Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ingrid Jackson asks candidates THE CLIMATE QUESTION


Bravo! to Ingrid Jackson for speaking truth to power at Tuesday's Presidential "debate." After pointing out how fast Congress moved in the face of an economic crisis, Ingrid asked the candidates what they would do in their first two years to address the climate crisis and create green jobs. Interviewed afterwards, she said neither candidate responded with the sense of urgency she feels. Ingrid, I'm with you!

Obama promotes "clean" coal, technically "carbon capture and sequestration" or CCS. The idea: "capture" the CO2 released from burning coal, then pump it into empty gas formations deep in the Earth where we hope it will stay-- forever. If these processes are even possible on a large scale, we know from thermodynamic calculations that they'll require vast amounts of energy. (Think about separating gases and about pumping them long distances and deep into the Earth or the oceans.) Estimates by the Nobel-prize winning IPCC suggest that CCS would require 30 - 60% more energy than otherwise would be needed to make electricity. The additional energy and capital cost of CCS equipment would push electricity costs up roughly 80 - 120%. But right now, wind power is available to consumers in many states for about 15% more than dirty coal power. Here in DC, it's called "Power Choice." So wind is already cheaper than "clean" coal is expected to be for electricity generation. And the cost of wind energy should decline as we scale up. Conversely, capturing and sequestering carbon from "clean" coal is likely to become more costly (both in dollars and energy) as the easy and close places to store CO2 underground are filled up and we have to pump waste CO2 further and deeper.

McCain advocates drilling and nuclear. (Is nuclear better than Bush, Palin and Homer Simpson's "Nuke-you-lar"? Sorry, couldn't resist.) Nobody would operate a nuclear power plant in the US without insurance. And no insurance company writes policies to cover the huge damages of a nuclear disaster, at least not at prices utilities could profitably afford. So Congress committed our tax dollars to insure the owners of nukes. The nuclear power industry would not exist if it had to buy adequate insurance at market prices. The risk is too vast. If the insurance companies won't cover nuclear, why are we willing to take such risks? Not convinced? Read about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Hats off to Ingrid. Too bad our choice is between a) Obama's "clean coal": mountaintop removal, toxic air and water with staggering costs and b) McCain's nuclear: uranium mining and processing, radioactive air and water, with the risk of accidents like Chernobyl and the intractable problem of nuclear waste disposal for a few million years. How about c) wind, solar , geothermal and conservation, please? How about pricing carbon pollution to push everyone -- the entire energy market -- towards conservation, renewables and yes, Ingrid, green jobs?

Why do candidates avoid mentioning conservation? The U.S. wastes about half the fuel we burn. What about insulating our houses, turning off lights, turning down thermostats and avoiding aggressive driving? What about flying a lot less? (A 4,000 mile round-trip produces approximately eight tons in CO2-equivalent gases per passenger. Roughly the same amount of CO2 produced yearly, per person, to power the average American car and supply heat and electricity for the average home.)

When will major party candidates level with us? As environmental scientist, ethicist and population activist Paul Erlich points out, it's time to re-think what it means to have a good life. Can't we be happier with more love, more learning, more community, and less waste, less stuff, less travel, less of everything we've been told to by advertising to buy. And what about the old idea we should only buy what we have money for?

Ingrid may be too young to have heard John Lennon's song "Gimme Some Truth" but that's what she was very earnestly asking for. We didn't hear much truth about the climate crisis in the debate, but maybe her question will remind us to keep asking. We're running out of time.