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Climate follies and a multi-billion-dollar paperweight

Kenneth D. Gough, Community Voices • Jun 21, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Is the climate getting warmer? Yes.

OK, we have that out of the way. Now comes the hard part: What to do about it?

Contrary to what you will read in this and most newspapers and blogs, see on TV, and hear on the radio — what has become a veritable orthodoxy, a quasi-religious, unthinking, unquestionable faith — the answer is not necessarily decarbonizing energy production and moving to wind and solar power.

I think about the problem as an engineer. We’re trained to be practical problem solvers not terribly concerned by politics and largely indifferent to conventional thinking and pieties. We take what science reveals to us and turn it into useful stuff, from giant structures measured by the mile to nanostructures measured by the angstrom (a helium atom is about 1 angstrom in diameter). We take semiconducting silicon and turn it into Angry Birds. We take e=mc2 and turn it into a weapon or medicine or electricity, depending on the need.

Just as important as understanding the physical properties of the matter that we manipulate into doing all sorts of cool and useful stuff is understanding the economics of the real world in which that stuff is used. The most wondrous device ever conceived will make a nice paperweight if it doesn’t serve a useful purpose at a cost-effective price. Which means my mind-boggling, multi-billion-dollar invention will be as useful as a rock from my garden if something else that’s cheaper works as well or better.

“Better,” by the way, is a slippery concept. No doubt Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s most recent supercomputer, which can model the entire earth’s climate, is a lot faster and capable than the little computer I carry around, which, conveniently, has a phone app built into it. But I can’t put ORNL’s machine in my pocket or use it to make a call. Each has its place; each is “better” in its own way.

So when it comes to what to do about the indubitable fact that the earth is warming, the engineer doesn’t pray to Gaia, the earth-mother-goddess, for guidance, or consult the opinion polls, or even study the writings of the oh-so-wise pundits in the newspaper. It becomes a real-world problem — what’s the most-practical, most cost-effective, least-risk way to proceed? Since any decision involves trade-offs — for example, kill coal and you kill coal miners’ jobs and the places they live, or, keep coal and you kill coal miners with black lung disease — it has to be approached with a level of detachment that may seem cold-hearted until one understands that any course of action will involve some amount of pain and suffering; we just get to pick the kind we’re willing to live with, then pray to God we’re right.

It boils down to an economic problem, in its broadest sense. Given all we know; and given that there is a lot we don’t know and in many cases can’t know; and given the resources available to us; and given the tradeoffs and risks entailed: what is the solution with the highest return on investment? This may not be the solution with the lowest initial cost; a more-expensive approach may have more benefits and/or be less risky. It may not be the most technically-sophisticated or the cleverest; refer to the multi-billion-dollar paperweight above. It may not be (and probably isn’t) one great big thing; it might be lots and lots of little things, and even lots and lots of different little things. And it’s almost certainly not the politically-expedient approach.

The point being, if we’re committed to finding the best way to deal with a problem like global warming, we have to be willing to consider the whole range of potential actions, even if — especially if — they defy the conventional wisdom, which has the uncanny knack of being wrong as often as it’s right.

The economics of burning carbon-based fuels are so compelling that it’s hard to conceive of any workable approach that doesn’t include them. The same goes with nuclear power, which, in my opinion, is a crucial part of any solution, which means that we have to get over our largely-irrational fear of it. Although wind and solar power are dropping in cost, I have seen no analysis which would lead any reasonable person to think that they will ever be as cost-effective as carbon or nuclear, and (if we’re honest) we must acknowledge that they have their own undesirable consequences.

So now we’ve given ourselves permission to think outside the box like dispassionate, well-informed, technically-competent, non-political problem-solvers. Let’s use that freedom to consider all the possible approaches to global warming, no matter how many sneers they induce among the “right” sort of people, as we search for the best one.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

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