Monthly Archives: August 2018

Controlling Carbon

The United States is responsible for over 20 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, essentially Carbon Dioxide. Our 6 billion tons produced annually comes from electricity generation, transportation, and commercial uses of fossil fuels. There are numerous strategies to reduce carbon emissions, the simplest being energy efficiency and the substitution of wind and solar power for burning fossil fuels. Regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions can take several forms.

Carbon emissions can be regulated via a tax. If energy production by burning coal, oil and natural gas becomes more expensive, use of carbon-free energy production will be favored. This is basically a national sales tax on carbon usage. The tax rate on carbon for the desired reduction of carbon emissions is adjustable, raising the tax rate would lower carbon emissions. The income generated from the tax could be used to increase energy efficiency via subsidies, thus lowering costs. Increased transportation costs could be at least partially offset through infrastructure improvements.

Rather than use the income from a carbon tax for public works, the tax could become revenue neutral with a fee and dividend approach. The increased cost of energy to consumers could be offset by an equivalent reduction in income taxes. A negative income tax would ensure that the poor aren’t disproportionately impacted. Alternately the income could be put in a trust fund which then would be returned directly to consumers via a monthly dividend.

Yet another approach to regulating carbon emissions is cap and trade. Basically, the government sets a maximum level of carbon emissions, the cap, then issues permits to emitting industries. The emission permits could be traded on an exchange. If company A wants to expand an emitting activity, they would have to go to the marketplace and buy additional permits. Company B could profit from increased efficiency by selling their unneeded emission permits. Total carbon emissions would be lowered as the maximum emission cap is reduced.

Both a cap and trade mechanism and a carbon tax can be an effective way of lowering carbon emissions as long as they provide a clear economic incentive to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Of the two cap and trade is more complex in its implementation but can better ensure target emission reductions are met.

For cap and trade, the costs are a little murky because that is determined by the trading market.
Carbon taxes are the opposite. The cost is clear but the amount of emissions reduction is iffy.

Some will argue that the government should not be picking winners and losers. This would be a fair argument except not including the external costs of burning fossil fuels gives it an advantage over cleaner alternatives. Added costs to burning fossil fuels can be thought of as a mechanism to include those costs and level the playing field.

The chance of doing anything to slow the train wreck of global warming seems unlikely with the current administration. In fact, just the opposite is occurring. Trump has stated his desire to undo many policies put in place by previous administrations such as fuel efficiency standards, the energy star rating system and President Obama’s clean power plan.

Iceland – Fire and Ice

When it comes to countries with the lowest dependence on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – the hands-down winner is Iceland. Because of abundant rainfall, about 80 inches annually, and considerable topographic relief they are able to produce over twenty percent of there energy needs from hydropower.

More important however is the production of energy from geothermal heat, almost seventy percent of their usage. Much of this is harnessed to generate electricity but a considerable amount of the geothermally produced steam is process heat for industries and for district heating. The steam is delivered to much of the populated portion of the island via underground piping.

The availability of geothermal heat is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms of the energy available, but a curse do to volcanic activity. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The ash cloud disrupted air travel across Europe for several weeks. This was only a nuisance, but even larger eruptions have occurred.

In 924 CE a volcanic eruption was calculated to produce over 700 billion cubic feet of ash and lava. Human life was impacted only slightly as the island was only first settled in the 9th century, so the population was minuscule. Even today, the population is small for a nation, about 350 thousand. Compare that with the population of the urban area in and around Little Rock, Arkansas at over 400 thousand. Two-thirds of the population on this island the size of Ohio is in the capital, Reykjavik.

The most disastrous eruption was the event from June 1783 to February 1784. Rather than an eruption from one point, a volcano, a rift 15 miles long opened up and spewed lava, ash, and toxic gasses such as Sulfur Dioxide and Hydrofluoric acid. Ninety percent of livestock and twenty-five percent of the citizenry died immediately or over the next year due to starvation. Twenty villages were buried under lava.

All the geologic activity is due to Iceland’s straddling both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other at the rate of nearly an inch a year. Tourists can stroll through the rift zone in Thingvellir National Park. You can even scuba dive in a lake with your hands in a narrow crevice, one hand on North America and the other on Eurasia.

On the opposite side of the globe these and the Pacific plate are colliding, one subducting under the other. This type of subduction causes the volcanoes in Alaska to Central America and western South America and earthquakes in both California and Japan.

Iceland, as the name implies is far north in the Atlantic. Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly national capital, a scant two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Considering just how far north it is, the climate is surprisingly moderate.

Along the coast, especially the south, the summertime highs are in the mid-fifties and winter lows only in the upper twenties to low thirties. The ocean current known as the Gulf Stream delivers warmer water from coastal Florida to moderate the climate in this otherwise northerly clime. The interior of the island is as expected, colder. Eleven percent of the interior is covered with glaciers.

Science Denial

The scientific perspective is that global warming is real, it is causing harmful changes to the climate, and it is caused by human activity. A strong majority of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, and most believe that humans are the cause. A disconnect occurs however when Americans are asked about risk. When asked will global warming harm us, that majority gets much more narrow. When asked will global warming harm you personally, all of a sudden the majority disappears.

We know it’s happening and it might impact others but we don’t believe it is a risk to us personally. Like so much else, the political divide over global warming is widening. As time goes on Democrats and to a lesser extent independents are becoming more convinced of global warming while Republicans less so.

Numbers are slowly increasing over time and across the political spectrum that global warming will have an impact in the future. Not surprisingly there is a strong inverse correlation between age and belief in the risk of global warming. Younger generations express much more concern than their elders. Women are more concerned than men, and the more educated express more concern than the less educated.

Denial of scientific evidence has been around since, well, science. Denial is strongest when the evidence challenges a particular worldview. Evolution of life on earth, especially the part about humans, is still denied by a significant minority of the public. A lot of folks learn their religion long before they learn science and among some religions, evolution is anathema.

John Scopes wasn’t prosecuted for teaching the atomic weight of Carbon. He was prosecuted for teaching that humans have an ancestor in common with apes’ ancestors. This has always been misunderstood as humans evolved from apes.

Galileo wasn’t convicted of heresy for showing that gravitational acceleration was constant (his famous dropping of dissimilar sized balls from a tower in his hometown of Piza.) No, his sin was to challenge the orthodoxy of the church about the sun circling the earth. Work with his invention, the telescope, led him to accept and promote the Copernican view of a heliocentric solar system. It took the church over 350 years to admit that he was right.

Reasons for denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) range from simple ignorance to a purposeful deceit. Surely we puny humans can’t have an impact on the global climate (yes we can.) There is no way we could know what the temperature or atmosphere was like millions of years ago (yes we can.)

Slightly more sophisticated, but equally wrong, are some pseudoscientific arguments. One is that volcanoes emit much more Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) than human activities, therefore it isn’t our fault. Nope, humans produce orders of magnitude more. A true, but immaterial statement is that water vapor in the air absorbs more heat than CO2 . The amount of water in the atmosphere is dependent on the temperature hence it is a result, not a cause of warming.

So why all the denial? H L Mencken put it nicely: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”