Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Global Warming – A Brief History

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, over 200 years ago, scientists recognized that the atmosphere may be capable of trapping heat. Joseph Fourier, a French natural philosopher and mathematician hypothesized that there was a link between certain gases and the temperature of the earth, when the concentrations were lower the planet was cooler and when higher, warmer.

He was an avid mountaineer and familiar with glaciers and the scars they left from their grinding away the surface. He was likely the first to speculate that the earth may have been much colder and hence covered with much more ice in the distant past. Simultaneously he posited that earth could likewise be much hotter under other conditions.

In the 1859 an Irish physicist, John Tyndall, was studying invisible “heat rays” now known as infrared radiation. He was the first to recognize that the gases Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere are capable of trapping heat and therefore their presence, even at low concentration, can impact the temperature of the air.

Probably most important in the history of global warming and climate change is the work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist . He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1903. The prize was awarded for his work in understanding certain features of chemical reactions and especially for his mathematical treatment of the rates of reactions. Basically he was the first to quantify the speed of chemical reactions.

Less well known at the time was his work examining the impact of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and the climate. In 1895, Arrhenius presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” His work went beyond that of his predecessors by mathematically modeling the impact of varying amounts Carbon Dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere.

As crude as his tools of the time were, he did make the connection that more Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere would result in an elevation of the earth’s surface temperature. He also pointed out that burning fossil fuels would serve to raise the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

Flash forward to the 1950s. Professor Charles Keeling began recording the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere first at Antarctica and then in 1958 at Mona Loa observatory in Hawaii. The data collection continues to this day and is now know as the Keeling curve. The simultaneous observation of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases and rising global temperature began the modern era of the recognition of anthropogenically driven global warming.

We also know that more than the temperature of the planet is at risk. Much of the Carbon Dioxide emitted from burning fossils fuels, about 30 %, does not remain in the atmosphere but is absorbed in the oceans, causing acidification.

The threat of global warming, climate change and ocean acidification have long been known. These threats are not a Chinese hoax but rather an existential threat to much of the life on this planet.

Energy Subsidies

A significant argument against sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar is that they are not cost competitive with fossil fuels without significant subsidies in the form of tax breaks. It is true that there are various subsidies that favor clean energy. Wind energy producers get a production tax credit and purchasers of solar energy production equipment get a purchase tax credit. There are even purchase credits for buying hybrid vehicles because of their greater energy efficiency.

The argument of course is that sustainable energy sources are the future and giving them a leg up with the competition moves us more in the direction of where we know the future is. Of equal importance is that these clean energy sources don’t contribute to the release of pollutants that impact our health and the stability of the planet’s climate.

If a level playing field is desired however, consideration must be made of the subsidies afforded the fossil fuel industries. And they are significant. Tax deductions abound.

Tax deductions to the oil and gas industry are given to lower the cost of intangible drilling costs. These deductions are for the costs associated with the development of the drilling site. The costs cannot be recovered if the well produces no oil or gas. The purpose was to lower the risk to investors and constitutes a considerable subsidy to wildcatters. Basically the tax payers take the risk but the oil and gas companies take the profits.

The depletion allowance is an especially sweet deal. It is a tax deduction based on the idea that exploiting a finite resource is costly because it goes away. The more successful one is at production, the less one has left to produce. This subsidizes the oil, gas, and coal industries by hastening the exploitation of limited resources. Tax payers assist the industry in profiting from exploiting a resource. Keep in mind that there is no depletion associated with extraction of energy from wind and solar resources.

Tax deductions for accelerated write-off of the expenses are afforded to the oil and gas industries, with respect to the costs of exploration for these resources. Tax payer money is used to assist these industries to find the resources from which they profit.

The arguments in favor of this corporate socialism is that if we lower the costs of exploration for and production of the energy sources, then we all benefit from lower costs; that is, the purchase prices for the fuels. This is more of the old trickle down economics.

The subsidies cited above are for tangible, direct costs. There are other costs born by taxpayers known as externalities. These include but are not limited to health care costs to individuals, insurers, and federal and state programs to help ameliorate these health costs. There also are indirect costs born by taxpayers for environmental degradation. Abandoned coal mines and spoils, polluted drill sites, and structural damage due to hydraulic fracturing all create costs born by tax payers. Finally there are near incalculable costs due to global climate change.

If we are to remove subsidies from clean, sustainable energy sources we need to do the same for those non-renewable, dirty industries. Then and only then will we truly level the playing field.