Global Warming Stopped in 1998! (If You Don't Count 2012, That Is!)

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
—Mark Twain

We’ve heard it time and time again. “Global warming stopped in 1998.” An argument heard frequently from skeptics and deniers is that global warming stopped 14 years ago. Never mind that this claim was debunked long ago. Skeptical Science has done a great job of explaining the fallacy of this oft-quoted argument used against the evidence.

It turns out 2005 was the hottest year on record globally. Americans often forget there’s a whole world out there beyond their own borders, quoting that 1998 was the hottest year for them. However, it’s even easy to refute that one: I’ve posted many times on this blog how as each month passes, the record for the hottest 12-month block in the US has been broken. A year is a year is a year, whether it’s from January to December, or August to July.

To help put the issue this myth to bed, the long-held record from 1998 seems destined to be broken by the year 2012. As the National Climatic Data Center (a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has announced, this January to August is the hottest on record for the contiguous US. Continue reading

Happy 50th Birthday, Environmentalism!

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
—Rachel Carson

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of a very important piece of history. Rachel Carson wrote her seminal book “Silent Spring” to express concern about the haphazard use of pesticides—particularly DDT—without looking into them more thoroughly. She argued that we needed to understand the impact of pesticides on ecosystems and on the health of living creatures, including us. Her book is often heralded what helped launch the environmental movement and she had (and still has) many fans all over the world. One important individual who took notice of her message was none other than President John F. Kennedy Continue reading

How Americans Who Watch Fox News or Read the Wall Street Journal Are Misled

“An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious – just dead wrong.”
—Russell Baker

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans are skeptical of global warming and climate change? Despite the fact that most people around the world accept it as fact, and every national academy of science around the planet has made statements supporting not only that global warming is real, but that at present we’re the main culprit. Republicans make up the greatest percentage of deniers, but even Democrats have a ways to go to catch up with other countries around the world in believing the science.

It can’t only be the wing of the political spectrum that explains it. For example, in Canada we have a conservative government, one that is frequently criticized as aggravating the problem of climate change by developing the tar sands in Alberta, and not doing enough to help clean up our emissions. (Canada is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter per capita, behind Australia and the US.)

But even the majority of conservatives in Canada acknowledge that global warming is real. Only two percent of the country deny global warming is real according to a recent poll. The Prime Minister and his government simply prefer to put their efforts into helping the economy of today more than the environment of tomorrow. (And to be fair, Canada’s economy weathered the global recession much better than most countries around the world as a result of that approach.)

A new poll from the Union of Concerned Scientists may shed some light on the matter as to why so many Americans are skeptical of global warming and climate change. Continue reading

Nuclear Energy: Is It Part of the Solution or Not?

“Nuclear power will help provide the electricity that our growing economy needs without increasing emissions. This is truly an environmentally responsible source of energy.”
—Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas (R)

“It’s ridiculous that time and time again we need a radioactive cloud coming out of a nuclear power-station to remind us that atomic energy is extraordinarily dangerous.”
—Pierre Schaeffer, French composer and activist in the anti-nuclear movement

I hear it again and again. “Nuclear power is something we have to use if we want to get off fossil fuels.” And just as often, I hear “Nuclear power is something we should avoid, given the threats from radiation.” I wanted to look into this issue a little more to see if I could get some proper perspective.

At present, nuclear energy is derived from splitting atoms and harnessing the released energy associated with the reaction to generate steam, rotate turbines and generate electricity. About half of the world’s nuclear energy comes from only three countries: the US, France and Japan. There are 28 other countries that use nuclear energy with a total of 436 nuclear reactors in use throughout the world. The US generates the most, but France generates the highest percentage of its electricity from nuclear power, at 80 percent.

So what are some of the positives about nuclear energy?

  • It’s sustainable because the radioactivity from elements such as uranium isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Uranium-238 which can be used in nuclear reactors by bombarding it with neutrons which leads to fission reactions has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, about the age of our solar system. If you want to argue that’s not sustainable and renewable, well don’t forget our sun isn’t going to last forever either.
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions because it lessens the need for combustion of fossil fuels and has almost no pollution associated with it.
  • It can be generated right here at home, eliminating dependence on imported sources of energy such as oil.
  • It can provide base-load energy requirements—unlike intermittent renewables such as solar and wind—and is already cheap and ready for prime-time without requiring years of further research and development in order to be a competitive alternative to fossil fuels.

And what about some of the negatives?

  • There is risk to processing, transporting and storage of used nuclear fuel (what many refer to as nuclear waste).
  • The nuclear fuel that is used can also be used by terrorists to build atomic weapons.
  • Uranium mining just like other types of mining contributes toward increased health risks as well as damage to the environment.
  • There is a risk of nuclear accidents, as Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have demonstrated.

Issues like nuclear energy are complicated, and I’m not convinced the answer is completely straightforward on this one. There are groups like the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (to which I belong) that are opposed to nuclear energy, citing that there is no such thing as a truly safe level of ionizing radiation and that any amount is harmful to human health. (Of course, that doesn’t stop us from getting X-rays and CT scans when those tests are indicated.)

And there are people like James Lovelock (creator of the Gaia hypothesis) and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) who point out that the risks are very much overblown and do not justify dispensing with this very important source of energy available to us right now rather than in many years after further R & D.

Here are some interesting facts about nuclear energy:

  • Only about five percent of the energy is obtained from uranium. Ninety five percent is still contained within used nuclear fuel and can be recycled and used again. But recycled uranium costs more (just like recycled plastic, aluminum and paper products cost more) so most countries aren’t using much of it, even though it leads to less used fuel in the end with shorter half-lives.
  • Used nuclear fuel comes in the form of pellets rather than as a liquid as many people imagine, so it isn’t corrosive and can’t leak out of containers.
  • Second and third generation nuclear reactors are much more efficient and safer than the first generation reactors. Even the type of reactor involved in the Chernobyl disaster (RBMK class) was improved for safety and operations once Russia asked for assistance from the West, such that the other three Chernobyl RBMK reactors continued to operate for 13 years after the accident. Even today, eleven RBMK reactors are used in Russia.

The issue of nuclear disasters frequently comes up in conversations about nuclear energy. Are you aware of how many people died with the three nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?

  • Three Mile Island: zero deaths immediately. Estimated one or two in the years following within a ten mile radius (so few making it difficult to be certain).
  • Chernobyl: 31 died at the accident itself. With radiation exposure, likely a few hundred died in the following decade, although some extreme estimates place the number much higher.
  • Fukushima: six died in the accident itself but they were all related to the damage from the quake and the tsunami rather than radiation. Only time will tell how many lives may be lost from the long-term consequences of radiation exposure.

Certainly any risk of loss of life is best if it can be avoided. But to put it in some perspective, it is estimated that there about 5,000 deaths due to mining accidents each year, most of those occurring in China. (China reported 6,027 deaths from coal-mining in 2004 alone.) Hazardous yet undetectable gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen can also suffocate miners deep in shafts, explaining why canaries were used as warning signs.

There are also chronic risks to workers in the coal-mining industry: black lung—also known as pneumoconiosis—affects about four percent of miners in the US. And the risks to the general public from radiation have to be compared with the risks that come from burning fossil fuels. These include global warming, climate change, pollution, and increased levels of tropospheric or ground-level ozone.

If you’re getting the impression that I’m a proponent of nuclear energy, then you’re right. I don’t see how we can get off fossil fuels to any appreciable amount without nuclear energy helping out in the transition phase. I can totally imagine some day in the future when renewables such as hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal provide the bulk of the world’s electricity needs. But with increased costs, intermittency, and problems with battery capacity and energy storage interfering with some of those as viable alternatives to completely replace fossil fuels in the year 2012, I don’t see much other option for now.

I’ll take nuclear energy over fossil fuels any day. And if I can’t have wind and solar completely today, then I think nuclear is a major way to help in the meantime.


The Montreal Protocol 25 Years Later

Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.”
—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations

Twenty five years ago this month, the Montreal Protocol was opened for signatures. The protocol involved countries from all over the world and was put into force on January 1,1989. Its purpose was to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had been used commonly as refrigerants, propellants in aerosol cans, and solvents. CFCs are known to damage the ozone layer, a component of the atmosphere that helps protect us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

Many today consider that the Montreal Protocol helped to safeguard the ozone layer from ongoing damage due to CFCs, ultimately leading to millions of future lives saved, and avoiding a complete global catastrophe altogether. It’s worthwhile to review the story of how we accomplished this task and see if there are any lessons we can take from the story so we can apply them to the problems we now face with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global warming. Continue reading