November 6, 2019

The Ghost of Christmas Future on Carbon Emission Control and Renewable Energy

The Ghost of Christmas Future on Carbon Emission Control and Renewable Energy

Two news items, one of which was published months ago, are revealing insights about why it will be exceptionally difficult to achieve carbon emissions reductions, even if there is a national political consensus about the desirability of doing so.

One on which I commented months ago was the behavioral change among German consumers and business owners to install central and unit air conditioning to cope with increased heat.  Germany is a growth market for air conditioners.

When we think about it, it is an obvious and logical response for an individual, family or business.  If the weather is warming, buy and use air conditioning to maintain indoor comfort. However, this is obviously bad for energy consumption, since air conditioners are notorious energy hogs.

The response of some of my friends who are committed to supporting actions to reduce carbon emissions is that, along with any potential increase in energy usage will be a commitment to renewables, which they believe is far deeper and broader in Europe than it is here.

That is why a recent story about the difficulty of building and using wind turbines in Germany is so important.

To some degree, this is a simple case of “not in my back yard,” with a German twist to the story.  However, there are serious environmentalists who have fought the construction of these turbines because of both noise pollution and the adverse impact on wildlife.

Not surprisingly, the construction of wind turbines lags far behind what proponents of renewable energy predicted and wanted in Germany.  The German government set ambitious goals and actively dismantled a well-functioning nuclear power industry to be “all-in” on renewable energy.

Unfortunately for the government and for progressives who advocate for clean energy, they never took into account the practical question of where these turbines would need to be built and how local residents would feel about them.

In the United States, with the exception of federally-owned land and the parts of the US in which offshore wind is a viable options (a small fraction of our land mass), turbines will  need to be built reasonably close to where people live until such time as cost-effective battery storage is a viable option.  Even then the storage potential of batteries and their contribution to a fossil fuel-free world will be marginal at best.

Democracies are messy forms of government and not particularly good at wholesale societal change, unless there is an attack from a foreign power, as there was in Pearl Harbor in 1941 or on 9/11 in 2001.  A long-term threat, like the potential of climate change to damage our society is highly abstract and hard to comprehend for most citizens.

They can experience the bad environmental effects of a wind turbine built in their community, but have difficulty relating that risk to their health and property value to climate change.

It will be even more difficult here than it has been in Germany to move to renewables like wind power.  It sounds like a cliché, but the German citizen is far more respectful of and adherent to the authorities than his or her American counterpart.  If the German government cannot persuade its people, despite significant marketing and public relations over the last two decades, it has to be far more difficult to manage that process here.

What should we do?

The problem with climate change zealots is that they have focused too much on attacking opponents and demanding complete ideological loyalty and adherence.  What they should be doing is to figure out how to get the right things done, regardless of how the right things are presented.

For example, everyone would agree that diesel-powered automobiles and trucks and engines in off-road vehicles are bad for the environment, whether they emit excess carbon emissions or not.  People do not like to breathe and smell diesel fuel.  If the government were to announce that it was creating a tax and regulatory regimen to phase out diesel-powered vehicles because they their tailpipe emissions are hazardous and unpleasant, the majority of the people would instantly agree.  Excess carbon emissions are too abstract a point to get across; the obviously bad smell and health effects of diesel-powered engines is easy to get people to understand.

One of my personal pet peeves, as a person living in a wealthy community with many trees that shed leaves every autumn and with many large grassy yards, is the incredibly high pollution from diesel-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers.  Leaf blowers and lawn mowers emit unhealthy diesel fumes in residential areas, they convert leaves and grass into airborne small particulates (below 10 microns in width, which makes them hazardous discharges) and they are noise polluters.  Every Tuesday morning, except when the ground is covered with snow, yard maintenance crews are all over our neighborhood, beginning at 8am, spewing these pollutants in the air we breathe.

Washington, DC has passed an ordinance phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn motors.

This should be done everywhere.

No one wants to have high electricity bills if they can find ways of increasing energy efficiency without compromising their standard of living.  There are many easy-to-do ways of reducing electricity usage that can have significant positive effects on hazardous emissions of all kinds.

The big difference between touting the benefits of cleaner air, versus reduced carbon emissions, is that we know the difference between clean and dirty air when we breathe it.  We feel great breathing clean air; we cough or have nasal congestion when we breathe dirty air.  People react to symptoms and feelings of comfort and discomfort.  The notion of a problem with “the planet” is too abstract.

This is the same issue in talking about “health.”  Someone who has never been healthy does not know what “health” is.  However, it is easy to say to an overweight, unhealthy person who has a young child that it would be great if he or she could play longer with the child, instead of being winded after 5 minutes.  Concreteness is essential, whether governments are promoting a better response to climate change or health.

Moreover, sometimes the best solution that can be implemented in the short term is one that eliminates the consequence of a changed environmental condition, as opposed to trying the near-impossible task of eliminating its root cause.  It is far easier to get a community to change its building and zoning laws to prevent damaging storm surges from a water body than to eliminate long-term carbon emissions reductions to change climate.

The other requirement for those trying to change population behavior is to resist the temptation to turn everything into a “climate change” issue.  The wildfires in California are not a result of climate change.  They are a result of a combination of too many dwellings in forested areas, which required electricity utility lines to close to where people live, bad forest management practices (trees need to be cut and brush needs to be cleared on a regular schedule to reduce the amount of kindling available for fires), and a badly regulated electric utility.  Forest fires have been a problem in California and other heavily forested areas for a long time.

Separate sustainability and good environmental practices from adapting to climate change.  Both need to happen.

The nasty, almost religious-cult aspect to discussions about “climate change” inhibits and obscures the ability to make our world far better.  The first thing we need to do is to separate a clean environment, which is universally desired, from global climate change.

Instead of arguing that we are likely to see sea level rises of 3-6 feet in 10 years, which is highly unlikely, we should step back and note that, whether we are seeing, fast, slow or no sea level rise or storm surge, or more frequent hurricanes, it is crazy to keep building and rebuilding in flood zones near the coasts or forested areas susceptible to frequent wildfires.  Arguing about whether these are increasing in frequency or the result of climate change is beside the point.

What matters is that they will happen again and we should not put people and property in harms’ way.  Buildings, free-standing structures, highways and outdoor equipment should be constructed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes.  In earthquake zones, everything should be able to withstand the most powerful earthquakes.  This will cost more, but doing things right the first time is a much better use of long-term capital.