Inconvenient Corrections (Counterpunch)
Al Gore's Wacky Facts
By ROBERT BRYCE
Facts don't matter. Only spin matters.
That's the main conclusion to be drawn from the fact that Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
My complaint has nothing to do with the science of global warming or whether or not the current warming of the planet is due solely to manmade causes. Rather, it's this: Gore won the prize even though his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, concludes with one of the most blatantly absurd statements ever committed to film.
Just before the final credits, in a segment that advises viewers as to what they might do to help slow global warming, the following line appears onscreen: "In fact, you can even reduce your carbon emissions to zero."ù
Again, the point is not whether or not I agree with Gore's view on warming. Instead the objection stems from this obvious point: We humans breathe. And in doing so, we emit carbon dioxide. The idea that we can somehow negate the gas that results from our respiration--through the legerdemain of carbon credits, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, or fleets of Toyota Priuses is simply not possible. And the fact that none of the dozens of smart people involved in the production of the movie--including, particularly, Gore himself--paused to consider the veracity of their declaration leaves me agog.
Imagine any other documentary--on virtually any subject--that concluded with a line that declared something like, "By the way, the world is flat." The producers and everyone associated with the movie would be the laughing stock of the modern world. And yet, when it comes to the claim that you can "reduce your carbon emissions to zero," Gore has been given a free pass. The obvious conclusion: facts and science don't really matter. What matters, it appears, is how dedicated you are to the cause of publicizing what Gore calls the "climate crisis." And thus, Gore's evangelism, not his facts, earned him the Nobel.
Which brings me to my other objection: It's fine to say we have a problem with climate change. Perhaps we do. So what's the solution? Put another way, given that the Nobel committee--as well as lots of politicians and activists--agree with Gore that carbon dioxide is bad, then what?
The world economy (and most living beings) depends, one way or another, on emitting carbon dioxide. And the overwhelming majority of those carbon dioxide releases are a byproduct of our consumption of fossil fuels. Those fuels allow us to be mobile, feed ourselves, stay warm, and generally improve our living standards. As Decartes might have put it: we are, therefore we emit carbon dioxide.
And yet Gore offers no viable alternatives to the fossil fuels that we depend upon to sustain our civilization. What are his suggestions? Well, at the end of an An Inconvenient Truth, Gore and his fellow producers provide yet more proof that facts don't matter. In the same section that advises viewers about what they can do to fight global warming, Gore conflates the issues of global warming and energy independence by suggesting that they encourage the biggest scam of the modern era: ethanol. The text that appears on the screen advises viewers: "Reduce our dependence on foreign oil, help farmers grow alcohol fuels."
Even a modicum of research into the issue would have shown Gore and his pals that alcohol fuels--even with massive subsidies--are not going to make a significant dent in the world's fossil fuel habit. In fact, ethanol and biofuels in general may make global warming worse. A recent study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist P. J. Crutzen, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, found that biofuels made from rapeseed and corn release about twice as much nitrous oxide as was previously thought. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The report's co-author, Keith Smith, from the University of Edinburgh, summed up the study, saying growing biofuels "is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse."
Last year, Gore told Grist magazine that cellulosic ethanol would "be a huge new source of energy, particularly for the transportation sector. You're going to see it all over the place. You're going to see a lot more flex-fuel vehicles. You're going to see new processes that utilize waste as the source of energy, so there's no petroleum consumed in the process."
But cellulosic ethanol is decades away from being viable. That's not the opinion of Big Oil, instead it comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last month, the agency's Economic Research Service reported that while cellulose-based fuels hold "some longer-term promise, much research is needed to make it commercially economical and expand beyond the 250-million-gallon minimum specified for 2013 in the Energy Policy Act of 2005."
Just for the sake of argument, let's assume the USDA is wrong. And let's further assume that given enough federal subsidies, cellulosic ethanol has a big technical breakthrough and expands at the same rate as what we've seen with corn-based ethanol. It took more than two decades of fat subsidies before the corn ethanol sector was able to produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol per year. And today, that industry provides only about 1 percent of America's oil needs while gobbling up about 14 percent of the country's corn crop. If cellulosic ethanol follows that same trajectory as what we've seen with corn ethanol, it will be 2030 or so before cellulosic ethanol will be able to supply just 1 percent of America's oil needs. So the key question Gore must answer is this: does a 1 percent share of the oil market qualify cellulosic ethanol as "huge"?
Gore advocates solar power and wind power as alternatives to fossil fuels. That's fine. What are the facts?
Well, according to projections from the Energy Information Administration, both solar and wind will add lots of new generation capacity over the next two decades, but by 2030, the combined output of both sources will only total about 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. That's a miniscule amount when compared to the expected annual electricity generation from coal (3,351 billion kWh) per year, nuclear (871 billion kWh) and natural gas (1,003 kWh).
The problem is that wind and solar are both incurably intermittent. The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. That means--unless we have a huge technological breakthrough that permits large-scale electricity storage or we are willing to live with frequent blackouts and brownouts--we are going to continue relying on the same power plants that we have now, and they use coal, uranium and natural gas.
Those are the facts. It's unfortunate that the Nobel committee doesn't seem to care about them.