The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on January 30, 2008

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Generating electricity from ocean currents, waves, and the tides have the opportunity to provide significant amounts of electricity. As I reported several weeks ago, the first significant wave power installation has been given the green light by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for installation off the Olympic Peninsula. Another type of water-based energy is the tidal barrage. The basic idea is that you find an area where there are very wide swings between high and low tides, put up a dam across a bay or lagoon, and then use the water flow from the tide to fill and empty the bay and use turbines to generate electricity. One scheme uses both the rising and falling tides, driving the turbines both direction while another scheme uses just the falling tide. Last week, the BBC had an update on the Severn tidal barrage. The Severn tidal barrage would be a huge barrage (and likely a road) across the Severn River Estuary and the Bristol Channel, an area that, given its large tides and the support of the Severn River emptying into the Channel, should be able to provide approximately 5% of the United Kingdom’s electricity. The problem is that the estuary is also a huge bird sanctuary, so the environmental impacts are potentially huge. This is one of the reasons that U.K. Business secretary John Hutton announced that there would be a 2-year long study period of the energy vs. environmental and economic tradeoffs culminating in a period of public comment in 2010. The Severn barrage study is an unfortunately excellent example of the hard choices between environmental protection, economics, and energy that every nation will have to make in the process of decarbonizing the carbon economy.

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The U.K.’s Telegraph online reported on a paper from the Oxford Research Group (ORG) on the security threats from global heating over the next several decades. Like a similar report from the CNA Corporation think tank (National Security and the Threat of Climate Change), the ORG’s report sees the potential water and food scarcity, the flooding of coastal cities, and population growth as contributing to the creation of between 200 million and a billion refugees. Poor responses to natural disasters and resentment at mandatory resettlements are expected to cause conflicts between national governments and their people as well as between nations (especially low-lying countries most affected by sea level rise) and communities. Nations and society may have to be redefined as entire countries are literally washed away and flooded, leading to potentially massive international instability. The report expects law enforcement to undergo significant changes as they are forced to enforce carbon emissions laws and deal with massive resettlements of immigrants, legal or not. And there are expected to be more peacetime military deployments, even more instability in already unstable regions, and the costs of maintaining the military, both in terms of equipment exposed to erratic and extreme weather and in terms of base operations in affected regions, are expected to rise. All in all, a rather bleak picture of a global heating-altered future. I’d like to leave everyone with a quote from the ORG report (download here) that I feel is vital to understand:

It must be understood, though, that if governments simply respond with traditional attempts to maintain the status quo and control insecurity they will ultimately fail. In today’s globalised world, using military force to secure resources overseas, while attempting to create a fortress state at home, will not work – despite the potential attraction of such policies for governments faced with such an uncertain future.

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There are three basic views of hurricane strength with respect to global heating – hurricanes will get stronger, hurricanes will stay about the same strength, and hurricanes will get weaker. The first view is supported by the science of how hurricanes form by drawing energy from the ocean – the warmer the ocean, the stronger the hurricane will get, generally speaking, so as the oceans heat up in response to global heating, hurricanes should get stronger. The second view is basically that the hurricane cycle in the Atlantic is sufficiently variable that some hurricanes will indeed get stronger, but others will be weaker, and they’ll cycle along with the multi-decade cycle and El Nino and La Nina events like they always have. The third view held that the changes in the atmosphere due to global heating will overwhelm the oceanic changes, and that higher wind speeds will create more wind sheer that will tear hurricanes apart. Last week, the third option got some more support from models performed by U.S. researchers at NOAA in Miami and the University of Miami. This conclusion is not without it’s critics however, several of them atmospheric scientists from NCAR in Boulder, CO. The critics claim that the dataset used by NOAA-Miami was too small to develop an accurate model since the data used only focused on the hurricanes that make landfall, while most hurricanes never actually hit land.

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And finally, the rumors that Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom would announce the creation of an anti-global heating fund at the annual G7 summit, held this year in Tokyo, Japan, were confirmed in President Bush’s State of the Union address. President Bush pledged $2 billion over 3 years to the fund, and Reuters reports that the three core donor nations were looking for more donors. Unfortunately, its the actual contributions that matter, not pledges of contributions, and the international community in general (and the U.S. in particular) have a very poor record of making contributions that actually match their leaders’ pledges. For example, only about 2/3rds of the money pledged by the world for Indonesia tsunami aid had actually been contributed as of June 8, 2005, and the U.S. contributions (no doubt made to assuage feelings of public responsibility and guilt as well as to boost our international image slightly) were only 21% of the U.S.’ pledged money.

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