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August 11, 2017

Climate Optimism, Energy Realism for the Next Generation

August 11, 2017
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I recently addressed a group of highly motivated high school students about environmental and energy issues relating to climate change. The event, Local to Global Politics: Climate Change, was hosted by the World Affairs Council of Houston.

Knowing that climate activists abounded at the two-and-a-half day affair, I pitched an optimistic view of free markets and a cautionary one about intellectual elites identifying problems for the government to solve.

I began my talk with a warning: My view was different, and it would include a number of takeaways that they might not have heard, much less appreciated, before. I added that my perspective was now the very one emanating from Washington, DC and the Environmental Protection Agency. How things change!

My first slide was a quotation from William Happer, Professor of Physics, Princeton University: “I believe that the increase of CO2 is not a cause for alarm and will be good for mankind.”

Happer is focused on the carbon dioxide fertilization effect. Hardly controversial, a New York Times piece earlier this year titled “A Global Greening” explained how plant growth has dramatically increased from CO2-induced photosynthesis. A young tree just planted, I told the students, would grow noticeably faster today than if it had been planted a century or two ago, largely as a byproduct of fossil fuel usage since that time.

What about the enhanced greenhouse effect of higher CO2 atmospheric concentrations acting as a blanket, blocking some of the incoming sun radiation from escaping back into space? I argued that this blanket is more like a bed sheet than a down comforter. The global lukewarming school disputes the catastrophic warming predicted by some climate models.

Climate scientists such as Judith Curry have documented how climate models have overpredicted actual warming, a gap that continues to widen. In fact, the warming “pause” since the late 1990s is actively debated in the peer-reviewed literature.

Climate economics has a role in the debate, I also explained to students. Nature is not taken as optimal; economists see benefits, not only costs, from the human influence on climate. A moderate increase in warming and precipitation (they go together) are positive; higher sea level is not. But recorded sea level increases have been modest, and recent predictions have been for slower increases.

Overall, I painted a very different picture from that expounded in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and in An Inconvenient Sequel: Speaking Truth to Power (2017).

Turning to energy policy, I defended fossil fuels compared to government-enabled wind power, (on-grid) solar power, and ethanol. Fossil fuels are energy dense and have built-in storage; they are thus affordable and reliable (non-intermittent) compared to renewables.

Carbon-based energies are the sun’s work over the ages—a stock—compared to the very dilute flow from the sun and wind. This explains why so much infrastructure (steel, concrete, etc.) is required to turn free energy inputs into usable energy (electricity).

It is far better, I opined, to build power plants near the population centers and avoid energy sprawl from land-intensive wind farms that must be sited far away from where people live. (Think of the $7 billion CREZ system built to transmit wind energy from the wilds of West Texas and the Texas Panhandle to San Antonio, Dallas, and other major population centers.)

My last slide made a case that fossil fuels were environmentally superior to renewables for these reasons. I shared a quotation. “The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy,” stated Peter Huber in Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists. “The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and so to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.”

At the end of my talk, a student raised his hand. He was a climate activist and asked what he should do in light of my postulations.

My answer? Study both sides of the issue. Good intentions are not enough. Decide if the climate issue, on one side or the other, or another issue completely, is worth devoting your personal energy and resources to.

The EPA will soon convene a red team–blue team debate on climate science and its implications for climate policy. This same debate deserves to be held in every classroom and public forum across the country. Let the debate continue with assumptions, theory, and data—not ad hominem arguments—leading the way.

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