Another two-step

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2013

I’ve always been envious of John Holbo’s discovery of the two-step of terrific triviality, a manoeuvre we’d all seen, but never properly identified. I’d like to solicit names for a manoeuvre I run into all the time in debates over climate policy which goes along the following lines

A: The planet is doomed unless we abandon industrial civilization/adopt my WWII-scale emergency program

B (me): On the contrary,we could cut emissions by 50 per cent quickly and with minimal effects on living standards.[^1]

A: What about cars, methane from ag production, air travel etc?

B: (me) We could cut vehicle emissions in half just by switching to the most fuel-efficient cars now on the market, methane by eating chicken instead of beef, air travel by videoconferencing and taking one long holiday in place of two short ones. The same for most other sources of emissions.[^2]

A: That’s absurd. No one would ever stand for that.

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre, or, alternatively, a defense of this kind of argumentation

[^1]: Actually, we need a 90 per cent reduction by 2050. That would be a bit harder, but once you accept the idea that we could greatly reduce emissions without harming living standards, we’re down to arguing about parameter values in economic models. All economic models yield the conclusion that we could decarbonize the economy over 40 years while still improving living standards greatly. [^2]: I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s better to bring this about using prices (eg a carbon tax) or direct controls. My preferred answer is a bit of both, but either will work for the purposes of this example.

{ 125 comments }

1

Foppe 09.13.13 at 9:22 am

Question: by ‘we need to switch to the most fuel-efficient cars’, do you mean that all other factories need to be shuttered/converted to produce those cars as well, and that all cars in existence today need to be replaced within a (year? month? decade?)? Because that still sounds pretty world-war-two-commandeering-of-the-economy-y to me (not that I have a problem with that).

2

Kevin Donoghue 09.13.13 at 9:45 am

Apocalyptic apathy?

3

John Quiggin 09.13.13 at 9:53 am

Decade or so will do fine for the purpose of the argument. That’s only a modest acceleration of existing US policy (54. 5 miles per gallon for new cars by 2025, compared to about 25 for new cars today). If you reached the 2025 target by 2018 instead, and scrapped cars at 7 years (as was routine not long ago), you’d be there by 2023. That would be a bit of a push, but not exactly WWII.

4

ajay 09.13.13 at 10:09 am

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre, or, alternatively, a defense of this kind of argumentation

Psychologically it sort of makes sense, no? If you’re positing the existence of a massive existential threat, it makes instinctive sense if the only way to save yourself is a massive, life-changing project. You’d feel a bit silly if you said “A ten-mile asteroid is heading for earth! If we do nothing, it will smash into the Indian Ocean, and bring about the end of human life in a fiery apocalypse! But it can be diverted by means of a small structure made of bits of tinfoil, carrier bags and bamboo, and the immediate banning of all electric bass guitars.”

5

SusanC 09.13.13 at 10:23 am

Maybe this is what happens when a paranoid conspiracy theory suddenly turns out to have hard evidence supporting it.

In philosophy, “knowledge” is often defined as true justified belief (see the Gettier cases, etc.) You can believe something that turns out to be true, but if your belief wasn’t justified, the fact that it turned out to be true doesn’t make it rational.

A certain amount of friction between the people who believed something for “paranoiac” reasons, and the newcomers who view it as a pragmatic problem, is quite understandable.

[The recent Snowden/Greenwald revelations have great potential for this too. Suddenly, enough conspiracy theory to fill an entire season of The X-Files turns out to have supporting evidence including budgets and power-point briefings. Yes, the NSA is bugging and tapping everything.]

6

ajay 09.13.13 at 10:30 am

And the paranoid belief in this case is, what, the end of the world? The innate evilness of industrial society?

7

RethinkEcon 09.13.13 at 10:46 am

The Chicken Little Cha Cha?

The Hair shirt Hustle?

8

RethinkEcon 09.13.13 at 10:52 am

Maybe it’s a sign of Apocalypse Addiction?

9

Donald Johnson 09.13.13 at 11:06 am

Yes, the paranoid belief would be the innate evilness of industrial society. SusanC’s suggestion fits in nicely with your asteroid analogy. Global warming is punishment for our sins and nothing less than a life spent in sackcloth and ashes, or more to the point, the end of our current political and economic system can avert it. Anyone who says otherwise is part of the system that needs to be overthrown.

Some part of me even resonates with this, though the rest of me spends a fair amount of time sitting in front of a computer with the air conditioner on when it’s hot, so that part of me obviously doesn’t.

10

Donald Johnson 09.13.13 at 11:12 am

Forgot the apathy part–that kicks in when the air condition-loving armchair revolutionary assumes that everyone else is pretty much the same as he/she is.

11

mike shupp 09.13.13 at 11:26 am

A: We must do extraordinarily painful things!
B: We only need to withstand minor pains.
A: Are you sure?
B: I’m sure. We must suffer (c), (d), (e), (f) ….
A: No one will tolerate such agonies! We must do extraordinarily painful things!
—–
The Masochism Tango. (h/t Tom Lehrer)

12

Chris Bertram 09.13.13 at 11:28 am

Well this was more or less the Bill Barnes line in the Wright symposium, wasn’t it:

http://crookedtimber.org/2013/03/23/envisioning-real-utopias-response-from-bill-barnes/

If we look at timing, motivation etc it is perhaps not so weird as you portray it.

You: If we adopt my sensible measures now, then we can beat climate change with little to no pain.

Hypothetical opponent: True. But electorates now won’t stand for your sensible measures, they are going to plough on with business as usual or worse (cf Tony Abbott). By the time the electorate is so scared it is willing to act (in about 20 years), things will be worse and we’ll need much more radical measures, so we’d better start campaigning for those measures now so that we have enough presence in the debate when they finally wake up.

13

conallboyle 09.13.13 at 11:53 am

Yet another wheeze to dodge the bleeding obvious: Too many people, especially of the gas-guzzling western variety. All the rest is window-dressing/conscience salving.

Any chance of a discussion of Population Control on CT? (Breath not being held!)

14

Chris Adams 09.13.13 at 12:15 pm

conalboyle: that is a perfect example of this heroic blindness to simple solutions. Forging a link to a Big Sensitive Problem will derail any possible solution without actually taking responsibility for squandering the opportunity.

The Counterfeit Cassandra Contra Dance?

15

Jacob H. 09.13.13 at 12:15 pm

“But it can be diverted by means of a small structure made of bits of tinfoil, carrier bags and bamboo, and the immediate banning of all electric bass guitars.”

Let’s not pretend the banning of electric bass guitars is anything but apocalyptic.

16

JimmyZ 09.13.13 at 12:18 pm

There’s the old story about the fisherman in distress at sea. He’s about to sink, and he prays for God to save him. A Coast guard ship comes to save him and he tells them, “go away, I’ve got God to protect me.” His fishing boat sinks, and he has to get in his dinghy. Another fishing boat is headed back to the harbor, and they throw him a life line. He throws it back and tells them God will save him. They leave, and then his dinghy is capsized and now he’s just floating in his life jacket. A school of friendly dolphins tries to assist him. He kicks at them and keeps praying for God to save him, so the dolphins leave him to drown. He gets up to Saint Peter’s desk for his assignment to eternal life or damnation. St. Peter looks at his life story, and says, “you didn’t have to die by drowning, you know.” The fisherman says, “I don’t understand. I have been a devout Christian my whole life. Why would God abandon me in my time of greatest need?” St. Peter says, “What are you talking about? He sent you a Coast Guard ship, a helpful fisherman friend, even some dolphins.”

17

JimmyZ 09.13.13 at 12:22 pm

The perfect is not only the enemy of the good, it forms the paving stones of the road to hell!

18

SusanC 09.13.13 at 12:27 pm

Yes, the paranoid belief is to re-invent the Christian end of the world narrative in secular guise.

I can’t remember the exact quote, but I think Nietzsche says something to the effect that Christians don’t usually act like a rational person who seriously believes that sin will result in an eternity of torment. In a similar manner, it is psychologically possible for someone to prophesy the global warming end of the world while not being prepared to do all that much to avert it.

(In an earlier thread at CT, the global financial crisis got called the “Moral Hazard Apocalypse”, which I kind of liked. One could do a version of John’s dialogue between person B proposing modest improvements in banking regulation, vs person A advocating revolutionary overthrow of the entire Capitalist system).

19

ajay 09.13.13 at 12:51 pm

16: I think I prefer the version of that where St Peter laughs in the fisherman’s face and says “Save you? Why would he want to do that? Who do you think sent the storm in the first place?”

20

Hidari 09.13.13 at 12:52 pm

” True. But electorates now won’t stand for your sensible measures, they are going to plough on with business as usual or worse (cf Tony Abbott). By the time the electorate is so scared it is willing to act (in about 20 years), things will be worse and we’ll need much more radical measures, so we’d better start campaigning for those measures now so that we have enough presence in the debate when they finally wake up.”.

Precisely. Both the OP and the people the OP are arguing against are both right. The OP argues that if we acted right now, together, and made this a number one priority, then we could avert the major effects of climate change with no real pain.

But of course…..that’s not going to happen is it? And we all know this (and before anyone pipes up, yes, we do all KNOW this.) What is going to happen (and again this IS what is going to happen) is precisely nothing (except corporate window dressing) for the next 20 to 40 years until the evidence of looming apocalypse is plain for all to see. And then, yes, we really will have to engage in a WW2 type call to action.

I am perfectly aware that what I am going to say next will mark me out as a complete and total lunatic (as if I didn’t have that reputation already ha ha ha), but nothing is clearer to me than that, assuming nothing is done about the various environmental threats that we are facing (and the associated political and economic threats), then so-called ‘laissez-faire’ ‘free-market’ capitalism is doomed. I know that seems crazy, and I know that the radical left has not been so marginalised since the early 19th century. Nonetheless there you have it. The only possible way to deal with the treats that we will face as the 21st century staggers to its bitter end will be a return to what we saw in the mid-period of the 20th century when we saw a similar crisis in what we laughingly refer to as ‘western civilisation’, democratic control of the economy, meaning (don’t laugh at the back!) a planned economy, mass nationalisation, everything we saw in the 1950s and 1960s EXCEPT Keynesian demand management because this time round the task will be to reduce growth, not expand it, and to increase inefficiency, not increase it (the alleged inefficiencies of nationalised industries will be seen as a positive boon).

As the OP points out all of this is completely unnecessary, and if we are to act now, we could avoid all this.

But we are not going to act now are we?

21

ajay 09.13.13 at 1:00 pm

assuming nothing is done about the various environmental threats that we are facing (and the associated political and economic threats), then so-called ‘laissez-faire’ ‘free-market’ capitalism is doomed

I think it’s doomed anyway, on a sufficiently long timescale – say 50 years – I doubt it will exist in a form that’s very similar to what it looks like now.

22

The Raven 09.13.13 at 1:48 pm

John, I—don’t think it’s that easy. For one thing, if we make these changes without regulations of CO2 other sources of emissions will pop up. Overall emissions have to be limited somehow. And—are you accounting for population growth? What about other chemical cycles? Carbon is only one of them. There are multiple factors at work, and to get to sustainability they all have to be identified and addressed. I think we are going to have to do more than what you say, and it would be best to try to identify all factors at work, rather than address one and have another take over.

Most importantly, we need to get started. Maybe we really do need something as massive as the apocalyptics suggest, maybe all we need is something as modest as you suggest. (You have read Amory Lovins, right?) But above all we need to commit ourselves to finding a sustainable solution.

Hidari—you are right that capitalism as we know it is coming to its limits. I don’t think that “a planned economy and mass nationalisation” will work as you hope: these things have historically made matters worse, not better. We need something new, and the sooner we start thinking about it, the better.

I’ve been reading Jay Forrester lately and, without agreeing with his entire argument, he makes the excellent point that, when a trend is exponential, everything is fine until just before the end. If something doubles every 20 years and there’s a hard limit, well, it can go for quite a long time…until 20 years before the end and then, boom! Things fall apart in a generation. And, in fact, this is how societies collapse. Everything is fine until just before the end.)

I am haunted by Gregory Bateson’s remark, “If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.”

(My somewhat more extended thoughts on this—they are not long—can be read in my 2010 blog post Going Green. It now seems to me naïve in a number of respects, but I think it is still worth a look.)

23

Barry 09.13.13 at 1:49 pm

This argument might be called ‘making the perfect the enemy of the good’, but in a different sense – the arguer doesn’t want the good, and so invokes a perfect (or extreme) impossibility to forestall something which is possible.

It might also be a sub-category of the ‘law of the excluded middle’, where the arguer argues in favor of an extreme or nothing, deliberately excluding everything else.

24

Mao Cheng Ji 09.13.13 at 1:50 pm

Cutting vehicle emissions in half won’t help much if you quadruple the number of vehicles. Same story with the air travels. This plan assumes more or less constant world-wide distribution of the standard of living, but that’s likely to change and is changing.

25

Anarcissie 09.13.13 at 2:17 pm

The two sides of the original debate are not inconsistent, so it is not really a debate, much less the exhibition of a rhetorical trick. I suppose the implied debate is over what is to be done, or rather what to advocate, since you can’t do anything by yourselves. And here it makes no difference, for whether you preach to the folk or slither up to our great leaders and whisper in their ears, whether moderately or apocalyptically, are they going to do anything you want?

26

Burlandda 09.13.13 at 2:30 pm

The argument from impossticality? “That’s impossible” becomes “That’s impractical.” The speaker gets the persuasive power of impossibility and the evasive power of impracticality.

27

Andrew Burday 09.13.13 at 2:35 pm

This doesn’t answer John’s question, but it strikes me that this argument is similar to one we see austerians making here in the US. “Social Security and Medicare are forecast to eventually have moderate budget shortfalls that we will be able to address with only mild pain. Therefore we must make savagely painful cuts now.” An argument for drastic action in order to avert the need for moderate action.

28

ajay 09.13.13 at 2:51 pm

26: agree that there’s a definite similarity, but I think that the key difference is that in John’s example the people are saying “we must cut off our legs now to save us having to buy ourselves new shoes in the future” and in your example people are saying “we must cut off YOUR legs now to save US having to buy you new shoes in the future”.

29

The Raven 09.13.13 at 3:34 pm

The reasoning is similar that that of a person sick from overweight who will not take the modest steps of exercising and changing diet, but knows that they will eventually need surgery to deal with the consequences of overweight, or may even die of a heart attack. Offhand, I can’t think of a name for this pattern of thought.

I dislike treating this subject as a christian morality play. It seems to me that a christian morality play is a poor model for solutions in this area.

30

David J. Littleboy 09.13.13 at 3:39 pm

“But we are not going to act now are we?”

It’s unlikely. Pretty much the only way to get to 2100 with an even vaguely acceptable level of global warming is through massive investment in nuclear energy starting immediately (while figuring out how to make real renewables fly). (Which, by the way, will not only slow down global warming, but will result in massive reductions in cancer and cardiopulmonary disease: diesel engine exhaust is one of the nastiest carcinogens there is*. (And burning coal is a really really stupid thing to do.)) But that’s not going to happen.

The problem is that the non-technical types (liberals, hippies) who were on the same page as we technotronic weenies on ozone layer destroying gasses are mostly on the anti-nuke side. Sigh.

So the human race is toast.

*: Cambridge (MA) had electric busses with overhead lines when I was a kid. It was really kewl. The last time I was back in Cambridge, the Harvard Square underground bus terminal was incredibly gross with diesel fumes. And the friggin bus lines are all the same lines they were when I was a kid (50s and 60s). Sigh. Ah, it turns out that some are left.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston-area_trackless_trolleys

31

mpowell 09.13.13 at 3:41 pm

Part of the problem is there is not a good sense of the continuity of things. If we get halfway to an emissions target does that cut the damage in half? It’s not really possible for a layperson to get a real sense of these things. So of course you have people who are psychologically committed to the need for all or nothing dramatic solutions.

I also like SusanC@5’s explanation.

32

mud man 09.13.13 at 4:03 pm

The Impossibility of Small Costs … or why I would rather spend $30,000 on a new car than $2000 to fix my old one. And when I plunk down my 30k, it seems like trivial to pay 10% extra for the Convenience and Bling package.

33

Barry 09.13.13 at 4:14 pm

Andrew Burday 09.13.13 at 2:35 pm

“This doesn’t answer John’s question, but it strikes me that this argument is similar to one we see austerians making here in the US. “Social Security and Medicare are forecast to eventually have moderate budget shortfalls that we will be able to address with only mild pain. Therefore we must make savagely painful cuts now.” An argument for drastic action in order to avert the need for moderate action.”

A thousand times yes.

With the addition that the *possible* future action is moderate, while the current action is severe, *and* that the current action, if at all possible by the people advocating it, will not make the future action less necessary (cf the Greenspan-Feldstein Social Security ‘Fix’ of the 1980’s, which increased SS taxes; they were spent on tax cuts for the rich, and the same people now argue for cuts).

34

Omega Centauri 09.13.13 at 5:06 pm

mpowel has a real point. People seem to think if we just make a moral effort to reduce the current emissions -say by twentypercent, then nature should reward us with a stable climate. But this isn’t how nature works in cases where the damage is cumulative. So reductions, as opposed to almost complete sessation of emissions, only change the rate we slide down that slippery slope. But people don’t get it.

Then I’ve gotten into arguments about the merit of attacking the short-term climate gases, like methane -or black-carbon. These would have significant nearterm benefits for modest costs, but do nothing about the longterm trajectory we are on. As a former Buddhist I was familar with a concept called “simultaneity of cause and effect”. Buddhist philosophy assumes a moral universe, for every action we take we will be paid back, and call this process Karma. A man who attains simultaneity, gets immediate feedback as to the effect he is going to get, and will make only good causes. The problem with a slow cumulative problem like global warming, is the bad karma effect is so delayed in time and space from the action that causes it, that it is hard to be motivated -or even to connect the two. Especially given the potent propaganda forces which are telling us, there is no problem. So if we cut the shortterm drivers -but not the long, we see shortterm releif, and may be even less motivated towards solving the longerterm issue.

35

Doug Weinfield 09.13.13 at 5:30 pm

“Pretty much the only way to get to 2100 with an even vaguely acceptable level of global warming is through massive investment in nuclear energy starting immediately (while figuring out how to make real renewables fly).”

If you mean the “only way” our neoliberal overlords are willing to accept, sure. If you mean the “only way” that’s technologically feasible, then you do need to read more Amory Lovins, IMHO.

36

Leslie 09.13.13 at 7:46 pm

Being the “dance” is an adversion to the blindingly obvious and simplest answer / solution, can we just call it “Occam’s rejection”?

37

des von bladet 09.13.13 at 8:10 pm

Everyone seems to be supplying analysis, but I thought we were asked for slogans?

Hidari has given us “kicking the can down the slippery slope”, but JQ’s original dialogue is more “The glamour of the greater evil”. (I’m sure someone can do better, but they haven’t yet.)

38

The Raven 09.13.13 at 8:12 pm

SusanC@5: I like your analysis. But were they paranoid fantasies if, in fact, they were right in broad outline, if not in specific detail? Sometimes intuition is more reliable than reason, which is one reason why intuition is still trusted.

39

Mario 09.13.13 at 8:25 pm

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre[?]

Difficult to name, because the motivations of A are not clear from your post. At first reading ot seems that he/she is correctly aware that something has to be done, but is incoherent in its thoughts. In that case it is less a manoeuvre, and more just a display of inconsistency or stupidity.

On the other hand, notice that the argument can be construed as being logically consistent – if the interlocutor is some personality out of Alice in wonderland, or Tortoise from “Gödel, Escher, Bach”. You see, saying that only a WWII-scale emergency program would defuse the massive ecological time-bomb is not inconsistent with the view that much less is already politically infeasible. The two statements only become inconsistent if one reads into the first statement that A considers it a realistic option.

And… it seems to me your post was to subtle for most people posting comments here :-)

40

The Raven 09.13.13 at 8:40 pm

mpowell@31: “If we get halfway to an emissions target does that cut the damage in half?”

More likely by a factor of 10. If the half brings us back under a tipping point, it could be thousands.

David J. Littleboy@30: the technology is not currently available for deployment; it would take a major development project to update the designs for nuclear plants, you would get the question of which basic technology to use, and it would all have to be done very quickly. Consider that the people who would deploy and operate the technology would be the ones who are currently wrecking the world. This does not sound like a recipe for a successful deployment; quite the opposite.

I remind everyone that we are talking about taking the steps to prevent a (metaphoric) heart attack while the attack is in progress. Yes, we bloody well ought to be doing what we can, but it is too late to be talking, we need to be acting.

41

The Raven 09.13.13 at 8:41 pm

As to the original question, I like the phrase “the pornography of the apocalypse.”

42

PJW 09.13.13 at 9:32 pm

The Ben Tre Shuffle (“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”)
The other side of the extreme might include a homeopathic Kantianism of sorts with smaller doses of the thing itself having the greatest curative effect.

43

Bruce Wilder 09.13.13 at 10:35 pm

The rhetorical maneuver exemplified in the OP, for substantive reasons, deserves a very charitable reading and response. This would be in contrast to ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’, which deserves ridicule, precisely because of its tactical employment by an advocate of deliberate, breath-taking insincerity.

The disjointedness of tactical switching between advocacy of “abandoning industrial civilization”, “WWII-scale emergency program” or some other radical change, and skepticism about the political practicality of radical change, (even implemented over a very long period), could simply reflect the difficulty of thinking through the nature of the problem, and effective response.

It is genuinely hard to wrap one’s mind around a problem, that plays out over a century or two, let alone a policy response that plays out over generations. The schizophrenic advocate caricatured in the OP could simply be having trouble with the time-horizons, as I trust, almost all of us inevitably do, while fumbling to make the point that strategic commitment to some specific framing measures (“my program”), backed by the kind of political solidarity experienced to date, only in war, will be necessary elements of an effective response.

I kind of feel that Quiggin’s “On the contrary” response to “The planet is doomed” might be usefully reconsidered. I’m not temperamentally inclined to apocalyptic fantasy, as either a motivating vehicle or a psychological defense, but I can forgive it in other people. Still, “the planet is doomed” may be basically true despite the suggestion of fictional melodrama in the Hollywood scripting, and a bit of panic is appropriate, even if getting the time-frames right is going to require a lot more talking; collective panic may be necessary to generate the kind of political solidarity necessary to form an appropriate policy consensus. Even if it is still only a small fire in the loft which might be extinguished real soon now, and even if you want people to exit the theatre in a calm & orderly way, you still have to stop the play, set off the alarm, yelling, “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

Energy use is very basic to industrial productivity and control, as well as the generation of waste and externalities. Coordinating a curtailment of energy use is going to require institutional innovation on a global scale. People are going to have diverse reactions and views about this. While not wanting to exaggerate the difficulty by exaggerating the scale or pace, I think I would try to avoid a rhetoric of minimizing in favor of giving permission for a wider range of ambivalence to emerge in response to the process of imagining this future.

44

Will Boisvert 09.13.13 at 10:43 pm

@ David J. Littleboy 30 and The Raven, on the potential for nuclear power:

Chin up. There is currently massive new nuclear capacity coming on line, with much more to come. Right now 68 reactors are under construction in 13 countries in Asia, Europe North and South America, with dozens more in planning for 2020 and further hundreds by 2030.

The greater reliability and productivity of nuclear power compared to renewables means these new reactors will have an outsized impact on decarbonization. Just the 68 reactors now under construction, with a capacity of about 70 gigawatts and an average capacity factor of 85 percent, will produce 521 terrawatt-hours of low-carbon electricity per year—as much as the world’s entire fleet of wind turbines did last year. And because they are built to last 60-plus years compared to wind and solar’s 20-30 years, they will have a still greater impact over the long term.

Modest regulatory changes could speed up that deployment. Simply including nuclear plants in the same subsidies and portfolio mandates that renewable generators now receive in much of the world would stimulate a lot of additional construction.

We know that nuclear can quickly and comprehensively decarbonize the grid of an industrial economy at a reasonable price, because France did just that, decarbonizing about 90 percent of its grid over 20 years using mostly nuclear and some hydro. Sweden did as well with a 50-50 mix of nuclear and hydro. Nuclear and hydro are a good complement of reliable low-carbon baseload and peaking power.

You’re right that the real barriers to that kind of decisive nuclear rollout are political and ideological, not costs or logistics. Overcoming those barriers will require a vigorous challenge to prevailing anti-nuclear dogmas. That should include, as you do, discussion of the safety and public health benefits of nuclear, which is orders of magnitude safer than the current dominant coal-burning technology. More and more progressives and environmentalists are speaking out about the need to preserve existing reactors, reopen immediately the shuttered Japanese and German plants and expand the already extensive world-wide program of nuclear construction.

I agree with John Quiggin’s larger point here that resolving the climate crisis can be done quickly, at a reasonable cost, without major disruption to economy and society, and in a way that raises global living standards. But to do that we need to use every tool at our disposal—especially nuclear power.

45

The Raven 09.13.13 at 11:03 pm

“You’re right that the real barriers to that kind of decisive nuclear rollout are political and ideological, not costs or logistics.”

The biggest barrier is the practices of the organizations that will do it, and I am not sanguine about changing those at all. In the past 50 years of nuclear power deployment we have had one major catastrophe that has rendered a large land area unsafe. If we deploy nuclear power widely and continue our current safety practices, there will be dozens more in this century.

“I agree with John Quiggin’s larger point here that resolving the climate crisis can be done quickly, at a reasonable cost, without major disruption to economy and society,”

I see no reason to believe this at all. At the very least, we are going to have to change long-held, cherished beliefs about our relation to the world we live in. It seems to me we have the choice of an apocalypse of belief or a physical apocalypse. I have changed my thinking. But that is, by definition, a radical approach.

46

Alan 09.13.13 at 11:42 pm

The FOX Trot.

47

otpup 09.14.13 at 12:20 am

It seems related to the bad restaurant/Woody Allen joke, “the food here is terrible” “yes, and the portions are so small”, accepting the premise and then implicitly contradicting it. The Bad Restaurant Two Step.

48

geo 09.14.13 at 1:01 am

49

Bruce Wilder 09.14.13 at 1:20 am

. . . we are going to have to change long-held, cherished beliefs about our relation to the world we live in. It seems to me we have the choice of an apocalypse of belief or a physical apocalypse. I have changed my thinking. [. . . ] that is, by definition, a radical approach.

I like it.

50

john c. halasz 09.14.13 at 2:30 am

1) Global warming is not the only resource/environmental/ecological crisis we’re facing. To the contrary, such crises are running rampant. (The oceans are not over-fished because of global warming, etc.). Nor is global warming somehow the supersession/Aufhebung of all the other crises; it’s simply their intensification, (due to the compressed time-scale that defies any natural adaption).

2) If the benefits of any sort of advanced industrial civilization are to be extended to the 85% of the planet’s human population and not merely confined to the current consumption patterns/”standard of living” of the 15% who reside in the “developed” world, then a major re-design of our infra-structure and productive capital, to render it much more energy-and-resource efficient and consonant with the finite “carrying capacity” of the planet must be in the offing, (including transferring such transformed technology to the RoW, bypassing rather than exporting current systems of production). Extending current wasteful production-and-consumption, such as prevails in the “developed” world, would be a sure recipe for the impending catastrophe.

3) A suitably transformed infra-structure and production system, to remain within the bounds of long-run sustainability would entail a massive destruction of the “value” of current capital, both as physical stocks and as financial asset claims laid over the output and revenues of those stocks. (Oil alone would amount to trillions of $, especially if one includes nationalized assets, not just private capital). Without a doubt, incumbents will fiercely resist any such prospect. Oil corps. will never become “green”, (despite BP’s advertizing which surely came to bite them in the ass), because not just their physical capital, but their technical expertise and the incumbent market power are entirely tied up in oil and gas production, which can’t be recuperated otherwise. It’s doubtful that any thing like the required transformation could be achieved “smoothly”, without major financial disruptions, power struggles, and wealth (or claims and entitlements) re-distributions.

4) There is no reason such transformation can’t be achieved within the current horizon of scientific and technological possibilities, actually existent or readily achievable. Where population densities are sufficient, an electrified mass transit system could be constructed to replace the current automobile industrial complex, which would reduce the total energy consumption, (not to mention other resources), by at least 50%. (And it could be highly personalized and optimized, given today’s computer technology, entailing no “inconvenience” and eliminating “externalities”, such as accidents, congestion, and pollution, without waiting upon exotic battery storage technologies). The barriers are far more institutional and political-economic, (i.e. power relations), that actually scientific/technological. The restoration of the public integrity of scientific institutions, independent of incumbent politico-economic interests, to canvas and develop the relevant possibilities is a key step. A carbon tax-and-rebate scheme would be a key first step, though I don’t think it sufficient. A good deal of public investment (and financing) and an indicative industrial planning policy would also be required. (Whether that is possible within the current bounds of capitalism is a matter for debate, though it doesn’t just reduce to the semantics of the word “capitalism” and what one should call such a novel hybrid).

5) There is no reason to conflate current GDP figures and consumption shares with “the standard of living”, let alone the quality of life. Industrial capitalism has historically been fairly effective at increasing the productivity of output, though based on increasing concentration of capital and the need to correspondingly ever expand “markets”. But efficiency in consumption is anathema to its “ethos”. Over-consumption for the sake of over-production is its core contradiction. But there is no reason why gains in productivity shouldn’t be “cashed out” in terms of increased “leisure”, (as mainstream economists insist on calling it), i.e. reduced work-time dedicated to material output and increased time for “freer” and more pro-social activities. But again, that too would entail a transformation and re-distribution of institutional claims and entitlements, “wealth”, and thus power-relations. And perhaps that social pseudo-science, based on methodological individualism and the maximalization of subjective utility preference functions is one of the technologies that needs to be “abolished” and consigned to the junk heap of history.

6) Ways of life and life-style preferences have been transformed numerous times since the advent of industrial capitalism and full-fledged modernity. There is no reason to believe that current practices are set in stone and not amenable to similar change. The only question is whether it can be a matter of “conscious” social choice and coordination and of human responsibility, or whether we are consigned to “blind fate”, by our inability to coordinate and resolve conflicts through publicly reasoned understandings.

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John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 2:35 am

@geo Don’t I know it! Pictures of me after the Bribie Island triathlon are too gruesome and distressing to be shown on a family blog.

52

Substance McGravitas 09.14.13 at 2:49 am

We ARE doomed. Geo’s article had a Michael Ignatieff/Syria article in the right sidebar.

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Will Boisvert 09.14.13 at 3:10 am

@ Raven 45, nuclear is safe–re the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation:

“In the past 50 year of nuclear power deployment we have had one major catastrophe that has rendered a large land area unsafe.”

The rap on Chernobyl is that it created a huge uninhabitable dead zone, but the whole trope of uninhabitable dead zones falls apart once you look at the science—it’s one of those antinuclear myths I was talking about.

Thousands of peasants actually continued living illegally in the Zone of Alienation. The Chernobyl power plant, at ground zero, stayed open for 14 years after the spew, running its undamaged reactors, with no notable health effects on the staff. The town of Chernobyl is a tourist trap with radiation levels lower than Denver’s. The average lifetime fallout dose incurred by civilians in contaminated regions is less than the additional radiation you would get living in Denver or being an airline stewardess for a few years.

The authoritative UN study did note some serious health effects from the Chernobyl accident. Several dozen firefighters died from acute radiation poisoning. 6,000 thyroid cancer cases arose from the failure to warn peasants not to drink tainted milk from their cows. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer is readily treatable so only 15 deaths resulted). “Liquidators” who got the highest doses face a small increased risk of leukemia that wavers on the drink of statistical significance, which might in total account for a few hundred cancer deaths. Other than that, there is no clear evidence of any harm to civilians and “the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident.” Tragic as these deaths and illnesses are, they pale next to the yearly toll of hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution emitted by coal-burning power plants.

The empirical evidence shows that the Chernobyl ZOA is only modestly “unsafe.” It’s possible there was a slight uptick in cancer risks in the ZOA, but there’s much more health risk from the pollution in a Mexico City or a Beijing or a Los Angeles, and nobody suggests these cities be forcibly evacuated. The permanent Chernobyl evacuation was a hysterical overreaction by the authorities, the Fukushima evacuation zone even more so.

Raven, the central myth of anti-nuclear ideology is that radiation in general and nuclear accidents in particular pose apocalyptic health risks. They demonstrably do not. Radiation is just not very harmful unless you get a huge dose—one that’s much higher than civilians receive even from major nuclear spews.

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Will Boisvert 09.14.13 at 3:11 am

@ Raven 45, nuclear is safe—re the likely frequency of nuclear accidents:

“If we deploy nuclear power widely and continue our current safety practices, there will be dozens more [accidents] in this century.”

Given the current observed accident frequency of once every 25 years, we’d have to increase the number of reactors 5-fold to get up to dozens per century.

What that linear scaling assumption leaves out, though, is that nuclear power has a learning curve. The odds of another Chernobyl are much smaller now because 1) they are not building volatile RBMK reactors anymore and 2) they know not not to monkey with the controls that way. The odds of another Fukushima are now much smaller because plant managers know not to put all the emergency generators in the basement where they can get flooded. And indeed the number of major accidents per reactor-year has been dropping sharply over the decades.

But let’s talk worst case.

If you believe the conjectures of the anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists, Chernobyl will eventually cause 27,000 fatal cancers all told, world-wide. (Spread over many decades amid hundreds of millions of other cancers, an effect far too small to see empirically.) Coal-fired power plants by comparison kill a couple hundred thousand people from air pollution every year.

So let’s say we switch to an all-nuclear energy system and, as a result, we have a Chernobyl-scale accident every single year. Then 27,000 lives per year will be lost from the fallout, but 200,000 or so lives will be saved every year from abatement of air pollution. I think that scenario is a ludicrous exaggeration. Accident frequencies will never be that high and, as I noted above, the observed health effects from Chernobyl were drastically smaller than the UCS conjecture; the consensus of health authorities is that the Fukushima radiation will have no observable health effects at all. But even if we assume that worst case, the net result of an all-nuclear world is a huge improvement in public health and safety over the current situation.

As I said above radiation is just not very dangerous, and even big and mythically frequent nuclear spews don’t cause enough exposure to do much harm (or even measurable harm, in most cases).

So Raven, you have nothing to fear from a vast expansion of nuclear power: it’s not going to cause an apocalypse. The more we build, the safer we get.

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Greg vP 09.14.13 at 4:20 am

Short of triggering the clathrate gun, the climate change threat is not existential. If I understand the integrated assessment model reports correctly, the cost of unmitigated climate change seems to be of the same order of that of road traffic accidents: about one or two percent of global GDP. (This is what Joe Romm’s “$60 Trillion Dollars!!!” comes down to.) It’s a huge but unnoticeable cost, like the Y2K problem’s bigger sibling.

(Of course, this excludes damage to ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, mass extinction, the death of the oceans and so on. But none of those are attributable to climate change; all that it does is accelerate the pace, often through misguided efforts such as biofuel mandates and subsidies. We were destroying the biosphere quite effectively before them, however. And of course, it’s worth spending everything needed to ensure we avoid triggering the clathrates.)

“A’s” argument is founded in hyperbole and denial. Misrepresenting the scale of the problem, and denial of the power of incentives to affect behavior. Underlying the denial is the absence of an easily graspable story: incentives work invisibly, like fluoride in water, contraceptives, and vaccines.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 5:19 am

Dear gods. If we go full-on nuclear we will be building more reactors. Why should there be a limit to the number? (And didn’t we hear this song before, about how someone didn’t expect us to burn all the fossil fuel? I’m sure we did. Wasn’t there some Swede?)

The results of the Chernobyl disaster are hard to study as there is much political opposition to that study, and a lack of funding. Generally, though, when these things are finally tallied, matters are worse than first appearing.

“Short of triggering the clathrate gun, the climate change threat is not existential.” Well, if you don’t mind history turning into something out of the Old Testament, I suppose not.

We are going to have to change long-held, cherished beliefs about our relation to the world we live in. Get on with it, guys.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 5:27 am

john c. halasz, yes. Then why are we not changing? In fact, we are fighting desperately not to change, and are doing so in the fact of the beginnings of planetary disaster.

Greg, Will, if nuclear power becomes a routine technology and we do not change our safety practices, matters will get much, much worse. Yes, so far the catastrophes have been modest. But if nuclear power becomes routine, the deaths and poisoned zones will become more common. And never forget what war and terrorism can do with nuclear reactors.

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adam.smith 09.14.13 at 5:35 am

oh come on. One thread hijacked by nuclear power isn’t enough?

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bad Jim 09.14.13 at 6:13 am

Nothing’s going to happen until we get an unmistakeable catastrophe, like most of Greenland’s ice sloughing off into the ocean and swamping coasts around the world, and even then our response will be inadequate. We’ll muddle through, careening from horror to horror, droughts here, floods there, plagues and famines, just like old times. The remnant human population will still be huge.

I don’t mind. I’ll be dead by then. Age has its consolations.

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Brian Schmidt 09.14.13 at 6:58 am

Back to the OP request.

How about the God of Flatland Fallacy? Unlimited movement along certain dimensions deemed feasible and necessary, while a modest movement in a different dimension is impossible.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 1:10 pm

adam smith@58: It is linked to identity. Unlimited growth is part of the political philosophy of the modern western economy. It’s part of the problem of the “exponential growth” fallacy which Forrester identified: it was OK for my grandfather and for his grandfather: why is it not OK for me? “We’ve run out” does not satisfy the heart.

bad Jim: after Katrina and Sandy, I don’t know that even that will be enough.

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David J. Littleboy 09.14.13 at 3:08 pm

“We are going to have to change long-held, cherished beliefs about our relation to the world we live in.”

Right. Like the idea that we can blithely burn fossil fuels without killing hundreds of thousands of people a year with cancer, COPD, and the like, and somehow nuclear isn’t worlds better, regardless of climate change issues.

“One thread hijacked by nuclear power isn’t enough?”

Sorry. It’s become a pet peeve of late.

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Bruce Wilder 09.14.13 at 4:52 pm

Greg vP @ 55 the climate change threat is not existential. . . . about one or two percent of global GDP. . . . Of course, this excludes damage to ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, mass extinction, the death of the oceans and so on.

Of course.

john c. halasz @ 50 The only question is whether it can be a matter of “conscious” social choice and coordination and of human responsibility, or whether we are consigned to “blind fate”, by our inability to coordinate and resolve conflicts through publicly reasoned understandings.

We may be constrained to catastrophe by our characteristic means of social choice and coordination, which is social regulation by hierarchy, parsing problems into simplified models chosen for narrative plausibility (or mathematically tractable linearity), harnessing habit and externalizing costs and risks. We draw straight lines, and drive along them until we run off the paper. If “markets” existed and worked the way the theoclassical economists preach, the price would soar as a precious resource depleted to extinction, but that’s not how it has ever worked. We organize by externalizing to a common, until we have to organize the management of the common, assuming it is still there. The Carrier Pigeon or the Buffalo — the difference is only a few years to reflect, only a few years to notice that lead in gasoline or Freon in hairspray cans are not good idea’s, only a short time to notice that the bees might not be coping that well with residuals from the latest insecticide or that agricultural runoff is turning the oceans over to jellyfish. And, we fight each change — maybe not every change, some seem to sail through, inexplicably, but we battle to go on as we have, resisting the management of the commons long after it has diminished, if not vanished. Fishermen fight the management of fish stocks. Bloomberg couldn’t get congestion pricing for street traffic in lower Manhattan! Obese Americans cannot seem to lose weight. Quitting smoking as a cultural norm, in the full knowledge of cancer and emphysema, took decades.

I used to think that the combination of pressures — the coincidence of climate change and peak oil, for example — would push the world to develop the institutions to manage a world in which the commons of wilderness had disappeared. I talked to an airline pilot about some accident in the news, and he used an expression I had not heard before: he said the pilot, apparently, had fallen behind the aircraft, meaning that the aircraft was ahead of the model in the pilot’s head, and consequently, everything the pilot did to adjust in accord with what he imagined was happening, made things worse.

We’re falling behind the planet, waiting for a catastrophe to the commons to motivate the next reorganization of our management of our global economy. The approaching singularity may be our salvation, but it is looking like salvation by crucifixion. Overpopulation and overindustrialization combine to accelerate us like Thelma and Louise.

I think humans will develop global institutions, but instead of managing to avoid catastrophe, we will be managing the catastrophe, and, when consciousness catches up with the craft bearing us, managing it with a kind of religious resignation.

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William Timberman 09.14.13 at 5:42 pm

A canticle for Bruce Wilder.

I’ve actually been in an aircraft — even worse, in the cockpit of that aircraft — when all three flight officers fell behind it. Looking back on the experience, what I remember most about it was 1) that I knew instinctively that it was a simple problem of cognition, not a failure of the technology embracing us, 2) that there was very little time, probably not enough, to figure out what had happened and set it right, and 3) that a recently acquired German phrase — die Tücke de Objekts — had a much more general meaning than I’d at first understood.

Fortunately, I survived to marvel at what I’d learned, and at what still looks to me like the most compelling object lesson in divine grace I’m ever likely to experience. I’m well aware that not everyone is so lucky, and that only a passel of fools would want to inflict such a lottery on the entire population of the planet.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 7:58 pm

A canticle for Bruce Wilder, indeed.

Huge amounts of money are spent to make Americans more obese, so as to create a market for the government-subsidized overproduction of food crops in the USA. An analogous situation exists in the extractive resource industries, with depletion allowances.

It is not just that we have a problem with environment, though we do, we make matters worse by ill-considered solutions to previous problems (and Jay Forrester described that back in the 1970s, damnit.) And sometimes we choose the wrong problem.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.14.13 at 8:20 pm

If overpopulation and overindustrialization are the source of the problem, then, naturally, if resolved, it will likely be resolved by depopulation and deindustrialization. The only question is: in which proportion.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 8:37 pm

Mao, well, I don’t entirely buy Forrester’s conclusions. Nordhaus correctly criticized him for sloppy modeling. But he was right about the social experience of reaching the limits of exponential growth, right that solving a problem in part of a system can make the problems of the system worse, and right about “overhangs”—what Bruce Wilder has called falling behind.

It matters how we get there: we can reduce population slowly and turn our industry over to sustainable models, or we can have the biggest-ever crash in history. Me, I’m all for sustainability. I am fairly sure that a gigantic crash will not end matters, but instead make matters worse.

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John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 8:48 pm

Population is a second-order issue, except if there’s an utterly catastrophic crash, or a sudden reversal of the trend towards replacement fertility. Most of the people who are going to be alive in 2050 will have been born by 2020 or so. That means even a sharp rise or decline in birth rates won’t change the 2050 population by more than 10 per cent, and on current trends, 2100 will be close to 2050.

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The Raven 09.14.13 at 9:44 pm

John, in the long term we need to look at population; it seems likely that we already have too many people for the standard of living most of us now desire.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.14.13 at 9:48 pm

The “falling behind” analogy assumes the pilot, but there is no pilot. consciousness of individuals does not translate into a consciousness of the civilization, that’s a fallacy, IMO. It does not pilot a plane, it’s wandering around in the dark, bumping at the walls and changing direction, like my robotic vacuum cleaner. If there is a hole ahead, it’ll probably fall into it.

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Will Boisvert 09.14.13 at 10:40 pm

@ adam.smith 58:

“One thread hijacked by nuclear power isn’t enough?”

I’m not sure it’s a hijacking. Consideration of nuclear power seems pretty germane to any conversation about climate change.

Remember, nuclear power produces several times as much low-carbon electricity as all the world’s wind and solar generators combined, with much new nuclear capacity now under construction and even more planned. Several industrial economies—France, Sweden, the province of Ontario—have quickly, rapidly and comprehensively decarbonized by prioritizing nuclear power (with hydro also playing an important role).

So Adam, it seems a bit odd that you would suggest that we avoid all mention of nuclear power in a discussion of how the world should approach decarbonization. Can you help me understand your reasoning?

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Will Boisvert 09.14.13 at 10:41 pm

@ The Raven 56, on the Chernobyl tally.

“The results of the Chernobyl disaster are hard to study as there is much political opposition to that study, and a lack of funding. Generally, though, when these things are finally tallied, matters are worse than first appearing.”

No, Raven, Chernobyl is not understudied—quite the contrary. Thousands of scientific papers have been published on its effects and vast sums spent to fund studies by the UN, other international bodies, national governments, universities, etc. I can’t think of any natural or man-made disaster whose consequence have been more intensely studied.

It’s much more common that initial doomsday predictions about some disaster scenario seriously overestimate the final tally of damage. That’s especially true with nuclear power, which is associated with febrile apocalyptic fantasies that ignore the scientific evidence that radiation is simply not very harmful. That scientific consensus is borne out by the three major nuclear accidents, in which hysterical forecast of vast body counts proved to be pure moonshine. At Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, the health effects of major nuclear spews turned out to be modest to nil.

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Will Boisvert 09.14.13 at 10:44 pm

@ The Raven 57 on the nuclear Big One.

“So far the catastrophes have been modest. But if nuclear power becomes routine, the deaths and poisoned zones will become more common. And never forget what war and terrorism can do with nuclear reactors.”

Actually, Chernobyl was as bad as a nuclear catastrophe can get—a fire raging for many days in a reactor blown wide open to the sky, lofting huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere to spread far and wide. Remember, a nuclear disaster is simply any process that distributes the contents of a reactor outside the plant. Short of Fed-Exing the fuel rods, nothing gets the radioactivity out the door faster or spreads it farther than the Chernobyl model. So we’ve been there and done that, and the health consequences were far short of apocalyptic.

Fukushima closely approximated maximalist nuclear terrorism scenarios—meltdowns and explosions at several reactors simultaneously, spent fuel pools in peril, the emergency response crippled and delayed. The result was a big nothing—there will be no measurable health effects at all according to the consensus of public health authorities.

Terrorists contemplating a strike at a nuclear plant would have to contend with its heavy fortifications and practiced security force, with dicey chances that they could cause a meltdown and spew. Even then, the maximum they could hope to achieve would be to recreate Chernobyl or Fukushima—with tangible results that would be modest to nil. It’s no wonder the 9/11 terrorists decided to bypass the Indian Point plant and hit the softer, richer target of Manhattan instead.

So even assuming outlandish worst-case scenarios and terrorist spectaculars, the loss of life from nuclear accidents will never be more than a small sliver of the hundreds of thousands killed yearly by air pollution from coal-burning power plants.

Nor do nuclear spews cause permanent “poisoned” zones. Contrary to anti-nuclear mythology, fallout clears from the land rather quickly because of radioactive decay and weathering. Radiation levels in the Fukushima evacuation zone have declined by two thirds since April 2011, and much of the EZ is less radioactive than Denver. Almost all of it could be immediately reoccupied; most of it should never have been evacuated in the first place.

While terrorists cannot do much tangible harm by attacking a nuclear plant, they could do indirect harm by sparking an irrational panic that would cause the shutdown of other nuclear plants. Such shutdowns would precipitate a return to fossil-fuel burning, with devastating consequences for public health, the economy and the climate, as we’ve seen in Japan and Germany. Although nuclear power is safe, anti-nuclear hysteria is very dangerous indeed, and terrorists could take advantage of that.

As the man said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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John Quiggin 09.14.13 at 10:49 pm

Full-scale conversion to nuclear power was one of the emergency plans I had in mind for A in the OP dialogue. It’s not going to happen in a relevant timescale without a WWII level of central control, overriding of public resistance etc. So, advocates find it necessary to deny the feasibility of any less drastic route.

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adam.smith 09.14.13 at 11:11 pm

So we have one post on the German election in the context of the European financial crisis and one post on naming a particular rhetorical/argumentative phenomenon. Both end up in debates about nuclear power, mainly because of one person’s multiple and relentless posts (and the inability of other commenters – me very much included – to ignore them). Yeah, I’m going to call that thread-jacking.

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The Raven 09.15.13 at 12:02 am

“Chernobyl was as bad as a nuclear catastrophe can get”

When I was a young bird, I was assured that nothing like Chernobyl and Fukushima could happen, unh-unh, no way. Now that they have happened, I am assured that nothing worse can happen, unh-unh, no way.

John, I’m sorry. I snapped at you. You are of course right about population in this century.

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Will Boisvert 09.15.13 at 12:18 am

@ John Quiggin 74:

“Full-scale conversion to nuclear power…not going to happen in a relevant timescale…advocates find it necessary to deny the feasibility of a less-drastic route.”

I don’t quite understand what argument you’re making here John. The argument I’ve made is that building lots of nuclear will make decarbonization faster, easier and more complete than a no-nuclear program. That claim is true even if there’s not a “full-scale” conversion to nuclear and even if renewable technologies are also deployed. The conclusion I draw is that, since nuclear is safe, progressives and environmentalists should strongly support nuclear power, even if they advocate renewables too. The specific policy prescriptions I’ve suggested are 1) preserving existing nukes; 2) reopening shuttered Japanese and German nukes; 3) including nuclear power in the same portfolio mandates that renewables get, on an equal footing.

I don’t see how any of these points would be objectionable to an environmentalist concerned with decarbonizing the energy supply, even one who supports renewables. It’s anti-nuclear greens who want to anathematize and ban crucial low-carbon technologies, not pro-nuclear progressives.

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Will Boisvert 09.15.13 at 12:20 am

@ adam.smith on thread-jacking by commenting on nuclear power and energy policy.

“Both [posts] end up in debates about nuclear power, mainly because of one person’s multiple and relentless posts (and the inability of other commenters—me very much included—to ignore them).”

Adam, the post on the German elections discussed German energy policy, of which nuclear power is an aspect. So comments on energy policy and nuclear power are relevant there. This post is about how we should approach the problem of decarbonizing the energy supply, so extensive comments on nuclear power are deeply relevant.

I presume you are referring to me when you mention “one person’s multiple and relentless posts.” If you check back you’ll find that I was not the first commenter to broach energy policy or nuclear power on either of the posts. I didn’t start it. I also make a point of not issuing isolated comments, but always responding specifically to prior comments from others. So if others don’t take an interest in the topics I’m commenting on, I don’t continue. I think that’s responsible blogging.

The fact that you and others do respond to my comments, as you acknowledge, indicates that there is interest in discussing energy policy and the comparison between nuclear and renewables. That’s good; it’s an important debate to have.

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John Quiggin 09.15.13 at 1:32 am

As I’ve said Will, I agree (in general, there may be more specific problems with particular plants) with (1) and (2), and don’t have any strong objection to (3), which would become moot if we moved to pure reliance on a carbon price/ETS. I just doubt that (3) would lead to much new investment in nuclear.

Since neither of us can prove this either way, perhaps we should leave the discussion there.

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James Wimberley 09.15.13 at 1:55 am

Sadly. hijacking blog comment threads is the only way the dwindling band of nuclear fans can get a hearing,
Only 68 reactors under construction now? That´s not enough to replace the ones likely to be decommissioned. I bet that very few of the paper ones after that will ever get the green light. The economics are terrible and getting worse every day, as renewables get steadily cheaper. Even geothermal, growing in spite of laughable research spending, is competitive with paper nukes in the USA; and its costs are dropping too.

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John Quiggin 09.15.13 at 2:19 am

Links broken there, James

82

Tim Worstall 09.15.13 at 8:56 am

““I agree with John Quiggin’s larger point here that resolving the climate crisis can be done quickly, at a reasonable cost, without major disruption to economy and society,”

I see no reason to believe this at all. At the very least, we are going to have to change long-held, cherished beliefs about our relation to the world we live in. “

An odd assertion. For we’ve a rather large report looking into all of this for us. Prepared by the IPCC every few years. Based upon a series of economic models in the SRES.

http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/emission/index.php?idp=0

And if you actually go and read the models you find that the A1 model, roughly a straight line continuation of globalised capitalism, does all sorts of desirable things, like abolish absolute poverty once and for all, hugely reduce global inequality and so on. Why, even the currently destitute peasantry of the world enter the bourgeois pleasures of three squares and a roof over their heads. This is the effect of a $550 trillion global GDP on 7 billion people.

And this is pretty much a straight lie forecast. Economic growth in the 21 st century is pretty much as it was in the 20th. Population dynamics are as we saw them, as countries pass through certain thresholds fertility drops markedly as life spans increase.

Then add in the various technological possibilities. The most important one being the carbon intensity of GDP. And a straight line projection (note, this is without any grand plans, this is just again a rerun of what we saw in the 20th century) from the 20 th cent gives us this as decreasing by 1.3% per annum.

Add in a move away from coal towards solar and nuclear and you get A1T. Which is the second lowest emission scenario of the 40 of them and one in which climate change really isn’t a problem.

JQ’s obviously correct that we can handle climate change without major disruption to society. Because the very report that tells us there is a possibility of a problem also tells us that we can handle it without major disruption.

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Will Boisvert 09.15.13 at 4:01 pm

@ John Quiggin 79:

I’m glad you’re warming to the idea of making nuclear power eligible for the same portfolio mandates as renewables get. I hope you’ll consider calling for that policy shift in Australia—your support would be important!

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Will Boisvert 09.15.13 at 4:04 pm

@ James Wemberly 80, on nuclear constructions rates and economics, and geothermal:

–“68 reactors under construction…not enough to replace the lones likely to be decommissioned.”

James your link here is broken. I do know that most light water reactors could have their 40-year licenses extended for another 20 years—that’s common in the States—and perhaps longer, if political pressures for decommissioning were resisted.

There is of course a much larger, indeed perpetual, “decommissioning crisis” looming for wind and solar, which last just 20-30 years as opposed to new nuclear’s 60-plus years rated service life. All the wind turbines and solar panels built by 2020 will have to be replaced by 2050. If we want a lasting, cumulative contribution to decarbonization, it seems better to build nukes lasting 60 years than wind and solar generators lasting 20-30 years.

–“The economics [of new nuclear] are terrible and getting worse every day, as renewables get steadily cheaper.”

James, when you factor in the 3-4 times greater productivity and 2-3 times greater longevity of the average nuclear kilowatt compared to the average wind and solar kilowatt, nuclear is substantially cheaper. With economies of scale and experience from mass deployment, nuclear construction costs could drop dramatically. In China, for example, where nuclear, wind and solar are all being built at huge scale, nuclear’s cost advantage is clear. New nuclear has a feed-in tariff of 0.43 yuan, while wind gets 0.51-0.61 yuan and solar 0.75-1.15 yuan. That’s for brand-new nuclear; if you count the average costs of nuclear over the many decades of ultra-cheap generation after it pays off its mortgage, the cost advantage over short-lived wind and solar widens much further.

–“Even geothermal…is competitive with paper nukes in the USA; and its costs are dropping too.”

Another broken link. Anyway, I think geothermal is a fantastic low-carbon electricity technology, because it’s reliable and dispatchible. We should build as much of it as we can. Unfortunately, it’s limited to areas with near-surface magma plumes and other geological rarities, so it won’t scale to the degree we need. We need to build massive nuclear capacity in addition to renewables if we want to comprehensively decarbonize the energy supply.

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john c. halasz 09.15.13 at 7:25 pm

@84:

Not to engage with your endlessly one-sided advocacy on these issues, but there is “enhanced geo-thermal”. I.e there are plenty of places where one could plausibly drill down to the “hot rock” and pump in cold water. It doesn’t depend solely on the natural occurrence of volcanic vents.

86

Matt 09.15.13 at 8:56 pm

There is little reason to think that 20-30 years is the upper bound for lifetime of new renewable systems, particularly solar PV. There are solar modules manufactured in the late 1970s and early 1980s that are still working fine today.

The unavoidable degradation of the PV junction is a very slow process for monocrystalline silicon cells, on the order of 0.5% relative efficiency loss per year. After 70 years the cell will still perform at 70% of factory rated output (0.995 ** 70). Most solar modules do not retire because of this degradation process, though it can be faster with other materials. Most retire due to gross mechanical damage (accidents, vandalism) or the environmental breakdown of encapsulant and backsheet materials. This can be an autocatalytic process with some materials: ethylene vinyl acetate starts to hydrolyze in hot damp conditions, water permeability increases, released acetate ions raise the conductivity of water, increased ohmic heating and electrolysis cause further damage, and pretty soon there’s deep corrosion to a cell connection or a short circuit that cripples the module.

The good news is that EVA is not the only material available for encapsulation, though it has been one of the most used. Olefins and fluoropolymers are becoming more popular as durable alternatives, and they have much better resistance to water, ultraviolet exposure, and heat. There is every reason to think that modules as well as cells with a practical 70 year working life are possible, have in fact already been installed today (though we can’t identify them certainly for another 70 years). The bad news is that the PV price wars of the last few years have caused some manufacturers to cut corners erratically and without disclosure on encapsulation materials and processes, so that some modules are failing in just a few years.

I would also bet that a fair number of wind turbines remain usable after more than 30 years, particularly ones without gearboxes, though it would surprise me if any made it to 70. Manufacturers are trying to be fairly conservative with their projections, just like the reactor manufacturers were when they estimated 40 year lives.

87

John Redford 09.15.13 at 9:11 pm

The developed world is actually decreasing Co2 emissions by quite a bit. The peak was in 2007, and the US is down about 9% from that, as are Europe and Japan. EIA data here , and my charts of it here . The EIA says that about half the reduction is due to the Recession, 40% to the switch to natural gas, and 10% to more use of renewables.

It hasn’t mattered – China has more than made up the difference. By this year it will be emitting as much as the US, Europe and Japan combined. India’s emissions are also growing fast, but still at a minor level.

Of course the developed world should be doing more, and should be leading by example. But the US/Europe/Japan are only about 1/3 of global emissions. This needs to be improved everywhere, not just among the technical leaders.

88

The Raven 09.15.13 at 9:41 pm

Tim, the SRES report says, “The SRES scenarios are intended to exclude catastrophic futures.” (sec 4.2.1, box 4-2.) “No disasters” is part of the assumptions of those scenarios, not a conclusion that can be drawn from them.

Now, the second part of the problem here is that we are on track for a 3.5°C to 7.4°C average warming and, as Hansen foresaw, the ice is melting and the seas are rising faster than the the IPCC models predicted. (Scientific American, Dec 2012, “How the IPCC Underestimated Climate Change.”) That level of warming is “incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.” (Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. There was a whole conference in 2009 in Oxford, 4 Degrees and Beyond. Some of the papers were collected in The Transactions of the Royal Society. The abstracts alone make sobering reading.)

Now, maybe modest mitigation efforts will still be enough. Maybe. But we are not undertaking even those. And the reason, apparently, is that we are not changing our thinking fast enough.

89

The Raven 09.15.13 at 9:55 pm

Will, my problem is that I regard a lot of the research in this area as comparable in credibility to much neo-liberal economics research. So long articles with cites don’t help; the literature has to be cleaned up. The two reasons I’m reconsidering the matter are: (1) desperation and (2) Hansen, who is an outsider and not caught up in the groupthink that permeates the field, thinks it might work.

When Fukushima was big news and TEPCO was reporting, I spent some time explaining and summarizing those reports and trying to answer some of the anti-nuclear hysteria. But it turned out that TEPCO was publishing deceptive reports, and that the “hysterics” were closer to the truth than I was. This isn’t the first time, and TEPCO is still doing it—that was one huge measurement failure that just made the headlines. The sort of mistake I’ve made in the lab, sure—but not something tolerable in a production facility. I hope no-one loses years of their life as a consequence of that error. So TL;DR commentary isn’t to the point. Establishing credibility is what nuclear power advocates need to do, if they want to make any progress.

90

Will Boisvert 09.16.13 at 3:33 am

@ John C. Halasz, 85:

“Hot rocks” geothermal doesn’t last very long. When you pump water through the rock to extract the heat, the rock cools down. Heat flow through rock from deep geological heat reservoirs is very slow, so the rock takes decades to “recharge”; you have to keep drilling new holes and building new plants. Maybe it will be feasible someday, but in the meantime we can build nukes.

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Will Boisvert 09.16.13 at 3:34 am

@ Matt 86, on the longevity of wind and solar:

Good point: while the lifespans of wind and solar pv are usually stated as 20-30 years, that’s a stochastic average, some will have longer or shorter lifespans. So I shouldn’t write that all the wind and solar built by 2020 will wear out by 2050. Some turbines and panels will last beyond that date while some will need to be replaced before then, perhaps more than once.

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john c. halasz 09.16.13 at 4:12 am

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reason 09.16.13 at 8:02 am

I have often played with the idea of an 8 day week – divided into 2 four days working weeks. This could be accompanied by an increase in the working day. This recognises that we are a highly capitalised society and our traditional way of organising work and time uses this capital highly inefficiently. It also (subject to not insubstantial co-ordination problems) solves issues of child minding etc in a flash. It would play havoc with amateur sport though.

The point is I think, that some of the changes that would REALLY make a big difference are quite radical. (Think about your suggestion of having one long holiday, rather than several shorter ones. Now I would rather do it that way – but what about families with children. Is this always possible? Or affordable? Perhaps we need a change in school organisation to allow more flexible holidays?)

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reason 09.16.13 at 8:08 am

Worstall @82
“a straight lie forecast”

Must be a candidate for the Freudian slip of the year award.

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reason 09.16.13 at 8:18 am

JQ
“B: (me) We could cut vehicle emissions in half just by switching to the most fuel-efficient cars now on the market, methane by eating chicken instead of beef, air travel by videoconferencing and taking one long holiday in place of two short ones. The same for most other sources of emissions.2”

Yes, but the evidence is overwhelming that “we” (meaning the whole human race) won’t. My mother tends to buy the global warming skeptics arguments, but her real get out is that even if the worst is true if we (Australia) pays the cost it still won’t do any good, because nobody else (meaning US and China) will. There is a HUGE co-ordination problem here.

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John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 8:43 am

@Reason Actually, the US is now well ahead of Australia, likely to reach target of 17 per cent reduction from 2005 to 2020, whereas since Abbott got in, we are unlikely to make 5 per cent (from 2000 base). And on lots of measures China is also doing more than we are.

It turns out, oddly enough, that the US and China are willing to do things unilaterally or through bilateral deals between themselves, that they would never bind themselves to do in a multilateral agreement. Go figure.

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ajay 09.16.13 at 8:44 am

The EIA says that about half the reduction is due to the Recession, 40% to the switch to natural gas, and 10% to more use of renewables.

And that’s why you should all be voting Republican – because by far the best thing you can do to reduce GHG emissions is to cripple world economic growth. The environment simply cannot afford another Clinton boom. War in the Middle East, recession and inequality will keep carbon emissions in check.

98

Tim Worstall 09.16.13 at 8:48 am

“Now, the second part of the problem here is that we are on track for a 3.5°C to 7.4°C average warming”

That’s a fairly extreme prediction given that climate sensitivity seems to be being massaged, gently, down to 2 oC or a little under.

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reason 09.16.13 at 9:05 am

Tim @98 – I guess that is a function of time span. The ocean is a really, really big sink. There is a lot of inertia in the system.

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reason 09.16.13 at 9:22 am

JQ @96
Yes – as ajay pointed out, the “success” of the US is more by accident than design.

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John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 9:28 am

“That’s a fairly extreme prediction given that climate sensitivity seems to be being massaged, gently, down to 2 oC or a little under.”

You’ve been reading Planet Gore again.

102

John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 9:40 am

@Reason. Except that the IEA estimate doesn’t look plausible to me. If you’re going to allocate percentages, you need to compare to Business As Usual – normal GDP growth, no change in fuel mix, no renewables, perhaps a very modest trend improvement in energy efficiency. That would imply something like a 30 per cent increase in emissions from 2005 to 2020. If the US hits its target it will be 17 per cent below 2005, or approximately 35 per cent below BAU. The 5 per cent output gap from the recession only accounts for about 15 per cent of that, not 50.

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reason 09.16.13 at 9:56 am

JQ @102
The relative prices of oil and gas (and the resultant substitution) are also an accident, not planned.

104

reason 09.16.13 at 10:06 am

P.S. I think the (cumulated) output gap from the recession is much bigger than 5%.

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The Raven 09.16.13 at 10:07 am

Tim@98: you’re referring to the paleoclimate sensitivity analyses? That is an actual debate among climate scientists. (Yay science!) But I don’t see that the number is being “massaged;” there’s dispute. Possibly, possibly, the lower numbers are correct as you claim. On the other hand, possibly the higher numbers are.

Take a look at Karen Shell’s two articles on the subject over at RealClimate; the second one is here and links back to the first.

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John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 10:40 am

@reason Since we are looking at annual emissions relative to trend, it’s not correct to cumulate the output gap. We are comparing flows, not stocks.

107

reason 09.16.13 at 10:41 am

108

reason 09.16.13 at 10:45 am

John Quiggin – what I meant is that growth is slower than normal now, and so the gap compared to the original path has increased.

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John Quiggin 09.16.13 at 10:46 am

Some non-accidental factors that are relevant include

* Energy efficiency requirements (notably on lightbulbs)
* CAFE standards for autos
* Renewable energy requirements, tax credits
* Mercury and air toxic limits on existing coal-fired power plants, previously grandfathered

To come
* CO2 limits on power plantes
* Much tighter CAFE standards

Not enough, and not an efficient way of going about things, but a substantial cumulative impact.

110

Will Boisvert 09.16.13 at 1:11 pm

@ The Raven 89,–is the scientific consensus on the safety of nuclear power credible?:

–Raven, the scientific consensus that Fukushima will have no measurable impact on public health does not come from TEPCO, but from independent research and assessments by the Japanese government, the World Health Organization, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation and many academic experts in radiation epidemiology from around the world. Whether we “trust” TEPCO or not is immaterial.

–“I regard a lot of the research in this area as comparable in credibility to much neo-liberal economics research. So long articles with cites don’t help; the literature has to be cleaned up.”

The scientific consensus that nuclear power is safe, Chernobyls and Fukushimas included, is extremely strong. That’s why NASA climate scientist James Hansen not only thinks it “might work,” as you put it, but that nuclear definitely does work and we should rapidly expand it. He does so not only from global warming concerns but from considerations of public health and safety due to its abatement of lethal air pollution from fossil-fueled power plants. He recently published a peer-reviewed study estimating that nuclear power plants have saved 1.8 million lives net over the last few decades by abating air pollution, and could save 400,000 to 7 million more by 2050. In his view nukes are an immense benefit to public health and safety—a view that is confirmed by a mountain of scientific research.

Raven, you dismiss the scientific consensus that nuclear power is safe on the basis of your intuition that the research is not credible and somehow dirty, so that it must be “cleaned up.” That’s your right, but in doing so, you are taking the same dubious ideological tack as the global warming deniers. They also reject out of hand the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming on the grounds that it is founded on corrupt “groupthink.” Tragically, the rejection of the scientific consensus by anti-nuclear ideologues has precisely the same real-world effect as the rejectionism of the global warming deniers—it greatly impedes efforts to address the crisis of climate change in a timely fashion.

111

Will Boisvert 09.16.13 at 1:16 pm

@ John C. Halasz on hot rocks geothermal:

As your wikipedia source indicates, the wells play out after 20-30 years. Also, it indicates that so far the experimental hot rocks plants are tiny pilot projects, and very expensive. They may have NIMBY problems with the earthquakes they cause.

The technology is promising and should be avidly funded and developed. You may be right that we can run the world on geothermal. That would be great—it provides the kind of reliable, dispatchible power that wind and solar can’t. But it’s not yet ready for prime time and may take decades to get there. In the meantime, colossally productive nukes are ready to go and are being built now.

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Rob in CT 09.16.13 at 2:45 pm

#110 sounds like someone typing (or more likely copying & pasting) from a script. Why?

Because Raven’s #89 already mentioned James Hansen. He cites Hansen’s support as a reason for him to waver (along with desperation). Yet Will Boisvert churns out his post citing “NASA Scientist James Hansen.” It sounds like something you’d see in an advertisement. Or a talking points memo…

I’m mildly pro-nuke, myself, fwiw. I’d like to see an aggressive pilot program backed by the DoE focusing on the latest designs and, depending on the results, I’d be up for subsidies to help bring them to market, ala what we’re doing with renewables.

Re: Solar panels – well, the ones on my roof will hopefully still work n 20 years, it’s just that they will be producing less than their original output. The warranty is for no more than 1% degredation in capacity per year over 20 years, and as discussed above that’s the cautious estimate – .5%/yr is probably more accurate. The inverter is more of a worry, in that it has a 10-yr warrantee and the contractor warned me that it’s the potential weak link.

113

Dawson 09.16.13 at 10:33 pm

The productive sector is already undergoing a much hyped relinquishing of its employment function, to hear the robot-watch tell it. Lower carbon, common-skill work like childcare, bus driving and elder care seem like low-carbon alternatives to present participation.

We won’t give up fossil fuels. They’re too important to military power, which is too important to security.

The reason we need nuclear power in more places is so that more generalized nuclear parity makes other military branches less relevant.

114

John Quiggin 09.17.13 at 12:32 am

“I’d like to see an aggressive pilot program backed by the DoE focusing on the latest designs”

There is one, for Small Modular Reactors, and the whole idea of the nuclear renaissance was to give Gen III+ designs like the AP1000 a chance to prove themselves with fast-track approval, loan guarantees and so on. Of course, that went nowhere, and I suspect the same will be true for SMRs (but, you never know).

That’s what I find annoying about (most) pro-nuclear advocacy. It’s much more about getting enviros to admit they were wrong in writing off nuclear on safety grounds than it is about a policy program that would actually have any real prospect of success.

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Will Boisvert 09.17.13 at 1:00 am

@ John Quiggin 113:

There are currently 8 AP1000 reactors under construction, 4 in the US and 4 in China, and Westinghouse has put in bids for new projects in Czechoslovakia and Canada. So the AP1000 development program had considerable success.

The modest step of simply including nuclear in the subsidies and portfolio mandates that renewables get could stimulate even more nuclear construction in the US and elsewhere. As the current massive rollout of 70 GW worldwide indicates, new nuclear is one of the most successful decarbonization initiatives around–those reactors now under construction will generate 5 times as much low-carbon electricity every year as all the solar panels now in existence.

But it’s true that pro-nuclear progressives are also focused on convincing people of the safety of nuclear power. That’s because anti-nuclear greens are actively trying to stymie new nuclear and to shut down existing reactors on spurious safety grounds. I think you’d agree that it would be a disastrous setback for decarbonization if those efforts succeed. So I think it’s incumbent on every environmentalist to vigorously challenge the myth that nuclear is unsafe whenever it’s repeated.

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John Quiggin 09.17.13 at 1:06 am

I’m aware of the status of the AP1000, and that of the nuclear rollout more generally. I think we should draw this discussion to a close, as we are repeating points already made.

117

The Raven 09.17.13 at 1:10 am

Thinking over Chernobyl and reading a bit more… One of these in a century is too many. The immediate effects of the disaster were bad enough, but the real nightmare is the long-term poisoning of the land, and the need for continuing remediation for, as far as I can tell, at least a century. 200,000 (or so) people were evacuated. The reactors which did not explode are still being decommissioned. The temporary confinement structure built around reactor 4 is now reaching the end of its design life; its replacement has been delayed 11 years and is now promised for 2016. Just this year, part of the original building collapsed and more radiation was released.

You say that the exclusion zone is a safe place to live; my quick research says this is not correct. There is both surface and groundwater contamination, and it is not safe to grow food or sink wells there. Tillage is an especial problem, since it releases surface radioactives into the air. The surface radioactives shift with wind and weather and, while the average levels are low, there are hot spots. In other words, it’s a place one doesn’t go without wearing a dosimeter and a monitor.

It’s not a threat we are well-equipped to reason about; long-term but low-level, and ultimately deadly. Fukushima appears to be following a similar, though less horrific, course.

Bottom line: can you—can anyone—promise no more of these? If not, I think we’d better stop talking about nuclear power plants.

118

john c. halasz 09.17.13 at 1:18 am

Incalculable tail risk.

119

Billikin 09.17.13 at 1:44 am

It sounds like Yes, But. See “Games People Play” by Eric Berne.

120

Matt 09.17.13 at 3:22 am

The modest step of simply including nuclear in the subsidies and portfolio mandates that renewables get could stimulate even more nuclear construction in the US and elsewhere. As the current massive rollout of 70 GW worldwide indicates, new nuclear is one of the most successful decarbonization initiatives around–those reactors now under construction will generate 5 times as much low-carbon electricity every year as all the solar panels now in existence.

Would it? Ohio‘s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard obliges utilities to provide 25% of electricity from new low-carbon sources by 2025. Half of that must be renewable, the other half can be non-renewable but low carbon technologies like coal power with CCS or nuclear. Let’s modify the rule so that nuclear is eligible for all 25%, and for good measure add the same federal Production Tax Credit that wind gets ($23 per megawatt hour for the first 10 years of production). Ohio is an excellent state to decarbonize because as of 2010 it gets 82% of electricity from coal.

If electric consumption remains flat, Ohio would need another 5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2025 to meet the standard. That’s about 4 AP1000 units. If the costs are the same at Vogtle that’s $28 billion in 4 big chunks or fewer, even bigger chunks. Even with the portfolio standards and the production tax credit, are utilities going to finance reactors? There’s an additional wrinkle: the portfolio standard creeps up every year until 2025, first by half-percentage-point steps and then full percentage point steps. If the reactor build scheduling is the same as at Vogtle then you’re looking at least 5 years where those big chunks of capital are tied up but not actually contributing to your energy portfolio, so in the mean time you pay for each megawatt-hour you miss the portfolio target by; it starts at $45 and can be adjusted upward for inflation but never downward. At 150 terawatt hours per year in Ohio, if suppliers lag the target by one percentage point that’s at least $67,500,000 in penalties annually.

It looks to me like you’re going to have to build a bunch of renewables anyway just to hit the portfolio targets during the years the reactors are under construction. Wind projects come in smaller chunks and with shorter, more predictable schedules. Solar projects are available in even smaller chunks and on shorter notice, though at considerably higher cost per unit of production. If you’re bullish on nuclear it looks like you could start building 2 or 3 reactors immediately, plus renewables in parallel for short term compliance, and stop building renewables as soon as the reactors are operational. Reactors-only is impractical because of those penalties you’ll accrue during the years of falling behind the portfolio standard. Is it wise to commit to 2 or 3 reactors? It depends on how certain you are that the projects will remain on schedule.

Even if you have good project management and deep financial backing, is nuclear the most cost effective way to decarbonize Ohio’s electricity? Large scale wind power in Ohio costs about $55 per megawatt hour, and add another $23 from the PTC for the first 10 years to make it $78 per megawatt hour. The subsidy-included cost of wind is already within the error bars of estimated AP1000 generation costs in the US. The last big argument in favor of nuclear power is that it isn’t unpredictably intermittent like wind, but I’m not sure that is crucial when the portfolio is only expected to provide 25% of electricity.

Finally, let me make it clear that I definitely support nuclear power over coal; I’m looking at various options for weaning off coal rather than considering sticking with the status quo.

121

Will Boisvert 09.17.13 at 6:48 am

@ Matt 120

Good points all.

–At VC Summer prices of about $22 billion for 4 AP1000s nuclear looks somewhat better than at Vogtle prices. Prices should go lower for nth of a kind.

–The other part of my proposal was to ramp up low carbon portfolio standards to 100 percent decarbonization within 20 years or so (like France). That would force utilities to think now about all the systemic costs of high penetration of intermittents. It would also bring into sharp relief the problems intermittents have with comprehensively decarbonizing the grid. You need hugely redundant overbuild of intermittents to eradicate gas completely and get to 100 percent decarbonization. We should not accept a 25 percent decarbonized grid!

–Even 25 percent penetration by wind and solar will impose major system costs on the grid. Germany is only at 12 percent and they are already facing curtailments, overproduction and negative pricing (which wind and solar are shielded from, otherwise their profits would be cratering even worse than those of the conventional generators) and the need for massive new investments in transmission capacity—over 20 billion euros in the first round. Texas just finished $7 billion in transmission upgrades to accommodate 18 GW nameplate, 6 GW average capacity, of panhandle wind. So even if Ohio utilities had to shell out, say, a half billion in penalties over five years while they are building nukes, it might be worth it to them if they could avoid a larger cost in system upgrades for intermittents.

–Unless wind and solar get must-take preferments, their economics start to look very dicey at substantial penetrations. That’s because of their common-mode surge-and-slump production. They can only sell when it’s windy or sunny, but that’s exactly when all the other wind or solar is also overproducing, often on vast regional scales, and driving down spot prices. Nukes also face price pressure during gluts, but they can also sell into spot markets with scarce supply and elevated prices. So investors will be leery of financing more wind and solar that will be increasingly fated to sell disproportionately into glutted markets with depressed spot prices, and also facing more and more curtailment. That problem will only grow with increasing intermittent penetration.

–You could be right that utilities might build wind and solar to satisfy short term portfolio mandate ratcheting. But my guess is that when they plan ahead for large low-carbon penetrations, they will want to bring plenty of nuclear capacity on line to avoid system and redundancy costs of intermittents.

–Utilities will face very complex decisions when they decide what mix of generators to use for decarbonization. To get it right they should be able to treat renewables and nuclear on a level playing field. If renewables prove cheaper and less cumbersome under those conditions, than we’ll get the job done with renewables.

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Tim Worstall 09.17.13 at 8:19 am

@101 “You’ve been reading Planet Gore again.”

James Annan…..

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Tim Worstall 09.17.13 at 8:23 am

“But I don’t see that the number is being “massaged;” there’s dispute.”

Massaged might have been the wrong word. I think it was Feynman (?) who noted that if an original estimate of a number in science is a) wrong and b) widely accepted then, for social reasons if no other, there isn’t a collective agreement that “Yup, we got that wrong”. Rather, continuing attempts to refine the accuracy of that number lead to it gradually migrating away from that wrong value to the correct one.

That’s what I meant, rather than “manipulating” which is another meaning of massaged.

124

Tim Worstall 09.17.13 at 8:29 am

“Some non-accidental factors that are relevant include

* Energy efficiency requirements (notably on lightbulbs)”

From my worm’s eye view of the lighting industry (I supply a vital ingredient for a certain type of bulb) these changes would have happened anyway. Maybe a tad slower but incandescents were on the way out, CFLs were/are a useful interim technology and LEDs are going to take over. Much of the various bans on incandescents strikes me as taking the plaudits for something that was going to happen anyway.

125

Rob in CT 09.17.13 at 1:00 pm

Or just, you know, speeding things along a bit. Some of us think there might be a wee bit of time pressure here.

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