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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman

Posted: January 16, 2007 02:44 AM

Is Al Gore Just as Wrong as ExxonMobil?


In her latest column for the Boston Globe, Cathy Young, a contributing editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, picks up on my post from the Reality-Based Community about why those most concerned about global warming as a problem are reluctant to look seriously at reflecting more sunlight back into space as part of the solution.

The column isn't bad, as such things go. But Young and I don't agree nearly as much as the column suggests. In addition, I think her column misstates the relationship between the global warming issue and nuclear power generation.

Young wants to be even-handed as between the global-warming denialists and Al Gore's tendency to treat the extreme case as the likely case. That's carrying even-handedness a little bit too far, and certainly further than the original post carried it. I was careful to say, in anticipation of such a misinterpretation, that the two sides aren't "equally wrong," and to point out that on this issue the stubbornness of the right in denying the problem has robbed it of credibility when it comes to discussing solutions.

She also attributes to me the thought that "those on the left who embrace environmentalism as their substitute religion don't want to hear about scientific and technological solutions to climate change ... that do not include stepping up regulation and curbing consumption." That's a considerable overstatement. Solar power, wind power, biofuels, hybrid automobile engines, "green" building techniques, and carbon sequestration are all basically technical rather than regulatory approaches; there's quite as much techno-optimism among environmental enthusiasts as there is among space-colonization enthusiasts, though the technologies are different.

Finally, Young lumps nuclear power in with the geoengineering solutions that were the focus of my post. That, it seems to me, is a mistake.

In fact, nuclear power is on the table in the global warming discussion, albeit much to the dismay of the Nader-types. I think that's a good thing. But nuclear power resembles emission limitation in one crucial respect: it operates on a very long time-scale.

If global leaders decided today to greatly expand the use of nuclear power, we would see no impact whatever on carbon emissions for a decade, since that's about how long it takes to get a nuclear plant up and running. But it would be insane to build the next generation of nukes based on current light-water reactor technology, which is basically as old as I am. If we're going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new generators, we ought first to do a basic redesign. But that would add a minimum of another decade to the time to get the first wave of new plants on line. We're probably talking no substantial impact on carbon emissions for a quarter of a century.

If you really think that the Gulf Stream might stop running ten years from now, as Gore suggests in his movie (as I understand it, such a catastrophe isn't likely, but can't be ruled out), or that Antarctica is getting close to a tipping point that would lead to massive glacier loss and a big, quick rise in the sea level, nuclear energy holds out no hope whatever of making a sufficient difference in the requisite amount of time. Neither does the Kyoto Protocol.

By contrast, albedo-increasing measures act quickly. If we increase the albedo of the planet by spraying seawater on ocean clouds to make them shinier and thus reflect more sunlight back into space, the temperature impact is as immediate as the spraying itself (and lasts only until the salt falls back into the ocean, which reduces the risk of oversteering). De-tuning jet engines to put more sulfate into the stratosphere or putting lots of shiny stuff into low-Earth orbit would both more slowly (and for a longer time after you stop, which is potentially a huge disadvantage). But the effects are still lightning-quick compared to either emissions restrictions or nuclear power.

Right now, no one knows how much albedo-increasing efforts could do, how much they would cost, or what their side-effects would be. That's because there's been roughly no money to do the studies, and because the science-fiction feel of the idea makes lots of people, including scientists, instinctively shy away from it. My post urged that we overcome the squeamishness and spend that money. I still think ordinary prudence demands no less.

I argued for a symmetry between environmentalist opposition to albedo-increasing efforts to fight global warming and religious opposition to using condoms to fight the global AIDS epidemic: between Al Gore and Pope Benedict. Young argues that distortions of the truth by those concerned about global warming are symmetric with distortions of the truth by those who deny that it's a problem: between Al Gore and ExxonMobil. Whether or not I made out my case, I don't think she made out hers.

However that may be, at least they're not the same case. So while I'm flattered to be quoted, I must decline Ms. Young's efforts to enlist me in her cause. The anti-environmental alliance, consisting of people in Adam Smith neckties who hate taxes and regulations, people in boardrooms who just want to be left alone to profitably wreck the planet, and their tame scientists, think-tank intellectuals, journalists, and politicians, blew the global warming issue. They blew it badly, and their credibility deserves to suffer for it. When they've taken the beam out of their own eyes, they'll be able to better see the mote in Al Gore's.