possible subsidies of the countries (Soviet Union and Sweden) that sold the plants. It's possible that the Finnish power companies did not pay the full costs of the plant.

The safety of those four units has been continuously improved by retrofitting and improving operational practices. Preparations for spent fuel disposal in underground storage have proceeded far.

The fifth nuclear unit that's presently under construction tells a different story. It's badly behind the schedule. The cost of construction exceeds the contracted price by a big factor. Whether Areva will suffer all the losses or some of those will fall on the power company is not known by now. (Another similar unit being constructed in France has similar problems). Even with the originally contracted price the levelized cost of electricity had been significantly higher than that of the early plants.

Why things have developed like that is hardly fully understood. The costs of complex technology should go down, not up. The safety requirements are stricter now than they were before, but the four existing units are not bad in that respect.

Jim Eager said...

Although not as blunt and certainly not as deadpan as the fictional News Room interview, Michael Enright's real interview on this past weekend's Sunday Edition came close. University of Miami Chair of Geological Sciences Harold Wanless take on the essentially doomed future of the city of Miami pulled no punches and offered nothing at all to be optimistic about.

Podcast available here:

GRLCowan said...

Russell Seitz: "Are you trying to say that uranium ore is too cheap to meter?"

If I had been trying to say that I would have succeeded. A better one-line summary: people talk uranium depletion, but no-one bets on it.

GRLCowan said...

Pekka Pirilä: "Why things have developed like that is hardly fully understood"

Would you say "Governments footdrag in allowing civilian nuclear power development because it reduces their fossil fuel income" amounts to 99.9 percent understanding? Or just 99 percent?

Pekka Pirilä said...

I don't buy that theory at all.

The problem that I mentioned concerns PWRs which are developed by private companies (with fair amount of government ownership in several cases). Most of it is, in my view, due to faulty approaches on nuclear safety. The plants have become more complex so rapidly that the simultaneous cost reductions have been dominated by the increased cost of complexity. It's likely that an equally good or better safety level could have been obtained through a different approach.

The cost of increased complexity was not foreseen, and the effect of the ways the safety requirements have been implemented on the complexity was not foreseen either.

The next generation plants may turn out to be much better in this respect, but that has not been proven yet.

Brandon R. Gates said...

Pekka, thanks for the additional perspectives. Canman, thanks for the article.

Russell Seitz said...

GRL Cowan:

At a million to one, betting on the strong nuclear force over carbon bonds at a few eV is close to being the materialist answer to Pascal's Wager .

Given nuclear power's comparative infancy , one might recall that steam engines were pretty terrifying in 1825 too.

EliRabett said...

Steam engines in 1825 were fucking terrifying to be near . The damn things blew up on a daily basis, leaving their operators dead or steamed alive.

GRLCowan said...

And much later than 1825, too; read Clemens' "Life on the Mississipi".

Now-a-days, nuclear marine engines are steam engines -- steam turbines -- and conspicuously fail to terrify Greenpeace associates (ttp:// ).

Chris_Winter said...

Pekka Pirilä: "The next generation plants may turn out to be much better in this respect, but that has not been proven yet."

Forgive me for using your comment as the springboard for a rant. It bugs me that this has not been proven yet. The IFR was three years away from completing its test run when Congress, with the cooperation of President Clinton and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, canceled its funding. That was in 1994.

From the beginning of reactor development in the U.S., in fact, the emphasis was on getting commercial reactors on-line and then scaling them up. The PWR and BWR designs, used with great success by the Navy, became the basis for civilian nuclear power in this country. Alternatives with better long-term safety potential, such as the IFR or the HTGR (used successfully in the UK) were mostly neglected here. When tried, they were not well-implemented.

Joseph Morone and Edward Woodhouse examine this history in /The Demise of Nuclear Energy?/ (Yale University Press, 1989)