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Against the doomsayers

June 5th, 2006

Today is World Environment Day, and it’s a good day to celebrate past achievements and point out the errors of the doomsayers who’ve long been over-represented in the environment debate. The central message of the doomsday school is simple:
we can’t protect the environment unless we are willing to accept a radical reduction in our standard of living.

Although they agree on this point, they disagree radically about its implications, dividing into two opposed groups[1]

* Deep Greens who say that we should radically reduce our standard of living and protect the environment
* Dark Browns who say that we should do nothing to protect the environment because to do so will wreck our standards of living

Experience since the first World Environment Day in 1972 suggests that neither of these positions is true.

On the one hand, claims that we are bound to run out of resources, made most vigorously by the Club of Rome in the 1970s, have repeatedly been refuted by experience. Most natural resources have actually become cheaper, but even in cases where prices have risen, such as that of oil, the economic impact has been marginal, relative to the long-run trend of increasing income. The recent increase in the price of oil, for example, might, if sustained, reduce income by about 1 per cent, or around 4 months of economic growth.

At this point, doomsayers usually point to a growing world population and the increased demands on resources that will arise when people in China and India aspire to Western living standards. The tone isn’t quite as apocalyptic as in the 1970s, when the Paddock brothers were advocating letting Bangladesh starve, but the analysis often hasn’t caught up with the data. Population growth peaked (in absolute terms – the percentage growth rate has been declining for decades) around 1990. Current UN estimates have a population of 9 billion in 2050, but if the declining fertility in wealthy countries is followed elsewhere this will probably turn out to be an overestimate.

In most respects, economic growth is consistent with improvements in the environment rather than degradation. Wealthy countries are unwilling to put up with polluted air and water and have the technical and scientific resources to fix them.

On the other hand, the Brown doomsayers have an equally bad record. Time after time, they’ve opposed environmental improvements as too costly, repeatedly overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits. The debate over CFCs and the ozone layer provides a good example, since it was one of the first issues to be addressed on a global scale. The doomsayers repeatedly attacked both the science behind the ban on CFCs and the economics of the policy, claiming it would cause massive economic damage. In reality, even without taking account of health benefits, it seems likely that the CFC ban yielded positive net economic benefits. Most of the leading participants in this debate (Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas, Julian Simon, Tom DeLay, the Marshall and Oregon Institutes) are familiar to anyone who’s followed the global warming debate, except that Bjorn Lomborg has taken Simon’s place.

All of this leads up to the one big remaining problem that of global warming (and the inter-related debate about Peak Oil). The doomsayers on both sides are out in force on this one. For the Deep Greens, it’s the one remaining chance to achieve support for radical change. For the Dark Browns, this is the real fight, for which the CFC debate was just a rehearsal.

All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.

fn1. Both groups engage in a fair bit of wishful thinking about their position, the Greens arguing that we’ll all be happier in the long run and the Browns claiming that the environmental problems will solve themselves if we ignore them.

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  1. conrad
    June 5th, 2006 at 21:59 | #1

    Maybe you haven’t been into to the Northern Hemisphere of late, but, in terms of air pollution, economic growth certainly isn’t consistent with the idea that it is making the environment better. What was once the Asian smog cloud now floats around a fair chunk of the Northern Hemisphere, reducing crop yields, poisoning people etc. One could make the same argument for the river system — on what basis are you claiming economic growth has made the river systems of the world better ? One could also make the same argument for the land, which now gets destroyed in many places as the new rich eat more meat, have bigger houses, cars etc. . It would be nice to have some real data to support your claim, rather than simply suggesting rich countries produce less environmental damage (which is an incorrect example in any case — rich countries are the ones that haven’t experienced as much economic growth as the poorer ones (like China), so the relationship is likely to be negative, as those with low economic growth have cared for the environment more).

  2. Dogz
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:17 | #2

    The conclusion from your second link is instructive:

    “Unfortunately, it appears that we have not learned our lesson from the past 30 years’ experience with the ozone-CFC debate. Once again, we find a theory that has wide support in the scientific community being attacked by a handful of skeptics, publishing outside of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them. And once again, some environmentalists have responded by presenting a distorted or imbalanced version of the facts, often colored by excessive emphasis on the low-probability scenarios of doom”

    From where I sit this interpretation of the causality is entirely backwards: the prophets of doom have had the floor for decades over global warming. Many skeptics, myself included, have become considerably more skeptical as a result of hearing the distortions and outright lies of the environmental movement over and over again.

    Distorting the truth in the name of pushing a political agenda is bread-and-butter for environmentalists. Radioactive babies is just the latest such effort from the Australian Greens.

    “In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Rowland concluded, “Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it.” These prophetic words were proved true the very next year with the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Luckily, it appears that serious damage to the planet was averted with the swift implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Let’s hope that it won’t take another near-disaster to motivate us to take meaningful action to address the threat of Global Warming. “

    Take note: the skeptics jumped ship on the ozone problem once the evidence was incontrovertible. The evidence on AGW is not yet as incontrovertible as a dirty-great hole over Antarctica, but with something like 9 of the 10 hottest years of the past century in the last decade it is starting to look more convincing. And as has been noted here before, the skeptics are starting to change their position. But I dare say hell will freeze over before the doomsayers in the environmental movement change their position, because it has never been about the environmental issues per se: it is about their anti-human/anti-development political agenda and that is independent of any environmental issue of the day.

  3. Mark
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:25 | #3

    I haven’t noticed economic growth helping wetlands here in Qld. Instead, economic growth has been associated with the destruction of wetlands and rivers – in fact, because of Qld’s economic and demographic growth, we now are told we “need” new the mega-dams now threatening the Fraser Island and Lamington-Border Ranges-Mt Barney regions.

  4. jquiggin
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:26 | #4

    “Take note: the skeptics jumped ship on the ozone problem once the evidence was incontrovertible. ”

    Far from it: Baliunas held out until Rowland and Molina got the Nobel Prize (very much a lagging indicator) and Singer is still a denialist.

  5. jquiggin
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:36 | #5

    An obvious Northern Hemisphere location to look at is London, where smog killed thousands of people in the 1950s, and the Thames was lethal to anyone unfortunate enough to fall in.

    As regards wetlands, I’m old enough to remember when they were called swamps and routinely drained. Now there are a large number of programs aimed at saving them. Certainly both population and economic growth cause problems, but they also provide the resources to address those problems.

  6. Dogz
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:40 | #6

    One or two laggards does not prove the point. The speed of adoption of Montreal says a lot more:

    Luckily, it appears that serious damage to the planet was averted with the swift implementation of the Montreal Protocol.

    There’s no way that would have happened if the majority of the skeptics had not jumped ship. After all, Ronald Reagan was President at the time – hardly the administration to push something like Montreal if a loud skeptical opposition still had their ear.

  7. rog
    June 5th, 2006 at 22:47 | #7

    Is this an extension of the SF thread, where the electromagnetic spectrum has been reduced to two frequencies battling it out for maximum visibility?

    What happened to the pinkos and the colour of money?

  8. June 5th, 2006 at 22:50 | #8

    JQ,

    All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.

    In order to “stabilising global CO2 levels” don’t we need emissions to drop to roughly zero?

    Regards,
    Terje.

  9. SJ
    June 5th, 2006 at 23:00 | #9

    Dogz Says:

    Many skeptics, myself included, have become considerably more skeptical as a result of hearing the distortions and outright lies of the environmental movement over and over again.

    Happily, Dogz no longer reads or responds to my comments.

    Dogz’s position is typical of the denialists. Out of one side of his mouth he claims to be a “skeptic”, i.e., one who habitually doubts or disagrees. Out of the other side of his mouth comes the denunciation of the “distortion and outright lies” coming from the other side. Plenty of disagreement, not much doubt.

    Plus there’s the addition of the “concern troll” aspect, i.e., he’d be more convinced of the truth of his opponents arguments if they ceased to make the arguments.

  10. June 5th, 2006 at 23:12 | #10

    Economic growth over the last several centuries has done apocalyptic-scale damage to the Earth’s environment.

    At one time, Florida was a pristine wilderness populated by diverse wildlife and a small human population. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Florida’s human population and economy have boomed. Humans destroyed the Everglades, wiped out entire forests, redirected rivers, and polluted bays, rivers, lakes and streams. What remains is the desolate asphalt-covered landscape of continuous cities and suburbs stretching across the state and along the entire coast from Jacksonville to Miami and Naples to Hudson.

    Economic growth in Florida continues. A pine forests was lost to a housing development several months ago, and hundreds of acres of wetlands were destroyed for a condo development several years ago. The relatively unspoiled coastline near the Panhandle is now under severe threat. An aquatic preserve is threatened by a massive condo developement.

    So you see, economic growth has destroyed and completely eradicated Florida’s ecology.

    Similar damage has occurred everywhere throughout the world. Humankind and Nature are not compatible. Humans are at war with Nature. Nature is going to win this war, however. You can be certain about that much: Nature is going to win this war, and the Homo sapiens will join the ranks of the extinct.

  11. Dogz
    June 5th, 2006 at 23:16 | #11

    “Nature is going to win this war, and the Homo sapiens will join the ranks of the extinct.”

    See? They’ll never stop…

  12. Steve Edwards
    June 5th, 2006 at 23:26 | #12

    “All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most.”

    John – this is a very interesting point, which I haven’t heard before. Who has cited this figure?

  13. Me
    June 5th, 2006 at 23:59 | #13

    “Economic growth over the last several centuries has done apocalyptic-scale damage to the Earth’s environment.”

    Don’t confuse ecological change with “apocalyptic-scale damage”, the later infers that it is totally inhabitable.

    “Humankind and Nature are not compatible.”

    The last 100,000yrs would seem to disagree with you.

    “So you see, economic growth has destroyed and completely eradicated Florida’s ecology.”

    It is impossible to destory/eradicate an “ecology” it just changes.

    “Similar damage has occurred everywhere throughout the world.”

    it’s been happening for the past 4.5 billion years on earth.

    “Humans are at war with Nature.”

    So that’s why it wiped our New Orleans, it’s a member of Al Queada!
    Mankind, along with every other living thing on this planet struggles
    against “nature”, always have, always will.

    “Nature is going to win this war”

    of course, “nature” is ecological, you can’t destroy ecology, just change it.

    Have a squiz at some rather interesting speech by author Michael Crichton.

    http://www.michaelcrichton.com/speeches/complexity/complexity.html
    http://michaelcrichton.com/speeches/npc-speech.html
    and
    http://michaelcrichton.com/speeches/speeches_quote09.html

    My favourite is the Mann hockeystick curve graph on global warming.
    Which is still used by the UN (and many mis informed environmentalists) to demostrate the supposed dramatic rise in global temperatures. The earth was apparently warming 5-600yr ago, pre industrial revolution, then now.

    John’s correct in being skeptical of both sides.

  14. June 6th, 2006 at 00:08 | #14

    Conrad, might I suggest you read Coal: A Human History. Believe me, the air quality in Europe is far better now than it was a century ago. Dickens’ foggy London wasn’t a natural phenomenon.

  15. June 6th, 2006 at 01:05 | #15

    Hello “Me”,

    “It is impossible to destory/eradicate an “ecologyâ€? it just changes.”

    Do you mean that destroying a forest or a wetland and covering the land with asphalt is merely a change in the ecology?

    Are you suggesting that driving a species to extinction is merely a change in the ecology?

    Would you say that eradicating the Amazon Rain Forest is merely a change in the ecology?

    ***

    Here’s a little news from science:

    Extinction is the inevitable fate of all species. See, for example, the dinosaurs and the Trilobytes.

    The Homo sapiens are a species doomed to extinction.

    Our present behaviors of resource depletion, environmental destruction and global scale pollution are accelerating humankind along the path to extinction.

    But the loss of the Homo sapiens is merely a change in the ecology. So it really isn’t much of a problem. The Earth will go on very well without us. The sun will not dim its light in order to mourn our passing. The plants and animals of the Earth will celebrate our end.

    That’s the future, might as well accept it.

  16. June 6th, 2006 at 01:21 | #16

    In most respects, economic growth is consistent with improvements in the environment rather than degradation. Wealthy countries are unwilling to put up with polluted air and water and have the technical and scientific resources to fix them.

    In the long run, yes… if the country’s government has the will to implement those fixes. But in the short term, it can be difficult.

    For the last couple of years, Sài Gòn’s been trying to get a working subway system into the ground. The problem is that there’s a lack of funds. Above ground, the common motorbike is present in millions, and polluting the air. What no-one wants is a repeat of the mistakes of Bangkok or Manila (which are even more polluted). The optimists (and there aren’t many of them here) think that the first line may be completed by 2009. By that time, there should be more growth… and even more motorbikes… and more pollution. Economic growth in the short term will cause pollution.

    And then there’s a canal near my place called Rạch Thị Nghè. I heard that the last time it was swimmable (or even potable) was in 1950. The GIs gave it the nickname “Sh*t creek”, which I think is wholly appropriate even today. It’s a black, oily waste that smell like you know what. There has been some improvement in the last few years, because the government has built subsidized housing for the shantyhouse dwellers along the canal. Maybe it will be swimmable in the 2020; the government is trying to build treatment plants even now. But that’s seventy years of utter filth in the period of industrializing.

  17. June 6th, 2006 at 01:45 | #17

    David,
    Starvation is the inevitable fate of all populations that outgrow their support base. The inevitable fate of capitalism is to collapse into the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Reich will last 1000 years…
    You can accept it if you want to, but I believe that the future is what we make it. If we start by believing we will fail, let’s give up now.
    All of the creatures that now live on the earth are descendents of other creatures that went extinct – yet we are still here. Birds are the descendents of dinosaurs, as are lizards. You are wrong that “[e]xtinction is the inevitable fate of all species…” – the successful ones evolve. We have a brain that lets us change our habits without evolution. Lets use them to solve our problems, not decide that they cannot be solved and give up.

  18. June 6th, 2006 at 02:10 | #18

    Hello Andrew,

    What some people fail to recognize is that the Homo sapiens have only existed for a very small time (approximately 100,000 years) and civilization a small percentage of that time (approximately 10,000 years) and the technological hyperconsuming monster even less (approximately two centuries). These time spans are simply not long enough to grant any confidence in any optimistic claims that the Homo sapiens can endure, prosper and succeed perpetually upon the Earth.

    Humans have a brain, yes, but humans are also violent, destructive, planet-destroying fools. Intelligence is wasted on the Homo sapiens. Did you notice that humans killed 100 million humans in the 20th century? The 21st century has begun just as terribly, and promises much worse.

    The Homo sapiens are the only surviving member of an evolutionary family whose other members have all already gone extinct. This might indicate that the Homo line is a dead end. We have attained a level of success unprecedently in the history of life but the prospects of our future survival and evolution into something better are dim and becoming dimmer every day.

    What I suspect is going to happen is that humans will continue on destroying things and changing the ecology in an irrational and extremely dangerous fashion until we finally break something which is essential to our survival. After that occurs (unless it has already occurred, a distinct possibility) the Homo sapiens will begin to fail in a dramatic fashion. We will fall off the cliff and utlimately go extinct is the most horrendous and painful manner possible.

    Messing around with the Earth is so very dangerous. There are no other planets hosptiable to human life available either in the Solar System or the Universe. If we succeed at destroying this one, there is nowhere else to go. What that means is that we evolved here and will go extinct here.

    But the extinction of humankind is by no means a tragedy. It is just a minor change in the Earth’s ecology. The world will go on without us. That much is certain.

  19. June 6th, 2006 at 02:16 | #19

    David Mathews writes, “Extinction is the inevitable fate of all species. See, for example, the dinosaurs and the Trilobytes.”

    When homo erectus became homo sapiens, did homo erectus become “extinct”?

    I agree that homo sapiens will eventually be replaced. In fact, before the end of this century, I expect homo sapiens to be almost completely replaced by homo mega-sapiens machinis. (As homo sapiens trade out their inefficient hydrocarbon body parts, including their brains, for more advanced non-hydrocarbon alternatives.)

    But if you think that homo sapiens will become extinct, to be replaced by chimps, you’ve been watching too many “Planet of the Apes” movies.

    I’ve got a little challenge for you. I’ve made the following predictions for world average life expectancy at birth and world per capita GDP for the 21st century.

    Years of life expectancy at birth (based on an assumption of ~64 years of life expectancy at birth in 2005):

    2020: >67; 2040: >74; 2060: >84; 2080: >98; 2100: >115.

    World per capita GDP, in year 2000 dollars (based on an assumption of $7,200 in 2000):

    2020: >$13,000; 2040: >$31,000; 2060: >$130,000; 2080: >$1,000,000; 2100: >$10,000,000.

    I challenged Jeff Harvey over at Tim Lambert’s Deltoid to do the same. So far (as expected) he has not done so:

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/05/in_the_year_2525.php#comment-91066

    Do you have any predictions for this century?

  20. June 6th, 2006 at 02:34 | #20

    Several people have asked about this comment by John Quiggin:

    “All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most. Quite possibly, as in previous cases, this wll turn out to be an overestimate.”

    I wonder:

    1) What level of emissions (relative to current emissions) do you think will “stabilize global CO2 levels over the next few decades)?

    2) What does “around 5 percent of GDP” mean? Does it mean that the present value of all the costs over the next decades will be about 5% of the current GDP? (Assuming that the current world GDP is about 50-60 trillion U.S.D….that would put the cost at $2.5 to $3 trillion…?)

    3) You write, “all the evidence.” Can you point to some of the evidence that leads to your conclusion? Even better, is your estimate merely a reporting of the conclusions of some scientific body? (Or is it a personal opinion?)

  21. June 6th, 2006 at 02:45 | #21

    Regarding comments on air pollution in China and Vietnam.

    John Quiggin has made no mention of the concept of an environmental “Kuznets Curve.” That is the theory that pollution first increases as countries get richer, and then decreases as they become even richer.

    There is some controversy about just how well these “Kuznets Curves” depict pollution across a range of countries, and across different types of pollution. But most researchers agree that such curves are valid for many forms of air pollution (e.g., particulate, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuznets_curve

    So the fact that air pollution rises as countries go from very poor (incomes less than $500 per year) to moderately poor (incomes less than $5000 per year) does not really conflict with the theory that air pollution will eventually go down to a very low level as incomes continue to rise (e.g. above $20,000 per year).

  22. Jimmythespiv
    June 6th, 2006 at 06:48 | #22

    Let’s just kill off everyone over thirty, like on Logan’s Run. At least we’ll all get a few good years running around in silly jump suits (with the females in flintstone’s style rags).

    The environnment is only saveable when you get first world approaches to polluting industries, matched with first world incomes. Any large third world agglomeration today is ample evidence of this.

  23. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 06:51 | #23

    Obviously, there’s an implicit reference to the environmental Kuznets curve in my post. On the other hand, it’s important to note that this depends on societies making the right choices.

  24. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 06:55 | #24

    To respond to a comment above, Crichton is a perfect example of the doomsayer mentality (version 2). The work of Mann et al (the so-called hockey stick) has been repeatedly verified by independent teams, while the challengers (McKitrick, Baliunas, Soon & McIntyre) are dishonest/incompetent hacks. Check on Baliunas upthread, and go to Tim Lambert’s site for McKitrick.

  25. conrad
    June 6th, 2006 at 09:29 | #25

    I think we need some real data on this, and a time span that people are talking about. Its easy to think of places where things got better a long time ago, like London, or places where things have got worse more recently, including countries moving to “rich” — like Spain. Personally I don’t care much for Kuznets curve, since most of the economic growth is going on in countries that are not going to be rich for a very long time due to high populations (China, India, other parts of Asia) and economic growth in these countries undoubtedly has increased many types of pollution and environmental damage. For example, the smog created by China now floats all the way to the US at some times of the year — this is surely worse than the localized smog that cities in Europe once had. Is this going to go away with more economic growth, or going to get better ? The same arguments apply for things like water usage — are more CHinese going exhaust their water supplies as economic growth occurs (and hence allows them to by washing machines etc.), or ist the situation going to get better ?

  26. June 6th, 2006 at 09:45 | #26

    Slightly off your main point. You make one offhand remark that I think is interesting and true. Lomberg has taken Simon’s place. And I mean in academic as well as political terms – I am surprised at the number of arguments in ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ are almost coincident with those proposded by Simon 20 years ago in ‘The Ultimate Resource’. I noticed because I read them 20 years ago. I think few have picked up on this.

    The really foolish arguments in Simon on biodiversity – that diversity has increased in the US because of the introduction of feral species, that extinctions are few and far between so there is no conservation problem – are faithfully replicated in Lomberg. They are very misleading.

  27. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 09:52 | #27

    “All the evidence, though, is that we can reduce emissions to levels consistent with stabilising global CO2 levels over the next few decades at a cost of around 5 per cent of GDP – a few years worth of economic growth at the most.â€?

    This strikes me as a very optimistic view. I don’t doubt that we can stabilise global CO2 levels at the cost of a few percent of GDP, but will we?

    We live in a world where the world’s biggest emitter of GHGs is in denial that there is a problem, emissions from industrialising countries (China, India etc) are growing faster than ever, and the rest of the world (e.g. Australia) shrugs it shoulders and says what difference can we make. Rather than slowing, global CO2 levels are accelerating, which is hardly surprising when the world is consuming fossil fuels at the fastest rate in history.

    Whenever governments propose serious action on climate change such as carbon taxes, wind farms, nuclear power stations etc it can be easily stymied with short-term political opportunism. Look at the ALP bleating about petrol prices. Imagine their reaction to a carbon tax on top of existing petrol taxes. Or a carbon tax on coal-fired electricity. Its hard to imagine oppositions of any political persuasion not taking advantage of such cheap political points.

    As for the prospect of nukes in Australia, does anyone honestly believe we can have serious debate nuclear power in this country? NIMBYism will run rampant! Iemma has already come out with a “never ever” in NSW statement: Nuclear reactor sites no big deal, Howard insists
    I don’t want to sound like a doomsayer, but I can’t see much reason for optimism. My great hope is that Gore runs for President in 2008 and wins. Then at last we will have someone in power who truly comprehends the enormity of the problem.

  28. June 6th, 2006 at 09:57 | #28

    “John Quiggin has made no mention of the concept of an environmental “Kuznets Curve.â€? That is the theory that pollution first increases as countries get richer, and then decreases as they become even richer.”

    I would have thought that this is because as countries become richer they export their pollution. Cheap transport means that heavily polluting industries can be relocated to ‘poor’ countries that are pathetically grateful for any investment whatsoever. Poorer countries also have laxer pollution laws that richer countries exploit.

    In short the total amount of pollution does not decrease – only shifts.

    http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption/Effects.asp#
    ExportingPollutionandWastefromRichCountriestoPoorCountries

  29. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:07 | #29

    The “Version 1 Doomsayers”TM who point to the inevitable extinction of every other species at the hand of nature as support for the ultimate extinction of Homo Sapiens miss a very simple point: Homo Sapiens is the first species that has successfully controlled its environment; not been a victim of it (other than our homonid brothers, which we probably wiped out anyway).

    Mark Bahner’s “homo mega-sapiens machinis” is the logical extension to our own bodies of our ability to control the environment. But I have been depressed since about the age of 6 that it is very unlikely to happen in my lifetime. No fun being a member of one of the last few generations of humans that has to die. Our descendants will view us with great pity.

  30. SimonJM
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:15 | #30

    While there are extremes on both sides -& at times dishonesty- if you consistently keep in touch with quality science journalism & natural history doco’s etc you would see that the basis of much of the so called ‘green doomsayers’ is based on the work of the scientists in the relevant fields.

    It must be noted that all the sides involved often are talking about different types of doom some the end of life on Earth, major species groups, human life or human civilization or human survival but major loss of life.

    Yet again my advice don’t listen to what the hard core environmental groups have to say go to quality science journalism and the scientists themselves.

    That is for those who don’t let there biases dictate their views and only take the science when it suits their purposes.

    My take has always been life of Earth will continue, human life and some sort of civilization as well but there is a real chance of major loss of human life on a scale that will dwarf anything else in history. If you think of the just the consequences of the Monsoon to SE Asia it will make any past natural disaster or human catastrophe look like a walk in the park.

  31. SimonJM
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:16 | #31

    In regard to the Club of Rome I posted a link before on at least one individual that looked it again and thinks while it was off by a few decades it fundamentals are still valid. I noticed recently over concerns over a lack of new copper sources and looking seriously at better recycling methods to help meet future demand.

    Concerning China & India I agree population isn’t the concern it once was but still highlight that if both these countries look to first world living standards at current resource use and recycling rates we would need four Earths. I have yet to hear anyone here JQ included address this point.

    The everything has been fine it will continue to be so is surely a very weak argument to base ones survival on.
    How does that lesson of the pond and the waterweed go, something like that if it takes a month to cover the surface doubling each day at what stage is it only half covered?

    Obviously the 29th day; so don’t think because things aren’t dire now that we cannot hit a tipping point that could go beyond our ability to react. There has be a growing trend of a loss of pollinating insects from what I understand if we pass a tipping point and lose them we are basically screwed.

  32. I love Paddy
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:29 | #32

    “Certainly both population and economic growth cause problems, but they also provide the resources to address those problems.”

    Are you joking, Professor Quiggin?

  33. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:37 | #33

    “This strikes me as a very optimistic view. I don’t doubt that we can stabilise global CO2 levels at the cost of a few percent of GDP, but will we?’

    That is certainly the big question.

  34. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:47 | #34

    Conrad, you’re right that as local problems are fixed, we need to look more at global and diffuse problems. But there’s no reason to suppose we can’t adddress these if we choose to do so.

    Coming back to rivers, the Thames isn’t an isolated instance. Work on cleaning up the Rhine started later but has been highly successful, and good progress is being made on the Danube (as well as lots of smaller rivers). The same is true for the Great Lakes where Lake Erie actually caught fire back in the 70s. The Volga is in a bad way, but that supports my point – the Russian government is too poor to do much about it.

  35. Katz
    June 6th, 2006 at 10:53 | #35

    Chiliasts of whatever ilk, dark green or dark brown, are amusing, so long as you are far enough away from them when their spittle starts flying.

    And as for “homo mega sapiens machinis”. Ho ho ho.

    We live at the end of the fossil fuel age. It has lasted about 300 years, and it was great while it lasted.

    Maybe a replacement will be found for fossil fuels that can compete with them for portability, stability and calorific value. But that replacement hasn’t come along yet.

    Absent that happy occurrence, it seems that life will get more static, more uncertain and dimmer as fossil fuels become less accessible and/or the externalities of their use become less tolerable.

    There are replacements for fossil fuels, but they aren’t as good.

    Is this a recipe for extinction? Of course not. But we won’t be transporting as much stuff as far, we’ll be wearing warmer clothing, and we won’t take as many hot showers.

    Apocalyptic? No. More like life in 1950s New Zealand? Yes.

    Baaa!

  36. June 6th, 2006 at 11:00 | #36

    “Mark Bahner’s “homo mega-sapiens machinisâ€? is the logical extension to our own bodies of our ability to control the environment. But I have been depressed since about the age of 6 that it is very unlikely to happen in my lifetime. No fun being a member of one of the last few generations of humans that has to die. Our descendants will view us with great pity.”

    Read Ray Kurzweil, e.g., his book, The Coming Singularity, or here:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6959575/

    He’s 56, and he’s planning to live forever. I’m 48, and think my odds are less than 50/50…maybe 1 in 4 or 1 in 10?

    My official prediction was for a worldwide life expectancy at birth greater than 115 years in 2100. But I was being pretty conservative (i.e., likely to err on the low side).

    If worldwide GDP per capita is indeed over $10,000,000 in 2100 (something I’ve very confident about), life expectancy at birth will probably be way higher than 115 years at birth in 2100. (For example, think how much money and technology Bill Gates will be willing to employ to keep himself and his family members alive.)

    Mark

  37. June 6th, 2006 at 11:17 | #37

    “There are replacements for fossil fuels, but they aren’t as good.”

    Fusion, particularly hydrogen-boron (aneutronic) fusion, kicks fossil fuels’ butt.

    With fusion, you can run a 1000 MW (megaWatt) power plant for a year with a couple thousand POUNDS of hydrogen and boron. And hydrogen-boron fusion produces only helium…essentially no neutrons or radioactive byproducts.

    http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2006/04/alternatives_to.html

    Similarly a car can be run for a year with less mass of water and boron than is in half a tank of gas.

    In comparison, a 1000 MW power plant requires a couple million TONS of coal each year.

    Also with fusion, spaceflight and terraforming of the Moon, Mars, and some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons becomes a possibility.

    P.S. A potential major problem with fusion, e.g. dense plasma focus fusion, is that it could very soon result in the possibility that even individuals could produce fusion bombs. (Fusion doesn’t lend itself very easily to creating explosions, but that doesn’t mean that individuals seriously interested in producing explosions couldn’t overcome the difficulties.)

  38. June 6th, 2006 at 11:26 | #38

    Mark Bahner – “Fusion, particularly hydrogen-boron (aneutronic) fusion, kicks fossil fuels’ butt.”

    The only major problem with fusion is that it is vapourware. TODAY the technologies exist to implement wind/solar/IGCC coal with electric transport as storage.

    Why wait???

  39. Katz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:28 | #39

    Dislike quoting myself but:

    “Maybe a replacement will be found for fossil fuels that can compete with them for portability, stability and calorific value. But that replacement hasn’t come along yet.”

    Mark, this boron thingy. Will it come along before we achieve immortality?

  40. June 6th, 2006 at 11:32 | #40

    “I think we need some real data on this, and a time span that people are talking about.”

    The U.S. EPA publishes a summary on air pollution emission trends and ambient concentrations every year.

    Here’s a summary of the 2003 status report:

    Air pollution status summary

    Here’s a .pdf Executive Summary:

    Executive Summary

  41. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:34 | #41

    And as for “homo mega sapiens machinis�. Ho ho ho.

    Chortle you may, Katz, but it is already well underway. Any of your relatives replaced a hip lately? A heart valve? A knee joint? Once we can clone our own replacement organs, we’re pretty much there. I suspect that’s at most 50 years off and probably less.

    “Apocalyptic? No. More like life in 1950s New Zealand? Yes.’

    Suddenly I no longer want to live forever…

  42. Katz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:38 | #42

    “Any of your relatives replaced a hip lately? A heart valve? A knee joint?”

    Yes, and several of them enjoyed prolonged morbidity and dementia, dying by inches in various nursing homes.

  43. June 6th, 2006 at 11:46 | #43

    Homo mega sapiens machinis sounds very much like some sort of sci-fi monster to me. Do you really want to become a machine? Is that the best that you can do?

  44. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:46 | #44

    Ender: “The only major problem with fusion is that it is vapourware. TODAY the technologies exist to implement wind/solar/IGCC coal with electric transport as storage.”

    Bollocks – those technologies may be less vapourware than fusion but they are not ready TODAY. Eg, non-sequestering IGCC reduces CO2 emissions by about 20% compared to traditional pulverised coal-fired generation, while the first zero-emissions IGCC plant is not slated to come online until 2012. Wind and solar are not suitable for large-scale generation yet (and may never be given the areas involved). IGCC link.

    If you have an alternative energy proposal, please put some real analysis behind it instead of just repeatedly telling us it is all ready TODAY. Your analysis should not assume that I’ll submit to forced lifestyle changes: I won’t vote for that.

  45. SimonJM
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:48 | #45

    The central message of the doomsday school is simple:
    we can’t protect the environment unless we are willing to accept a radical reduction in our standard of living.

    Some obviously think along those lines others think living smarter and more ethically would go a long way to solving environmental problems. Factor Four. Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource -Lovins for exapmple. From a resource and design viewpoint first world lifestyles are very wasteful.

    Leaving electronics on standby, single person travel in cars, and designing our cities for the car, still building houses with no passive solar design, allowing our toxic electronic waste to be exported to third world countries; start working on these & lets see how far we could get living smart and ethically before I start worrying about drastic cuts in standards of living to fix the worlds environmental woes.

  46. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:48 | #46

    “Yes, and several of them enjoyed prolonged morbidity and dementia, dying by inches in various nursing homes.”

    Is this a hereditary thing in your family, Katz? Is it early onset? Just curious…

  47. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:50 | #47

    When I was a kid nuclear fusion was decades away. Decades later and it doesn’t seem to be any closer. Like Ender said its vapourware, and there is no guarantee that we’ll ever make it work, certainly not within the timeframe required for action on climate change. i.e. yesterday.

    When I was a kid there were astronauts on the moon as well. Mark Bahner is going to be sorely disappointed if expects fusion-powered flight to the planets within his lifetime.

  48. Katz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:52 | #48

    Is this a hereditary thing in your family, Katz? Is it early onset? Just curious… ”

    If I told you would you remember the answer?

  49. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:53 | #49

    If I told you would you remember the answer?

    What was the question again?

  50. Katz
    June 6th, 2006 at 11:57 | #50

    Did I ever tell you that several of my relatives suffered from dementia?

  51. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 12:04 | #51

    “Did I ever tell you that several of my relatives suffered from dementia?”

    Is this a hereditary thing in your family, Katz? Is it early onset? Just curious…

  52. FDB
    June 6th, 2006 at 12:19 | #52

    John:

    “Obviously, there’s an implicit reference to the environmental Kuznets curve in my post. On the other hand, it’s important to note that this depends on societies making the right choices.”

    So VERY important it makes your “all we have to do is shave 5% off GDP” seem, well, a tad glib.

    Hmmm… the choice to make more money or less… to act now for the future’s sake or to stay in government… to accurately report scientific findings that Rupert doesn’t like or to keep my job… to take the precautionary principle AGAINST the wishes of powerful corporate lobby groups or to roll over and get me a tummy rub… hmmm…. tummy rub…

    Have ANY of these decisions EVER gone the right way, John?

  53. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 12:20 | #53

    Katz & Dogz, please divert this to the Monday Message Board thread. I’d like to keep discussion vaguely on-topi.c

    SimonJM, I don’t regard Lovins as a doomsayer precisely because he argues that, with smarter personal and social policies we can have both environmental protection and high living standards/

  54. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 12:48 | #54

    single person travel in cars

    This is a particular bugbear of mine. Many places in the US have HOV (High-Occupancy-Vehicle) lanes where “High Occupancy” means greater than 1. But you see very few people in those lanes. Even in really bad sections of the more leftie parts of the country, like the 101 south from San Fancisco. Why? Because car pooling SUCKS! So much organizational overhead and hassle compared to just jumping in the car on your own.

    Don’t try to change human nature; work around it.

  55. wilful
    June 6th, 2006 at 12:55 | #55

    One thing that’s been missed in this generally interesting debate are a few fundamental facts about water resources. Us Australians will quite soon change our lifestyles and mindsets and urban and much farming water will become far more efficient. But groundwater in India, China, the middle east may become virtually nonexistent as aquifers are drained and do not refill in the forseeable future. Meanwhile, soil loss from inappropriate farming practices continues in both northern and southern countries.

    And this all happens while inevitable climate change is underway.

    So while I’m a moderate green and generally think we’ll muddle through, the prospect of massive desertification and famine remain very real, for at least the next century. As a rich whitey, I may be privileged enough to check out the (biologically impoverished) 22nd century.

  56. June 6th, 2006 at 13:01 | #56

    “Homo mega sapiens machinis sounds very much like some sort of sci-fi monster to me. Do you really want to become a machine? Is that the best that you can do?”

    I’d love to be able to read any book in 5 minutes, and remember every word perfectly for the rest of my life. Not to mention the names of every person I’ve ever met.

    I’d love to have 2000/1 vision (see clearly at 2000 feet what a normal person can only see at one foot). Not to mention the ability to see infrared (see all the insulation deficiencies in my house) and x-ray (in case I break a bone).

    Right now my heart is in pretty good shape. But when I’m 80 years old, if I could buy a heart or hearts that would function as well or better than mine does now for the next 300 years…yeah, I’d definitely do that.

    Who wouldn’t?

    As Woody Allen said, I don’t care much about achieving immortality through my work. I’d prefer to achieve it by not dying.

  57. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 13:07 | #57

    “As Woody Allen said, I don’t care much about achieving immortality through my work. I’d prefer to achieve it by not dying. “

    Too right. Unfortunately, he was also right about physics:

    ” “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.â€?

  58. June 6th, 2006 at 13:25 | #58

    “The only major problem with fusion is that it is vapourware. TODAY the technologies exist to implement wind/solar/IGCC coal with electric transport as storage.

    Why wait???”

    Here’s what the U.S. Department of Energy should do. Offer the following technology prizes for (non-tokamak) fusion:

    1) Five prizes of $10 million each for generating 10 fusion watts for 1 hour, within a factor of 10 of breakeven.

    2) Five prizes of $50 million each for generating 100 fusion watts for 1 day, within a factor of 4 of breakeven.

    3) Three prizes of $100 million each for generating 1000 fusion watts for 1 week, wtihin a factor of 2 of breakeven.

    4) Three prizes of $1 billion each for generating 1 megaWatt by fusion, for one year, at at least 10 percent greater than breakeven.

    For a total of $3.6 billion, fusion would be close enough to commercial that investors would be willing to go the rest of the way.

    And if no firms could meet the criteria for any of the rewards, the U.S. government would pay nothing.

  59. June 6th, 2006 at 13:32 | #59

    “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.�

    As I wrote, suppose I can buy a new heart 30 years from now that will last me another 30 years. Then 30 years after that, another heart. Keep that up for 300+ years, and you’ve really got something. (Heck, even 30 years extra would be pretty amazing.)

  60. June 6th, 2006 at 13:34 | #60

    SimonJM, have you heard of substitute goods?

    Funnily enough, in the construction sector, the rise in copper prices has seen a switch to aluminium for wiring and PVC for plumbing.

    Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust. All you need is energy to separate it into its pure form. PVC can be crunched out of any hydrocarbon source, and chlorine (which is available in virtually unlimited quantities from seawater).

    If you want to worry about running out of some crucial metal (or, more accurately, it becoming too expensive to use in crucial applications), platinum is probably a much better candidate, particularly if fuel cell technology takes off.

  61. June 6th, 2006 at 13:42 | #61

    Last comment for the night. (See, why do I have to sleep 7 hours a night. Waste of time!)

    “Us Australians will quite soon change our lifestyles and mindsets and urban and much farming water will become far more efficient. But groundwater in India, China, the middle east may become virtually nonexistent as aquifers are drained and do not refill in the forseeable future.”

    Google “Mark Bahner, costs of desalination.” The first hit should be Roger Pielke Jr.’s Prometheus website.

    My comments start February 16 at 10:17 am, and continue periodically thereafter. Here’s a cut/paste from that first comment:

    Yes, and this completely ignores the potential for desalination. The simple facts of desalination are:

    1) Two-thirds of the planet is covered with water (the only problem being it has salt in it),

    2) 39% of the world’s present population lives within 100 km of the sea,

    3) Worldwide water desalination increased from 2 million cubic meters in 1972 to approximately 24 million cubic meters in 2000,

    4) At least two countries (Qatar and Kuwait) already get 100% of their water from desalination,

    5) The costs for water desalination–particularly reverse osmosis, which is rapidly displacing thermal desalination–are dropping steadily. In 1960, the cost of conventional water treatment systems (i.e., for freshwater, prior to retail sale) were $0.10 to $0.50 per 1000 cubic meters. In contrast, the cost of thermal desalination of seawater averaged approximately $2.20 per 1000 cubic meters, and reverse osmosis desalination was not even commercially available. By 2000, the average cost for both thermal desalination and reverse osmosis desalination had dropped to $1.20 per 1000 cubic meters.

    http://www.mwi.gov.jo/home/Thursday/medrc.pdf

    In another 40 years, it’s easily conceivable that desalination costs will have dropped even closer to the cost of supplying treated freshwater. Does any analysis of water availability by anyone in the “climate change community” take into account the likely progress in desalination technology 40, 80, or 100 years into the future?

  62. June 6th, 2006 at 14:40 | #62

    Dogz – “Eg, non-sequestering IGCC reduces CO2 emissions by about 20% compared to traditional pulverised coal-fired generation, while the first zero-emissions IGCC plant is not slated to come online until 2012″

    No-one said anything about sequestering the CO2. IGCC plants eliminate the toxic emissions of coal namely mercury. You can sequester the CO2 if you like however that is years away. Natural gas CCGT plants and newer coal plants can continue to deliver base load with an acceptable emission of CO2.

    Both plug in hybrids and battery electric cars that can deliver power to the grid are a reality. It is called Vehicle to Grid or V2G.

    “If you have an alternative energy proposal, please put some real analysis behind it instead of just repeatedly telling us it is all ready TODAY.”

    People do have an alternative vision with todays technology here is one of them:

    1. Increase energy efficiency with known technologies with incentives to replace inefficient refrigerators, airconditioners etc with more efficient types. Enforce insulation of homes.

    2. Increase the share of renewables (solar, wind, biomass) payed for with a carbon tax to something approaching 60% in a distibuted smart grid incorporating electric transport as peaking storage.

    3. Tax off the road internal combustion cars/trucks except plug in hybrids.
    Subsidise ethanol PHEVs, battery electric vehicles that all have to be capable of interacting with the grid.

    4. Eliminate all thermal power plants. Replace baseload with fast reacting Natural Gas CCGT and IGCC coal plants that can interact on a minute by minute basis with renewable resources. Look no further than Esperance where this is working well today.

    5. Make solar hotwater and solar PV installations mandatory (with almost 100% subsidies from the carbon tax) for all new homes and existing homes when sold.

    Did I leave anything out Dogz? One of the major problems with 19th century power generation like thermal coal plants and the electrical generation part of a nuclear power station is that they are unable to cop with fast changing power demand conditions. Gas turbines can. One of the reasons that you think renewables cannot be employed on a large scale is that the century old power grid cannot cope with the newer renewable technology leading to power wastage and inefficiencies. Usually the renewables are blamed however it is the old monolithic grid that is the fault. It is a bit like mainframe people in the 80s saying that PCs are no good because they do not connect to hosts properly and contribute to instability on the computing grid so they should be eliminated and/or replaced by good old dependable mainframe terminals and more mainframes.

    You are firmly arguing for the continuation of the mainframe era whereas I forsee a PC/Internet decentralised and smart future for power generation. Mainframes still have their place however no-one has a home mainframe.

  63. FDB
    June 6th, 2006 at 14:41 | #63

    Mark:

    “As I wrote, suppose I can buy a new heart 30 years from now that will last me another 30 years. Then 30 years after that, another heart. Keep that up for 300+ years, and you’ve really got something. (Heck, even 30 years extra would be pretty amazing.)”

    It would only be amazing for you, and even then only if you did something useful with those years. By which I mean something other than agitating for enormous sums to be offered up as prizes for more longevity initiatives. LOL.

    Just be satisfied with how much you can **** the planet up in one, regulation biological life, Mark. Or think about how you could leave a positive legacy when YOU INEVITABLY DIE. Perhaps one where you cared about the future intrinsically, rather than as a place for you to keep on living forever.

  64. June 6th, 2006 at 14:45 | #64

    Mark = “For a total of $3.6 billion, fusion would be close enough to commercial that investors would be willing to go the rest of the way.”

    And for that money you could have the same power starting TODAY from solar/wind/biomass. Why wait for technologies that may NEVER work properly. And if they do fusion can be neatly integrated, where appropriate, in the renewable smart grid of the future.

    Small scale solar/wind is far far more appropriate for 3rd world countries that lack the electrical distributions system. Fusion power in massive power plants is only well suited to the first world where such systems are in place. Even the promise of fusion does nothing for the 3rd world – why not use the fusion reactor in the sky and use wind/solar – it is distributed for free.

  65. wilful
    June 6th, 2006 at 14:51 | #65

    Mark bahner, I’m not talking about first world potable drinking water, I’m sure we’ll be able to afford a drink, I’m talking about third world’s use of untreated ‘fossil water’ for agriculture.

    In another 40 years, it’s easily conceivable that desalination costs will have dropped even closer to the cost of supplying treated freshwater. Does any analysis of water availability by anyone in the “climate change community� take into account the likely progress in desalination technology 40, 80, or 100 years into the future?

    Desalination requires energy, lots of it at the moment, and that’s another debate, but I’m not talking about in 40 years!

  66. June 6th, 2006 at 14:52 | #66

    David,
    I would strongly argue the converse of “…[t]hese time spans are simply not long enough to grant any confidence in any optimistic claims that the Homo sapiens can endure”.
    There is simply no data for you to say that we cannot only endure, but prosper. On the contrary, there is abundent data that shows that, unique amongst the species, we have been able to mould our environment to our needs. This has, of course, come with problems, some of which we are only gradually learning about.
    The fact that we can learn and adapt without waiting for evolution has been proven time and again. Personally, I intend to ensure there is a good, if not great, future for my children. I am confident that they, and we, can succeed if we try.
    To me, this is what this debate is about. If we accept your viewpoint this debate is moot and we may as well commit suicide.

  67. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 15:33 | #67

    “IGCC plants eliminate the toxic emissions of coal namely mercury.”

    I see. So now the CO2 is non-toxic? If so, why bother with renewables at all?

    “Did I leave anything out Dogz?”

    Yeah, costs. Yet again. I guess you’re not an investor, but here’s how it works in the real world: Before any investor decides to invest in a new project they require strict analyses of costs and risks. They want to know the likelihood that the project will succeed, how much money is required, what are the major risks to success, etc.

    We have a really good handle on the costs and risks associated with large-scale power generation, as it is practiced today. You need to analyse the costs and risks associated with introducing alternative forms of energy generation, unless you are claiming there are no costs or risks at all (in which case I don’t believe you)?

  68. rog
    June 6th, 2006 at 15:41 | #68

    “Katz & Dogz…”

  69. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 16:14 | #69

    People do have an alternative vision with todays technology here is one of them:

    Way to go Ender!

    Of course, none of your (excellent) suggestions will actually happen :(

    Re: 3. I’d like to see a biodiesel-fuelled hybrid. The technology is perfectly feasible today (unlike say, fuel-cells, fusion etc) and such a vehicle could probably achieve 3L/100km for a Toyota Corolla sized car.

    Re: 5. Home PV systems are hopelessly uneconomic ATM. The payback period is 20-30 years without rebates. You’d need to spend ~$30K for a system that produces as much power as a fairly efficient family home. The average Aussie would much rather spend that on a new kitchen/bathroom/pool. OTOH, the payback period for solar hotwater is closer to 5 years.

  70. Terje (say TAY-A)
    June 6th, 2006 at 16:40 | #70

    On the alternate energy front I am very keen to see how the commercialisation costs and return on investment pans out for the Solar Tower. Everything I read about the technology sounds so promising however Enviromission seems very quite lately.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_chimney

  71. StephenL
    June 6th, 2006 at 16:40 | #71

    “Home PV systems are hopelessly uneconomic ATM. The payback period is 20-30 years without rebates.”

    True, but the question is this – which is more likely to become economic soon – PV systems which currently work, have been falling in price for decades and where methods of building them that will be cheaper and more effecient have been demonstrated, or Fusion, which has never been made to produce a single watt of commercial power.

    If we throw enough research dollars at each of them they’ll both leave coal, and fission, in their wake. But comparing the tens of billions being plowed into fusion with the hundreds of millions going into solar I know which is better value for money.

  72. Dogz
    June 6th, 2006 at 17:09 | #72

    It is interesting that the same environmentalists who scoff at “technofixers” are themselves hoping that technology will solve the problems with PV.

    Tens of billions is spent on fusion research because it costs $10B just to build a single, experimental reactor.

    PV research is much cheaper to conduct, hence has less spent on it. Hundreds of millions of dollars is still a lot of money, and you have to admit, progress in PV has been awfully slow despite that large investment.

  73. June 6th, 2006 at 17:27 | #73

    You wrote :
    “… claims that we are bound to run out of resources, made most vigorously by the Club of Rome in the 1970s, have repeatedly been refuted by experience.”

    Untrue. Their first prediction, published in Limits to Growth in 1971, was that food production would peak in 2008, then Resource Extraction would peak in 2010. This is the “Standard Run” scenario. So none of their predictions have yet transpired, let alone been found wrong.

    In their “Double Resources” scenario, the food production peak moves out to 2015 and the Peak Resources rate is at 2030, which is 20 years after the standard scenario.

    Please see my article “Limits to growth – the Standard Run and Double Resource predictions” at http://home.austarnet.com.au/davekimble/peakoil/limits.htm

  74. June 6th, 2006 at 17:41 | #74

    Dogz – “I see. So now the CO2 is non-toxic? If so, why bother with renewables at all?”

    CO2 is non-toxic in small concentrations. A build up of it could change the world’s climate however it still will be non-toxic as toxicity is generally defined. Mercury causes all sort of health problems. Coal plants also emit copious amounts of carcogens in the form of particulates. IGCC eliminates most of these.

    “Yeah, costs. Yet again. I guess you’re not an investor, but here’s how it works in the real world: Before any investor decides to invest in a new project they require strict analyses of costs and risks. They want to know the likelihood that the project will succeed, how much money is required, what are the major risks to success, etc.”

    So are these criteria going to be applied to the nuclear debate? As no purely private sector nuclear reactor has been built in 30 years then perhaps market forces have spoken. Our own ANSTO study is suggesting that the government subsidise the cost of the reactor and the insurance.

    “We have a really good handle on the costs and risks associated with large-scale power generation, as it is practiced today. You need to analyse the costs and risks associated with introducing alternative forms of energy generation, unless you are claiming there are no costs or risks at all (in which case I don’t believe you)?”

    I am not proposing any new forms of power generation. Solar thermal, wind, Combined Cycle Gas Turbines are all in use today. Electric cars and hybrids are in use today. Plug in hybrids, either biodiesel or ethanol, are a very small step from the current Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid. Using the batteries from cars is only increasing the total storage space available for peaking power and spinning reserve. Currently schemes like pumping water up hill in off-peak times are used to store power.

    There is nothing new in what I propose – costing are something I have tried however I am not an economist and I cannot really do it thoroughly. I am sure someone far more qualified than me has done some sort of analysis.

  75. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 17:43 | #75

    True, but the question is this – which is more likely to become economic soon – PV systems which currently work, have been falling in price for decades and where methods of building them that will be cheaper and more effecient have been demonstrated, or Fusion, which has never been made to produce a single watt of commercial power

    Home PV systems obviously … but in the near term it will only be rich greenies and do-gooders that install home PV systems. For 99.9% of the population there’s no incentive to fork out $30K of their hard earned salary for something that will do precisely nothing for them. A carbon tax could change that, but there is zero political will to impose a carbon tax, here, or in the U.S. or in Asia.

  76. SimonJM
    June 6th, 2006 at 17:49 | #76

    Robert Merkel yes I’m aware of them and it will be interestng given the myriad different uses of copper how many of them can easy be substituted.

    BTW I would hazard a guess that it takes more energy to produce Aluminium which is exactly the direction we want to avoid.

  77. SJ
    June 6th, 2006 at 18:03 | #77

    Mark Bahner Says:

    In contrast, the cost of thermal desalination of seawater averaged approximately $2.20 per 1000 cubic meters, and reverse osmosis desalination was not even commercially available. By 2000, the average cost for both thermal desalination and reverse osmosis desalination had dropped to $1.20 per 1000 cubic meters.

    I think you’ve got your costs wrong, by a factor of 1,000.

  78. SimonJM
    June 6th, 2006 at 18:03 | #78

    JQ the ‘green’ movement obviously has many different members but in my opinion the stance of Lovins is considered mainstream with Ted Trainer somewhat behind.

    While some might advocate going back to a self sufficient small villages most are just looking to cut back on extravagant consumption, cutting back a bit but not all life’s luxuries, being more efficient and paying the true cost or a fair price for those things we want.

    BTW on a side note the Downshifting/Slow Food movements with more emphasis on quality personal time with relationships etc rather than material goods is a good indicator that less consumption of material goods doesn’t automatically mean a cut in your standard of living; in fact quite the opposite.

  79. jquiggin
    June 6th, 2006 at 20:01 | #79

    “BTW on a side note the Downshifting/Slow Food movements with more emphasis on quality personal time with relationships etc rather than material goods is a good indicator that less consumption of material goods doesn’t automatically mean a cut in your standard of living; in fact quite the opposite.”

    A good point, and one I’ll certainly be addressing when I do a longer version of this post.

    Although it’s only impressionistic, I’d make a pretty sharp distinction between Lovins (an optimist like me) and Trainer (a doomsayer in my view).

  80. June 6th, 2006 at 21:21 | #80

    David Mitchie – “Home PV systems obviously … but in the near term it will only be rich greenies and do-gooders that install home PV systems. For 99.9% of the population there’s no incentive to fork out $30K of their hard earned salary for something that will do precisely nothing for them.”

    Thats because we do not charge for electricity with sliding scales for increased usage. There is no penalty for large electricity users so there is no real incentive to save power.

    To change this make the first say 20kWh per day charged at normal tariffs then the next 20kWh per day is charged at 1.5 the tarriffs, then the next 20kWr is charged at double tariff and so on. For businesses it could be a higher threshold. Then there would be incentive to save power and a home or business PV system would pay for itself really quickly. If you have an airconditioner then it is most used for cooling when it is sunny and hot – most of the power for it could be obtained from the PV panels on your roof and not contribute to your daily usage.

  81. Seeker
    June 6th, 2006 at 21:21 | #81

    These are two very useful sources of relevant info:

    Scientific American, September 2005 issue (‘Crossroads For Planet Earth’). Especially the article on energy eficiency (page 52), by the aforementioned Amory Lovins (who is undoubtedly one of the saner voices in this debate).

    And ‘The CSIRO Energy and Transport Sector Outlook to 2020 (3MB)’, published in September 2002.

  82. Seeker
    June 6th, 2006 at 21:22 | #82

    Sorry, the CSIRO report can be found in pdf form on this page: http://www.det.csiro.au

  83. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 21:41 | #83

    Ender, I completely agree with you, but it won’t happen. What politician in their right mind is going to make electricity so expensive that a home PV system is viable? Look at the ALP bleating about high petrol prices when high petrol prices are exactly what’s needed to make technologies such as hybrid cars viable … and this is from the party of the left! Imagine by some miracle Beazley wins the next election and introduces a sliding scale of carbon taxes on coal-generated electricity. What fun the conservatives would have with that!

    Professor Q says he’s optimistic but he doesn’t explain how the huge changes required to address climate change will be managed politically. I don’t see any Al Gore equivalents running around our Parliament.

    BTW, this is worth a listen:
    Al Gore interview on NPR

  84. David Michie
    June 6th, 2006 at 21:57 | #84

    So Howard has appointed Ziggy to investigate nuclear power in Australia. What Howard doesn’t say, and (AFAIK) what he never says, is why we need an investigation into nuclear power right now.

    Nuclear power wasn’t even on the radar five years ago. What’s changed? Coal is cheap, coal is plentiful, we have enough reserves in Australia to last us 300 years. Why do we suddenly need nukes Johnny?

    Either this is just some silly political game designed to tear the ALP apart, or Howard has had a religious conversion on global warming (but can’t bring himself to say it in public). Much as I suspect the former, I can’t discount the latter.

    I watched a lengthy interview with Howard on the 7:30 report tonight, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention global warming once. Neither did Red Kez for that matter. As PJK would say: The elephant in the living room.

  85. June 6th, 2006 at 22:35 | #85

    ProfQ, sorry for getting a bit offtopic, but…

    Ender, if we are using PHEVs as an energy storage device, any intermittant storage will do. In which case, why the hell would we bother with solar photovoltaic when wind is a tenth the price?

    By the way, are you aware of any modelling to see what your scheme of using the batteries in hybrid vehicles as a domestic energy store does to the battery life? batteries for a practical PHEV are extremely expensive; if you halve their lifespan using them to run your telly that becomes a ridiculously expensive proposition.

  86. June 7th, 2006 at 02:02 | #86

    “Just be satisfied with how much you can **** the planet up in one, regulation biological life, Mark.”

    I’m an environmental engineer. I spend the a large part of my waking time helping the planet.

    Just what do YOU do for a living, FDB? When I was spending 12, 14, and 16 hour days doing stack emissions compliance and air pollution research testing, I don’t recall seeing you there…

  87. June 7th, 2006 at 02:37 | #87

    I wrote, “For a total of $3.6 billion, fusion would be close enough to commercial that investors would be willing to go the rest of the way.�

    Ender replied, “And for that money you could have the same power starting TODAY from solar/wind/biomass. Why wait for technologies that may NEVER work properly. And if they do fusion can be neatly integrated, where appropriate, in the renewable smart grid of the future.”

    The reason to offer technology prizes for fusion is that solar (photovoltaics or thermal), wind, and biomass simply come nowhere near the potential of controlled fusion as an energy source.

    Let’s take some examples:

    1) A large ocean container ship uses about 11 TONS of fuel oil per hour to cruise at 25 knots. That same ship could be powered by a fusion reactor that used less than 1 POUND of hydrogen and boron per hour. (A container ship could also be powered by a fission reactor, but a fission reactor contains extraordinarily dangerous material that can be released during a meltdown.)

    2) A 200-seat aircraft flying from New York to Los Angeles requires about 15,000 gallons of jet fuel. If powered by fusion, the same plane could fly the same distance using less than 10 pounds of hydrogen and boron.

    3) New York City requires an average of approximately 10,000 megawatts of electrical energy. That’s 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. To supply that energy requires approximately 30 million tons of coal per year. Or it would take roughly 30,000 1-megawatt wind turbines (because the turbine only produces about 1/3rd its rated capacity, on average). Even coating every horizontal surface in NYC with photovoltaics (including roofs, roads, and sidewalks) wouldn’t produce that electricity (and would produce nothing during the 12 hours of darkness on the average day). In contrast, that power could be produced by 100, 100-MW fusion plants, located right in buildings in Manhattan. If the buildings were destroyed, the fusion reactors would simply shut down (with no loss of radioactive material, if the reactors were hydrogen-boron reactors).

    4) The Saturn rocket used for Apollo 11 weighed 13 times as much as the Statue of Liberty, and most of that weight was fuel. The comparable fuel to get men to the moon with a fusion powered rocket would would be less than the weight of a single man.

    So *that’s* why it makes sense to offer technology prizes to private entities who develop fusion systems. Controlled fusion makes all other energy sources essentially unneccessary…including solar, wind, and biomass.

  88. e sciaroni
    June 7th, 2006 at 04:29 | #88

    Fusion?

    Fusion power is a daydream. $Tens of billions have been spent with still very little fusion going on. No real progress has been made. I don’t expect to see controlled fusion power plants in my lifetime. (even if I do live 115 years)

  89. Seeker
    June 7th, 2006 at 06:38 | #89

    Fusion doesn’t look too promising overall. Still far too many technical problems, and the economics are not clear.

    Maybe a hundred years from now. But it doesn’t have a place in any policy decisions that have to be made soon.

    However, I certainly support some basic ongoing research into fusion. If it can be made to work it would be great.

  90. June 7th, 2006 at 07:39 | #90

    Quiggin — nice post, and I particularly appreciate the wunderground history of ozone hole “skeptic” tactics.

    On skeptics being converted by evidence — arguably Kyoto was the global warming equivalent of the Montreal accord for ozone, until the US president pulled us out of it.

    Fusion is only a few times denser (in Joules/kilogram-fuel) than fission, which we actually have working and which can go a long time. Fusion makes less waste true, though the kind most research looks at is deuterium-tritium which makes more neutrons than fisison. I’m happy for research to continue but I wouldn’t bet on fusion soon.

    “Do you really want to become a machine?” We *are* machines, of soft and evolved design, often quite brilliant, sometimes quite stupid (appendix), and poorly designed for ongoing maintenance and spare parts.

    “Kuznets curves… as countries become richer they export their pollution.” This is demonstrably false in at least some cases. The smog of Los Angeles comes from cars, whose function cannot be exported, and air quality there, while still not great, has gotten much better over the past few decades thanks to the cars becoming cleaner and more efficient. Similarly, if there’s less acid rain in North America now, it’s because the coal plants dump less pollution than the used to. (Also due to some switching to gas plants, probably.) Water treatment improves as well.

    “Poorer countries have laxer pollution laws that richer countries exploit.” Exactly, and those laws work — if the production current done in China was being done in the US or Europe, it would be less polluting than it is in China.

  91. June 7th, 2006 at 10:17 | #91

    Fusion power is a daydream.”

    You think so? Well, if you’re right, then there will be no technological prize money awarded for increasing levels of achievement of fusion power. That’s the beauty of technology prizes, versus direct funding of research. With technology prizes, if there is no breakthrough, there is no payment. In contrast, when the government(s) directly fund energy research, there is a direct incentive to run into as many problems as possible. (Research funds dry up when the technology becomes commercial.)

    However, your opinion on fusion is apparently not shared by Vince Page, a Technology Officer at General Electric. At a recent fusion conference, he estimated the costs to achieve breakeven for various fusion technologies:

    Fusion prospects

    The 7th slide assesses the times to small-scale net energy production for the Plasma Focus, Field Reversed Configuration, and Koloc Spherical Plasma of 6 years, 8 years, and 10 years, respectively. Further, the estimated costs to achieve net energy production are only $18 million, $75 million, and $25 million, respectively. Finally, the estimated probabilities of success for larger plant sizes if the small-scale energy concept works are 80%, 60%, and 80%, respectively.

    “$Tens of billions have been spent with still very little fusion going on.”

    To my knowledge, the number (at least in the U.S.) is approximately $10 billion.

    But regarding cost versus actual power produced, there is likewise very little photovoltaic energy being produced. When I was in college in 1979, the head of the Department of Energy’s Photovoltaics Program came to Virginia Tech, and described the steps that would produce photovoltaic power for prices comparable with coal-fired power by the mid 1980s. Now, it’s 2006, and photovoltaics still are more than a factor of 3 more expensive than power from the grid in the U.S., in most cases. Less than 0.01 percent of the power in the U.S. is generated with photovoltaics.

    While there is more wind power being generated, in the U.S., wind still generates less than 2% of the total electrical power. I would be absolutely shocked if wind power EVER generates even 20% of the total electrical power in the U.S.

    In contrast, fusion power could easily generate many times the total energy demand of humans for millions of years. Just to give one example of the use of that energy…snow making machines could be placed at both poles of sufficient snow-making capacity to generate more snow during their winters than melts during their summers. Such an activity would be virtually impossible with photovoltaics, wind, or any other energy source.

    “No real progress has been made.”

    That’s not true. First off, tokamak-based fusion devices have increased their time, temperature, and density (“triple T”) values by approximately a factor of 1000 over the last 3 decades.

    Fusion progress towards breakeven

    They are now close enough to breakeven that the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER) is expected to generate 400 MW more power than is put in.

    “I don’t expect to see controlled fusion power plants in my lifetime. (even if I do live 115 years)”

    If the U.S. Department of Energy were to offer technology prizes of the approximate magnitude and technical requirements that I’ve outlined, I’d expect to see commercial controlled fusion power plants within 2 decades, at most. By mid-century, I’ll (hopefully) be 92, and would expect to see the majority of electrical power in the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and India generated by controlled fusion.

    But the United States–or Europe, Japan, India, or China–needs to switch to technology prizes, especially for non-tokamak reactors. The direct funding of tokamak research has been, and will continue to be, a bad idea.

  92. June 7th, 2006 at 10:19 | #92

    Oops. The fusion progress figure is here:

    Fusion progress

  93. June 7th, 2006 at 10:24 | #93

    Mark – “The reason to offer technology prizes for fusion is that solar (photovoltaics or thermal), wind, and biomass simply come nowhere near the potential of controlled fusion as an energy source.”

    Look I am completely with you on fusion. If the promise is realised then it will be a wonderful power source. However we have problems NOW. You do not wait for a revolutionary new way of extinguishing fires when your house is burning down. You use what you have at the time, inefficient as it is, to put the damn fire out and then think about the wonderful new way.

    Renewables will do fine if we change a bit to accomodate them. The current situation we are in is an artifical artifact of the incredibly high energy density of fossil fuels and our own self importance. We think that this is how the world should be so we desperately cast around trying to preserve the status-quo without really examining whether the status-quo is sustainable in the long term. By the problems that are occuring in the Earth’s biosystems, our life support, there is a very clear message here, if you want to listen, that perhaps it is not.

    We need to change, not back to the stone age or some agrarian utopia that never really happened, but to sustainable technology that does not pile up problems for future people to solve. Will it last for a thousand years should be our motto. When Dick, Burt and Jeanna where building the Voyager round the world aircraft every part they examined to use in the plane was discussed and examined with the idea “will it go around the world?”. If it looked dodgy or bad quality then it was rejected. If we apply the thousand year rule to things then a lot of options get eliminated. Nuclear Fission will not last a thousand years. Fusion might however renewables will.

  94. June 7th, 2006 at 10:27 | #94

    Well, that’s really weird. Click on the “Achieving fusion conditions” hyperlink on the left, to go to the actual figure.

    Here is another figure showing fusion progress:

    Another fusion progress figure

  95. StephenL
    June 7th, 2006 at 10:30 | #95

    Dogz, the federal government has shut down both the CRC for renewable energy and the Energy Research and Development Corporation. This hasn’t entirely shut down renewable energy research in Australia, but has probably halved the rate of progress. The money saved was peanuts compared to that being thrown at Fusion (although so far the Australian government has not participated in that).

    PV research is inherently cheaper than fusion as you point out, so you would think that would make people more inclined to invest in it, but the opposite has been the case.

    What we have seen is a systematic hobbling of quality research into most renewables, and then people say “see they don’t work we better go chasing nuclear”. It’s like breaking someone’s leg and then saying the fact they didn’t win a race proves they never could.

  96. Liam
    June 7th, 2006 at 10:57 | #96

    “In most respects, economic growth is consistent with improvements in the environment rather than degradation.”
    Ha ha ha, ha ha. So soil salinity, deforestation, overfishing, heavy metal & POP toxics accumulating in our bodies, climate change and cancer epidemics are evidence of improvements eh?
    True, (cherry-picked) air and water quality in some western cities has improved in last decade, but then the US is upping allowable mercury and cyanide, asthma is still rising in Aus., and virtually every other enviro indicator gets worse. Mr Quiggan is obviously unfamiliar with the Aus State of the Environment reports, but then what can you expect from an economist.

  97. June 7th, 2006 at 11:19 | #97

    No doubt others on this thread would have categorised me as a “deep green” and I would accept this categorisation, even though I would gladly go on accepting many of the benefits of our consumerist society, if I believed it were possible to do so indefinitely into the future.

    Given that the past two centuries have been such a huge abberration in human history in terms of how much capital from nature (as opposed to interest) we have consumed, I think the onus should be on those, who believe that we can maintain, indefinitely longer, levels of consumption which are several orders of magnitude greater than what has been consumed for virtually all of human history, even if we achieve ‘factor four’ increases in efficiency, to prove their case.

    To all those who wish to remain complacent about the gravity of the threat confronting us (and I include Professor Quiggin in this category), I urge you to read Ronald Wright’s “A brief History of Progress”. The core of it is only 125 pages and it shows that the only differencce between our current global civilisation and those before us which have collapsed is that we have obtained a vast quantity of free energy from under the ground which will soon be exhausted, never to be replaced.

    We may still have time to act to prevent catastrophe, but if we don’t act soon, today’s decision makers will be condemned without reservation when the possibly avoidable consequences of their inaction today becomes all too real to deny.

  98. jquiggin
    June 7th, 2006 at 12:15 | #98

    Liam, why don’t we look at the conclusion from the 2001 SoE report on atmosphere.

    Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are high by world standards, and continue to increase, with energy production and use the greatest contributors.

    Ozone loss from ozone-depleting chemicals has stabilised with reduction in their use, but ozone levels may not recover for many decades. Concomitant UV radiation levels have increased, but human behaviours to avoid excessive exposure have outweighed these increases.

    Urban air quality has generally improved over the last two decades although episodes of high ozone levels still persist. Most other urban air pollutants – lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particles – are now less than set by the recent Air NEPM standards. Woodsmoke and pollens are a significant seasonal problem in some cities.

    Motor vehicles remain the major source of urban air pollution. New emission standards, similar to those in Europe, and fuel standards should outweigh the projected increases in VKT.

    Australia has the highest number of hayfever sufferers in the world attributed to pollen and other nasal allergens. There is insufficient regular, ongoing monitoring of pollen counts.

    Most air pollution complaints to EPAs involve odours from a range of sources. There is no consistent and agreed objective method to measure and assess the strength and responses to odours.

    Regional air quality is generally good. The exceptions are sulfur dioxide near some smelters, and in some locations, airborne dust or woodsmoke. Fluoride levels outside all Australian aluminium smelters are below the required limits, but may still be an issue for coal-fired power stations.

    As I read this, with the exception (a vitally important exception as I said) of greenhouse gases, air quality is improving, and likely to continue doing so. But then, I’m only an economist as you say.

    I picked the atmosphere section, because it’s first and probably most important – feel free to point to other areas to support your claim.

  99. June 7th, 2006 at 12:18 | #99

    Even if breakeven is achieved, there’s no guarantee that fusion would be competitive with the modern grid. The fuel is cheap, but the capital cost is high — even if the fuel is free, if it cost $10 billion to build a gigawatt plant then it wouldn’t be competitive (with solar, let alone coal). Again, fission is similar — the fuel is already a negligible component of the cost. So anticipating fusion-powered snowmakers seems premature.

    Also, if we start using much more energy than 10 billion people at US consumption levels, from non-renewable sources, we approach the domain of significantly changing the planet’s heat balance just from generated heat. (Conversely, if we use enough from renewables, we change the heat distribution — I’ve wondered if getting enough power from wind would alter weather patterns.)

    But as for James’s challenge, producing enough energy for 10 billion people at US levels — 1e14 watts — hardly seems impossible, with either solar (1e16 watts of land-based electricity available) or nuclear (uranium for millions of years available, with breeders and seawater extraction.) At kilojoules per kilogram, water from reverse osmosis is affordable, leaving rainwater to the non-human ecosystem. With clean energy and water most other things fall into place. Some Americans may have to pay more than they’re used to to drive around. C’est la vie.

  100. gordon
    June 7th, 2006 at 13:03 | #100

    Proponents of fusion, hydrogen and indeed nuclear as the only viable low-pollution future sources of energy seem to be limiting their thinking to the current pattern of a small number of very large power generators linked by large grids. Why is so little attention is given to the obvious (to me) alternative of a much larger number of smaller generators? This is where renewables shine, and though I am happy to admit that they may never provide 100% of our future energy needs, they will still be able to provide a substantial fraction of it, and at low pollution levels.

    One could be pardoned for thinking that the real arguments for these impractical and dangerous proposals are financial; that large centralised generators need large investments, and consequently offer the prospect of large fees for, eg., promoters of PPP-based projects. Hands up all the commenters who work at Macquarie Bank!

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