Hot Planet, or Hot Air?

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


Global warming?

ItÕs become so politicized an issue that itÕs almost impossible to find any sober commentary on it.

You all know about Al Gore, who thinks he invented the Internet, and seems to hope the global warming issue will give him another chance at the White House. I havenÕt seen his movie, but from commentaries on it he seems to think weÕre in for a 20-foot jump in sea level as well as a wave of killer hurricanes and a big freeze in Europe because polar melting will divert the Gulf Stream.

There seems to be a consensus among scientists that global warming is real, but not on such a monumental scale. From some commentaries IÕve read, the actual increase in the sea level over the next few decades will be several inches rather than 20 feet, and Europe wonÕt freeze because its mild climate actually depends more on wind patterns than on the Gulf Stream – something I hadnÕt known before.

Because global warming has become a liberal cause, conservatives have adopted two positions: first, the world isnÕt getting any warmer; second, as a fallback, that it really is getting warmer -- but not because of anything people are doing. Objectivists, the followers of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, take an even more extreme position: that global warming is a deliberate hoax, and that environmentalists are motivated only by hatred of capitalism and hatred of humanity itself.

What is a layman supposed to believe? Well, I know that polar ice is melting and that most glaciers are retreating. I can see that in actual pictures. But a conservative friend of mine told me that Mars, too, seems to be experiencing global warming, and a check at Google confirmed that this is indeed the case. I gather there is some dispute as to whether the cause is external (changes in solar radiation or cosmic rays) or local conditions (dark dust blowing over larger areas due to Martian weather.).

Now global warming skeptics point out that there have been wild changes in EarthÕs climate over millions of years, some far more extreme than what is happening now or is projected to happen in the near future. The only quarrel I have with their position is their apparent assumption that as long as global warming is a natural phenomenon, we donÕt have to worry about it. This is rather like saying we shouldnÕt worry that a rickety house might fall down, as long as the danger is posed by termites rather than shoddy construction.

Winnowing the wheat from the chaff at best I can, I find it prudent for us to be concerned about the possible impact of the present warming cycle on the worldÕs weather patterns, which could impact on everything from the farmlands of many countries to the resources of the worldÕs seas, which are already under pressure from the increasing demand for food. And even a fairly modest rise in the sea level could be a big deal to the Netherlands, and to seaport facilities elsewhere. Moreover, there are prudent reasons for reducing our dependence on fuels that produce greenhouse gases, quite aside from global warming.

It doesnÕt help the cause of the Global Warming movement that some of its activists are shameless hypocrites. Actor John Travolta, for example, jumped on the Global Warming bandwagon recently – but maintains a fleet of private jets that must produce many times more greenhouse gases than the cars he thinks ordinary folks should give up. But thatÕs Hollywood for you – only in Tinsel Town can you find people who think private beaches should be banned on the East Coast, where they donÕt live, but encouraged on the West Coast, where they do.

Hollywood liberals, however, are pikers at this game compared to the politicians who, as reported in The New York Times May 29, are lining up to support a vast program to subsidize factories that will supposedly free the United States of dependence on foreign oil by producing alternative fuels from coal:


Lawmakers Push for Big Subsidies for Coal Process

By Edmund L. Andrews


WASHINGTON, May 28 — Even as Congressional leaders draft legislation to reduce greenhouse gases linked to global warming, a powerful roster of Democrats and Republicans is pushing to subsidize coal as the king of alternative fuels.

Prodded by intense lobbying from the coal industry, lawmakers from coal states are proposing that taxpayers guarantee billions of dollars in construction loans for coal-to-liquid production plants, guarantee minimum prices for the new fuel, and guarantee big government purchases for the next 25 years.

With both House and Senate Democrats hoping to pass Òenergy independenceÓ bills by mid-July, coal supporters argue that coal-based fuels are more American than gasoline and potentially greener than ethanol.

 ÒFor so many, filthy coal is a dirty four-letter word,Ó said Representative Nick V. Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. ÒThese individuals, I tell you, have their heads buried in the sand.Ó

Environmental groups are adamantly opposed, warning that coal-based diesel fuels would at best do little to slow global warming and at worst would produce almost twice as much of the greenhouse gases tied to global warming as petroleum.

Coal companies are hardly alone in asking taxpayers to underwrite alternative fuels in the name of energy independence and reduced global warming. But the scale of proposed subsidies for coal could exceed those for any alternative fuel, including corn-based ethanol.

Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

Coal companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying on the issue, and have marshaled allies in organized labor, the Air Force and fuel-burning industries like the airlines. Peabody Energy, the worldÕs biggest coal company, urged in a recent advertising campaign that people Òimagine a world where our country runs on energy from Middle America instead of the Middle East.Ó

Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat whose district is dominated by coal mining, is writing key sections of the House energy bill. In the Senate, champions of coal-to-liquid fuels include Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Larry Craig of Wyoming, both Republicans.


ThereÕs more to the story, but this excerpt should be enough to convince anybody that our leaders are for sale. TheyÕve already been subsidizing Archer Daniels Midland, which is in the ethanol business but canÕt make a go of it on its own: some accounts IÕve read say it costs more to produce ethanol from corn than anybody will pay for it. But thanks to ethanol subsidies, fueled by huge  campaign contributions, corn prices are going up; the only benefit might be a reduction in the use of corn syrup, which some blame for the increase in obesity in this country.

ThereÕs an interesting table that accompanied the Times article, citing figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the estimated impact on greenhouse gas emissions of various alternative fuels.


YouÕll notice that liquefied coal, without trapping out the carbon, is the very worst alternative. The best is ethanol from cellulose – that means making ethanol from corn stalks as opposed to corn. Last I knew, nobody had figured out how to do that – at least not how to make it economically practical.

Next best is biodiesel, which is made from food waste – itÕs already being used for park service vehicles in Hawaii. I once queried somebody at the National Resources Defense Council about it, and he dismissed it in favor of solar power and wind power – neither of which has proven itself on a wide scale. Sure there are solar houses and even solar offices, but on cloudy daysÉ And itÕs hard to imagine running factories on solar power. As for wind, there just arenÕt that many places to put windmill farms, and thereÕs been a backlash against them in some quarters – those blades could kill a lot of birds. So whatÕs wrong with biodiesel? We might solve the oil shortage, global warming and the garbage explosion all at the same time.

Third best is ethanol from sugar. ThatÕs what theyÕre using in Brazil, and IÕve read some accounts that motor vehicles there have nearly all been converted from gasoline. But nobody seems to be pushing that here, apparently because Archer Daniels Midland isnÕt in the sugar business. You get the picture?

Neither in the Times article nor in the table is nuclear power mentioned. But Stewart Brand is mentioning it. And who is Stewart Brand? A long-time eco-freak who created the Whole Earth Catalog, but is now preaching environmental heresy:


ÒThere were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,Ó he says. ÒSure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you donÕt know where it is and you donÕt know what itÕs doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybodyÕs atmosphere.Ó


ThatÕs also from the Times (Feb. 27, 2007), where Brand admitted that some of the nightmare scenarios he once believed in, such as the population bomb and global famine, didnÕt come true. That has taught him prudence. There are prudent things we can do in terms of alternative and even renewable energy sources that could address our energy shortage and global warming. But the one thing that Big Business, the political establishment and the Global Warming activists seem to have in common is a lack of prudence.

I hope that it doesnÕt come to the point where we really do have a global hothouse – and the only solution is to set off a bunch of hydrogen bombs in volcanoes (Remember Nuclear Winter, the apocalyptic scenario of the latter days of the Cold War?).