What I taught today: molecular biology of bat wings »« Strident Catholics hurt my brain

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  1. Randomfactor says

    And as an added plus, just screwing with the clathrates may do it without burning the stuff.

  2. says

    If only people realized that the main problem with burning fossil fuels isn’t that the supply is limited but rather the fact that it keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. We don’t need to find new sources of coal, oil, or gas to decrease its scarcity, we need to stop using that shit and move on to renewable sources.

  3. Christopher says

    If the oceans warm, that shit is coming out into the atmosphere anyway, as methane: a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

    If we combined methane hydrate mining with CO2 -> plastic transformation of the exhaust from the natural gas plant (http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2010/July/28071001.asp), we could sequester a bunch of really nasty greenhouse gasses and get power and cheap plastic crap in return.

  4. says

    Christopher’s point (#3) was what occurred to me – it seems unlikely that we’re going to be able to keep the climate from warming enough to destabilize the ocean’s methane hydrate stores, so release as CO2 would be preferable to a sudden, unpredictable spike in methane.

    That said, I’m concerned about their ability to “mine” the hydrates without destabilizing them – it’d be even worse if they triggered a sudden destabilization.

  5. says

    This is really, really risky. Methane clathrate — methane trapped within a lattice of frozen water — is really delicate. Hit it the wrong way, and tonnes of the gas will be released explosively. And I mean explosively: the clathrate itself is flammable, and the gas even more so. Plus, there is good evidence that the Permian–Triassic extinction event — a.k.a. the “Great Dying”, when 95% of all marine species, 70% of all terrestrial vertibrates and, I think, 35% of all insects — was caused by a runaway global warming prompted by the melting of methane clathrates in the ocean (the “clathrate gun” hypothesis.)

    The first industrial accident may be the Rubicon that turns the current Holocene extinction into one of the biggies.

  6. blf says

    Like others, I was gobsmacked when I read this someplace else (The Grauniad? can’t recall now) earlier today: Destabilize that stuff and KABOOM!, not only possibly explosively but with a huge number of metric fecktons of methane entering the atmosphere. Just not what you want.

    And wouldn’t a release event be a wonderful tsunami generator?

  7. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Christopher@3,
    From the article you linked:

    However he does caution that ‘the plastics market is limited in size, so isn’t going to solve all the world’s carbon dioxide problems – but it is definitely a nice step forward.’

    AlteredStory@4

    it seems unlikely that we’re going to be able to keep the climate from warming enough to destabilize the ocean’s methane hydrate stores

    Citation?

  8. Christopher says

    The plastics market doesn’t need to be as limited in size. Imagine prefab housing (or prefab panels) made out of polycarbonate. Or build all cars like corvettes with plastic panels instead of metal. Or use synthetic oils made from CO2 capture to make asphalt with plastic fillers.

    Or we could just stack it up in a giant Ziggurat as an idol to our worship of carbon based electricity.

    All simple engineering solutions.

    What really pisses me off about “the way things are” is that we have the know-how and the technology to solve most if not all of our self induced problems, but we would rather piss away our resources blowing brown people up and kowtowing to banksters.

  9. Christopher says

    And this is better than developing renewable resources…how?

    Hopefully we can keep the methane from going into the atmosphere. The resulting natural gas is good for baseline power generation that isn’t subject to the changes of weather. Deep ocean sea beds away from vents are pretty dead ecosystems unlike many of the locations that renewable power generation stations are located.

    But it isn’t an either-or proposition. We can and should be developing renewables as fast and hard as we can. But any solution that helps us avoid peak power is welcome. You think humanity’s impact on the environment is bad now, wait until civilized society collapses; we will strip the biosphere long before we go extinct.

  10. says

    Nick Gotts (formerly KG) #7

    “Citation?”

    It’s my personal assessment from a few years of following the subject, but I can give you my reasoning easily enough.

    Leaving aside the fact that human CO2 emissions continue to push ahead, there are a number of feedback loops that seem to be already starting up, and will continue to push warming ahead even if human emissions were NOT going to cause warming to increase.

    Before we get to the feedback loops, however, I just want to point out that there’s a lag between greenhouse gas emissions, and the amount of warming that they cause – it takes time for the system to heat up, and that means that even if we stopped cold at the current 395 ppm or CO2, the temperature would keep rising (http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climate-Change-The-40-Year-Delay-Between-Cause-and-Effect.html). Reinforcing that is the 2009 research indicating that the last time CO2 levels were this high – fifteen million years ago – temperatures were 10 degrees higher than they are today (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091008152242.htm).

    For feedback loops, we can start with the most widely known – the arctic sea ice/albedo loop. Ice reflects more heat than water. Water absorbs more heat than ice. As arctic sea ice continues to decline (http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2012/09/arctic-sea-ice-extent-settles-at-record-seasonal-minimum/), the water absorbs more heat, ice melts faster, and so on. (http://umaine.edu/maineclimatenews/blog/2011/07/06/loops-of-change-the-positive-feedback-loops-that-drive-climate-change-part-i/) (http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/1520-0442%282000%29013%3C0617%3AASIVIT%3E2.0.CO%3B2)

    The next one is water vapor. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and as temperature rises, more water evaporates, there’s more water vapor in the air, which traps more heat. The most startling example of this recently was in 2010, where enough water evaporated out of the ocean to cause global sea levels to drop by around 5 millimeters (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2011-262)

    Connected to that, we have the impact of droughts – one example is that the Amazon basin, which is typically a carbon sink, has now had two droughts – in 2005 and in 2010 – that were severe enough to turn it into a net carbon source (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/03/us-brazil-amazon-idUSTRE7127DN20110203).

    Moving on to the permafrost, as the arctic warms, the permafrost has started melting, and carbon that’s been stored there as dead plants for hundreds of thousands of years is being released as CO2 and methane (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=FLCgybStZ4g), both greenhouse gasses.

    All of this indicates that the planet will certainly not stop warming in the lifetime of anybody currently living, and probably not for centuries.

    That, in turn, means that given that there is already methane being released from the arctic ocean (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009GL039191/abstract) and that the oceans are warming (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/indicators/), it seems highly unlikely that we will be able to avoid hydrate destabilization.

  11. says

    @Rey Fox #9 – “And this is better than developing renewable resources…how?”

    It makes a few rich people even richer in the short term, with relatively little in the way of cost outlay. Developing renewable resources would cost a lot of money and take decades to see a fat profit, if ever.

    That’s why.

  12. says

    Just to be clear, as a follow up on my comment (#11): While I don’t expect the warming to stop for a couple hundred years at least, I also don’t think the situation is hopeless, or that we should just stop trying.

    There’s a lot that can be done to slow down the warming, there’s a lot that can be done to minimize the damage, and there’s a lot that can be done to start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

  13. says

    Alternatively the Japanese (& the rest of the world) could stop panicing over an accident that killed ZERO people & restart all their nuclear power plants.

  14. says

    @jimbaerg #14 First of all, the death toll of incidents like this is generally due to cancer which means that it will, by default, be years or decades before anything more than an estimate. We ARE seeing a definite health impact: http://www.businessinsider.com/fukushima-children-have-abnormal-thyroid-growths-2012-7

    Second, my own objection to conventional fission plants is that they are all vulnerable to heat waves and floods, and they require water.

    That means that they have to shut down any time there’s a flood or a heatwave above a certain temperature, or as happened during the heat wave this past year, apply for permission to operate with external temperatures higher than what they were rated for.

    Basically, conventional nuclear power is at its most unreliable when power is needed most, and when it DOES go wrong, it poisons hundreds of square miles of land, and endangers water. Conventional nukes ALSO all require backup plants, which generally run on coal.

    Beyond that, the requirement for water means that during droughts, they can start to compete with humans and agriculture, unless they’re at sea level, which leaves them open to sea level rise.

    Floods are increasing in frequency and severity, as are droughts and heat waves, and that trend is likely to continue. That means that the reliability of conventional fission plants is going to decline in the coming decades, and the risk of accident is going to increase.

    Now, if you want to talk about the work Bill Gates is funding on using “spent” fuel or the work on LFTR reactors in China, then we’re moving into territory where I can support nuclear power. As long as it requires active cooling systems and water, it doesn’t seem to be worth the risk, given the changes in climate that we’re already experiencing.

  15. says

    @Alteredstory:

    The trick is that most clathrate is pretty deep down in the ocean. The temperature at which methane clathrate becomes unstable depends on pressure so the deeper beds are more stable than those closer to the surface. Less a few places (like the deposit off of Santa Barbara, which is already starting to bubble methane), the clathrate beds are still stable and they will remain so until the water around them warms up – which absent human interference would take some centuries.

    What worries me is the fraction of methane that will be _lost_ during the extraction. If more than a couple of percent of the methane escapes to the atmosphere unburnt, the global warming contribution from the methane release will be more than that from the carbon dioxide release for the next century or two (after that, the methane gets oxidized into CO2). So rather than being somewhat cleaner than other fossil fuels, methane clathrate could be worse.

    And you are quite correct: combating climate change is now about minimizing the damage, dealing with the damage that has already been done, and figuring out how to best sequester a lot of atmospheric CO2.

  16. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Alteredstory,

    I wasn’t doubting that warming will continue for a long time; but that doesn’t mean (much of) the clathrates will be destabilised – as michaelbusch says, pressure counts for a lot – and it’s hard to shift the deep ocean temperatures because the turnover of water is pretty slow.

  17. says

    I am coming to the conclusion that the biggest mistake that the environmental movement made, and I was part of it, was to adopt the slogan “Atomkraft? Nein Danke” Yes we wanted, still want, renewable resouces and energy efficiently, but every nuclear plant that was cancelled led to a carbon burning plant being built in its place.

  18. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Alternatively the Japanese (& the rest of the world) could stop panicing over an accident that killed ZERO people & restart all their nuclear power plants. – jimbaerg

    Even if this is so directly, what Fukushima did was prove that:
    a) You still can’t trust nuclear generating companies not to cut corners (look at the stuff about spent fuel rod storage).
    and
    b) Whatever your disaster, nuclear power can make it worse. At a time of utmost national crisis, the Japanese government was obliged to divert huge resources to preventing a meltdown, and was unable to send help to the most badly affected regions by the best route, because it led through the radiation-affected area.

  19. says

    @michaelbusch

    For the question of destabilization, the problem is that humans ARE interfering – we’re causing the sea to warm, and it’s difficult to predict the large-scale effects of that. There are changes in oceanic currents and salinity, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is due to warming, AND it’s hard to tell whether that will cause destabilization.

    It’s also hard to say that it would “take centuries” – we’re in uncharted territory here. The spike in CO2 that we’ve caused is unprecedented in both size and rapidity on a scale of millions of years. We’re tipping things out of balance in a major way, and it’s impossible to say, with any degree of certainty. how that will play out in the deep ocean. At this point, though, it does not seem to be a question of “if”, just “when”.

    I share your fear about things going wrong during the extraction process – if they cause large releases while capturing the methane, or if they trigger a large-scale destabilization, the effects could be devastating.

    It’s one of those things where if everything goes according to plan (which ALWAYS happens with fossil energy corporations, right?) then it could have a long-term benefit in preventing the “clathrate bomb” scenario.

    If I had a choice, I’d say leave it alone. I certainly wouldn’t suggest extraction as a way to be proactive in dealing with climate change. I guess I’m just saying that IFF they can do it such that the only greenhouse gasses emitted are the CO2 from burning the stuff, then that would be ok by me.

    I’m not that optimistic, but if my pessimism is proven wrong, then this could be a way to head off serious problems in the future.

  20. says

    Honestly I don’t know what combination of pressure and temperature is required to maintain hydrates intact.

    Does anybody have more information on that? If it would take five to ten degrees of deep-sea warming to destabilize them, then I’d agree that it’s not likely to happen soon, but I suspect it’s considerably less.

    If someone can tell me otherwise, I’d be grateful to have one less thing to worry about.

  21. says

    @johnm55 #19 – what country are you talking about? If it’s Germany (implied by the language), they’re up to 25% renewable and rising. Maybe nuclear would have taken a bite out of CO2 emissions, but currently, most nuclear plants in operation have a fossil fuel backup, so the “carbon savings” can be deceptive.

  22. Christopher says

    Alternatively the Japanese (& the rest of the world) could stop panicing over an accident that killed ZERO people & restart all their nuclear power plants.

    Only if you listen to the nuclear lobby….

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/11/fukushimas-fallout-is-already-harming-our-children/

    Last month the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey acknowledged a horrifying plague of thyroid abnormalities, thus far afflicting more than forty percent of the children studied.

    The survey sample was 94,975. So some 38,000 children are already cursed with likely health problems…that we know of.

    Fukushima’s airborne fallout came to our west coast within a week of the catastrophe. It’s a virtual certainty American children are being affected. As health researcher Joe Mangano puts it: “Reports of rising numbers of West Coast infants with under-active thyroid glands after Fukushima suggest that Americans may have been harmed by Fukushima fallout. Studies, especially of the youngest, must proceed immediately.”

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/07/fukushimas-nuclear-casualties-2/

    Others have made estimates of the eventual toll from Fukushima. Welsh physicist Christopher Busby projects 417,000 additional cancers just within 125 miles of the plant. American engineer Arnold Gundersen calculates that the meltdown will cause 1 million cancer deaths.

    Internist-toxicologist Janette Sherman and I are determined to make public any data on changes in health, as quickly as possible. In the December 2011 International Journal of Health Services, we documented a “bump” in U.S. deaths in the 3-4 months after Fukushima, especially among infants – the same “bump” after Chernobyl. Our recent study in theOpen Journal of Pediatrics showed rising numbers of infants born with an under-active thyroid gland – which is highly sensitive to radiation – on the West Coast, where Fukushima fallout was greatest.

  23. says

    I think we should try to do what we can to grab the methane that’s coming off these deposits now, without mining them. Kinda like the methane sequestration on old landfills…

  24. DLC says

    Solar energy. Not what some people like because it can’t be sold to Joe Public at a filling station, but it’s the wave of the future. Solar, windmills and various forms of hydro power (not big dams, thanks. . . )
    It would also be a good idea to plant more trees. lots more. And not those cheesy “gonna be board feet of lumber in 20 years” trees either. Plant good, long-lived , big trees. Establish a watershed protection green belt 100m or so either side of every major river. [/soapbox]

  25. says

    @Alteredstory:

    The timescales for deep ocean currents are well-known, and are measured in centuries. They can’t be made faster than that without massively increasing the amount of heat that the oceans have to carry from equator to pole. Global warming is increasing the amount of heat being absorbed at the equator relative to the poles, but only by a relatively small fraction.

    Wikipedia’s article on methane clathrate gives the phase diagram for methane clathrate in water. Below ~700 m depth clathrate is stable up to 8 C, which is about 4 degrees warmer than the current deep-ocean temperature. It’s the deposits in much shallower water that are of immediate concern.

    Also, you are making nuclear power seem worse than it is. While there are very well-founded health and safety concerns associated with fission power plants, the radiation release from nuclear power plants is less than that from the current inventory of coal power plants (even including Fukushima Daiichi) – because burning coal releases lots of radon. And the overall health burden per megawatt-hour is far higher for dirty fossil fuel burning (oil, coal, and especially oil shale) than it is for nuclear power plants.

    Certainly advanced nuclear would be far better than older designs, especially since the supply of U-235 is limited. But any carbon-neutral power grid will almost certainly have to include some nuclear plants in addition to hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass options. Nuclear plants provide base load independent of weather, the daily sunlight cycle, and season; geothermal can do the same but doesn’t have enough capacity.

    And your statement about needing water for cooling is misleading – water is the working fluid in many power plants, and while the water consumption per megawatt hour for nuclear plants is higher than that for coal power plants it is only marginally so. Hydro uses lots of water, mostly from evaporation losses off of the reservoirs, but that is hard to avoid. Overall, electricity generation is only 3%-4% of freshwater consumption in the United States.

  26. says

    @michaelbusch

    Parts of your comment seem to be directed at someone else.

    First of all, I didn’t say “I don’t like nuclear plants because of the radiation”. The only mention I made of radiation was in pointing out that when things go wrong, you end up with hundreds of square miles that you can’t use. I’m well aware of the relative radiation, worldwide, of coal and nuclear plants. Oh, and yes – I mentioned the thyroid growths on children directly affected by Fukushima.

    Second, with water use, I wasn’t talking about nation-wide water consumption, I was talking about the communities that share water supplies with the power plants. That’s rather different. Average statistics over an entire nation border on useless. All of the southwest could be in drought, and average rainfall could still be up if there was a lot of rain in other areas. That doesn’t make the drought any less real.

    If a hydro power reservoir dries up, then you have a dried lake bed. If a nuclear power plant dries up, then at the VERY least, if the reactor is not cooled by water, the spent fuel holding pool can get exposed, and THAT can do a lot of damage.

    As to “reliability”, I already pointed out (though you seem to have skimmed over that part) that nuclear power stations are NOT indifferent to the weather. Every nuclear plant in an area where flooding is predicted is shut down. This past summer, nuclear plants had to get permission to run with cooling water that was hotter than they were rated for, due to the weather. Nuclear plants along the East Coast had to shut down ahead of Sandy.

    There ARE weather conditions that threaten nuclear plants, and that stop their electricity production, and those events are getting more frequent, and more severe, and that trend WILL continue for the foreseeable future.

    This is not about nuclear vs coal. IF you could tell me that going full-on nuclear could end fossil fuel plants within ten years, I would go for it.

    But that’s not the case. It would be prohibitively expensive, and as I pointed out, every single fission plant needs a BACKUP plant that is NOT nuclear.

    Conventional fission power was, through the twentieth century, one of the most reliable forms of power. Entering the 20th century, but using that as a base for predicting the future is pointless, given that we are at the beginning of a climate shift unlike anything our species has ever encountered. It was reliable, but that is no longer the case, specifically because of the reasons that I mentioned above (again) and that you seem to have ignored for the most part. The same things that will mean more downtimes will ALSO mean a higher risk of meltdown or similar disasters.

    As I also said, I’m FINE with other forms of nuclear (and it looks like they’ll be available soon), if they don’t present the same vulnerabilities.

    As to the nuclear plants CURRENTLY in operation, I think we should be intentionally phasing them out, and soon.
    _______

    As to oceanic currents, I’d love to see more material on that, if you have it.

  27. says

    @Alteredstory:

    Again, all of those concerns with nuclear plants and water and weather apply equally to coal plants and somewhat less so to oil and gas plants. You have to stop burning coal when there isn’t water available for cooling, just like you have to drop the control rods into the fission pile. And, repeating myself again, power production is only 3%-4% of water consumption in the United States. If and when there are large-scale changes to rainfall patterns, the main concern is not the reliability of the power grid. It’s irrigation for agriculture, which is over 80% of water consumption. Food becomes a serious problem before power does.

    Yes, nuclear plants need backups – both to accommodate unexpected downtime and to accommodate sudden peaks in the load. So do coal and oil plants and even hydro. If we can provide that with carbon-neutral sources rather than natural-gas turbines that vent CO2 and unburned methane, that’s a good thing, but it’s still a relatively small fraction of the total power demand.

    And to a large extent, we do have to choose between nuclear and coal+oil+methane. Geothermal and hydro can’t provide enough base load, wind is erratic and limited in total output, and solar suffers from the requirements of power storage. Solar is also still far more expensive than advanced nuclear plants, although the cost is coming down. So nuclear plants will end up being a large fraction of the power grid.

    Many of the nuclear plants currently in operation should be phased out, but that’s because they are nearing the end of their design lifespans and are out-of-date designs rather than any reliability concerns specific to nuclear power.

  28. Ichthyic says

    he radiation release from nuclear power plants is less than that from the current inventory of coal power plants (even including Fukushima Daiichi)

    oh of course! that’s why we’re noticing the drastic CHANGES occurring after the Fukushima disaster.

    you want to average all radiation release globally, and pretend that that has fuckall to do with what is happening locally.

    for shame. Hell the links to the ongoing impacts on health were RIGHT ABOVE your post FFS.

  29. says

    @Ichthyic:

    I am not minimizing the magnitude of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and Tepco is being rightfully condemned for not adequately preparing its plants against potential tsunami damage. It would be entirely reasonable to charge the company with willingly endangering the population.

    But when we are considering the relative merits of different sources of energy, we need to consider the overall effects. And the negative health effects of coal and oil and oil shale are far greater than those of nuclear power. They’re just distributed over continents and decades, rather than being concentrated into a small number of point sources.

    For example: more than 100,000 people die each year in India alone due to pollution from coal power plants, mainly from inhaled particulates. That includes about 10,000 children under the age of 5.

  30. says

    michael, wind and solar are not “erratic”. They’re just not. There are fluctuations, yes, but they are easily within the ability of the grid operators to manage. They work.

    Daily wind patterns are predictable, over time and over large areas. The sun rises every day, and believe it or not, a cloudy day does not mean no power generation. Come to that, when you add in solar thermal, NIGHT doesn’t mean no power generation.

    Oh, and nobody is saying use only wind or only solar or only geothermal – we’re saying use wind, solar thermal, photovoltaic (rooftop AND large-scale), tidal, geothermal,

    You are presenting a false choice between fossil fuels and conventional fission power. Current renewable energy technologies can provide the grid with all the power needed.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/renewable-energy-baseload-power.htm

    That also doesn’t include the rather substantial and underutilized energy source of biomethane (sewage, farm waste, etc.)

  31. says

    There are fluctuations, yes, but they are easily within the ability of the grid operators to manage.

    Only up to a point. It is not possible to load-balance the entire power grid on a timescale of hours to days without a large and stable base power supply. There is simply no storage mechanism available to store and recover the 4 x 10^17 J every day that such a power grid would require – it’s equivalent to emptying and refilling Lake Meade several times over.

    You are presenting a false choice between fossil fuels and conventional fission power.

    No, I am not. I am merely saying that nuclear power will end up being a large component of a carbon-neutral grid.

    Current renewable energy technologies can provide the grid with all the power needed.

    Only if you include nuclear power in that mixture. So far, wind and solar have been load-balanced by adjusting the flow through hydro plants, but that can only be done so much.

    You could envision a carbon-neutral grid without any nuclear component, but it would cost several times more than a carbon-neutral grid with a large component of advanced nuclear. That’s because of the scale of the energy storage system that would be required.

  32. says

    And once AGAIN you seem to be ignoring things that I write.

    As I said earlier – I have no problem with nuclear being a component, I ONLY have a problem with the kind of nuclear power plant that is currently in use.

    Please try to read the words I write, and not make things up about what I want as it suits you.

  33. says

    As I said earlier – I have no problem with nuclear being a component, I ONLY have a problem with the kind of nuclear power plant that is currently in use.

    I understand that, and I agree with the conclusion that many of the current nuclear plants are due to be replaced. But your stated reasons for objecting to current nuclear plants were not well-founded.

    You then made some apparently inaccurate statements about the ability of a carbon-neutral grid to meet the global power demand, and my last @36 was addressing that.

    I apologize if I have misunderstood what you have written.

  34. Ichthyic says

    But when we are considering the relative merits of different sources of energy, we need to consider the overall effects.

    stop it. I said what you were doing was using non point source averages.

    the problem with that, AND YOU KNOW IT, is that you don’t GET huge point source damage estimates looking at those numbers.

    which is why the fallout from a nuclear accident is magnitudes worse than the “fallout” from a coal plant.

    seriously, you must think everyone here is pretty damn thick.

    Next, you’ll try to tell me that the radon from coal is as damaging as fucking Strontium 90.

    give me a break.

  35. Amphiox says

    it seems unlikely that we’re going to be able to keep the climate from warming enough to destabilize the ocean’s methane hydrate stores, so release as CO2 would be preferable to a sudden, unpredictable spike in methane.

    If the ocean’s methane hydrate stores are truly destabilized in a big way, I think its odds on that the Anthropocene will be over, and the next geologic era will be the *RED*WHITE*BLUE*DOUBLE-FLASH*GREEN*TWIN STRIPES*DOTDOTDOT*BROWN*GIMMER* (because intelligent cephalopods will probably be unlikely to communicate by sound….)

    The plastics market doesn’t need to be as limited in size.

    One wouldn’t absolutely need a plastics market for this to work. You can turn all your extra plastics into tonnes of nurdles and just bury the lot. Pump it back into old abandoned oil wells…

    It would also be a good idea to plant more trees. lots more. And not those cheesy “gonna be board feet of lumber in 20 years” trees either.

    As long as you take those board feet of lumber and use it to build longlasting and well maintained structures (and not put it into a woodchipper to make toilet paper or something) it’ll still work. The carbon still gets sequestered for significant time periods.

    HOWEVER, all of this, and all our talk about renewables and nuclear and whatnot, all of it are only going to temporarily delay the problem, not solve it.

    Because this is not a technological problem with technological solutions. This is a behavioral problem and will require behavioral solutions.

    So long as we remain wedded to the concept of desiring exponential growth in energy consumption, we will not solve this problem. Even if we convert energy production to 100% renewable solar, or develop safe nuclear fusion, with unrestrained growth we will eventually hit a ceiling beyond which the environmental carrying capacity is exceeded.

  36. says

    @ichthyic:

    the fallout from a nuclear accident is magnitudes worse than the “fallout” from a coal plant.

    Radiation releases from nuclear accidents are orders of magnitude more concentrated than that from coal plants, but they are localized. As long as the leakage is largely contained for enough half-lives of the most dangerous species, the health burden is relatively low. The problem with Fukushima Daiichi, of course, is that the leakage was not entirely contained. This means that there is a big public health problem for the area surrounding the plant, which will lead to – statistically – between a few and 100 deaths, depending on exactly how much of each radioactive species was released and how they spread before decaying further.

    Re. Radon and coal power plants:

    Something over 200,000 people die world-wide each year from lung cancers produced from radon exposure. Fossil-fuel power plants, especially coal, are responsible for ~1% of total radon release into the atmosphere. The radiation dose from that is concentrated within 1000 km or so downrange of the plants; in those areas the radon concentration outdoors is elevated by a much higher percentage. Most cancer deaths from radon exposure are from radon accumulating in poorly-vented interior spaces, but the radon release from coal-fired plants still leads to more fatalities every year than the current nuclear power industry.
    The overall health burden from coal burning is far higher than that from coal-burning radon release, of course, and the death rate due to coal burning worldwide is something upwards of 300,000/year.

    Re. Strontium-90:

    You’re quite correct about how dangerous strontium-90 is. During the height of atomic bomb testing in the 1950′s and early 1960′s, tens to hundreds of thousands of people per year were dying from radiation release into the atmosphere and into the water supply. Much of that was from strontium-90 and the organic chemistry that leads to the stuff being absorbed and deposited into teeth, bones, and bone marrow. Fortunately for us all, the test ban treaties have largely been honored and we are now considering much lower radiation releases (and the strontium-90 released 50-60 years ago has largely either decayed or been deposited in places where it is not readily available to be soaked up into other organisms). There are concerns about older power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities starting to leak, which would put a lot more strontium-90 and a bunch of other nasty nuclides into the environment. I refer questions about the effort to make sure that doesn’t happen to US nuclear plants and waste to my mother-in-law.

    Numbers from Wikipedia and its sources.

  37. says

    @Amphiox:

    Wikipedia informs me that even the toughest of the common plastics biodegrade in a few hundred years. If the carbon ends up going back into the atmosphere, as CO2 or CH4, that’s the timescale by which we’ve delayed the problem.

    I suppose large bricks closely packed would last longer than high-surface-area pieces sitting in a landfill, but unless the sequestration method keeps the carbon out of the atmosphere for longer than the normal residence time (~3000 years), it’s not a real fix. I’ve seen sequestration schemes based around charcoal, which can last almost long enough provided that no-one digs it up and burns it. The true long-term solution is to lock the carbon into limestone, either chemically or by the slow action of plankton in the ocean. That would be possible but, like everything else involving changing the global climate, requires a very large effort.

    And you are of course correct that energy consumption – and also population – will have to eventually level off. May the demographic transition model continue to be valid.

  38. Ichthyic says

    here’s michael’s argument:

    We should encourage the use of nuclear weapons instead of conventional weapons because they have killed far fewer people.

    not buying it, dude.

    Radiation releases from nuclear accidents are orders of magnitude more concentrated than that from coal plants, but they are localized.

    now you’re just out and out lying. Tell that to the people still reeling from Chernyobl, or the people on the West Coast of the US who are being hit by the fallout from fukishima.

  39. Ichthyic says

    btw, you using wiki to define terms doesn’t make your argument any better.

    you’re dancing around the glaring flaw in it.

  40. mildlymagnificent says

    Solar energy. Not what some people like because it can’t be sold to Joe Public at a filling station, but it’s the wave of the future.

    Maybe, maybe not. If an option like “Cambridge crude” or some similar concept becomes popular for managing batteries, stations that currently refill with gasoline fuel could use solar panels on their roofs to recharge depleted battery gunk and get people to pay for the service rather than having to wait while recharging their cars direct.

    http://www.gizmag.com/semi-solid-flow-battery-design/18907/

  41. Christopher says

    Only up to a point. It is not possible to load-balance the entire power grid on a timescale of hours to days without a large and stable base power supply. There is simply no storage mechanism available to store and recover the 4 x 10^17 J every day that such a power grid would require – it’s equivalent to emptying and refilling Lake Meade several times over.

    Depends on where you are at. California could do it easily. Half our total energy use is spent moving water and about half our total energy production comes from moving water. That is one hell of a battery.

  42. rr says

    michaelbusch:

    …nuclear power will end up being a large component of a carbon-neutral grid

    Here in the US we would have to build hundreds of new nuke plants, and I just don’t see that happening. In fact it’s not certain that the one new plant under construction (Vogtle) will ever be finished, Halliburton screwed up the concrete (as usual) and changes in the financial environment could sink the whole thing. What we really need is to stop obsessing about grids and move to renewable power generation at the point of use, along with good storage technology which we already know how to make.

    The problem with Fukushima Daiichi, of course, is that the leakage was not entirely contained.

    You mean still not contained. Fortunately a lot is being diluted in the Pacific ocean.

  43. Amphiox says

    Wikipedia informs me that even the toughest of the common plastics biodegrade in a few hundred years. If the carbon ends up going back into the atmosphere, as CO2 or CH4, that’s the timescale by which we’ve delayed the problem.

    If you bury it deep enough, the biodegradation byproducts won’t be going back into the atmosphere. If anything, it will probably eventually turn into new oil.

    Also, the biodegradation of plastic doesn’t necessarily turn all of it back into CO2. Much of it simply ends up as ever smaller pieces of plastic, down to the microscopic level, still sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere.

  44. says

    On the issue of biodegrading plastic and delaying the problem – delaying it is GOOD. A large portion of the danger presented by this warming event is due to the speed at which the temperature rises – the faster the rise, the more damage done.

    If we can slow it, that’s good. If we can pause it, that’s good.

    Or rather – it’s good as long as we use the extra time to get more work done on preparing for the change, OR on finding ways to reverse it.

  45. says

    Ichthyic: We should encourage the use of nuclear weapons instead of conventional weapons because they have killed far fewer people.

    No. That is entirely not what I am saying.

    I am comparing the health burden per unit energy generated from the current nuclear power industry to that from the current coal industry. In that comparison, nuclear power is safer than coal. It can and should be made safer still.

    I mentioned the fallout numbers from the 1950s and 1960s because you had mentioned strontium-90. They also are a good illustration of how little radioactivity release there is from current nuclear power plants: thousands of times less than what was being tossed into the atmosphere during the bomb tests.

    Me: Radiation releases from nuclear accidents are orders of magnitude more concentrated than that from coal plants, but they are localized.

    Ichthyic: Now you’re just out and out lying. Tell that to the people still reeling from Chernyobl, or the people on the West Coast of the US who are being hit by the fallout from fukishima.

    No, I am not lying. Almost all of the health impact from Fukushima is concentrated in the population that was within 80 km or so of the reactor. While trace amounts of iodine-131 and caesium-134/137 from the radiation release have been detected throughout the northern hemisphere, they are just that – traces that lead to relatively little health damage. Even in Tokyo, the total additional radiation dosage from Fukushima was ~1% of the annual average radiation dose. Chernobyl was a much larger disaster, and the most-affected zone was ~300 km across.

    By comparison, the affected zones for large-scale coal burning – and particularly dirty coal burning – are much larger (e.g. “half of India” or “all of eastern China”). Which gets back to my earlier point that we need to be mindful of the overall health impacts of different sources of energy, while also tightening regulations to make things like Fukushima much less likely to happen.

    And I mention that I am pulling information from Wikipedia and its sources so that people may check my statements.

  46. says

    rr: Here in the US we would have to build hundreds of new nuke plants, and I just don’t see that happening. …. What we really need is to stop obsessing about grids and move to renewable power generation at the point of use, along with good storage technology which we already know how to make.

    Distributed energy production is a good idea (save on line losses), but you can’t have all power be generated at the point of use, because there are a lot of power-dense applications. So there still needs to be a power grid. Grid-scale storage would be useful, but again, the cost of such a grid would be far higher than one with a large fraction of more stable base-load plants.

    Re. building a lot of new plants: that would be a very large project, but so is anything else involving switching everything over to a carbon-neutral grid.

    Christopher: California could do [grid-scale storage] easily. Half our total energy use is spent moving water and about half our total energy production comes from moving water. That is one hell of a battery.

    The California Energy Commission’s data for 2011 informs me that only ~22% of electrical generation in the state is from hydro; there’s another 6% or so from geothermal with I suppose could also count as from moving water. The geothermal wells can be adjusted up and down, but the flow rates over the dams can’t be throttled up or down by 100% for hours at a time (think of the changes downstream and the problems for irrigation). So 22% from hydro and 6% geothermal can only be used for daily load balancing for maybe 10-15% of energy production from wind and solar (which are 4%-5% of electrical generation in CA right now).

    But you’re correct that California is currently better able to load-balance wind and solar power than many other places.

    Amphiox: If you bury it deep enough, the biodegradation byproducts [from plastics] won’t be going back into the atmosphere. If anything, it will probably eventually turn into new oil.

    I don’t know exactly how the plastics would degrade. For true sequestration, you need something that will last 3000 years or longer. That’s the timescale for carbon dioxide to be fixed by plankton into limestone or into new oil or new coal, removing it from the atmosphere for a very long time. Of course, relying on plankton to do the CO2-limestone conversion assumes there will still be as many plankton with carbonate shells in the oceans for the next few thousand years…