Technology, development and c..c..c..climate change.


Time to Take Sides

Ha!  George Monbiot got one thing (almost) delightfully right in his recent article: The rapacious will not give up without a fight

“Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.”

I  had to insert ‘almost’ in my introductory sentence above, because the split  is still between reactionaries and progressives.   The ‘expanders’  are the progressives, and the ‘restrainers’  are the reactionaries, doomed to run behind, shouting and gesticulating.

In his article,  Monbiot is clear that economic growth must be curtailed.  In order to Save the Planet, humanity must “redefine itself”  and reject the idea that there will “always be another frontier” because “perpetual growth cannot be accomodated on a finite planet”.

Well,  we still have at least a billion years  before changes in our Sun begin to make the planet uninhabitable.   (And by that time we’ll have spread into other parts of the universe anyway.)   Given that it’s only a few hundred years since all of humanity was dependent on a carbohydrate energy economy (ie  we depended entirely on human manual labour, augmented by animals, such as horses) , and in too many parts of the world that is still the case, it seems very odd to say that we are about to reach some sort of limit.  The reality is that we’ve only just begun.

Industrialization,  and the economic growth made possible by that,  is essential  to human liberation .  For most of human history, life has been brutish, nasty and short. Even at the best of times,  the vast majority  could only just manage to subsist  by spending almost every waking hour engaged in some from of back-breaking toil.   The industrial revolution changed all that and provided opportunities and possibilities which were not even dreamed of in the past.  And we’re still only at the beginning.  A huge part of the planet has yet to industrialise.  Those of us who are already on the way, want to continue.

This requires ever increasing amounts of energy and there’s no reason to think that we’re about to run out of it.    There’s also no reason to think that the gradual warming of the planet as a result of our current reliance on fossil fuels, is potentially catastrophic.    On the contrary,  the more we modernise  and develop, the greater our capacity to deal with any problems arising from a warmer climate. But we will require more energy, not less, to achieve that.  It’s very interesting that so many people can express concern that the undeveloped world will suffer the worst effects of  the predicted climate change, and yet fail to draw the logical conclusion that rapid development is so obviously required.

In What’s the Best Way to Handle Climate Change? ,  Ronald Bailey  makes a pretty clear case for why brute force attempts to reduce carbon emissions, just don’t make any sense.   If such policies were successfully introduced the main impact would be a drastic  drop in economic growth because despite claims to the contrary,  we just  don’t have  ready-to-deploy, scalable carbon emission free energy technologies.  Artificially  raising the price of fossil fuels won’t magically cause cheap, green alternatives to come into existence.

There’s a section in the article entitled “Techno-Solutions?” in which Bailey points to the work of Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green at the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. They argue against brute-force carbon emissions mitigation and in  favour of spending $100 billion annually on energy R&D,  financed through a  low ($5 per ton) carbon tax.

It’s worth reading Galiana and Green’s paper which is accessible here.    Unlike Monbiot they take it for granted  that we will go on developing, that over the next century we will consume more and more energy, rather than less and less, and that we have the ingenuity and spirit to solve problems as we do it.

There will always be another frontier.  And those who tell us that we daren’t think that way are the reactionaries.  They are most definitely on the wrong side of history.

84 Responses to “Technology, development and c..c..c..climate change.”

  1. 1 Dalec

    Ok Keza ,now tell how you bitterly oppose new technology such as electric vehicles??

  2. 2 Jin

    If humans are so smart, how come we haven’t cleaned up the above mess yet?

    Thus far we ingenious humans have failed to live in balance with the rest of the species on the planet – and species extinctions caused by human predations are increasing.

    If sustainability and the rest of the planet’s species are to be sacrificed to ‘economic growth’, perhaps it should be kept in mind that nearly every human ‘civilisation’ has crashed due to overuse of its surrounding resources. Without restraint and responsibility, the logical endpoint we are visibly heading toward is the conversion of the planet into a polluted junkyard with humans and whichever other species manage to survive our rapacity crammed like sardines in wall to wall concrete with the rich, as ever, living cosseted lives at the top of the hill or at the beachfront. Despite an abundance of available energy sources, unless sustainability principles are incorporated, most lives may not become nasty, brutish and short, but long, insipid and drone-like, devoid of the benefits and protections of the full suit of species and natural environment.

    How to turn the Pequod around? Qualify ‘economic growth’ with sustainability and egalitarian principles. Otherwise humans remain at risk of their own hubris. Some projects which might help tip the balance back the other way – more education of women and universal social security systems to lower birth rates and a less western imperialist attitude toward ‘economic development’ – instead fostering grassroots ‘appropriate development’ with sustainable community initiatives which revive and do not deplete that which remains, as well as protecting communities from the predations of foreign elites who expropriate local land and resources to enforce their malicious concepts of ‘economic growth’.

    Weapons industries are the biggest polluters on the planet both via production and implementation, let alone their miserable effect on human populations – the arms trade should be phased out and replaced with a brain-based, non-polluting peace industry. Gains from ‘economic growth’ are to a large extent illusory if their bulk flows straight into the greedy mitts of defence corporations.

  3. 3 Dalec

    You are totally uninformed about energy.
    What is important to us humans is not the energy we consume but the services that energy can provide. Repeat – services. By your metric a refrigerator or air conditioner that has a Co-efficient Of Performance of say 2 is better than one that has a COP of say 3.5. A motor vehicle that gets 20l/100km is better than one that gets 6l/100km. Likewise with lighting, TV and all the gadgets that make our life easier. Industrial processes in advanced economies are using less energy per unit of output than even 10 years ago.
    We are over the 19th century concept of measuring economic growth by gross energy consumption.

  4. 4 keza


    Over the medium to long term. increases in energy efficiency don’t curb our demand for energy, they increase it. I have no doubt that we’ll continue to develop ways to use energy to generate what you call ‘services’, more and more efficiently. But I also have no doubt that this will enable us to do more and more. Many of these things will be of a nature not yet even dreamed of. And this will increase, not reduce, our overall demand for energy. Greater energy efficiency just makes more things possible.

    That’s what has happened historically. Do you have some reason for thinking this will stop happening.?

  5. 5 Dalec

    Kez historically the trend has been to the use of higher efficiency processes. We no longer use whale oil for illumination, for example, because we have discovered more efficient ways to provide lighting services.
    The early coal fired power stations had a thermal efficiency of less than 12% today this is about 40%.
    The energy efficiency of iron and steel making and just about every industrial process has been massively improved over the past 20 years – does this mean the processes have gone backwards?

    Todays lighting systems produce 6 times the amount of light per unit of energy than the 19th century incandescents we use even today and the new LED lamps even more light per unit of energy.

    The existing(60 years old) power grid is now at its limits of power transmission, the cost of global replacement is in the trillions of dollars. This would triple the cost of electricity to the consumer.

    The way forward is to improve the efficiency of the existing grid and to improve the utilisation efficiency at the point of consumption.
    We do not have an energy generation problem we have a utilisation problem.

    Every time I raise the subject of new technologies here I hear cries of “it costs too much”.

    We suck it down folk because that’s what is in the pipeline, fast efficient electric vehicle, efficient lighting, doing more with less that’s real progress.

    If you had your way we no doubt would be breeding whales for their oil so we could light our homes at night.


  6. 6 Arthur

    The answer to keza’s question is that Dalek does not think the historical trend of increasing production and consumption of energy will continue alongside the increasing efficiency of energy use because Dalek does not think but merely flails away demanding subsidies for more expensive forms of energy production and penalties on cheaper forms like any other lobbiest for a sectional interest.

  7. 7 keza

    It certainly looks as though dalek just doesn’t think! He replied to my comment that increasing energy efficiency doesn’t reduce our demand for energy, by trying to inform me (!) that the historical trend has been toward greater energy efficiency. And at the same time he failed to address the crucial point that despite these dramatic increases in efficiency, total demand for energy has kept rising.

    Duh!! My comment clearly stated that energy efficiency has increased historically while at the same time demand for energy has continued to rise. Ergo, I am fully aware that there have been continuing increases in energy efficiency.

    What he didn’t do was to address what I’d said about improvements in energy efficiency resulting in more demand for it, rather than less.

    He also made the absurd claim that I’m somehow not in favour of the development of smarter, more efficient methods of both extracting energy and of using it once we have it. Where did I ever say anything like that?

    “If you had your way we no doubt would be breeding whales for their oil so we could light our homes at night.”

    He knows perfectly well that this is literally the opposite of what I think, and yet persists in saying it.

    His remark about the cost issue is a deliberate obfuscation, designed to give the impression that opposing unnecessary rises in the cost of energy is the same thing as being against rapid technological development. It’s not. There’s no contradiction between being in favour of new and better technology, but against proposals to use more expensive techniques to achieve what we can already achieve far more cheaply. If a new form of extracting (or using) energy, costs twice as much as an old one, for the same result, then it is not yet efficient.

    My point was (I repeat), that greater efficiency won’t curb demand for energy. Perhaps I should have added “despite being a good thing, of which I’m in favour”.

    More efficiency in energy production and untilisation simply offers new possibilities for us to use such energy to push things and people around. I’m thoroughly in favour of greater efficiency for this very reason …. we’ll then have more energy available and this will enable us to develop all sorts of new uses for it and so on. There’s no way we’ll want to stay at our current capacity to do things.

    Just take a look at the historical record.

  8. 8 Dalec

    Keza, Arthur, of course the demand for energy is rising on a global basis.
    The population is growing and the developing countries are expanding their energy supplies as indeed they should.

    As to subsidies, I am on the public record as being totally opposed to any form of subsidy for energy generation of any kind including nuclear and solar and anything else.

    I note that both you and Arthur oppose new technologies such as LED lighting and electric vehicles entirely on the basis of the cost of new technologies.

    Well new technologies always cost more at their introduction than the technology they replace.

    The electric light we take for granted cost hundreds of times the cost of whale oil lamps.
    The first LED lamps were vastly more expensive per lumen than incandescent globes.

    Stop trying to turn back the clock folks.

  9. 9 Dalec


    The point I am trying to make is that measuring modernism by energy consumption is just a totally stupid thing to do.It was the improvement in the 12% efficiency of the 19th century power stations to the present day 40% that has made the modern electricity grid possible. Likewise the introduction of modern high voltage and efficient transmission systems. These improvements are not optional, they are essential. Likewise the modern distribution network (this is different from the transmission system BTW) needs massive improvement if it is to function reliably and efficiently from now on.
    The copper wire system for communications must be replaced by very “expensive” fibre optic to the home if we are to progress. No doubt you would oppose this on the basis of “cost”. SEE “against proposals to use more expensive techniques to achieve what we can already achieve far more cheaply”
    Finally, new forms of energy generation will always be more expensive at their introduction than as they mature. Coal fired power generation at 12% could not compete with gas and oil lighting, heating and local steam fired polant in factories in the late 19th century, it was not until the efficiency of generation and transmission was lifted that it could compete.
    Sorry Keza but you don’t really have clue as to how modern energy systems work and the absolutley critical role that efficiency has played and will continue to play in ensuring that energy and the services it provides will be delivered and utilised at the lowest possible cost.

  10. 10 Bill Kerr

    I’ve been following Brave New Climate (Barry Brook) which argues overall:
    1) There is a real problem with AGW, the climate crisis is real
    2) Alternative renewable energies are not the answer, they won’t get up to speed quickly enough
    3) Nuclear power is the answer

    Unfortunately, I have yet read it in depth but am pretty impressed by anti renewable and his pro nuclear arguments for the bit I have read so far. Possibly it has been mentioned before, sorry if I missed that. But well worth a look for a positive view about energy futures.

  11. 11 Dalec

    The problem with Brooks analysis is that both the technologies he esposes; nuclear and renawbles have the same problem – they take a long time to implement.
    The technoligy that will buy time is gas fired generation: very short time to implement on a large scale.
    However all these technologies fail the Keza test; they all cost more than present technologies.
    Oh well.

  12. 12 Dalec

    Bill, I suggest that Barry Brook is not quite the strange times saint that you make him out to be:
    Barry Brooks – quote “Research Interests
    My research focuses on global environmental change: human impacts on natural systems, in all its manifold forms. Past threats have predominantly involved the so-called ‘evil quartet’: overkill, habitat destruction, introduced species, and chains of extinctions. I have made a range of fundamental contributions to research on extinctions, biodiversity management and conservation ecology. In recent years I have concentrated particularly on the feedbacks between different threatening processes and how these interact with the looming risks posed by a new and rapidly accelerating hazard of climate change and global warming.

    I have recently become interested in systems modelling for sustainable energy, including scenario modelling of future low-carbon energy mixes (nuclear power and renewables) and the critical evalatuion of large-scale deployment options, energy backup, and variability control.
    Not exactly as you describe perhaps?

  13. 13 Bill Kerr

    I missed your comment dalec (forgot to tick the box, actually I can’t see a box to tick), but no, I’m nor particularly surprised. Someone who thinks there is a real and urgent threat to the environment is more likely to research alternatives as a priority. It takes all types, I’m not an expert and don’t keep up on the details since I don’t think it is an urgent issue.

    What interests me about the pro-nuclear option is that it is suggesting a realistic non AGW pro development alternative. This changes the discussion from “Are we headed for environmental disaster?” to “Are we pro or anti development?”, perhaps a fresh approach to the discussion would be a good idea. Brooks has scientific knowledge, is concerned about the environment, is pro development and seeking out alternatives (pro nuclear) to a transition we will have to make eventually anyway (fossil fuels will eventually become depleted). So, my recommendation to his site still stands.

  14. 14 Bill Kerr

    Tom Blees book Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises has some interesting readers reviews, which explain more about the content than the official blurb, which refers vaguely to “three little-known technologies can be employed in a wondrous synergy”

    According to one reader review his painless remedy is:

    To wit: the nuclear power provided by Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) can provide clean, safe and for all practical purposes renewable power for a growing economy provided this power is properly regulated (I’ll return to this issue below). The transportation problems can be solved by burning boron as fuel (a 100% recyclable resource) and the waste problem inevitably caused by exponential growth can be at least partially solved by fully recycling all waste in plasma converters, which themselves can provide both significant power (the heat from these converters can turn a turbine to generate electricity) and important products: non toxic vitrified slag (which Blees notes can be used to refurbish ocean reefs), rock wool (to be used to insulate our houses–it is superior to fiber glass or cellulose) and clean syngas, which can assume the role played by petroleum in the production of products beyond fuel itself.

    (that’s the 3 magic weapons, read the whole review for a book overview)

    Anyway, Tom Blees is visiting Australia and speaking in Adelaide and Brisbane (and visiting Melbourne, there is contact information in the link below). More details at Brave New Climate site: Tom Blees in Australia

  15. 15 Dalec

    Bill, you forgot to mention that Blees is sponsored by the Australian Nuclear Association inc.
    He is correct about the recycling of waste in plasma converters not so sure about the IFR. It does not exist, except in the fevered imagination of the most wishful of thinkers. Maybe it will one day but even the most aggressive development program could not get significant numbers on line before say 2040.

  16. 16 Bill Kerr

    I heard Blees on the radio today. He said that Obama has recently approved nuclear power research / development and that the US Energy Secretary Steven Chu (a Nobel Prize winning physicist, a real scientist in government) had read his book. Since IFR uses already existing nuclear wastes as fuel it solves a problem. The previous IFR program was shut down by Bill Clinton in 1994 for political reasons. I haven’t studied it enough to say how far it had developed but I get the impression that it is very far from pie in the sky.

    More about IFR here:

    More about how US voters line up wrt nuclear power here :

    According to ABC television news pollster Gary Langer, Obama’s call for more support for nuclear energy is aimed at bolstering his support in areas where he is the weakest. Langer’s analysis of polling data show “sharp divisions” in support for nuclear energy segmented by partisanship, ideology, age, and sex.

    – 61% of Republican support it along with 55% of independents. Langer says these two areas are in the “crucial center” where Obama has political trouble. Similarly, conservatives favor nuclear energy by 23% margin compared to liberals.
    – Seniors favor nuclear energy by an enormous margin. 67% support it compared to 28% who oppose it. By comparison, young adults, who are critical to Obama’s electoral base, oppose nuclear energy by similar margins.
    – Men support nuclear energy by a 2:1 margin, but women oppose with a 17% gap between anti-and-pro positions.

    btw James Hansen supports IFR development, see Science Council for Global Initiatives so from that perspective perhaps should not be categorised as an anti-development greenie. Pro nuclear and IFR advocates such as Blees, Brook and Hansen see this issue as particularly important because they perhaps mistakenly believe that AGW will lead to an out of control catastrophe. But as Blees points out even you are skeptical about global warming his position still makes a lot of sense, eg. in this video, part 1 of 3

  17. 17 Dalec

    The IFR is another of those really good ideas that will require vast sums and many years to develop. Rather like nuclear fusion – 5 years away from commercialisation for the last 60 years.
    There are safety issues with the IFR – large volumes of liquid sodium for one, and the need for a secondary sodium exchange for another.
    One of the difficulties with these technologies is that, for safety assessment reasons prototypes must be built and tested over a period of say 10-15 years before the next prototypes can be built and tested. The nuclear industry has some experience with the consequences of trying to short circuit this process.
    Thus the development time of a truly commercial and safe product could take 40 years – remember it is an entirely untried technology. The implementationon a large scale could take 60 years – unlike the geothermal and solar thermal alternatives.
    But hey only lice ridden greenie retards want that sort of stuff eh.
    Besides which all these technologies cost more than the preceding ones so they all fail the Keza test.
    When are you guys going to renounce your Climate Change denialist position by the way? You would gain significant respect if you did so – instead of sliding around.

  18. 18 Bill Kerr

    Current notes, based on incomplete research

    The link I put up yesterday (Plentiful energy and the IFR story ) is written by Charles Till who led a team which produced a small (non commercial) fast reactor in 1965 which ran for 30 years without incident. Still not certain of all the technical detail here but it seems that the IFR ran for at least 10 years. I gather than other Gen IV reactors were tested as well. As noted earlier it was shut down by Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994 for political reasons. In Congress, the main argument against (by John Kerry) was civilian nuclear proliferation (which I suppose is a valid concern today as well – although the end product of IFR is not suitable for weapon production I’m less certain about the fuel inputs)

    Fast reactors are now produced and used by Russia who even sells them to China (I don’t think these are IFR though). There are many different types of Generation IV nuclear reactors. The IFR summary article states that studies comparing different Gen IV reactor designs ranked the IFR #1 (DOEnuclearstudy.pdf links to the original study)

    General Electric already has a plant design of an IFR ready to build. The obstacles are political far more than technical even though the technical issues are complex. The people who built the IFR are old now and if it is delayed further their expertise may be lost, through death.

    IFR technology does have a long lead time as this extract from the Charles Till article shows:

    IFR development was terminated before the principal element in the fuel processing could be proven – successful, full-scale separation and collection of the new fuel product mixture from the spent fuel. This mixture is composed of plutonium, americium, neptunium and curium, the so-called man-made elements, as well as some residual uranium. It is a mixture most unsuitable for weapons but ideally suited to fuel reactors such as the IFR.

    The process was demonstrated successfully at small, laboratory scale. But it is a very big step to scale up to practical amounts. And this is precisely where the development was aborted; the large scale equipment was largely in place, as were the skilled personnel, but the work had not yet started

    Dalec’s point about liquid sodium (used as a coolant) is valid and worth following up (wikipedia IFR ) on.

    Some of this information comes from another article: The Integral Fast Reactor – Summary for Policy Makers (IFR Summary article)

    The Charles Till article contains a section of alternatives such as hydro, solar, wind, geothermal etc. and concludes that they can only provide a fraction of our energy needs.

    This is really a matter of doing the arithmetic. I haven’t done the arithmetic myself independently but according to the IFR Summary article, which is written from the POV of keeping CO2 under 450ppm, then we will need to produce 1 GWe per day of clean power every single day for the next 25 years.

    If these figures are correct and if we don’t want to run the science experiment of increasing CO2 further (to see what happens?) then it seems reasonable to me that nuclear is the only real alternative. That would deny deniers the opportunity of saying to alarmists “I told you so” but such is life. From my reading modern nuclear is safer and cleaner than coal anyway.

    Dalec might be correct that it could takes decades before it comes online, due to the undermining by the previous Democrat administration, combined with the complexity of the technology.

  19. 19 Dalec

    I think we would agree that all new and complex technologies require a long time to mature. Early coal fired steam plant was hopelessly inefficient and seriously polluting it took over 40 years to clean it up.
    Most of the nuclear plant in operation at the moment has a fuel utilisation efficiency of a few percent at best. This poor utilisation efficiency is a major impediment, it creates unnecessary toxic waste and simply costs more. In fact if the present costs of nuclear power were properly accounted for, including decommissioning and long term waste disposal, it would be the most expensive power source of all. Hence the new more fuel efficient reactors that have been designed and partially tested.
    If it takes another say 40 years before they can be deployed in large scale it could be a too late – perhaps.
    Gas fired generation deployd on a large scale would buy time.

  20. 20 Bill Kerr

    I bought Tom Blees book, Prescription for the Planet , when I went to the debate last Friday. Still reading it but have finished the chapter where he outlines in some detail the technology and advantages of Integral Fast Reactors:

    – passive safety, he explains how it will automatically shut itself down if it overheats and all the operators drop dead
    – also high pressure not required for operation due to the molten sodium surrounding coolant, another huge plus (the whole reactor is immersed in sodium)
    – the molten sodium safety issue is manageable by modern techniques, sodium does not corrode stainless steel (half inch thick), have more safety layers (steel, concrete – 6 inch thick sodium resistant) and overlay the whole thing in an inert gas such as argon – sodium can still react with water if they ever mix but the resultant hydrogen will not explode if oxygen is removed from the air
    – pile mounds of dirt on the finished reactor to protect against terrorist attack by airplanes, etc. (some of the other modern reactors are buried underground with just a couple of pipes emerging, require no ongoing maintenance except for fuel and water through the pipes)
    – 99% fuel utilisation of Uranium238, the main Uranium isotope, rather than less then 1% (Uranium235) – details about actinides not mentioned here – the real cost saving of this is noted by dalec
    – extra fuel is bred inside the reactor as it operates, hence the name breeder has been used for other reactor variants (EBR etc.)
    – the products produced (all reactors produce plutonium of some type but the purity and isotope type is important for weapon production) are not suitable for weapons and it is easier to produce weapons by other means such as high-speed centrifuge technology

    Interesting that about 1/3 of the audience supported the pro nuclear position despite the fact that the meeting had been organised by traditional green groups (zerocarbon humans)

    Other chapters of the book (Prescription for the Planet ) discuss the problems with renewables (the energy is too dilute and intermittent with sun and wind at least) and the cost issues – nuclear emerges as better than coal on cost in some of the figures quoted. Tom Blees has an infectious can do attitude and has spent many hours talking to the scientists who built the IFR, although some of his political suggestions seem on the utopian side to me. His book is definitely a must read for those interested in these issues.

    Given the sabotage by the Clinton administration (the scientists were instructed not to publicise their research so most people haven’t even heard of IFR) the whole effort has been set back 15 years – but nearly all of the R&D has been done. So, yes, it will take a while to resume and reach large scale commercial production with the main barrier still being political.

  21. 21 Arthur

    Nuclear is expected to remain more expensive than coal, though much less so than renewables. A significant factor in the bizarre push for a carbon tax may well have been the nuclear lobby (as well as Thatcher’s original hostility to the miner’s). Greenies are the nuclear industry’s only hope of serious growth. If no serious effort is put into fundamental science and R&D in the century or so before we might need to shift, the shift might well be to nuclear. It certainly won’t be to renewables.

  22. 22 Bill Kerr

    I’m not sure why nuclear remains more expensive than coal given that, as John McCarthy points out , “The fission of an atom of uranium liberates about 10 million times as much energy as does the combustion of an atom of carbon from coal”

    Tom Blees argues in Prescription for the Planet that the anti-nuclear legal challenges and the lack of standardisation of nuclear plant design are keeping nuclear more expensive – but at the same time presents other information that seems to claim that nuclear is cheaper. Clearly, the Chinese don’t think its cheaper (although they are buying some nuclear plants) so I remain puzzled.

    Given the McCarthy energy figures it would seem to me that once nuclear gears up for full scale standardised production then it will become much cheaper than coal.

  23. 23 Arthur

    Fuel cost of nuclear is much cheaper. Capital cost of safe capital intensive nuclear plant much more expensive than for coal based plant. In distant future one would expect declining rate of profit lowering capital costs and increasing difficulty mining coal raising fuel costs to eventually make capital intensive nuclear cheaper. But no current expectation of nuclear becoming cheaper before very long term except in special situations – eg when required anyway for actual or potential nuclear weapons capability.

    Similarly fuel costs of renewables is negligible, but capital costs (including storage) prohibitive. Focus on fuel costs reflects greenie “limits to growth” ideology.

    Relevant concepts such as “capital intensive” and “capital costs” are very important for understanding economic development and technology change. Same technical trade offs in future non-capitalist economic system – have to calculate the costs of tying up huge sums in construction now (against other current options for same funds) versus those of lower running costs.

  24. 24 Bill Kerr

    thanks arthur

    ok, so both fuels (coal and uranium) are insignificant costs

    I’ve just found a good reference, The Nuclear Energy Option by Bernard Cohen which traces the cost issues from 1970s to 1980s

    Ch 9 summary
    – construction time for nuclear plants doubled from 1971 (7 yrs) to 1980 (12 yrs)
    – labour costs also doubled with the biggest increases being professional labour, some of that due to regulatory requirements
    (these figures corrected for inflation)

    So the cost of nuclear plants quadrupled in 10 years, so they were no longer built

    The main reason for these increases were regulatory ratcheting and regulatory turbulence (the latter being having to change things after the project has started)

    Before these changes nuclear was cost competitive with coal

    The safety record of nuclear is far better than coal so the excessive regulation is not justified – but does reflect public opinion that nuclear can’t be trusted, that is what needs to be addressed

    other points:
    – the new designs are far simpler than old designs, eg. the passive safety simplifies things because high pressure requirements minimised, see pics in Blees book, Prescription for the Planet p. 202
    – other countries, not the USA, seem to be competitive with coal at the moment, see the tables in Blees book, p. 206 and 207
    – France relies on nuclear for main energy source, it can and has been done, although their reasons for doing this were partly political, not wanting to be at the mercy of OPEC oil price rises
    – a country like France develops one standard design whereas a country like USA has a variety of competing designs, which drives up costs particularly in a regulatory environment requiring long approval times

    btw Obama is going ahead with nuclear rather than killing it as Clinton did

  25. 25 Arthur

    I haven’t kept up to date with details including any designs that would reduce capital costs.

    If it is already economicaly competitive then it would be in use rather than helping the greenies lobby for a carbon tax. I am unaware of any country actually using nuclear to replace coal for economic reasons. France clearly strategic.

    They may be overegulated but I would much rather they were not underegulated!

  26. 26 Bill Kerr

    France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this
    Nuclear Power in France

    According to Cohen it was accepted wisdom by the utilities in the USA before the over regulation of the 1980s that nuclear would be cheaper than coal and would replace coal.

    “Many utilities seek cost analyses from economics consulting firms, some utilities have their own in-house economists to make estimates, and banking organizations maintain expertise to aid in decisions on investments. From the early 1970s until the early 1980s, all of their reports found that nuclear power was the cheaper of the two. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is the largest electric utility in the United States. Its profits, if any, are turned back to the U.S. Treasury. It maintained a large and active effort for many years in analyzing the relative cost advantages of nuclear versus coal-burning power plants, consistently finding that nuclear power was cheaper. The 1982 analysis by the Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, was the first to find that coal and nuclear were equal in cost; their previous analyses found nuclear to be cheaper. By 1982, these analyses were mostly discontinued, since it seemed unrealistic for a utility to consider building a nuclear power station, or even to hope that it could be done without regulatory turbulence”
    Ch. 10, The Nuclear Energy Option by Bernard Cohen

    The only real problem that has happened in France in the 30+ years of their nuclear program is the protests that developed in regions where the nuclear wastes were going to be buried.(source )

    Integral Fast Reactors solve the waste problem by reducing waste to a minimum with a much reduced half life. Tom Blees seriously suggests that nuclear waste from IFRs could be dumped in the sea after vitrification.

  27. 27 Arthur

    Re Obama on nuclear I gather its funding under Energy Policy Act for projects that could help reduce greenhouse emissions. That would tend to confirm its not economic at present (but perhaps the most plausible option for baseload if emissions taxes did force coal costs up).

  28. 28 Dalec

    Nuclear is safer than coal? The insurance companies and governments around the world don’t exactly think so:
    Coal fired generation is a serious health hazard if the proper equipment to control flue dust is not installed.
    The next domino to fall will be electrical energy storage costs, this technology is actually far closer to commercialisation than the new “green” reactors.
    In fact if the electricity grid is to continue to supply the increasing peak residential and industrial demand in developed countries it is essential that energy storage be embedded in the system.

  29. 29 Arthur

    The details on French nuclear power at that link do strongly support likelihood of nuclear being the replacement for coal if coal prices go up (ie panic and promotion of renewables are pure scam).

    But also clear the current domination of nuclear is due to “policy” and comparisons with coal are based on expectations of CO2 pricing (which is actually happening in Europe).

    Exports are not necessarily a sign of lower costs. Causality can run the other way – export power has to be priced lower in order to be sold.

    France’s nuclear reactors comprise 90% of EdF’s capacity and hence are used in load-following mode and are even sometimes closed over weekends, so their capacity factor is low by world standards, at 77.3%. However, availability is almost 84% and increasing.

    Load-following with nuclear plants

    Normally base-load generating plants, with high capital cost and low operating cost, are run continuously, since this is the most economic mode. But also it is technically the simplest way, since nuclear and coal-fired plants cannot readily alter power output, compared with gas or hydro plants. The high reliance on nuclear power in France thus poses some technical challenges, since the reactors collectively need to be used in load-following mode. (Since electricity cannot be stored, generation output must exactly equal to consumption at all times. Any change in demand or generation of electricity at a given point on the transmission network has an instant impact on the entire system. This means the system must constantly adapt to satisfy the balance between supply and demand .)

    Policy decision to go 90% nuclear implies more off peak capacity than consumption which requires either wasteful load following shutdowns or exports at whatever price will sell.

    Storage technology is certainly critical all round. Ought to be a target for huge R&D but currently still victim of waffle like “next domino to fall” to obscure the total absurdity of promoting renewables without it. (Typically they are instead investing in consumption restrictions during peaks with “smart meters” etc. As usual capitalism fetters the productive forces.)

  30. 30 Bill Kerr

    Blees solution to the load following problem is to use the surplus energy in off peak times to de-oxidise boron bricks which have been used as fuel in cars (prototypes don’t yet exist). He proposes 3 new technologies and ways in which to integrate them.

    As well as being an exporter of electricity France has electricity costs amongst the cheapest electricity in Europe at about 3 eurocents per kilowatt-hour (p. 199)

    France is preparing to replace their aging reactor fleet with a new design called European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), a Third Generation reactor with safety and efficiency improvements – significantly fewer pumps, tanks and valves than earlier reactors.

    A 2005 OECD / IEA study compared costs of generating electricity from various sources taking all relevant factors into account (investment, operation, maintenance, fuel costs, backup systems, interest rates etc.) and found that EPRs were cheapest at 23.80 eurocents per MWh (p. 202)

    Blees argues that IFRs (not included in the OECD study) would be cheaper still – further simplification due to their passive safety features

    More comparative information along these lines in Blees book, Prescription for the Planet

  31. 31 Bill Kerr


    Nuclear is safer than coal? The insurance companies and governments around the world don’t exactly think so:

    I read the intro to the above page and it said that fear of nuclear was exaggerated. I then searched the page for the word “coal” and it was not present.

  32. 32 Dalec

    You totally don’t get it.
    Unless distributed energy storage is embedded in the electricity ditribution network Australia is faced with a $60 billion + cost to simply bring the network to a state where it can cope with expected load growth over the next few years.
    Smart meters etc are simply palliative.

  33. 33 Arthur

    I don’t know what the figures are, but obviously load growth will continue, and whatever investments are required to meet it will have to be made. We are agreed that smart meters etc are no solution. Proposals to increase the costs of meeting load growth are also no solution.

    PS Bill, whatever the facts regarding France and the explanation of those facts I believe the following recent remark by Obama in justifying subsidies for nuclear power is an uncontroversial statement of the actual relative costs and of expert opinion on the relative costs:

    “Energy leaders and experts recognise that as long as producing carbon pollution carries no cost, traditional plants that use fossil fuels will be more cost-effective than plants that use nuclear fuel”

    The point of raising the cost of carbon emissions is to enable use less cost-effective plants (in order to produce less emissions). There’s simply no way around that obvious fact.

  34. 34 Bill Kerr

    Nuclear generated electricity is more expensive currently in the USA, putting some reasons / hypotheses for this together in one spot:

    – regulatory requirements higher than for coal plants, nuclear has to be super super safe not just safe
    – legal action from anties more intensive against nuclear plants
    – previous Democratic Administrations took actions which held back progress in nuclear energy, particularly the Clinton admin pulling the plug and suppressing publication about a very successful IFR prototype (also but not so serious Carter deciding that fuel rods should not be reprocessed)
    – lack of standardization of plant design

    Projected costs of generating electricity: 2005 update

    Chapter 3 of this study (which Bless relies on) seems to be saying that nuclear is more expensive in the USA and less expensive outside of the USA (more or less) – and that overall they are neck and neck, it depends a lot on variables such as
    – the price of coal in a particular country or period, which varies by up to a factor of 20, or
    – the discount rate, whether it is 5% or 10%

    (Based on reading the executive summary and skimming ch 3)

    The countries which are pursuing fast reactor breeder technology are UK, France, Japan and Russia (p.297)

    Thought experiment: What would be the impact in Australia of Rudd or Abbot coming out strongly in favour of building nuclear reactors here? Giving the number of other countries that are proceeding with nuclear there is no other reason except that they regard it as political more dangerous than their current also dangerous climate change policies. ie. we are politically more like Germany than France, countries which share a border but are polar opposites on this question.

    But surely there is enough evidence around to advocate strongly for promotion of the many years of R&D already done by Charles Till and co. in the USA and support for IFR. If we are in favour of R&D then why not support some R&D that has already been done and then hushed up by Clinton, Kerry and co.?

  35. 35 Arthur

    The countries which are pursuing fast reactor breeder technology are UK, France, Japan and Russia (p.297)

    All except Japan require closely related technology for nuclear weapons. Japan is both extremely sensitive to dependence on imports that have been and can again be cut off and requires a capability to develop nuclear weapons rapidly if and when desired.

    No objection to R&D on nuclear (or on renewables). But shifting to nuclear is currently another way of saying “more expensive electricity”.

    There is currently no reason to expect that fission can be made cheaper than coal. It is the most likely current fallback if carbon pricing succeeds. If. unlike greenies, we don’t want electricity to become more expensive than we need to look to more fundamental R&D towards technologies that not currently feasible at all – eg fusion.

    Both nuclear fission and fusion do require extreme regulation for “super” safety. That is part of actual costs. Of course unsafe reactors that might blow up or have plutonium diverted would be cheaper. Coal plant would also be cheaper without pollution controls. We’re against nature worshipping greenies, not against environmental measures in the interests of people.

    The political opposition to nuclear in Australia (and Germany) is a separate issue. That can contribute to unecessary regulatory costs. But one can simply oppose the irrational ban on nuclear without having to agree with people pretending its cheaper than coal.

    Because it isn’t cheaper than coal it simply isn’t going to be implemented anyway at present unless as a result of making coal, and electricity, more expensive.

  36. 36 Bill Kerr

    I’m not convinced either way about the costs and would need to research it more. A few points I have made have not been answered in any detail. However, I agree that nuclear would probably be going ahead faster if it was cheaper than coal so your basic argument is a strong one, although not researched in any detail.

    I’ve left a comment to this effect on Barry Brook’s blog, so your basic argument has influenced my thinking.

    It’s not a good argument to say that building fast breeders is going ahead to support a technology base for weapons since Gen II reactors accomplish that goal already. Likewise, the point about safety is more rhetorical than real if you look at the detail.

    Another thought is that coal is *simpler* and that China and India are going to go for the simple, quicker fix. I have concerns that the bad press for nuclear has led to a lack of trained nuclear experts in Australia and perhaps the USA. Some of the experts in USA are quite old now and a new generation has perhaps not been trained up.

  37. 37 Dalec

    Nuclear requires a very large high level academic infrastructure this is not required for coal -or gas. This one hidden subsidy.
    Nuclear has a requirement for the decommissioning of radioactive structures that is very expensive.
    Nuclear requires special measures to prevent proliferation and misuse by hostile forces, this is provided by taxpayers.
    The only way it can be insured is with huge Government backed indemnities – another subsidy.
    Cost overruns for reactors are notorious.
    The waste disposal problem has not really been solved – see Yucca mountain:
    This editorial seems to be a reasonable summary of the situation.
    Sure there may arrive, one- day, neat little mass produced packaged reactors that will solve all our problems, produce no waste to speak of and be perfectly safe for operation, even by accountants or lawyers. Maybe in 1000 years.
    Meantime you have to wonder at the sanity of those in one Australian power utility that have been offering air conditioners (Really cheap crap ones) to their customers for no deposit and 5 years to pay as a small addition to the electricity bill. That same utility now has to stump up big dollars to reinforce the network to supply the severely intermittent load, that is presented by these devices.
    The “bad press”came from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl it was not invented by green vermin.
    The bad press is not confined to the US.,1518,568467,00.html
    I guess the point is that if you accidentally blow up a gas fired plant as recently happened in the US the consequences are local, if you accidentally blow up a reactor the consequences are both local and international; as with Chernobyl.
    If you put nukes into a country with a culture of corruption, for example, you are going to have serious incidents.
    Even in Japan there are well documented cases of subordinates hiding major leakage incidents from their superiors.
    I suspect we are not yet really able to handle this stuff. One more major accident and it will be all over for nuclear. Even global warming won’t save the industry.
    In any event, it fails on the Dalec subsidy test. If it needs a subsidy at the point of sale don’t do it. Subsidise research and development, not commercial operations.

  38. 38 Bill Kerr

    China does seem to be ramping up their nuclear power generation rapidly:

    “Mainland China has 11 nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, 20 under construction, and more about to start construction soon.

    Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give a sixfold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 60 GWe or possibly more by 2020, and then a further substantial increase to 160 GWe by 2030.”
    Nuclear Power in China

    The 2030 projected 160GWe would represent 7% of current global electricity production (2.3 TW)

  39. 39 Dalec

    China, lets see. Is this the same country that allowed the addition of toxic Melamine to babies milk? Then covered up the practice for at least 3 years?
    And. “A World Health Organization (WHO) report estimates that diseases triggered by indoor and outdoor air pollution kill 656,000 Chinese citizens each year, and polluted drinking water kills another 95,600.”
    Probability of a major nuclear leak?? Probability of a total cover-up?
    Both very high I would say.

  40. 40 Bill Kerr

    A study commissioned by the Howard government in 2006 found that the cost of cheap coal generated electricity was A$28-$38 / MWh compared with nuclear A$40 – $65 / MWh. The nuclear cost was settled down not FOAK (first of a kind)
    See Fig 4.7 on page 56

    The wikipedia page explaining costs is not bad.
    It explains that the large capital costs of nuclear combined with unpredictable future income in a privatised electricity market further combined with expected 10% discount rate (or higher) work against the economics of nuclear

    A 2003 study in the UK makes similar points about nuclear being more expensive than coal

    thanks for your input on this issue, arthur. I’ve posted this information for comment at Brave New Climate (comment )

    The cheap electricity rate in France still remains a mystery for me. Also I don’t see the load following as a huge problem as they could supplement their nuclear reactors with peaking power plants if that was cheaper overall.

  41. 41 Dalec

    Arthur, “The cheap electricity rate in France still remains a mystery for me”
    One word – Subsidy
    For waste disposal:
    France’s nuclear program sprung not from business needs but from foreign policy goals. Immediately after the Second World War, France’s President, Charles de Gaulle, decided to develop nuclear weapons, to make France independent of either the U.S. or the USSR. This foreign policy goal spawned a commercial nuclear industry, but a small one — France’s nuclear plants could not compete with other forms of generation, and produced but 8% of France’s power until 1973.

    Then came the OPEC oil crisis and panic. Sensing that French sovereignty was at stake, the country decided to replace oil with electricity and to generate that electricity with nuclear. By 1974, three mammoth nuclear plants were begun and by 1977, another five. Without regulatory hurdles to clear and with cut-rate financing and a host of other subsidies from Euratom, the EU’s nuclear subsidy agency, France’s power system was soon transformed. By 1979, France’s frenzied building program had nuclear power meeting 20% of France’s power generation. By 1983 the figure was about 50% and by 1990 about 75% and growing.

    Despite the subsidies, the overbuilding effectively bankrupted Electricite de France (EdF), the French power company. To dispose of its overcapacity and stay afloat, EdF feverishly exported its surplus power to its neighbours, even laying a cable under the English Channel to become a major supplier to the UK. At great expense, French homes were converted to inefficient electric home heating. And EdF offered cut-rate power to keep and attract energy-intensive industries — Pechiney, the aluminum supplier, obtained power at half of EdF’s cost of production, and soon EdF was providing similar terms to Exxon Chemicals and Allied Signal.

    These measures helped but not enough — in 1989, EdF ran a loss of four billion French francs, a sum its president termed “catastrophic.” The company had a 800-billion-franc debt, old reactors that faced expensive decommissioning, and unresolved waste disposal costs. To keep lower-cost competitors out of the country, France also reneged on an EU-wide agreement to open borders up to electricity competition.

  42. 42 Bill Kerr

    useful information about France dalec, thank you

    btw it was me who said it was a mystery, not arthur

  43. 43 Bill Kerr

    arthur wrote on feb 9th :

    … If no serious effort is put into fundamental science and R&D in the century or so before we might need to shift, the shift might well be to nuclear …

    On reflection and further reading (of Hansen’s recent book ) and given your helpful previous comments on AGW, that we should not lightly dismiss the research of the leading paleoclimatologists, this assertion that we have “a century of so” if it means anything is questionable. The trouble with it is that a “century or so” is both vague enough and reassuring enough to allow anyone who might take serious notice of it to go back to sleep. What if instead we have “fifty years or so” or “twenty years or so” etc.? That is more in line with what the leading paleoclimatologists are saying.

  44. 44 Arthur

    Haven’t read Hansen’s recent book, but I gather he’s consistently an “alarmist”.

    Suggestions that we have to stop climate change within a few decades seem somewhat absurd given estimates of much less than 1 degree average temperature rise per decade and climate fluctuations that are much bigger than that.

    If it was something happening rapidly there would indeed be a strong case for rapid shift to nuclear.

    The fact that the actual figures are so very unalarming does result in a strong inclination to go back to sleep (or at least deal with far more urgent problems like global development). I suspect that despair at the prospects of getting anyone to pay much attention to potential problems a century off has been a major force driving otherwise respectable scientists into resorting to alarmist claims that catastrophic doom is imminent. Its been counter productive, just as the spiel about WMDs in Iraq ended up being counter productive. Both are based on lack of confidence that people can act when they do understand why they have to.

    Major point we should make is that by diverting resources into reducing emissions now by incremental measures like nuclear (let alone by pointless measures like renewables) they are taking away resources should be put into long term R&D that has a considerable lead time. Can’t just discover things to order (and seriously expanding fundamental science requires first educating the educators and then the additional scientists over a generation or so).

    If there WAS a “climate emergency” we could rapidly resort to (unsatisfactory) “climate engineering” measures to cope with it. If we don’t do much for a century then we might well have to. By putting efforts into fundamental science R&D that might take decades to produce a CHEAPER substitute for coal etc we are LESS likely to have to resort to climate engineering later (or before we know how to do it satisfactorily).

  45. 45 Bill Kerr

    Not sure whether Hansen is right or wrong but he does have responses to the points you raise, if you are prepared to research him. Your position up to now has been that the science is best left to the experts, like Hansen.

    In another thread you said that climate-gate was not very significant to the status of the actual science – but wouldn’t hiding data and rigging the peer evaluation system also be consistent with your general analysis of the despair of the “alarmists” and therefore significant evidence that AGW is not important?

  46. 46 Arthur


    1. I assume Hansen’s book is part of the “public debate” rather than the scientific studies in various journals. Am more interested in understanding economy than climate (which is also far more relevant to any future meaningful debate about what should be done about climate than arguments about climate are).

    2. I think the dishonesty of “alarmist” scientists was well established long before it became more widely known as a result of climategate. It doesn’t directly shed any light on AGW but merely provides an “ad hominem” argument against some of the many adherents of the currently dominant school of thought on AGW. I see no reason to assume that the necessary checking of data and models now underway will result in any particular change in views on AGW. I do expect that greater transparency and less domination of peer review will result in less table thumping “official science” and better understanding of the actual level of uncertainty and more rapid progress in the actual science.

    Main “fraud” is in drawing “official” economic conclusions from “the science” for reasons elaborated quite well by Bjorn Lomberg. Strongly recommend focus on that stuff, which is also relevant to wider and more pressing socio-economic issues over the next couple of centuries rather than on AGW science as such.

  47. 47 Bill Kerr

    I have seen some of the Lomborg material. It seems to me that the outputs from his (other) Copenhagen consensus dialogues depend on the inputs of the experts he chooses to rank the most important issues. Different experts would produce different outputs.

  48. 48 Arthur

    Of course any pretense at “expert consensus” on priorities is bullshit. Lomborg’s stuff is still a good antidote to the “official” claims we MUST do this and that because “the science” has allegedly spoken on socioeconomic priorities. My priorities would be different from Lomborg’s (eg world revolution), but at least he clearly points out that some pressing development issues more urgent than climate change and some more plausible options for adaptation and for eventually dealing with climate change by R&D (both for cheaper alternatives to coal etc and by geoengineering to cope with any urgency that could be confirmed in the future) instead of the blind acceptance that massive resources should be diverted from development into more expensive energy technologies right now. Its well worth closer study.

  49. 49 Bill Kerr

    Good points about Lomborg’s position and the connection b/w science and economics.

    btw Hansen’s position is that fossil fuels should be taxed at the point of first sale and the money returned to the people. I can’t really see that happening. What happens is really up to China, India etc. Another case of America in decline.
    scroll down to short video on energy solutions

    My point in researching this just a little is that good science ought to be respected and not derided as sometimes happens. Lomborg’s and Hansen’s position are not very different – they just have different priorities about the most important issues. They both said Copenhagen climate conference was a waste of time. They are both pro-development based on their priorities.

  50. 50 Dalec

    Much of the denialist theology seems to rest upon the assumption that change is a linear process.
    The rate of linear change is well understood.
    Non linear change not so. In simple terms; positive feedback accelerates change,negative feedback retards it. In natural systems there is usually a mixture of both negative and positive feed backs.
    The vast man made “brown haze” that covers much of SE Asia is a good example, it contains both soot particles that absorb solar energy and sulphates that reflect it. The ratio of these will shift the feedback polarity.
    There are many of these, from circumpolar forests, to methane emissions from warming tundra to sea ice variation.
    The issue here is that the prediction of the rate of change resides in estimates of the magnitude of a large number of non linear processes.
    Quantitative evaluation is not simple, not easy,and subject to large error bands. An essentially dangerous situation for the billions of people who inhabit this planet.

  51. 51 Arthur

    Dalec, the fact that quantitative evaluation is difficult is only dangerous if people actually act in the panic stricken way demanded by alarmists claiming “the science has spoken”. Actually there’s not much sign of that happening, as opposed to some pandering to greenies as a reward for spreading a pessimistic ideology suited to the world outlook of a moribund class.

  52. 52 Dalec

    There are two possible extremes, panic and complacency.
    Panic is often driven by uninformed talk about “tipping points” and such. Complacency is mostly about the expectation that the rate of change will be the same from one year to the next.
    The danger is that we are not sure about the rate of change, if it is simply linear we have plenty of time to do stuff and adapt.
    We do know that there are feedback mechanisms in the system, we would be unwise to believe that they are not being invoked.
    Remember that it was the then characterised “Panic Merchants” who persuaded most of us to give up smoking years ago and the then characterised “Panic Merchants” who blew the whistle on Asbestos.

  53. 53 Dalec

    For a good example of cherry picking of data and non linear phenomena take a look at this:
    There has been lots of talk lately about Antarctica and whether or not the continent’s giant ice sheet is melting. One new paper 1, which states there’s less surface melting recently than in past years, has been cited as “proof” that there’s no global warming. Other evidence that the amount of sea ice around Antarctica seems to be increasing slightly 2-4 is being used in the same way. But both of these data points are misleading. Gravity data collected from space using NASA’s Grace satellite show that Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice each year since 2002. The latest data reveal that Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate, too.”

  54. 54 barry

    British Anatarctic Survey had it terribly wrong then, claiming an increase per decade of 100,000 square kilometres over the past three decades. Clearly another case where the science isn’t settled.

  55. 55 Dalec

    Barry, they are measuring two different things; one is mass and the other is area. There is a difference you know. Its the mass of the ice that is important, not its area.

    See also:


  56. 56 Barry

    Believe it or not but I do know the difference between the two. An article in ‘Science’ magazine published a scientific report in 2005 that found over the previous decade, East Antarctica thickened at a rate of 1.8 cms per year while the West thinned at a rate of 0.9 cms per year. The report is here:

    By the way, Antarctica has an average ice thickness of 1.6 kilometres.

    A more recent study in ‘Science’ journal put the figure of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise at 0.14 mm of sea level rise between 1992 and 2006.

    Am I missing something here or does that mean in ten years it will have contributed, at current rates, 1.4 mm?

    I keep returning to the fact that these figures are not all that scary, there’s no emergency situation, and that the science is far from settled.

  57. 57 Bill Kerr

    Ice Sheets and Rising Seas

    This chapter from an open source book (The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart) presents a history of how scientists thoughts about melting ice sheets has evolved over the past 50 years. My reading of it is that scientists are developing a more dynamic (post ice cube) understanding of ice sheets and the measurement techniques have improved rapidly. So better understanding and evidence one way or the other will show up probably sooner than later.

    From Hansen’s book the key bit of information that triggered his alarm was the “evidence from the prior interglacial period, about 125,000 years ago, had probably reached a level about 4 to 6 meters higher than today” (142). In his book he does seem more certain about some things (eg. climate forcings, paleoclimate data) and less certain about other things, one of those being the projected rapidity of sea level rise. One thing I like about his book is his acknowledgment of uncertainties as they arise and the subsequent efforts he makes to gather more information about them.

  58. 58 Dalec

    We would agree on one thing. Sea ice has virtually no impact upon sea levels. Its growth or recession is more a measure of the available water vapour than temperature – providing the average temperature stays below about -10C the ice cover will depend upon moisture and winds
    Land ice is of course the biggie.
    Now you could say that the GRACE data has been invented by self seeking greenie pointy heads. I have researched the GRACE program and I have to say that it is one of the smartest and under-appreciated projects around. It is giving us a huge insight into water, and ice all over the globe. It measures in the most important dimension, mass.
    See below about India’s water supply problems:
    More on GRACE

  59. 59 Barry

    dalec, I don’t know enough about the GRACE program to want to suggest it is run by “self seeking greenie pointy heads”. They’re your words, not mine. Just as you make up things like the false claim that I said Iraq would be a ‘land of milk and honey’ after Liberation. You do this all the time. It means you’re not very good at arguing the politics.

    The GRACE data, along with my links, shows what I’ve argued all along: the science isn’t settled. Hopefully the review of the IPCC’s procedures and methods, just announced a few hours ago, by an ‘independent scientific body’, will be fair dinkum and result in a proper system of scientific enquiry in which dissident voices are not equated with Holocaust deniers or disparaged as engaging in “voodoo science”. The latter is a quote from the retired railway engineer who heads the IPCC.

    I remain opposed to the climate alarmism which leads apparently reputable scientists like Hansen to hold up social-fascist states like China as a model to follow. The ideology of alarmism has a much deeper basis than climate issues.

    An average Antarctic thickness of 1.6 kilometres does suggest to me that we have plenty of time to adapt to any melting that will presumably accelerate once the ozone hole is fixed.


  60. 60 Bill Kerr

    I thought the article that dalec linked to (Is Antarctica losing or gaining ice? ) did a very good job of explaining why sea ice is increasing while land ice is decreasing in Antarctica.

    I don’t see how the thickness of the ice is relevant to how quickly the melting might develop. It’s only relevant to how much the sea level will rise eventually if it all melts, which is a lot. My understanding is that blocks of ice start by melting slowly and then gradually accelerate. Ice in the wild has different dynamics. Ice flows, ice can get dirty, moulins can form to accelerate the destruction etc. It’s clear from the paleoclimate record that the sea level rise associated with warming proceeds much faster than the sea level fall associated with cooling.

  61. 61 Barry

    Bill, that may be the case (I’m not qualified enough to take discussion of specialist science further) but there’s a huge disjuncture between that kind of qualified science on one hand and the stuff that’s being taught in our schools, about hundred metre tidal waves and mass drownings caused by melting ice poles. This stuff has been bombarding us for a couple of decades now, via the mass media.

    I’m still not persuaded that the sea levels are rising so fast, or will suddenly rise so much faster, that we cannot adapt to any changes by conventional methods.

  62. 62 Bill Kerr


    I remain opposed to the climate alarmism which leads apparently reputable scientists like Hansen to hold up social-fascist states like China as a model to follow. The ideology of alarmism has a much deeper basis than climate issues

    I went to Hansen’s presentation in Adelaide last night.

    He supports China because he believes that China will support his carbon tax proposal and that China is developing alternatives to fossil fuels (both renewable and nuclear) as fast as they can. China will never accept a cap on their development so cap and trade is dead.

    He had a strategic options slide about how to proceed in the west which went like (incomplete):
    1) persuade governments – doesn’t work because money talks
    2) court action – (missed detail)
    3) people take to the streets in protest

    Hansen has tried (1) and (2) and now participates in demonstrations against building of new coal plants, has been arrested and gives expert testimony on behalf of others who have been arrested

    From his book, p.246:

    I have argued that it is time to “draw a line in the sand” and demand “no new coal plants”. I believe we must exert maximum effort to use the democratic process. But what if new electees turn out like the old? We cannot give up. That’s why I am now studying Gandhi’s concepts of civil resistance.”

    Barry, I don’t think your suggestion that Hansen support social fascism based on a single sentence in one interview is credible.

    As for the “ideology of alarmism” what does that phrase mean? Hansen’s alarmism is based on a scientific analysis that time is short and we have to act now to prevent destruction of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica which once it reaches a certain point (hard to define) will be irreversible. He did present new information, more up to date than his book, that indicated that this ice sheet destruction process had already begun in both Greenland and Antarctica. In response to a question about how long did we have he said it’s decades not centuries – while qualifying that it is not possible to put a precise time to it.

    I can agree that there is an “ideology of alarmism” or “climate of fear” or “return to nature” etc. promoted by some / many who don’t understand the science but what worries me is well founded alarmism coming from someone who does understand the science. For me the crucial issue is do we have decades or a century or so and the wisest decision here would be to listen to the science experts and base policy on that.

  63. 63 Bill Kerr

    Greenland is now at about 450 cubic kilometres per year net loss, Antarctica (East + West Combined) is now about 300 cubic kilometres net loss
    – Barry Brook citing GRACE data (from a new thread at BNC about Hansen)

  64. 64 Barry

    “Barry, I don’t think your suggestion that Hansen support social fascism based on a single sentence in one interview is credible”.

    Well, I didn’t say that he supported social fascism. I doubt that he would have ever heard the term. What worries me is that, in the Philip Adams’ interview, he supported the possibility of authoritarian responses to the perceived crisis, rather than democratic ones, or when democratic ones are incapable of dealing with it (from his point of view). He held up China as the model and I felt, and feel, that China’s authoritarianism (which I understand as an expression of its government’s social fascism) was the appeal. China doesn’t muck around, it proceeds with green renewable stuff, and doesn’t waste time consulting the people as we do in the capitalist democracies. As I heard him, it’s not so much the influence of ‘money’ on the electorate that is the problem but the electorate itself.

    I can’t disagree when you say we should listen to the science experts but Hansen is one among many, and there are widely divergent views among them. When a government commits to a process such as the IPCC, it’s hard to see how they can do anything other than accept consensus thinking, as expressed in the Assessment Reports, or withdraw from the IPCC (as India is considering).

    While I defend the right to civil resistance, I also think that democracy works through elections and that’s a good thing. If the majority of Americans want new coal power stations and vote for parties that offer them, then they have to be persuaded to vote next time against them. Of course, minorities who believe they’re saving us all, can and do take measures to actually stop the building of such structures, but this also means they can’t win an election.

  65. 65 Barry

    Bill, the thread you linked to is just a post to a blog. I was expecting something more substantial: a link to the GRACE data or report, for instance. The post to which you linked says the 300 cubic kms net loss is “a relatively small contribution to overall sea level rise (at this stage)”.

    Sorry but I don’t want to continue with this exchange, as I don’t have much else to offer beyond what I’ve already posted.

  66. 66 Bill Kerr

    hi barry,

    I did ask for the source of the figures at BNC before I copied them here. It turns out that Barry Brook did have them wrong , he says he had quoted accumulated figures as rates, but has now got back with the official GRACE figures and source. The GRACE figures are in gigatonne per year and the mass loss is accelerating over the period measured (2002-09) on both sheets:

    In Greenland, the mass loss increased from 137 Gt/yr in 2002–2003 to 286 Gt/yr in 2007–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −30 ± 11 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009. In Antarctica the mass loss increased from 104 Gt/yr in 2002–2006 to 246 Gt/yr in 2006–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −26 ± 14 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009.

    If the sea level was already rising significantly Barry then I presume there would be no need to discuss this further. The fact that the ice sheets are melting and that the rate is accelerating is a real concern and evidence that the alarm expressed by Hansen, who is a very good scientist, may well be an expression of what the science has established and not ideological derived.

  67. 67 Barry

    Bill, very quickly (no time or real desire to continue):

    I followed your link and Barry Brook acknowledges his error and now reckons the mass loss of ice at about 250 cubic kms per year. Given that Antarctica contains about 30 million cubic kilometres of ice, I’d again say that this is something we can adapt to. The actual sea level rises, and the proportion of them attributed (by BAS) to melting of Antarctic ice, just aren’t all that frightening. They’re happening very slowly.

  68. 68 Bill Kerr

    John Cook is a Queensland physicist who reviews the peer reviewed literature on global warming:
    How much will sea levels rise in the 21st Century?

    Recent observations find sea level tracking at the upper range of IPCC projections. The semi-empirical and kinematic methods provide independent confirmation that the IPCC underestimate sea level rise by around a factor of 3. There are growing indications that sea level rise by the end of this century will approach or exceed 1 metre

    Yes, we could adapt to that. But would the productivity losses from evacuations of flooded coastal cities turn out to be greater or less than the productivity gains of further unrestricted burning of fossil fuels? I never used to think about this issue but when Hansen pointed out that modern civilisation has emerged in the past 7000 years in the historically unusual context of stable sea levels then that made me think about it a bit more. The other point to think about is the inertia of the warming oceans and deteriorating ice sheets. If humans continue to increase climate forcings (greenhouse gases) then it’s not going to stop at 2100. On this point, Hansen quoted Thomas Jefferson about intergenerational rights:

    “The question [w]hether one generation of men has a right to bind another. . . is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government. . . . I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ . . ..”

  69. 69 Barry

    One metre over 90 years (with John Cook dissenting from IPCC expert consensus that places the rise over that period at between 18 and 59 cms).

  70. 70 keza

    On the question of ‘intergenerational rights’:

    If it were possible to go back in time about a century, and tell our (much, much poorer) ancestors to consider the consequences for us, of the coal powered industrialisation that was occuring at the time, would you think that they had some sort of moral obligation to take any notice?

    And if they had taken notice, where would we be now ???

    We are currently the ancestors of people who will be much, much wealthier than us. As far as I can see, we’re already doing our bit for them. I doubt that they would thank us for slowing things down.

    In 2100, the human species will have advanced at least as much as it advanced between 1900 and 2000.

  71. 71 Arthur

    I’m even less interested in ice dynamics and sea levels than I am in talking about the weather generally. Let’s stick to politics.

    Speaking of which:

    The Jefferson quote is refuting claims that debts (or eternal constitutional principles) adopted by dead generations can bind the living. Hansen’s pretense that it gives support to self-appointed representatives of future generations is simply dishonest.

  72. 72 Bill Kerr

    The jefferson quote is open to different interpretations .

    I would see the issue as the optimal way to achieve development with the possibility of business as usual seriously undermining development due to rising sea levels.

  73. 73 Arthur

    Constitutional lawyer’s are in the business of writing about different interpretations. The subject of the letter itself however is clear.

    As for the use of the term “usufruct” and its implication that present generations should pass things on to future generations with improvements rather than laying waste to them, Jefferson, like anybody else would take that for granted. The subject of his letter however was not that trite proposition.

  74. 74 Bill Kerr

    I didn’t understand the context of the Jefferson quote. I think you might be right arthur, it doesn’t make sense for Hansen to quote a famous dead person who is saying that the earth belongs to the living as support for what to do in the future.

  75. 75 jim sharp

    keza; “As far as I can see, we’re already doing our bit for them” i.e. nukes & neutrons. & data tools for those with power over!
    Data, data everywhere as well as cherry picking boozh-wah die-information-squaddies
    Information has gone from scarce to superabundant. That brings huge new benefits, says Kenneth Cukier (interviewed here)—but also big headaches

  76. 76 Bill Kerr

    Lomborg does directly the issue I raised about rising sea levels in this op-ed: Cars, bombs and climate change :

    For example, a sea-level rise of five meters – more than eight times what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects, and more than twice what is probably physically possible – would not deluge all or even most of mankind. Of course, such a rise would not be a trivial problem.

    It would affect about 400 million people, force the relocation of 15 million, and imply costly protection of the rest. But it would certainly not mean the end of the world. Estimates show that the cost in terms of adaptation would be less than 1% of global GDP. In other words, the price of unchecked global warming may be high, but it is not infinite

    He is dismissed as a loonie by Joe Romm at Climate Progress. The study on which Lomborg bases his figures (and which Romm accuses Lomborg of making up) is: Global Estimates Of The Impact Of A Collapse Of The West Antarctic Ice Sheet: An Application Of Fund

    I think these sort of scenarios need more discussion. It’s the inertia questions that worry me, once you do down a slippery slope it’s too hard to go back. It won’t stop at 5 metres.

    There are some interesting articles on Roger Pielke’s blog about the relationship between science and politics, it’s one of his themes, for example, The Trouble with Climate Science . I’m reading the pdf by Daniel Sarewitz on which this is based. It’s a good argument but written from the point of view of politics as usual. One of the arguments is that the science is complex, diverse and never really settled and a variety of political positions can legitimately draw from existing science based on the different underlying values of those arguing. Hence more science and the demand for a settled science does not really help resolve anything. Still reading.

    Pielke’s blog also has some significant material about the ongoing disintegration of the IPCC consensus, ie. goes beyond the climate-gate stuff with articles from insiders.

    Pielke wasn’t impressed by Lomborg’s process (Lomborg’s economists strike out) but Lomborg did publish his dissenting report (Engineer a better climate )

    btw I hadn’t realised that RealClimate censored some comments but Pielke has had some of his comments censored there (Q3 of this Q&A with more detail in the comments)

  77. 77 Dalec

    Do you really believe that humankind is immutably destined to become “much much wealthier” than us? Were your ancestors among the hugely “wealthy” civilisations of the Americas that crashed and burned all those years ago? The ruling classes of those civilisations never saw that their cultural practices and the invasion of imperial mercenaries from across tha sea would bring the civilisations down within a few years.
    There is a huge metaphysical dimension to your concept of the endless rise of humankind into a glorious golden future that is certainly disturbing. Sort of like “Hillsong” without the Jesus bit.

    It is sufficient to believe that humankind will probably survive into the future, that there will be upturns and downturns progress and setbacks.
    There is no such thing as “manifest destiny” Keza.

  78. 78 barry

    Dalec places talking marks around “much much wealthier”, which indicates he is directly quoting something keza said in her previous post. He also places talking marks around “manifest destiny”, which is something he has made up as a way of avoiding debating the point she actually made.

    I don’t expect dalec to accurately present the viewpoint of his left-wing opponents any more than I expect him to understand the essential revolutionary optimism of someone like keza.

  79. 79 Dalec

    Revolutionary optimism is just great. It all depends upon whose side you are on. Now lets see:
    Who supports Imperial invasions?
    That guy is arevoulutionary optimist?
    Who supports extremme nutbag views of science?
    Who puts forward nutbag stuff that equates the area of ice cover with the volume of ice??

  80. 80 Barry

    🙂 Is this meant to prove me wrong when I say dalec cannot present his opponents’ views accurately?

  81. 81 keza

    No “immutable destiny” in it, Dalec. It should have been obvious from what I was saying that I was contrasting support for progress, development and yes, human hubris, with the dark romanticism of the ideology engendered by the green movement. If those ideas were able to become dominant in a real way, then we’d go backwards.

    Historically, human civilization has developed slowly, and has at times gone backwards, as in the Dark Ages. I’m fully aware of that. It’s always been an ongoing struggle.

    By pointing out that further unleashing of the productive forces will make further generations richer (which also means more knowledgeable) and therefore better able to confront nature, I was taking sides in the struggle for the future. If I thought it were ordained, I’d just sit and watch.

    You argue that the Aztecs and the Incas had created civilizations which were generating wealth and knowledge, but were nevertheless completely trashed in a way that was for them, unforseen But that’s irrelevant here. Those civilizations were lost, yes. But their loss is not an example of history going backwards.

  82. 82 Bill Kerr

    Richard Tol is an IPCC contributor who has recently been running a series of critical articles about the IPCC consensus at Roger Pielke’s blog . Also a co-author of the West Antarctic ice sheet study which I linked to above. His comment about Lomborg is:

    Lomborg’s “Cool It” is a popularised version of arguments that Tom Schelling, Bill Nordhaus and I have been making for a long time. Popularised and stripped of scientific and moral uncertainties.

    Lomborg’s recent emphasis on geoengineering is mistaken. The risks are too large to have any faith in geoengineering as a solution

  83. 83 Dalec

    You betray your amazing Euro-centrism in spades.
    “Historically, human civilization has developed slowly, and has at times gone backwards, as in the Dark Ages”
    Er Not at all Keza, human civilisation in Europe went backwards in the so-called “dark ages”; human civilisation flourished in the Muslim states in the ME; science and mathematics made huge leaps forwards in these states during this time. Later of course they were invaded by your Imperial heroes from Europe and collapsed into despotism.

  84. 84 Bill Kerr

    I was influenced by the GRACE data about ice loss earlier in this thread. It is good data but it is not the best data.

    Pielke snr has pointed out that ocean heat measured in joules is a more reliable and direct measure of global warming. Reliable measures from the Argo system have existed since 2004 and so far indicate that global warming has halted since that date. Although a short time frame these measures ought to be the “gold standard” not average surface temperature, which do not measure heat directly since they don’t involve mass. The fact that scientists are still arguing about the best measurement tools and that IPCC has based its models (unreliable) on second best tools is significant in itself as to our state of uncertainty.

    For a good overview of these issues see a guest blog to Pielke snrs blog:
    Have Changes In Ocean Heat Falsified The Global Warming Hypothesis? – A Guest Weblog by William DiPuccio

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