The Prospect of Nuclear Energy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Dismantling) the Bomb

After discussing converting nuclear waste into energy with my pal Dan, he explained a Doctor Who theory (apparently never written "Dr. Who") that claims turning nuclear waste into fuel risks an explosion that will create a hole rupturing the space/time continuum and ultimately negate all of existence. This conversation was taking place because President Obama announced intentions to expand funding for nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). The nuclear option, a solution that environmentalists and lefties historically have had an aversion towards (though there are important exceptions like James Lovelock), is an almost zero emission source of energy. Aside from the im/explosion of the universe, some of the common concerns cited during nuclear energy discussions are: an inability to cope with large amounts of nuclear waste and a policy deadlock preventing us from reaching a viable nuclear waste solution; the length of time required to build nuclear power plants; some power plants singularly murder one billion fish per year; the annual production of enough high-level waste to create 34,000 Nagasaki-sized nuclear weapons, not to mention the production of other nuclear weapons technology such as depleted uranium; the risk of a nuclear power plant accident killing thousands, if not millions; the proliferation of radioactive weapons and targeting of nuclear power plants by non-state actors; the possibility of a spill during the hundreds of trips made annually to transport spent nuclear fuel to locations for disposal or for storage; and systemic nuclear racism. I'm hoping the following text will outline several solutions to these issues, and approaches that can be adopted to more safely store or eliminate nuclear waste, while simultaneously reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. In this post I will compare nuclear energy production to current fossil fuel production, and I'll save most comparisons between nuclear energy to other alternative energies for future posts. 

Since the discussion we're seeing is why nuclear energy is preferable fossil fuel energy, let's do a quick rundown on fossil fuel's similarities to nuclear fuels. Retrieving fossil fuels requires similarly destructive mining and extraction methods as uranium and other rare earth metals. In 2008, we witnessed a coal ash spill that NPR dubbed the Exxon Valdez of coal ash (also called fly ash). Coal ash covering an area of 100 acres at a depth of 65 feet spilled out across Tennessee when the Tennessee Valley Authority (the agency designated to maintain the coal ash) had allowed more than double the amount of coal ash to accumulate in a pond built to contain 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash. The 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash produced in half a century came from just a few coal-fired power plants - a number that becomes more disconcerting when you consider evidence indicating coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Even though the research that determined coal ash is highly radioactive is from a 1978 report and coal ash is known to contain a variety of poisonous chemicals, there are no federal requirements for preventing the coal ash from leeching into groundwater. When states attempt to regulate the storage of coal ash, corporations responsible for storing the coal ash are notorious for derailing legislative initiatives for requiring liners in coal ash ponds. Similar to the Exxon Valdez spill, most of the coal ash from the TVA spill has yet to be cleaned up. The coal ash that has been cleaned up was transported to poor and black communities. This is a familiar narrative in several poor and minority groups across the globe, and we'll discuss it more in-depth further down.

The nuclear waste produced in the US is currently stored at 131 separate sites in 39 states. Nuclear energy byproducts are generally classified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee as low- and high-level nuclear waste, waste incidental to reprocessing, and uranium mill tailings. Low-level waste (LLW) is defined as an item that has become contaminated with radioactive elements or is radioactive from exposure to radioactive elements. Currently, there are three locations in the US where LLW is disposed of. High-level waste (HLW) is classified as the byproduct of nuclear reactions, such as spent reactor fuel or the byproducts of reprocessing spent fuel; however, the US banned nuclear waste reprocessing under the Carter administration believing the international community would model the policy to reduce proliferation. The current total amount of HLW in the US covers the area of a football field that is 7 yards deep, and most HLW is stored on-site at the nuclear power plant where it was created. However, this PDF (download) indicates that most of the sites are running short on storage space to accommodate the nuclear waste. The US plans for storing HLW at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada have recently been scrapped, even though the US will need something similar to accommodate current waste and new waste from power plants expected to be licensed within the next four yearsThe criteria for waste incidental to reprocessing (WIR) includes waste that does not require indefinite interment and waste where high level radionuclides have been removed to the maximum practical extent. WIR is typically stored on-site as well. Uranium mill tailings are sandy materials that are the byproducts of processing ore to extract uranium and thorium. The dust-like material is more dangerous when inhaled. Some of the wastes from mill tailings have been cleaned up, but there are currently 226 million metric tons of mill tailings at around 50 locations across the country.

The wastes resulting from the nuclear reactions aren't the only environmental concerns about nuclear energy. There are also the environmental effects of mining uranium to be considered. The US searches and mines for uranium at several thousand sites across the country, though the US imports 3/4ths of its uranium (mostly from Canada and Australia). The heavy mining and transportation involved in obtaining uranium is a carbon intensive endeavor, but still produces far fewer GHGs than fossil fuel power plants. Despite the fact that mined uranium is about as radioactive as granite, it is far more dangerous than granite when inhaled or ingested. The US has recognized its desire for nuclear weapons as part and parcel of this sickness as evidenced by legislation providing compensation for mineworkers who are currently suffering or have suffered from the effects of uranium inhalation. This does not account for health effects suffered by the general public. For instance, Texas is one of several state governments that frequently grants permits allowing higher amounts of mining wastes in its water supplies. Neighboring New Mexico recently reported that over half of their 250+ abandoned uranium mines have no record of any attempt at clean up or restoration - the major effects of this are realized especially by the Navajo and other Native Peoples.

An important and heavily mined area in the US, the Navajo reservation spans approximately 24,000 miles in a checkerboard pattern across three states, and privately owned land dots the Navajo reservation. In 2005, the Navajo banned all uranium mining to mitigate the effects from the over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines sprinkled throughout the reservation. In response, mining corporations have functionally circumvented the mining ban by mining on the border of the Navajo lands. Additionally, nuclear waste storage sites have consistently been built on Native American lands. The problem with this is that nuclear waste is perpetually leaking out of the system used for storage and containment. These aspects of nuclear racism are common practice in several countries. In Australia, the majority of uranium mines are on Aboriginal lands. Aborigines have also experienced a doubling of cancer rates because of uranium mining, and new laws have codified Aboriginal labor exploitation. In other places there has been resistance to the dumping. The pirates that recently appeared off the coast of Africa were seeking reparations because European and Asian corporations are regularly dumping toxic and nuclear waste on Somalia. These reflect the policies of a government that makes policy decisions that can literally devalue life. Similar issues could be avoided in the future by finding a way to reduce/reuse/recycle nuclear waste (something that has not yet caused the implosion of the earth, sun, or universe).

To produce new nuclear fuel, uranium needs to be enriched to obtain a more fissile material that is usable in a power plant. Once the uranium makes it to the plant and becomes energy, it generates a lot of heat. To prevent an explosion or a meltdown the power plant needs to be cooled far below the temperature where the reaction occurs. Cooling the plant is a process that can require more than 3 billion gallons of water per day for one US nuclear power plant (by comparison, US coal-fired power plants can require more than 2.2 billion gallons of water per day for cooling). Though this may seem like an astronomical use of water, 98% of the water is returned to its source, and only 3.3% of US freshwater is consumed by power generation. Of course, once the water is returned there are serious implications for the biosphere. For instance, the Indian Point nuclear power plant 24 miles north of New York City kills as many as 1.2 billion fish annually, but would only require a $100 million retrofit to reduce the impact by 95-98%. The controlling interests in Indian Point have lobbied for the $100 million retrofit instead of the $1.5 billion solution New York state proposed, which would require the construction of three cooling towers the size of Yankees Stadium in the Hudson River. These powerful interests also argue construction of the cooling towers would not be completed until 2020, and there would be an increase in damage to the environment from the blasting required to install the cooling towers. Another unfortunate turn of events is, under a recent Supreme Court ruling, the EPA can use cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the severity of environmental damage is outweighed by economic benefits under the Clean Water Act. Similar to other agencies in the Obama administration claiming a desire to reverse Bush-era policies, the EPA claimed it would better enforce provisions under the Clean Water Act. In another act proving that the Obama administration is the Bush administration 2.0, the EPA has taken into consideration only 1.8% of the killed fish as having an economic impact - far less than the actual value of destroyed aquatic life. The EPA has claimed that it has difficulty assessing the total impact of lost wildlife because the Hudson River is already a Superfund site contaminated with PCBs, a chemical that causes cancer in animals and has been banned since 1977. The EPA's logic also seems to allow valuing sea life only if it has direct economic value, ignoring fundamental science that the bottom of the food chain must be gigantic to support a few organisms at the top of the food chain. The EPA adopted this stance even after research was published that the oceans contain only 10% of the large fish population that they did in 1950. The Indian Point power plant is only one of 65 nuclear power plants currently operating in the US, so it is easy to imagine the amount of environmental damage inflicted when safety regulations are not properly enforced.

Enforcement and inspection are particularly poignant topics when discussing meltdowns and explosions. When meltdowns and explosions do happen, they have typically been well contained and health issues are often exaggerated. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl has given nuclear power a bad rap - this is not to say it is an undeserved reputation because these tragedies certainly contaminated the environment and killed people. But pointing to accidents that occurred over 20 years ago as the reason to reject nuclear energy in the present seems like unfounded paranoia. For instance, the Chernobyl reactors (RBMK reactors) were of a flawed design. Even with this flawed design it produced energy for 30 years without a meltdown, and Chernobyl's explosion happened only after engineers with no knowledge of reactor physics violated several safety measures in an ill-conceived experiment. The Chernobyl explosion required the evacuation of 135,000 human inhabitants. Since the exodus, all but one of the animal species that had been run off or destroyed by the human activity has returned. This does not, however, indicate there are higher overall concentrations of animal populations or that there are no mutations in the animals that survive near Chernobyl. The long-term effects on humans measured in 2000 by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation determined that there was very little increase in cancer risks by those outside of a .5 KM radius of the reactor, directly contradicting claims often made by the media. RBMK reactors have since been retrofitted to prevent similar catastrophes from occurring. Most RBMK reactors have been shut down due to their age, and only 15 RBMKs are in operation world-wide. The Three Mile Island meltdown was caused similarly by design deficiencies, personnel error, and component failures. This meltdown was the main cause for halting nuclear power plant construction in the US. The same type of pressurized water reactors at Three Mile Island are still used at over 230 locations and several hundred more are used in naval propulsion systems without meltdowns or explosions. Currently, the US pressurized water reactors are experiencing degradation in operation from radioactive bombardment, and upkeep of nuclear power plants can cost hundreds of millions of dollars per decade.

If there have been only a few significant nuclear energy disasters, why is it we believe nuclear energy is such a terrible and destructive thing? Much of it has to do with how the media reports single-system failures in a network of fail-safes that has incredible depth to prevent nuclear catastrophes. However, there have only been a few significant nuclear accidents that occurred during 12,700 reactor-years of civil operation. Aside from the process itself, another concern for the nuclear energy industry is the possible targeting of nuclear power plants (like Al-Qaeda reportedly planned to do). This is a fear fueled by media outlets reporting that guards are sleeping at nuclear power plants in the US. However, sleeping guards wouldn't do much to protect against crashing a plane into a power plant, as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. Moreover, in the post-9/11 world, the nuclear energy industry has the highest security standards of any American industry, and the Obama administration recently vowed to increase those standards by providing more funding to secure and maintain nuclear materials. At US nuclear power plants there are several physical security measures taken, a response protocol to limit penetration of physical barriers, and measures to prevent cyber attacks on electronic systems. Further systems of protection are not disclosed to ensure the depth of security measures, and nuclear waste and weapons storage facilities have the same protections. A more likely source of a nuclear attack would be from a radiological bomb snuck in through one of the 15 million cargo containers shipped across the globe every year. Unfortunately, an attack similar to this is considered inevitable by many policy makers and analysts. Nuclear material has been made internationally available after several incidents like the collapse of nuclear powers or the selling of nuclear technologies by private corporations. For instance, Scomi group was a corporation that sold nuclear technology to Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Additionally, governments are in a constant search for radioactive material that has been lost - after the Soviet Union collapsed, there were thousands of abandoned items that could be used in radiological bombs, not to mention tactical nuclear weapons have been lost. This doesn't even include the amount of nuclear material the US fails to keep track of. The risk of non-state actors obtaining actual nuclear weapons is low, but the detonation of a radioactive bomb is an oft-discussed scenario. Scientists often refer to radioactive bombs as "Weapons of Mass Disruption" because of long-term contamination and a relatively low amount of deaths (most deaths would come from the explosion itself). Furthermore, there a large number of targets that would cause greater instantaneous damage. These targets include chemical plants, oil pipelines and refineries, and other types of power plants. Considering the number of safety precautions taken at nuclear facilities, it is more likely other industries would be targeted because of the higher risk of success and body count.

With all of these concerns in mind, there are a few solutions that could be adopted. One of the ways to convert weapons-grade materials into fuel is by processing it into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel - the US began construction on a MOX reprocessing plant in 2007 at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The Obama administration subsequently cancelled construction of the Savannah River Site MOX reprocessing plant in 2009. MOX fuel made at most MOX reprocessing plants are comprised of 8% plutonium and 92% uranium. This simultaneously prevents the plutonium from being used in a nuclear weapon or even a dirty bomb, and consumes depleted uranium stocks. One of the downsides to MOX is that, if it is not used in a breeder reactor (technology that is currently unavailable commercially), spent MOX fuel needs to cool for 150 years before it can be put into safe storage. It can also be reprocessed in a way that allows you to remove plutonium from it. France, a country where nuclear energy supplies over 70% of domestic energy, requires only one reprocessing plant (La Hague) to fuel all its other MOX-capable plants. La Hague is one of the facilities the Savannah River Site was modeled after. Concerns about reprocessing include the high expense of clean-up costs and fears of proliferation because reprocessing separates plutonium from other materials. The fears of proliferation have never been realized from La Hague, and environmental damage is minimal compared to other nuclear power plants. As previously mentioned, nuclear weapons are far more likely to come from failed states or unsavory salespersons rather than being stolen from a highly protected nuclear facility. Making the nuclear energy literally useless for all but the weakest of radioactive reduces the likelihood of it being weaponized by all but the most advanced nuclear powers.

An option that would allow the (almost) complete consumption MOX fuel are fast breeding reactors (FBRs). FBRs produce nuclear fuel (typically plutonium) while generating energy. There has been research in several areas to cool FBRs, but FBRs have failed in virtually every country (France, Germany, US, Japan, UK, Russia, and India) that has tried to build one. Cooling them is the biggest issue, and countries have experimented with gases and liquid metals to cool the reactors. Unfortunately, gas-cooled fast breeding reactors have never made it out of the developmental phase. Liquid metal fast breeding reactors (LMFBRs) have existed in several countries, but have been typically shut down after several years of failure. France has had the most success, but both of their LMFBRs (Phenix and Superphenix) were shut down by 2009. The Japanese FBR was shut down because of liquid sodium likes to explode when it comes into contact with just about anything (including oxygen). The clean-up costs at LMFBRs include removing the coolants that typically leech radiation from the reaction itself, though they can be processed to rid them of their radioactivity. The FBR is still an interesting design that should be pursued because its byproducts are less radioactive than other reactors. FBRs would also generate their own fuel, which would require less mining.

The most realistic solution to the majority of the problems listed above is a new type of nuclear reactor. There is a lot of research going on right now on different types of nuclear reactors, but the reactors I am most interested in are thorium-fueled reactors. The reasons being is that thorium is four times more abundant than uranium, and it causes far less environmental damage from start to finish. Furthermore, it does not produce byproducts that can be weaponized, and it can consume HLW stocks and old nuclear weapons for fuel. In fact, governments shunned thorium because it contains no fissile material to be weaponized, though the first commercial nuclear reactor in the US was run on thorium and uranium. It also literally incinerates weapons grade plutonium, and has been offered as a way to reduce nuclear weapons stocks and simultaneously produce energy. It is a cheaper alternative to MOX, and there is also a thorium reactor design (called Accelerator Driven Systems) that does not require uranium or plutonium once we're done incinerating those weapons stockpiles (Ha!). The ADS reactors would reduce the risk of a meltodwn and proliferation to zero. A shift to thorium could also power the US for 1,000 years while radically decreasing environmental damage - ADS reactors can also consume HLW for energy. Additionally, by many estimates, the systems to prevent meltdowns represent 75% of the operating cost of nuclear power plants. This would make power plants infinitely more affordable, while assuaging fears of meltdown and proliferation. Thorium reactors would also substantially reduce the amount of mining on Native American lands, and the stockpiles of nuclear waste we have gathered. By 2020, the US could retrofit all of its uranium reactors to use thorium and build an additional 50 thorium reactors (hah, that link says some unrealistic things, but you get the point). Another reason thorium is a more realistic option is because it is being researched by several countries. As India has 25% of the world's thorium, they are heavily researching thorium-based reactors to reduce their reliance on other nations for energy resources. India intends to export a new thorium power plant model that produces 300MW, and is currently pursuing a thorium fast breeder reactor. The plans for those 300MW power plants include creating reactors with a 30-year lifespan that are permanently sealed and can be buried after their fuel supply is exhausted. The Indian FBR is expected to be fully operational by 2011.

The ideas I am proposing are not intended to be the sole source of shifting away from fossil fuels, but one of the many alternatives that need to be used collaboratively, rather than competitively, to reduce global emissions. Further, there are literally hundreds of nuclear power plant reactor models that can be researched, but these are the solutions that would be the most actionable and cost-effective. The thorium reactor are probably the best hope we've got for solving the issue of nuclear waste, nuclear racism, meltdowns, explosions, and proliferation. Unfortunately, the US has currently only provided thorium research with $250 million (clearly a tiny amount when one of the current US nuclear power plants would require at least that much per decade of maintenance). If the US fails in its attempts at a viable commercial thorium reactor, there is still hope (at least for me) that another country we have nuclear agreements with, such as India, will make discoveries and pass the technology on. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading, and I hope to get another post up faster than this one. Future posts will be exploring the advantages and disadvantages of other types of green energy (solar, wind, wave, etc.), and proposals to improve them.

Just to let everyone know...

I'm working on a new post on nuclear power that should be up within the next few days. I can't seem to get the appropriate sized blocks of time together for writing, but hopefully I'll be forcing myself to do that once I get through the weekend. Looking for a job is taking up tons of my time right now, but hopefully my tax return will come in and financial security shall be temporarily in my grasp again. Sorry for keeping everyone waiting - most of these posts will not be as technically complex as the upcoming post will be. Comment and let me know if there is anything of particular interest to you right now - maybe it'll spark my interest in writing about it and I can educate myself a little more as well.


Adaptation, Reduction, and the Inevitability of Global Climate Change

I want to discuss the strategies of adaptation and reduction in lieu of all the news articles being published about National Economic Foundation's findings that economic growth is not possible if we want to prevent runaway climate change. One of the most disturbing findings in the article is, to prevent an increase of more than 2 degrees celsius of pre-industrial levels, the world needs to reduce carbon emissions by 95% of 2002 levels by 2050. This would require a global reduction of emissions at a rate of 6.5% per year compared to the Kyoto Protocol targeted decrease in emissions of 5.2% over 12 years. When looked at from what will probably be an impossible goal to reach barring economic collapse, we must seek a global strategy to adapt to climate change. This is not necessarily a reason to forsake global emissions reduction efforts, but it is a reason to be leery of arguments from climate change groups that denounce strategies to reduce emissions in the long-term.

The truth is, climate change is not something that will be solved by signing a treaty because emissions targets have historically been set too low. One of the reasons for such low targets is necessary greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are tied to an economic contraction, which makes sense because economic expansion is one of the determining factors in emissions output. Even while the US economy stagnates, the expansion of other economies prevents a net reduction of GHGs globally. This will become especially problematic since the emissions output of developing nations are predicted to eclipse the emissions output of developed nations by 2015. Another contributing factor is population increases create an exponential expansion of the global carbon footprint. However, like the researchers from the previous article, I'm not a big fan of government making policies on this issue. Government regulation coming from the Obama administration would probably include forced sterilization, while conservatives would prefer starving people to prevent breeding.

One of the fundamental factors for understanding climate change is realizing almost every human action has an effect on the global GHG footprint. It is also necessary to recognize that individual efforts to reduce emissions do little to combat vastly greater industrial emissions driven by economic interests. For instance, the 16 largest vessels in the shipping industry produce more GHGs than every car on the planet (not to mention the similar GHG production of the beef industry). Moreover, an increasing amount of CO2 is produced by energy and cement production, and gas flaring. Another problem facing reduction efforts is the length of time GHGs stay in the air. CO2 can remain trapped in the atmosphere for decades, if not millennia. Additionally, shifting to alternative energies in the US would, at the minimum, require building more than 20,000 miles of high-voltage cables and an investment of $60 billion. Instead of utilizing a US smart grid to bolster the low-emission alternative energy sector, the US intends to spend over $4 billion to provide people with a digital readout of their electricity use and decrease electricity demand by 4%.

With no foreseeable reduction in emissions at the required rate the average global temperature will rapidly increase. This change in climate will cause, at the very least, sea levels to rise several feet, an increase in unpredictable severe weather, food scarcity, fresh water scarcity, the destruction of sea life, and a massive release of GHGs that are currently sealed away in the permafrost. Many of these problems only have the solution of reducing the amount of GHGs, but since that is going to be impossible, it is necessary to develop strategies to mitigate the impacts of global climate change. Currently, the only stance being taken by international bodies is to respond to climate change catastrophes after the fact.

The battle against rising sea levels won't be won by building walls around low-lying areas because climate change also causes bigger waves. The current estimates suggest that sea levels could rise between 18 centimeters and 6 meters by 2100. Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation, is currently seeking a new home because of rising sea level rises, and we've already witnessed the first climate change refugees. Approximately 100 million people live less than 3 feet above sea level. Aside from moving further inland or to higher elevations, other solutions still include constructing walls and levees. These solutions have worked in places such as the Netherlands, but since deltas naturally subside and levees break, the Netherlands are beginning to design houses that float or are on stilts. Unfortunately, many countries that have a similar geographical landscape do not have the resources or infrastructure that would allow them to implement those same solutions in a timely manner.

As for unpredictable weather conditions? For two days this winter, Californians were in disbelief because they were experiencing tornado warnings. This doesn't include other climate change effects in the Northern hemisphere, such as a spike in the number of hurricanes we've experienced, or disappearing Arctic ice. In 2005, The London Times reported that melting ice would slow down ocean currents and cause sharp drops in temperature across northwestern Europe. Even prepared with the knowledge of the temperature drop, The London Times was reporting in 2010 that the UK had almost run out of its salt supply because of a long, deep freeze. Even though the Antarctic ice has been experiencing slight growth, ice shelves with natural rifts have been collapsing with the added stress of a warmer climate; and, as the hole in the ozone closes over Antarctica over the coming century, warmer temperatures are expected to eliminate more Antarctic ice.

The problems of food scarcity are being felt as food costs are driven higher. Though food expenses are increasing at a slower pace than many other commodities, families have been experiencing higher food costs as crops such as wheat skyrocket. In 2008, the world previewed what scares of rice scarcity, a crop that supplies more than 1/5th of all calories to the global population, will be like in the future. Some of the biggest culprits of food scarcity are farm subsidies and, consequently, agricultural dumping. As food insecurity fuels agricultural subsides, trade protections, and dumping, it prevents similarly priced imports from competing. This eventually forces the populations of developing nations into a cycle where growing food is unprofitable, and purchasing food is too expensive. The sad thing is, we produce enough food to provide every person with 2,700+ calories per day, but there are still 1 billion people starving in the world today. Instead of repealing subsides and tariffs, the G8's laughable solution is to provide $20 billion for farmers in developing nations to compete against $300 billion for farmers in developed nations.

As water scarcity becomes a reality, the US, in 2002, finally recognized the importance of incorporating water security agreements in international policy discussion. On the other hand, Israel, a country in a region lacking an abundance of fresh water, has included water policy in its agreements since its existence. Since 70% of the earth's fresh water is locked away in glaciers and ice caps, only 1% of earth's fresh water is usable by humans. Both a growing population increasing the demand for fresh water and global climate change are exacerbating the problem of water scarcity. In the US, a prolonged drought in 2007 brought Atlanta, Georgia to within 90 days of running out of water. In addition to agriculture's contribution to food scarcity, US agriculture is also responsible for 80% of all fresh water used. While Australia experiences the worst drought since the dust bowl, the Western US is finding itself the victim of a similar drought and a lack of viable solutions. Aside from the woes in developing nations, some 1.2 billion people in developing nations drink unclean water every day. Some solutions presented to developing nations have included ideas for consuming brackish water safely: donating filtered straws, planting moringa trees that have seeds capable of filtering harmful bacteria and solid contaminants, and distributing potable water generators. On a wider scale, people have looked at reusing household wastewater and reducing the cost of industrial-scale desalination efforts.

In addition to the oceanic destruction endemic to climate change, the oceans have been overfished to the point that only 10% of oceanic big fish remain. The population problem is being magnified as shells and skeletal structures of marine life begin to disintegrate because the ocean absorbs more CO2 and acidifies. At the predicted 2050 pH levels, shells of pteropods dissolve after only two days. By the end of the century, we could see the extinction of all the world's coral reefs. Coral reefs contain 25% of the world's marine life, and, historically, extinction of coral reefs has accompanied all of the earth's mass extinctions. Research has shown that marine biodiversity loss impairs the ocean's ability to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations. Once again, several years after ocean acidification was observed, US governmental agencies finally decided to assess its risks and seek solutions in 2009.

The last of the effects mentioned above is the 400 gigatons of methane and 1.5 trillion tons of carbon in the permafrost that are being released at an exponential rate. I personally find this scenario to be the most realistic and disconcerting impact of global climate change, as it is currently in a positive feedback loop causing ever-larger releases of methane. The positive feedback loop is happening because pockets of methane gas are being released across the melting Arctic ocean, which in turn causes the ice to melt even faster and more methane to be released as temperatures increase. Additionally, as temperatures increase bacteria begin to eat the frozen organic matter hidden beneath the melting permafrost and release methane as a byproduct. The methane released from the permafrost is also a cause of ocean acidification, and similar releases have been cited as a factor in biogeochemical changes in the ocean and atmosphere that is a common explanation for major marine extinctions. As usual, the Obama administration, instead of being proactive to stem the GHGs release, has caved to conservatives (what the Obama administration would refer to as a bipartisan decision) and allowed offshore drilling in Alaska. This drilling would require going through layers of the permafrost that have acted as a lid for methane pockets. Currently, governments are working to determine the viability of methane extraction from the permafrost. However, a challenge facing harvesting is that the permafrost stretches over 5 million square miles, which seems to indicate the GHGs will probably be released before they can be contained.

In the end it seems that without a major shift towards sustainability the effects we experience from climate change are going to become more severe. We need to be more proactive in every step to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or suffer consequences ranging from massive floods to mass extinctions. Hopefully this gives everyone some food for thought and provides some good reasons that climate change needs to be confronted immediately.


PS - I'm not sure if I'm going to make the next post something outside the environment, as all this reading has piqued my interest in the short-term. Thanks for reading! Subscribe to this blog or friend it or whatever happens on blogger.

Politicizing Climate Change and Shunning Science

A lot of what I'll be discussing in the future is going to deal with the environment and the effects of global climate change. Already clouding the debate are exaggerated projections and statistics peppering the arguments of both conservatives and progressives. So, first we'll examine what scientists, the media, and politicians have to say about it.

Following the trend in conservative politics for the past 30 years, denying reality is a tactic utilized by politicians and pundits alike. The right enjoys broadly misunderstanding the word 'climate' - a word that, by definition, requires monitoring long-term effects. Rush Limbaugh claims that global warming is proven untrue when record lows in 2/3rds of the northern hemisphere were reported during 2009's winter (I know it's too easy, but I can't resist beginning with everyone's favorite target). While pointing this out, Limbaugh fails to recognize that after 2001 we experienced the 8 warmest years in history. More recent studies indicate that the past decade was the hottest on record. As conservative pundits point out that cold weather has proved global warming a hoax, the symptoms of global climate change are becoming visible across the globe. In 2006, major media outlets briefly mentioned the extinction of at least 65 amphibian species in Central and South America; in 2009, sailors using the Northeast Passage said that the Arctic ice is 10 times smaller than it was 20 years ago, and since 1975 there has been a steady increase of severe weather in the forms of hurricanes and tropical storms as temperatures rise.

Another way people deny responsibility for global climate change is by claiming temperature increases are natural or cyclical. However, when Sarah Palin posits global warming is not man-made then it is only reasonable to intuit that global climate change most certainly is man-made. These three graphs show the correlation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the increase in global temperatures. Methane (CO4), a distant second in quantity to CO2, could be up to 33 times more efficient than CO2 at trapping warm air in the atmosphere. This graph shows concentrations of the three most common greenhouse gases (GHGs) spiking towards the end of the 20th century - just before the warmest decade in history. When experts are polled, over 80% of scientists agree that global warming is man-made, and 97% of active climatologists agree that humans are a contributing factor to global warming. The idea of man-made climate change is so widely accepted by politicians and governmental agencies that climatologists denying the truth of man-made climate change have thankfully been ostracized for their views.

This is not to say that there haven't been untruths published about climate change by supportive scientists or progressives. After years of attempting to debunk the 2007 IPCC report (a report that provided timeframes for climate change and guidelines for managing its predicted effects), conservative media finally discovered a mistake in the research regarding Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035. The IPCC has publicly acknowledged its mistake and backed away from the date 2035 citing poor evaluation standards, but the documented retreat of the Himalayan glaciers has led the IPCC to extend the timeframe for the disappearance of the glaciers until the end of this century. Climategate, a recent scandal centered around the actual facts used by the IPCC to determine whether climate change is indeed occurring, would have been a thorn in the side of all climatologists had there not been information corroborating the numbers of temperature increase at the rate of more than .3 degrees per decade from NASA. The cover-up discovered by the email sleuths was an attempt to omit data of brief aberrations in temperature because the scientists could not explain the fluctuations (maybe NASA could help out on this one, too?).

With all of this evidence telling us to reduce GHG emissions or suffer the consequences, the United States has historically backed away from global initiatives for reduction. The funny thing is, the United States adopted a cap and trade system in the 1990s to reduce SO2, and the cap and trade system has successfully cut SO2 emissions by half since 1980. However, the US is still being stubborn about participating in the most recent permutation of global climate change initiatives. Now, who or what is to blame for all of this climate change denial and why is there such a large group of deniers that remains a viable political force? The answer is probably going to be as complicated as it sounds. We'll stick to some basic answers for now, and go more in-depth in future posts.

First, there are groups that actively lobby to maintain our reliance on fossil fuels. Green technology is commonly framed as too expensive to be competitive in a free market, denying the truth that US biofuels - which emit as many GHGs as fossil fuels - are subsidized for mass production while imported biofuels are subject to tariffs, keeping biofuels artificially profitable. The agriculture lobby in America appears to be all about socialism, pouring $80 million per year into lobbying to retain $13 billion in subsidies (what conservatives should invariably refer to as "handouts") - money that could be spent on subsidizing actual green technology. An awesomely short-sighted public doesn't hurt the corporate agenda, either. Pietro Nivola, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution, indicates that new oil discoveries reinforce the fantasy that there is an almost unlimited supply of oil. However, the march to maintain GHG emissions does not solely come from conservatives or big business. Nuclear energy - a topic that will be covered extensively in future posts - is a non-GHG producing source of energy. Many progressive organizations fight nuclear energy for various reasons. Environment America, a non-profit that works to reduce emissions and typically shuns the strategy of adaptation, is concerned that investing in nuclear energy will prevent us from switching to 'limitless' fuel supplies, such as wind or solar energy. Other lefty groups claim it is too costly and unsafe; however, nuclear power using thorium instead of uranium has been proven safe in hundreds of governmental experiments. France, a country that generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, enjoys some of the lowest energy costs and lowest emissions from energy production among developed nations and has yet to experience a 3 Mile Island- or Chernobyl-type disaster. Nuclear energy - good for the environment and the soul (unless it kills 1 billion fish a year).

That's about it for now. I'll be back later this week to do a little more writing. I enjoyed blogging about the environment, so I'll probably continue to delve deeper into that topic. And remember - if you don't think man-made climate change is occurring, you're probably wrong!


Edited to add: This was written in part because Republicans and Democrats are attempting to push legislation through to prevent the EPA from placing limits on emissions.

Some things I'll be looking at

The overarching themes I'll be exploring are: the environment, the gay agenda, the economy, public health, bureaucratic realities, drug policy, education policy, gun control, and a look at the prison industrial complex, police, and other public services.

Hey All

Hopefully I can get up and running within the next week. I’m between employment and just need an outlet to put things in the public sphere and have a healthy discussion about them. Most of the policies examined will be domestic, there will also be discussion on the American approach to certain policy questions, and most foreign policy will be discussed as it concerns domestic conditions (i.e. the consequences of military use regarding economic or mental health issues). Questions are welcome and citations are preferred in support of argumentation. I’m building a calendar to discuss things in the upcoming future and have been taking requests from friends who are curious about politics but not necessarily interested enough to sift mindlessly through blogs and news sites discussing the same topic from multiple perspectives. Not everything here will necessarily be currently topical, but all discussions will most likely be topical in the near future.