Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Smoke and Nukes

 I was driving in Northern California on Labor Day, contemplating the 1-2 mile visibility in thick smoke through the Central Valley, and listening to NPR, when an enticing story came along

Amna Nawaz:

For a closer look at what's behind that heat wave and what's fueling these fires, I'm joined by Leah Stokes, she's a professor and researcher on climate, energy and political policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Great, I thought. We're going to hear some real science and policy. What's the role of forest floor cleaning? Climate warming isn't the issue per se -- it's hot in Arizona but Arizona doesn't burn. It's a complex of moisture, growth human activity. And policy. Great. What do we do about the fact that so much burning land is federal, and the federal government isn't cleaning up its forest floor either. What's the budget history of fire fighters? Just what are the air quality numbers? 

I was, to put it mildly, disappointed. 

Amna Nawaz:

Why is it that authorities believe that this fire season could get even worse soon?

Leah Stokes:

Well, unfortunately, climate change is happening right now in California...

So, as you mentioned, we're seeing really large fires. And there isn't any reason to believe that that will stop, because we are not taking the climate crisis seriously, and we are not reducing fossil fuel emissions around the world.

Nothing more sophisticated than "hot = fire" came out. After a bit more along these lines, Amma started asking more interesting questions. 

Amna Nawaz:

Are there steps that residents or local authorities and state authorities can be taking to mitigate damage for the rest of the season and prepare for next year?

Leah Stokes:


Our firefighters and our cities are doing the best that they can. They do all kinds of things like suggest that residents make small retrofits to their home that can dramatically reduce fire risk. They do things like create fuel breaks, which sometimes are controversial, for good reason.

So, people are trying. But the really big solution here is taking on the climate crisis. And that means that we need new leadership, particularly in Washington. We need somebody who actually believes that climate change is real. 

And, unfortunately, we don't have that right now.

Amna Nawaz:

That is Leah Stokes from the University of California, Santa Barbara, joining us tonight.

(My emphasis) 

I had made fun in previous posts of people who say fires are all punishment for our climate sins, and all we can do is get rid of Donald Trump and pass the green new deal. Here is a concrete example. 

What Nawaz did not think to ask is this: 

OK, suppose you get rid of the hated Trump, the US rejoins the Paris accord and passes the green new deal. Based on scientific estimates, the best climate models we have, how long does it take before the climate returns to, say that of the mid 1980s, and the fires go out? 

Had she asked, of course, the answer would be sometime mid 2400 at best. Remember, even the Paris accord goals are to limit further warming by 2100, not to cool the climate back to 1985. And none of the science supports the idea that the full green new deal will achieve those goals. 

Why so little science here? I looked up Ms. Stokes, who turns out to be a professor of political science. Well, no wonder the answer is political. I don't blame Ms. Stokes - it reveals more about who NPR chooses to call up to discuss a scientific issue.  


On the same trip, I talked to a friend who is an actual firefighter.  It is an experience I recommend to Ms. Stokes -- or Nawaz. 

He had spent several days on the Mendocino complex fire. To put it mildly, his view fell far short of the idea that government is "doing the best they can." The firefighters are tremendously understaffed. They call for backup, or air tankers, and the answer is, none available. He reported all sorts of bureaucratic interference from Sacramento telling firefighters on the scene what to do. And my question about forest management practices elicited a long lecture. 


In other energy news, I was heartened by an AP report, (HT marginal revolution) that small scale, modern technology very safe nuclear reactors might finally pass regulatory muster. I've been reading about this idea since the 1970s.   

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday approved Portland-based NuScale Power’s application for the small modular reactor that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build at a U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The proposed project includes 12 small modular reactors. 

NuScale says the reactors have advanced safety features, including self-cooling and automatic shutdown.

The Department of Energy has spent more than $400 million since 2014 to hasten the development of the small modular reactors, or SMRs.

The energy cooperative has embarked on a plan called the Carbon Free Power Project that aims to supply carbon-free energy to its nearly 50 members, mostly municipalities, in six Western states. The company plans to buy the reactors from NuScale, then assemble them in Idaho. 

All great news. Hooray for zero carbon energy. What is there to be grumpy about? 

He said the next step is for the cooperative to submit a combined construction and operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The process also includes an environmental analysis. Webb said the cooperative will likely have that ready within two years.

The first small modular reactor is scheduled to come online in 2029, with 11 more to follow in 2030.

Two more years of paperwork. First reactor in 2029! 11 more -- for a combined 660 megawatts, less than one conventional nuclear plant (about 1,000 megawatts) or about as much as one coal plant (about 500 megawatts) in 2030.

Isn't climate change a crisis? Don't we have exactly 11 years before the climate reaches a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover? 

It took Enrico Fermi and team something like a year to go from realizing that a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible to constructing a nuclear reactor. It took the Manhattan project about 3 years to go from nothing to a bomb. OK, it's not a totally fair comparison because the issue of civilian power is safety and reliability. Still, if we are supposedly in a crisis, does it really take 10 years before we replace the first coal fired plant? Why is filling out the environmental paperwork for a project that is already assumed projected to take almost as long as the whole Manhattan project? 

And like all infrastructure in the US, that timeline may slip. 

The Utah Taxpayers Association has come out against Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems building the reactors, contending costs will soar as they have with some traditional reactors that are much larger.

As if they have any idea how much a reactor built 10 years from now will cost. The lawsuits have only started. 

Sadly there is often a grumpy lining in a promising cloud. 


  1. More green power in California will not solve anything: California has no capacity whatsoever to influence the evolution of Global Warning in any even slightly meaningful way, no matter who is in the White House or any accord in Paris ... it is the reason why it is called "Global" (it is big!)

    Even USA represents "only" 15% of the total CO2 emissions, and of that, "only" 28% are related with electricity production. Zero carbon electricity in USA will reduce "global" emissions by less than 4% (back to 2017) ... Zero carbon electricity in California will reduce "global" emissions by something close to 0.28% (assuming the 7% share of US emissions applies also to electricity production)

    Every little help but even imply that zero emission electricity in the USA or who is in the White House will solve the Californian fires, is just bad faith deceit coming from any person able to read.

    Don´t get either why the Chinese (8 tons per person), the Indians (2 tons per person), the Brazilians (5 tons per person) or even the Europeans (8 tons per person) should reduce their emissions to help California (9 tons per person) or, even less, USA (16 tons per person). And this are actual emissions, the situation has been caused by "historical" emissions, so the California-USA share of the liability is even (much) worse: 25% of the cumulative emissions for the 1751-2017 period came from USA an around 22% from Europe (many "families" sure participate in both counts) vs 3% from India … I would not expect 3.0 billion people renouncing to improve their living standards to help 40 million “historically pampered” Californians getting ride of the fires.

    I will look for a different set of solutions for Californian wildfires and for Global Warming, ideally a realistic one (not the Green New Deal kind) that do not rely on "global coordination": don´t really see any way of doing it "fairly".

    1. It __sounds__ like you are making the argument that the lack of global climate change is a public good. i.e. something that everybody needs, but no one will pay for because there is no way for freeloaders not to benefit from it. Classically, public goods require top down solutions, so something like a coordinated global treaty with tariffs for non-joiners/non-compliers.

    2. It seems the only quick win solution would be to move to nuclear energy across the board.

      That doesn't require any behavior change from humans like encouraging to drive less or live in dense cities or turn their air conditioning off.

    3. Moving to nuclear energy in USA will not solve anything. It is 4% of the global emissions, it gets us back to 2017, that is all.

      And, something that normally we don´t internalize: the driver of the problem is not this year emissions, it is the stock of total emissions since 1751. Annual emissions are around 35 billion metric tons, but historical emissions are estimated at more than 1,600 billion tons.

      That means that cutting global current emissions by 5% (nobody even think in his wildest dreams of that goal at a global level) will affect the stock of CO2 by around 0.1% (compare with a scenario without that reduction). Regardless of who is in the White House. Who is President does not affect the way percentages are calculated.

      Good luck solving the Californian fires this way.

      This is not a "public good" kind of problem that can be solved by government intervention because we don´t have such a thing as a "global government". The same way that States were unable to solve many "public good" problems before a Federal Government with significant tax and expend capacities emerged.

      A "coordinated global treaty" regarding emissions is just an oxymoron. Kind of "tasty English food". The fairness and enforcement problems are just overwhelming.

      Come on, we cannot even agree on a set of rules for global commerce and we are going to agree on this "live standards reducing treaty”? That is just wishful thinking.

      And I insist even if, against all the odds, we, globally, reach this agreement it is going to be useless despite the very painful consequences. The damage is already done!

      John has particularly good ideas regarding this topic: less move to geoengineering solutions! Less put a price on CO2 and make some very smart high drive people immensely rich (Bezos kind of rich) by solving this problem for us.

    4. @James Carlyle nuclear is not a quick win solution. Nuclear is expensive. It wasn't always expensive. About 90% (hyperbolic made-up statistic) of the cost is overcoming regulations and objections, i.e. lawyers. The cleanest affordable energy comes from natural gas and the Great White Hope wants to ban it.

  2. Great post.

    I would caution, however, that genuflection to totems happens across the political spectrum.

  3. Lovely, but muchly about California. What Truman Capote said about California: "You lose one point off your IQ for every year you stay out there". :-)

  4. "And my question about forest management practices elicited a long lecture"
    Well, could we hear that lecture, please? Anything about healthy forests requiring 16 times more area burned each year than we have allowed with all our fire suppression over the decades? Crafty firefighters fight fire with fire.
    The real crisis in the "climate crisis" is not the economic disruption caused rising sea level and more vigorous weather. The real crisis is the economic disruption resulting from solar photovoltaic power becoming cheaper than fossil-fuel burning power. The resultant capital shifts constitute an existential crisis for people who are invested in old capital. Mostly us with our 401(k)'s.

  5. I often get lost in the math in your posts (my fault, not yours). But this time I think I see a problem. One reactor in 2029 plus 11 in 2030 equals 12 reactors. 12 reactors times 60MW per reactor equals 720MW, not 660MW. None of which materially affects your larger point.

  6. Ms Stokes certainly provides a great illustration of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  7. I'm noticing that last year, when the amount of fires was way down from 2018 levels, that these same people were not suddenly denouncing climate change as fake.

  8. What about the Carbon tax idea? That is somewhat analogous to water bills. It's easy to put a bill on water usage, not so much the exhaust of CO2.

    Quick fixes such as a sudden mass production of unvetted (without lots of paperwork) nuke reactors are not needed. If the climate can be kept more or less as is to 2400, that's OK. If Californians are suffering greatly, move somewhere else. Arizona has less forest.

    The problem, we are warned by the some climatologists, is the exponential warming of the earth. We're OK but our grandchildren maybe not.

  9. "Ms. Stokes is a political scientist." Why didn't Ms.Stokes mention one of the most destructive wildfires in California's history during Obama's presidency? Is he culpable for those fires as she implies Trump is? As a "scientist," where is her grasp of scientific inquiry? To wit. The procedure whereby scientists study the natural world and propose explanations predicated on the evidence derived from their work. Alas, Ms. Stokes has demonstrated ignorance of scientific inquiry or is intellectually dishonest.

  10. The town I live promotes solar to eliminate fossil fuel energy. I was stopped by a group of solar advocates telling me using solar to save the earth. I told them what they were saying was false. Why? The cheap solar panels are made in China with highly polluting and toxic technology. US may produce less C emissions but the world as a whole would emit more.

  11. In the old days, citizens wanted to see something get down and they were hyped by new inventions.Today they fear what they don't understand (e. g. Radiation). They prefer trinkets and gadgets like Iphones etc. without understanding them. The consequence is regulation that prolongs construction 2-3x compared to 6O Years ago.Just compare this with China and their rate of power plant construction. We could do China +1 Year. 1 Year more to build according to modern safely Standards.

  12. Posted in MR this morning. There's a magical line separating california from the rest of the pacific northwest.

  13. What planet are you on? “Arizona is hot, but it doesn’t burn.” Arizona is on fire too. Look at So is Idaho — which has the 180-degree opposite state government as California.

  14. John, just like your expertise is revered in finance please don't belittle climate science with anecdotal NPR interviews. There are extremely smart folks like you who've spent their entire lives studying climate change and the writing is on the wall. There is no hope without massive interventions.

    1. I do not belittle climate science. Indeed I take it much more seriously than the politicians who invoke it. Climate science says that no currently proposed climate policy, even the full green new deal, will lower temperatures and wildfires to their, say, 1985 level within hundreds of years. So if you take climate science seriously, and you want to stop forest fires, climate science says clean the bloody brush out of the forests. Building a high speed train may be a wonderful thing for the climate in 100 years, but in terms of wildfire reduction in our lifetimes, its effect will be absolutely zero. That is science. Using the backdrop of fires to say we have to do something about, this build a high speed train to stop the wildfires is ..let's be polite, a huge mischaracterization of science.

    2. The top politician in this country: "...‘I Don’t Think Science Knows, Actually’: Trump Dismisses Climate Science In California Wildfire Discussion"...

  15. I thought that this recent ProPublica article really hits the nail on the head around the real problems around California fire management:

    Like you suggest - they actually talk to firefighters and fire management expert. The sins we should really be repenting for here is not climate change, but bad public policies around housing, land management, liability, and incentives for fire suppression. Why NPR cannot cover this is beyond me...


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.