Wednesday, March 21, 2007

GOREIOUS DAYS

I just finished watching Al Gore's testimony on climate change in front of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. It's not much fun sitting through such a testimony; this one went on for 3 hours, with Gore giving his deposition for the first hour, and then answering questions categorically from every one of the 19 senators for the next 2 hours. But the topic of the testimony was so important that it was not hard to get hooked.

Gore emerged a champion from the mostly uneventful hearings. He was careful, patient, and unfailingly courteous. Gore is not the wittiest or most engaging speaker I have heard, but what he lacks in style, he makes up for in conviction and sincerity. He had immense intellectual ammunition and reserves of will. He was unanimously appreciated and praised by almost every Senator in the room, whether Republican or Democrat, and that is exactly the kind of bipartisan support climate change needs, an issue which is definitely beyond any politics. Of course, there were questions, but it was striking that nobody disagreed with his basic propositions about climate change, global warming, and man's contributions to it. This was good evidence that people have started moving beyond scientific acceptance, and on to the economic problems.

Everyone agreed...except the asinine James Inhofe. But how can anyone take Inhofe seriously now? This is the man who had called global warming as the "greatest hoax perpetrated on the American public" just a few years ago. Ironically, Inhofe has now turned out to be the one who cries wolf, and I thought he ended up making a fool of himself in the room. Not just because of his outrageous skepticism, but because of his disingenuity. Inhofe resorted to the cheap tactic, all too familiar these days, of trying to divert attention from the issue to the person. First of all, he asked four questions about climate change to Gore, which were supposed to be answered in monosyllables; Yes or No. Clearly, on a topic such as climate change, this is not possible, and this tactic itself was obviously designed to bind Gore in a straitjacket. The second and ever more tawdry ploy which Inhofe used, was to ask Gore to actually pledge that the costs of his standard of living would not exceed that of an average American family! There are a dozen good and completely reasonable reasons why Gore would not be able to do that, nor that this issue really has any bearing on climate change. Also, Inhofe magnanimously said that Gore need not do it right away; only in the next one year. This was clearly a trick to set the stage for the next whole year, when Inhofe could keep on maligning Gore and drawing attention from the real problem by trying to prove Gore as a hypocrite. Cheap ad hominem tactics indeed.

Naturally, this is a classic political trick, where you aim to gain no matter what. If Gore had not pledged, Inhofe obviously would have declared this as evidence of his hypocrisy. If Gore had pledged, Inhofe would have had a field day for the next year. Of course, Gore did not pledge such a stupid pledge. And his arguments were cogent; there are not many provisions in the United States to live a carbon-free life. As an aside, Gore did cite compromises his family makes.

Inhofe also resorted to a specious ruse of presenting the names of 100 prominent scientists who he said, "disagreed" with Gore. Gore in fact did not answer this question right away, but instead turned pensive and quiet. In a voice that reflected more concern than conviction, he said, "I am thinking of how to reach out to you senator…how to make you understand…" I think that reaction is quite appropriate for someone such as Inhofe, but in my opinion, Gore could have answered the question quite easily. The fact is, the word "diasgree" can mean many many things. It does not mean somebody disagrees with you lock stock and barrel. There are shades of agreement. Somebody may agree with you on certain matters, be skeptical about others. Somebody might agree with all your points, but choose to enunciate their conclusions in a different manner. That somebody "disagrees" with you on an issue as complex as global warming says nothing. And if Inhofe was so much intent on numbers, then Gore easily refuted him by citing the conclusions of the national academies of science of six countries, as well as the consensus of every single scientist in scientific articles published during the last decade, not to mention the conclusions of the IPCC, which is as peer reviewed as you can possibly get.

In any case, it's not much point listening to Inhofe, and although debate is an essential allowance of democracy, we all have the options of switching off our TV sets or folding up our newspapers. After this, I don't think Inhofe should even be criticised point by point.

On another note though, there is one point about which I "diasgree" with Gore, and that is about his stance on nuclear energy. Given the above qualifications, I should say that I don't actually disagree, because Gore is not against nuclear power. But I think he has not paid as much attention to it as is necessary, and he rather underestimates its potential. I have said time again that nuclear power is our best hope for future short-term energy shortages, its few problems notwithstanding. There are several clear benefits of nuclear power, as well as many misunderstandings about it, which I perhaps will talk about some other time. But in this context, kudos to senators Craig, Isakson, and Alexander, who are strong proponents of nuclear power. These men understand the science and economics behind nuclear power, and realise that it is the cleanest source of energy for the future. The initial costs are a little prohibitive, but they are nothing compared to the overall costs of using coal, which is the dominant electricity generating fuel right now.

Most of the fears about nuclear power are still misguided. There has not been a single fatal reactor accident in the US until now. Tens of thousands of people in contrast have died because of pollution due to coal. The radiation from a nuclear power plant is comparable to that from a coal power plant, both of which by the way are less than the natural background radiation that we constantly experience. Even the crictics of nuclear power who take refuge in that last bastion of doubt- the burial of nuclear waste- have to realise that it's not a technical, but a political problem. That nuclear power can be safely used is widely demonstrated by France and Japan, which get 70% and 50% of their electricity respectively from nuclear energy. The disposal of nuclear waste is an unnecessarily charged social issue, when technical solutions to the problem have existed for many years now. In fact, the disposal of nuclear waste is an issue that has been created by the US government, which has refused to reprocess the highly radioactive plutonium from spent fuel rods. After this plutonium has been taken out and used as further reactor fuel, the spent fuel then consists of short-lived isotopes. The volume as well as the danger of the spent fuel thus gets reduced, and this waste can easily be gotten rid of without worrying about vaults that have million-year shelf lives. In fact, keeping the plutonium in can increase, not decrease, the danger of nuclear proliferation, as when the short-lived isotopes have decayed, the waste gets enriched in plutonium, and now poses a real terrorism and proliferation threat.

It is heartening to see politicians wisely taking the economics and science of nuclear power into account. In any case, the objections of most senators to Gore's recommendations are based on economics, and emphatically not on science. There is almost no doubt about the science of global warming. Questions about economic feasibility exist. But so do the solutions. As it is for nuclear waste, it is going to take political and social will to resolve them. And these are things which are, as Gore says, "renewable resources".

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5 Comments:

Blogger Sunil said...

it's interesting that you mention nuclear power.

There is little doubt that the technology exists where nuclear waste can be contained. However, there are a number of practical problems that most proponents of nuclear power choose to ignore.

1) Mining of nuclear material (like any mining) is extremely damaging to vast areas of the environment. Additionally, though "better" mining technologies exist, most countries opt to use the "economically most viable" (read "cheapest") method to mine radioactive material.

2) In many places (India in particular), not sufficient care is taken to get rid of nuclear waste safely. A classic example is Jadughoda (see this documentary if you can, or read more about it here)

Most governments decide, for various reasons, that everything about nuclear installations (even civilian/power plants) should be kept secret, due to "national security reasons". This means there remains a tremendous opportunity to cut corners and create a mess, because no questions can be asked.

That said, IF (and that's a big if) implemented correctly, there is no doubt that nuclear power can be tremendously useful. But, given practical realities, that is next to impossible.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Fareed Zakaria has an interesting (and I think quite valid) point to make about global warming. He essentially says that it is too late for us to completely stop global warming. Even with our "best" efforts, and by that he means economically viable schemes that do not seriously jeopardize growth of emerging economies, the planet is goining to get warm for the forseeable future. The effects of global warming which are visible even now are certainly going to worsen in coming years. It is, therefore, essential that in addition to containment of carbon emissions, we also account for and prepare for a warming earth while planning for the future.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sunil: I agree with what you are saying, but most of these problems seem to be about implementation and not about nuclear power itself. If the government is sloppy about implementation, then any source of energy could pose a potential threat. I say, give the contracts for power plants to responsible corporations (oxymoron? ;) )

As for mining, even if mining for nuclear power is environmentally destructive, it's hard to believe that it's more environmentally destructive than mining for coal, construction of solar power plants, planting of biofuel vegetation by deforestation, and clearing of land for building hydroelectric stations, all combined together. The point is, we have to look at nuclear energy relative to other energy sources; in terms of safety, efficiency, and even cost, it is one of the best power sources that we have seen.

That being said, I am not sure if India is ready for large scale nuclear power plant construction, given our government inefficiency. Privatisation in part might be an answer; I agree that given the importance of nuclear energy to national security, privatisation cannot be total.

In the case of the US though, there is definite and concrete potential for using nuclear energy on a large scale. It's largely still public fears and government inaction that are responsible for complcency in this aspect. It is surprising how many well-educated Americans still have misconceptions about nuclear waste. They think it is some frightful technical problem, when it is really political.

Vivek: I think I agree with what he is saying. But again, people should not consider that action and deviate from prevention.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

again, though I agree with you that the problem is not in the technology itself.....if you want to know how destructive the mining process is, and how, if the toxic waste is not managed properly, the damage is devastating, take the time to watch that documentary.

And "outsourcing" to a corporation is not a panacea.....most corporations love to cut costs, and it invariably is on safety *beyond the factory walls*. There are just too many examples of this.

The problems lie in the laws and their implementations. For countries like India, where there is very weak policing of laws, an ineffective judiciary, an over-powerful nexus between business and law makers, an almost non-existant portal for public protest, and a complete lack of accountability, and complete secrecy in the name of national security, nuclear power is a recipe for disasters in the making.

If all of those are fixed, it can be fantastically useful. But can any of the above be fixed?

6:54 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sunil, I agree with you about India. I too think it is quite difficult to effect the large-scale utilization of nuclear power in our country because of our subnormal government machinery. My main issue is with the US though, where it clearly seems that opportunities were lost when they could have been capitalized upon.

As for corporations, it depends: multinational corporations especially have their international shareholder base to protect, and they are also concerned about their trust in their corporations. So cutting costs may pose an unaceptable risk in the long term. However, I am also aware that corporations have cut costs anyway in the past, when these constraints still existed! So...sigh!

7:23 PM  

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