Friday, February 27, 2015

Chu 'n' tobacco


Last night I went to Palo Alto High School's Great Minds lecture by Steven Chu on climate change. For those unfamiliar with Palo Alto public schools, billionaires send their kids there - they're pretty well decked out.

Chu is all in on using tobacco as the analog for climate, which he did at great length during the discussion (including comparing the corporate disinformation tactics). He did a good job overall, being a professor has made him a good speaker. He said the 500-1000 year period to mostly recover from the effects of GHG emissions is an imposition on costs on umpteen future generations, "500 to 1000 years of future generations breathing our second-hand smoke."

The kindly professor showed some steel at two points during Q&A, sharply correcting two people who misstated something he'd said previously. Guess you need that to survive at a high level in DC.

Few other random notes:  very bullish on wind and solar, believes the business world has really seen the light. He's also bullish on battery technology and has his own business venture in the area. I hope he's right. For all that he still sees a long-term future for fossil fuels - I can't remember quite what he said and don't want to get sharply corrected, but it seemed like 20% of energy to come from fossil fuels well into the second half of this century.

He's supportive of nuclear power but not in the US, saying we take too long to make it happen, and that utilities keep messing around with designs instead of turning out cookie-cutter plants like they do in South Korea and did in France (EDIT - he's pessimistic about near term prospects in the US, but still supports nuclear power). He also supports carbon sequestration and is doing research in that area. I tried to ask a question about the economic failures in that area but didn't get the chance.

He made fun of his fellow physicists for believing they can understand anything in science, but then attempts to do the same thing himself.

New fact:  he was the first scientist ever appointed to a Cabinet-level position, and was replaced by another scientist (Ernest Moniz). He gives Obama a lot of credit for appointing scientists against the advice of people surrounding him, who don't think scientists play well in the DC pool.

EXTENDED REMARKS (Eli)  From YouTube, a talk by Chu at the Stanford Business School.





MOAR EXTENDED REMARKS (Brian) The YouTube clip is pretty similar to his Paly talk. He gives an extended version of the second-hand smoke allegory 15 minutes in, although I think he was pithier with the high school audience.

20 comments:

Fernando Leanme said...

I'm glad Chu disclosed his commercial links to the battery business. This renders him somewhat unreliable as a source for wind and solar feasibility.

His interest in carbon sequestration is probably caused by the realization that India and China will keep on burning fossil fuels as needed. But I don't think he has the right background or education to get into it too far. Carbon sequestration can possibly work via geoengineering approaches, or via mechanical/chemical means. These require relaxation of storage efficiency (meaning the CO2 is allowed to leak slowly over centuries).

Finally, it seems to me the usa president could use more engineers rather than scientists. We are much more practical and less prone to suffer from ivory tower hubris.

Dan L. said...

"...it seems to me the usa president could use more engineers rather than scientists. We are much more practical and less prone to suffer from ivory tower hubris."

Fernando provides the Unintentionally Funny Quote of the Day.

John Farley said...

If we hope to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, fossil fuel burning has to be cut to zero,, and fairly quickly, too Within a few decades.

Hard to believe we can continue getting 20% of our energy from fossil fuels into the indefinite future.

econnexus said...

John - Faster even than that according to Prof. Kevin Anderson recently:

Dave, Nick and Ed Pledge to Save the Planet

We can't do [2°C] with low carbon supply. We can't make the changes quick enough. You have to do something with our demand for energy, and that is very, very unpopular amongst all of us, all of our colleagues, all the policy makers, so basically the whole world, all the high emitting parts of the world, which is only a small proportion, none of us like this at all, and that's why we don't really like the science.

Brian said...

Not sure how Chu reconciles long-term (albeit greatly reduced) fossil fuel use with an acceptable climate outcome. Wish someone had asked about that.

Guessing here, he might think carbon sequestration will mostly zero out fossil fuel effects.

Brandon R. Gates said...

Brian,

"He's supportive of nuclear power but not in the US, saying we take too long to make it happen, and that utilities keep messing around with designs instead of turning out cookie-cutter plants like they do in South Korea and did in France."

Smacks of NIMBYism and apathy. We know the model that has worked in the past, so ... fix what's broken and adapt that model. Not so simple in execution of course, but no good change ever happens until one arrives first at clarity in principle.

Taylor B said...

Fernando: "I'm glad Chu disclosed his commercial links to the battery business. This renders him somewhat unreliable as a source for wind and solar feasibility."

There's actually a difference between drawing conclusions based on evidence vs making stuff up for self-serving financial gain. Some might say that using one's brain to make a forward-looking and socially responsible investment is a good thing to do. Something they didn't teach in engineering school, I guess. As usual, you need to recalibrate your BS- and arrogance-o-meters.

Taylor B said...

There are some who also believe that disclosure of financial interests, and putting one's money where one's mouth is, to use a phrase, are good because they increase transparency, accountability, and credibility, among the things they apparently didn't teach Fernando and Willie Soon in engineering school.

Brian said...

Brandon - think I'll rewrite my comment - he's pessimistic about nuclear's near term prospects in the US, but still supports it.

Canman said...

I'd say the most influential people in climate skeptcism are Matt Ridley, Anthony Watts, the late Michael Crichton, Freeman Dyson, Steve McIntyre, Joanne Nova, Judith Curry, Mark Steyn and many others who have absolutely nothing to do with the tobacco industry. One of your side's leading lights, Al Gore actually grew tobacco.

JohnMashey said...

Some context:
1) People might review his career. Lest it not be obvious, for a long time, Bell Labs was likely the preeminent industrial R&D lab. Likewise, Stanford and UC Berkeley are rather good schools. Visiting speakers are world-class. and the engineering and science faculties are among the strongest in the world.

2) Some Nobelists go weird, or keep on working in a a narrow field, but people like Chu or Burt Richter (who ran SLAC) (or Arno Penzias, who ran Research at Bell Labs, isn't at Stanford, but at a nearby Venture Capital firm.) Really smart, versatile Nobelists don't have to read blogs to learn, they call up world experts and talk to them. As Richter says in his book, having a Nobel does tend to open doors.
On tobacco, both Stanford and UCSF have top-notch tobacco research groups, so if needs to talk to experts, they are handy.

3) I've heard Chu speak at least 4 times, most in small enough groups to be able to ask questions. One was an evening panel with Chris Field, IPCC WG II Co-Chair and Director of Carnegie Dept of Global Ecology. Another was for a GCEP (climate+energy) symposium. He arrived on his bicycle. GCEP includes serious experts on CCS, including BECCS.
Stanford Energy Seminars include nuclear experts.


4) I don't know exactly what he thinks on CCS and nuclear, not having asked. However, some pretty serious folks think that CCS technology is already good enough to be useful, that there are places where it would be safe, and that it just needs a high-enough carbon tax ... and that it will probably be needed, given the inertia of fossil energy. Some have some hope that BECCS may offer modest possibilities for drawdown.

On nuclear, it's possible he has a better feel of the dynamics than most people, and the idea that the US goofed by not doing cookie-cutters is not uncommon among some serious people. In addition, it is still research, but people ought to look into Gen IV. It may or may not happen, but we might get reactors with much better characteristics ... maybe by 2030. I doubt I'll be around to see it, but if it can be made to work, it solves some problems for some areas less blessed with solar+wind+hydro. Of course, they will never be built in some areas, not necessarily from NIMBYism, but from issues like earthquakes and water supplies for cooling, the latter shared with big fossil plants.

Anyway, if you ever a chance to see him live, take it.

Fernando Leanme said...

John Farley, humanity can't avoid the consequences of climate change anymore than it can vaporize a 200 km diameter comet.

Your side seems hung up on a 1.2 degree surface temperature ceiling (above today's temperature). You also seem to be quite dogmatic about a 3+ degree C climate sensitivity. According to your own figures I must conclude we are toast, because there's no way in hell you can stop people from wanting to stay alive a little longer.

This is where knowing a bit about engineering and economics really helps. There's no way in hell to swap in renewables for fossil fuels without killing several hundred million people. You can trot out Elon Musk, Paul Krugman, and all that pile of climate scientists who write prescriptions, and I can put holes in their proposals. And to make matters even worse you wrap everything in watermelon politics and try to stop geoengineering research, which happens to be one hell of a good option. And I laugh.

Taylor B said...

Fernando, one who always laughs at his own jokes is often not taken seriously, even less so when you're always getting your facts wrong. The National Academy of Sciences says the science isn't with you on geoengineering, at least in terms of modifying the planet's albedo.

In simple terms, geoengineering has been so characterized by one of the authors of the NAS study, University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert: "...the idea of 'fixing' the climate by hacking the Earth’s reflection of sunlight is wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad." Is this how you want to be perceived?

Carbon removal and sequestration potentially have more promising prospects, as you've said.

The trouble is, you keep assuming that any uncertainty means we have more room to maneuver, when in fact it means we have less. You assume that warmer is always better, but the weight of evidence is strongly against your basic assumptions. Historically, wrong assumptions about risks usually lead to bad engineering outcomes.

Taylor B said...

There's another fundamental flaw in your reasoning, Fernando. Virtually everyone who has studied these problems agrees that geoengineering solutions are last-gasp acts of desperation to right the ship--they are clearly not not the best solutions and they don't provide a reliable basis for planning a sustainable future. Yet you keep telling us to relax, don't worry, everything will be fine because you say even though you haven't got the answers yet, you'll know where to look them up when we need them, so just keep burning fossil fuels with complete abandon. You're engaged in what's known as magical thinking.

You worry that "There's no way in hell to swap in renewables for fossil fuels without killing several hundred million people." That is just an unsupported statement, while continued burning of fossil fuels is risking trillions of dollars in assets, incalculable reductions in ecological services, and effectively signing death warrants for potentially billions of future inhabitants. Examples of catastrophic impacts of climate change are already occurring, and we haven't yet reached the 1.2 C additional temperature increase that you say is much too restrictive. "According to your own figures I must conclude we are toast," and you're not suggesting ways to make things better, you're advocating for making them worse.

Taylor B said...

Strike the second "not" in "...not not the best solutions..." in my preceding post.

Taylor B said...

Fernando, I haven't heard of any deaths attributed to renewable energy as of yet, so I wonder where you got your statistics about "killing several hundred million people" by swapping renewable energy sources for fossil fuels? Talk about "alarmism!"

Unknown said...

You can trot out Elon Musk, Paul Krugman, and all that pile of climate scientists who write prescriptions, and I can put holes in their proposals.

This reminds of a wonderful dialogue from Shakespeare's Henry IV

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep
Hotspur: Yes, but will they come when you can call them?

There is often a big gap between the chest-thumping claim and the reality.

toby52

Tom Dayton said...

Brian and anybody else living near Santa Cruz: UC Santa Cruz is having a climate & policy conference March 13-24, featuring Richard Alley, Kerry Emanuel, and more! Free but you must register. http://pbsci.ucsc.edu/2015-climate-conference/conference-program.html
If you go, say hi to me. I've got a shaved head (not "bald," damnit!) and an unusual beard.

Tom Dayton said...

Sorry, the UC Santa Cruz conference is March 13-14, not -24.

Brian said...

John - Chu talked briefly about Gen IV nukes, saying the same thing about regulatory delays making US a poor prospect as a first adopter. He thinks they'll succeed in Asia and then come here.

Tom - thanks for the heads up! I appreciate public service announcements like that. Not sure if I can go but will look you up if I do.