Another Perspective

Endorse Kyoto

Once that's done, then we can get serious about nuclear power.

By 11.20.06

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If the Bush Administration is looking for a place to start mending fences with the world and burnish its public image, I suggest the quickest and easiest thing would be to endorse the Kyoto Protocol.

There are few places where conservatives have come off looking so foolish as their stonewalling on global warming. What is the problem? Is it because this is Al Gore's issue? Is it because nothing could possibly go wrong with the world? Partisanship is one thing but when it reaches the point of being purblind, it's time to reassess.

The evidence that something unusual is happening to the earth's climate is overwhelming. Eight of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. Glaciers are melting all around the world. Species are migrating north. The Arctic Ocean ice cap is the smallest it has ever been by modern measurements. People in Alaska say they're witnessing things they've never imagined before.

Now granted, liberals tend to point to every little summer breeze as further evidence of global warming. In 1996, after the worst blizzard in history hit the northeast, Newsweek ran a cover story saying it proved the arrival of global warming. I don't even believe Hurricane Katrina constitutes any special evidence of climate change, although there is a theory that hurricanes will get worse as the ocean warms. Single incidents don't mean much. But long-range trends are foolish to ignore.

Very few conservatives seem to have any idea what they're talking about with global warming. They just repeat the aphorisms of a few academic scientists who have earned reputations as doubting Thomases. One of them is Richard Lindzen, of MIT, who has been one of the outstanding critics of the theory. I heard him speak last September in Montana. Nothing personal, but his performance was far from overwhelming. Lindzen put up a graph showing both atmospheric carbon dioxide and average temperatures rising at a brisk 45-degree angle since 1960 and mused, "I don't see where this is out of the range of normal fluctuations over the last thousands of years." Then he added, "Besides, if global warming is really happening, it's too late to do anything about it anyway."

Fred Singer, of George Mason University, is another hardy skeptic who nit-picks at the computer models for global warming and argues that if they're not perfect, we can safely ignore what's happening around us. The Kyoto Protocol's model, for example, suggested at one point that sulfur-dioxide aerosols from coal burning might slow down global warming a bit. Singer responded:

It turns out that these supposedly-cooling aerosols are produced mainly in the northern hemisphere....Therefore, if the models are correct, the northern hemisphere would presumably warm more slowly than the southern hemisphere....But observations show exactly the opposite. The highest rate of warming in the last 25 years occurred at northern mid-latitudes. ["The Kyoto Protocol: A Post-Mortem," The New Atlantis, Winter 2004.]

So because the northern hemisphere is warming faster than the models predict, that proves global warming is a hoax!

This kind of logical positivism can only take you so far. At some point you have to look at the whole picture and make your best guess. We will never be able to prove through controlled experiment that fossil fuel burning is causing global warming. We would need another planet and a few thousands years to prove it. All we know is that both carbon emissions and global temperature have climbed into uncharted territory and continue to rise at a steady pace each year. History is not a scientific experiment. You have to act on the best information available.

The ridiculous counterpart to all this is that Al Gore and liberals are themselves stonewalling on the only technology that's ever going to get us out of this mess -- nuclear power.

When you look at the science of nuclear power, you realize nothing will ever match it for minimizing the impact of human civilization on the environment. Nuclear is the perfect solution to global warming. The energy transformations that take place in the nucleus of the atom are a million times greater than transformations that occur in the electron orbits, which is where coal, oil, and gas derive their energy. That means the "environmental footprint" of nuclear is a million times smaller than fossil fuels.

The average 1,000-megawatt coal plant puts out 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide per hour. We now burn a billion tons of coal a year. This produces three billion tons of carbon dioxide -- 20 percent of the world's total. China will surpass us in coal burning by 2015. There's no way the world is ever to reduce carbon emissions unless these countries turn to nuclear power.

Yet what does Al Gore propose? In An Inconvenient Truth he uses the "seven-wedge" approach introduced by Robert Socolow of Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Socolow and his group posit that to solve the problem we need seven different wedges -- improved energy efficiency, fuel substitution, renewable energies, carbon sequestration, reforestation, improved agriculture, and nuclear power. That will stabilize the atmosphere by 2050, giving us a much warmer world but not a global steam bath. When Gore presents this approach in the movie, however, he conveniently drops nuclear power. There is no explanation for the missing wedge.

The answer is simple. Gore and all the other progressive environmentalists are enthralled with the myth of solar energy. Wind is the latest solution to the problem. Both European and American governments, confident that wind is the future, are eagerly granting tax incentives and mandating that utilities buy wind energy wherever possible. Spurred by these incentives, windmills are being constructed everywhere. Denmark now claims 25 percent of its electricity comes from wind.

Yet wind energy is hopelessly flawed in a way that will probably never be overcome. It is completely fickle, rising and falling in cycles that have nothing to do with demand. Balancing supply and demand on an electric grid is an extremely delicate task. Unexpected power drops can cause brownouts while unexpected power surges can wipe out data and ruin equipment. Under these constraints, utilities view wind as more a liability than an asset. Ireland recently refused to take any more wind energy on its grid. In August Japanese utilities announced they too had had enough. Electrical engineers everywhere generally regard wind as little more than an expensive nuisance.

Most important, wind is doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Even when the wind is blowing full blast, utility companies must keep their coal and gas plants running in case it suddenly dies down. At best, windmills only produce one-third their rated capacity of electricity. In a recent study, Denmark found that only 9 percent of its 3,000 MW in wind energy was available when most needed on hot summer afternoons. Despite the claim of generating 25 percent of its electricity from wind energy, Denmark's carbon emissions continue to rise and not a single fossil fuel plant has been shut down.

There's lots of hard-headed thinking needed to deal with these problems. But conservatives are never going to contribute unless they join the debate. The Kyoto Protocol is not perfect, but it's the only thing going right now. Endorsing it and entering the global discussion is the only way the Bush Administration is ever going to make a contribution.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.