Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Cause, effect, and carbon

“As fires rage up and down the state of California, costing our taxpayers billions of dollars and threatening our families’ health—- the need for California to move to 100% clean, renewable energy could not be more urgent,” said Mr. de León in a statement.
Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat who is waging a long-shot run for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.
Reported in the Wall Street Journal

The context is
California passed legislation Tuesday that would make it the first large state to mandate completely carbon-free electricity generation, with a target of 2045.
My understanding is that nuclear does not count as "carbon free."

Just to belabor the obvious, the central part of our state has been living under a blanket of smoke most of the summer. Smoke causes an immediate and local pollution problem, which is a direct threat to human health -- fine particulate matter.  Yet the state has cut its firefighting air fleet and budget over the past few years, and also let fuel accumulate in forests over the winter.

California contributes maybe 1% of global carbon emissions. Guesstimate for yourself how much California carbon-free energy by 2045 will do to reduce wildfires in your grandchildren's lifetime.  "Urgent?"

If you think global warming is real, and that it will increase wildfires, it seems you would be rushing to spend money on putting out fires.

Instead, our state government seems to regard wildfires as punishments for our carbon sins, that only praying to the Temple of Carbon with largely symbolic billions of dollars can salve. Actually doing something about problems the West has always had -- wildfires -- that may be moving north a bit due to global warming seems to be regarded as an immoral act.

I am also interested by the fantastical cause-and-effect thinking going on here, and the flight from any vaguely quantifiable dollars per unit of effect. And this from the self-described "party of science."


  1. I am generally sympathetic to the global warming folks but it seems to me that the policies they should be pursuing are:
    1) extinguish coal seam fires;
    2) extinguish the "Door to Hell" and capture the natural gas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darvaza_gas_crater
    3) tax CO2 emissions.
    4) I would ban the use of thermal coal but a carbon tax will probably be enough to get rid of thermal coal in the USA
    5) let the forest reclaim marginal lands.

  2. I agree with the thrust of this post.

    However to take a single longshot candidate for the Senate and identify him as the escutcheon-carrier for the entire Democratic Party on matters of science seems a bit of a stretch.

    One might as well say that Donald Trump is the face of the Republican Party. Oh, wait...

    1. de Leon is a leader within the California State Senate, which is precisely the group the post was criticizing. Seems fair enough to me...

  3. A quote:

    Wildfires Release as Much CO2 as Cars
    A fire fighter walks along a back fire on a hillside in Jamul, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. Deadly, wind-whipped wildfires have triggered the largest evacuation in state history, prompting some 500,000 people to flee ahead of flames that have destroyed more than 1,600 homes and continued Wednesday to threaten tens of thousands more.
    Credit: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
    Large wildfires in the western United States can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in just a few weeks as cars do in those areas in an entire year, a new study suggests.

    As forest fires devour trees and other plants, they release the carbon stored in the vegetation into the atmosphere.

    Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California used satellite observations of fires and a computer model to estimate just how much carbon dioxide is released based on the amount of vegetation that is burned. The results of the study are detailed in the online journal Carbon Balance and Management.

    Overall, the study estimated that fires in the contiguous United States and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 4 to 6 percent of the amount of the greenhouse gas that the nation releases through fossil fuel burning.

    That from LiveScience:

  4. A Reanalysis of “California’s climate moon shot” (Grand-Scale Climate Fail)
    David Middleton -- September 4, 2018

    "Unsubstantiated claims that California’s wildfire season and the drying of the Central Valley were the work of climate change, rather than the State’s mismanagement of forests, wild-lands and water resources doesn’t strike me as “analysis.” The claim that “sea level rise threatens the state’s prosperous coastal communities” is preposterous. And the assertion that “the whole planet needs to decarbonize between 2050 and 2070” is simply bat schist crazy."

    "We have droughts in Texas too. We build dams and other water infrastructure. The issue is water resource management. Texas and California drought patterns have similar relationships to the ENSO. Texas deals with its droughts; while California doesn’t. The primary difference is that Texas relies more heavily on supply side solutions."

    "Meteorological drought conditions are the acute cause of water shortages. Government is the chronic cause of the water shortages. 35 years of idiotic governance have resulted California’s inability to deal with cyclical drought conditions. They have allowed environmental nonsense to block the expansion of their water infrastructure to keep pace with population and development."

    1. Angry, muddled, opinion does not count as analysis either.
      For a calibration on the effectiveness of "supply side solutions" just look at the disastrous "war on drugs".

  5. Never let a crisis go waste! Politicians propose what they want, whenever it can be hitched to a crisis. The global warming crisis, which is now 30 years old, still has the ability to leverage bad weather, even though there has not been any warming in the last 20 years. I guess people don't need data/evidence, when an anecdote is available.

    1. Don, name your source of .....
      "even though there has not been any warming in the last 20 years."
      Otherwise it is "alternative fact" a.k.a. "fake data".

    2. AnonymousSeptember 6, there is no shortage of opportunities for the expansion of the hydro-pump-storage that is useful in combination with wind/solar. There are dozens of existing dams where a low side reservoir can be built thus enabling overnight energy storage.

  6. The Legislature finds and declares that the Public Utilities Commission, State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission, and State Air Resources Board should plan for 100 percent of total retail sales of electricity in California to come from eligible renewable energy resources and zero-carbon resources by December 31, 2045.

    I read this sentence from the bill as including both renewable and nuclear. Otherwise why would they say 'renewable and zero-carbon sources'
    Of course, Californian attempts to combat CO2 emissions are silly: any effort to reduce them have to be global, and here they can't even get the whole of the US to agree. Not sure if airplanes are the best way to fight wildfires though

    1. Yes, this bill does seem to allow nuclear. I remember a separate discussion about closing Diablo Canyon, and not building any more new nuclear in California; if readers can remember the particulars I'd be curious to know the sources. One can of course lay bets on the chances of California building large new nuclear or dams..., but it would be good to know where the exact impediments lie.

    2. There are 3 reason people cannot build new hydro dams: (1) licensing alone takes at least 10 years; (2) unlike solar and wind there are no meaningful tax incentives available to mitigate the costs/uncertainty of the licensing process; and (3) with the exception of Alaska all the most profitable hydro dam locations are taken, so there is no chance of earning super-profits to make all the licensing drama worthwhile.

      The irony of course is that wind/solar expansion REQUIRES hydro expansion,* so attempts by the green energy lobby to promote wind/solar over hydro are mind numbingly shortsighted. Fortunately this is not everyone on the left... the Obama Administration was actively (albeit sorta quietly) promoting hydro in order to better support the future wind/solar expansion they envisioned. I believe their forecast was that hydro capacity needed to expand at least 50% to satisfy the requirements of shifting towards wind/solar.

      So the question remains: if California is really going towards wind/solar, when (and where) are they going to build the new dams?

      *For those unfamiliar, the unique advantage of hydro power is that you can flip it on/off very easily. Today many of our largest hydro facilities are actually just "stored energy," meaning they only exist to provide power during peak usage periods where non-hydro plants cannot meet the need. This will become increasingly necessary as wind/solar expand, since wind/solar generation is very erratic.

    3. Pavel Shevchuk.... Correct, California does not have the reach to affect global emissions. That is not needed. California is just trying to be a corner of the USA that is a little less behind the times than the rest of the world.
      Nuclear suffers the same storage requirement that solar/wind does but for the opposite reason. Demand varies on a daily cycle. Solar/wind varies on a daily cycle but the pattern varies. Nuclear output cannot be changed on a daily cycle. Storage is necessary to absorb output when demand is low.
      Airplanes are definitely not the best way to fight wildfires. They are fun, though. The indigenous people knew that fire is the best tool. Annually set fires prevent fuel accumulation. Firefighters know this. They also use bulldozers. Trump should fret about supplies of diesel fuel not water.

  7. "My understanding is that nuclear does not count as 'carbon free.'"

    And I'd wager that no corresponding changes were made to render water power development feasible either...

    Moving away from "dirty" energy strikes me as perfectly logical. But to ban dirty energy sources while simultaneously making it harder and harder to develop feasible clean energy sources is precisely the sort of nonsensical action that has come to define the climate debate.

    There are plenty of ways the massive amount of resources this legislation represents could have been used to improve California's environment. But sadly that cannot happen, as BOTH sides of the aisle have made environmental policy a set of illogical binary choices. Voters are forced to be either true believers or heretics, which makes rational legislation (e.g., a carbon tax) impossible.

  8. The state of California's Air Resources Board does not measure GHG emissions from natural sources: "The inventory provides estimates of anthropogenic GHG emissions within California, as well as emissions associated with imported electricity; natural sources are not included in the inventory." [Source: https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/inventory/data/data.htm ]

    It stands to reason that the state senator would not be concerned for 'wild-fire' GHG emissions or the prevention or mitigation of the same, from the point of view of the state's ARB focus on curtailing "anthropogenic" emissions, including those related to electrical power generation. An argument might be advanced for inclusion of 'wild-fire' emissions in the ARB's GHG inventory for those 'wild-fire' emissions resulting from 'wild-fires' started by humans whether accidentally or on purpose.

    Six percent of the state's GHG emission inventory is said to be from imported electricity (chiefly from Arizona electrical generating plants). Ten percent is attributed to electricity generation within the state. Together these sources account for 16% of the state's GHG emission inventory in 2016. The targets for the years 2030 and 2050 are reductions from the 2016 inventory level of 40% and 80%, respectively. Eliminating electrical generating source emissions entirely will only achieve 20% of the year 2050 target. The remaining 80% of the 2050 target will have to be achieved by cutting emissions from all other economic sectors. See, e.g., https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/California-hits-2020-greenhouse-gas-reduction-13066821.php

    The state's emissions represent six percent of the country's emissions ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions ) which account for 15% of global emissions ( https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data ). This confirms your guesstimate of roughly 1% of worldwide emissions being the proportion contributed by the state. The state's electricity generation GHG inventory contribution is one-seventh of one-percent of global GHG emissions. Their elimination would not make a noticeable contribution to the reduction in anthropogenic 'climate change' in California or world-wide. It is arguable that the state's efforts at achieving its year-2050 targets would likewise make no discernible difference in the pathwise outcome of 'climate change'.

    Why undertake the effort in isolation as California is doing? Former governor Schwarzenegger asserts that "you don't have to re-invent the wheel", just follow our example, citing "nation-leading growth of 4.9%". Of course, one never asks whether the state's rate of growth might have been higher if the ARB's measures had not been undertaken and regulations not been imposed. Nor, does one ask whether the state's accomplishment in the way of reductions in its GHG inventory might not have been achieved without the ARB's interventions. To do so would be commit an act of modern-day heresy.

    What would Ronald Coase or Arthur Cecil Pigou have had to say on the subject? Perhaps a question for another day, another blog-page article.

  9. Clearly any commitment to achieve anything by 27 years from now, within a political and business environment with 3 month to 2 year time horizons, is an exercise in either posturing or wishful thinking.
    The western states' wild lands depend on fire to recycle plant nutrients. There has never been enough dampness to allow microbiology to do the job. The indigenous folks used to regularly set fires in the fall in order to help nature keep that recycling process going steadily. Rampant extinguishing of fire over the last century has caused an accumulation of combustible material that now results in catastrophically huge conflagrations. At the same time the climate has been gradually getting drier. Now it is impossible, at any time of year, to start a burn without risk of incinerating valuable property. Catch 22.
    Sadly, recreation that requires clear air, e.g. gliding, may be doomed.


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