Why I Will be Voting Against Motherhood and Apple Pie on Monday Night

GELFAND’S WORLD- On the evening of Monday, September 16, I expect I will be voting against motherhood and apple pie.

At least that’s how some of my fellow neighborhood council board members probably are thinking of a particular motion that will be coming before us. Most of that motion is good. It deals with the attempt by the city of Los Angeles to rid its electric generation from the use of fossil fuels. I’m very much a global warming hawk, so I’m totally in favor of the DWP getting to carbon neutral electricity generation as soon as possible. And I think that it is possible. But details in the motion are troublesome at best.

Notice that I referred to the goal of getting our utilities to carbon neutrality. In practice, that means that we should be putting no more CO2 into the atmosphere than we take out of it. In an ideal world, we might even take more CO2 out of the atmosphere than we put into it. That’s what is meant by the term carbon sequestration. I’m totally in favor of our nation and the other nations of the world investing research dollars into improved methods for taking up CO2 and storing it away in stable form. Even better, let’s figure out ways to chemically reduce it -- that’s a technical term I’m using here – it refers to pulling the oxygens away from the carbon atom by using solar electric power.

What is this apple pie item that I plan to vote against? Here’s the section that I have a problem with. It refers to an ongoing process by which the DWP is supposed to study how to get to completely renewable energy:

“Therefore be it resolved the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council requests that the Los Angeles Mayor and City Council and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) ensure the Renewable Energy Study (1) establishes the goal of 100% Renewable Energy by 2030, (2) excludes any use of methane, biomass, biogas, nuclear energy, and unbundled renewable energy credits, and (3) includes a series of public meetings to communicate the progress of the Study and to gain public input”.

Section 1 is righteous. No problem at all. Let’s get down to zero net release of carbon dioxide as soon as possible. Eleven years is probably pushing things a bit, but we should be creating ambitious goals and doing our best to achieve them.

It’s section 2 that is a problem. In order to defend my position, it’s going to take some explaining. So here goes.

To start with, we need to establish the point that there is a true climate emergency. It’s been a long time coming and it’s unfolding slowly compared to things like terrorist acts and epidemics. But the first serious elements of global climate change due to global warming are already here. We’re seeing it in the fact that the hottest years on record have been appearing recently and, concomitantly, we’re seeing dramatic losses of polar ice. We’re also seeing increasingly severe storms that are fed by warming oceans, in particular the hurricanes that have destroyed substantial parts of Caribbean and south Atlantic island nations, not to mention much of Houston, New Orleans, and Florida. And this has all happened within a relatively few years.

One recent article reprinted here in CityWatch tells the story in heartfelt terms.  Joelle Gergis explains that we are about to lose the world’s coral reefs (an important part of the ecosystem in parts of the world) due to the toxicity of increased water temperatures. The damage to coral is just one part of the story, but most of us know what reef life looks like and, I’m sure, most of us would mourn its passing.

Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide along with increases in average temperatures will mean widescale interruptions to habitats. Species will become extinct by thousands and then tens of thousands. It is an ongoing catastrophe.

It is also a moral issue, as we humans are going to be the cause of this mass death sentence to countless other life forms.

There are also some serious damages that will befall humanity itself. Not the least will be the introduction of tropical diseases and pests into our once-temperate lands. Will yellow fever become a California malady? Authorities are already talking about dengue fever. We also will have to consider how to protect ourselves against heat waves that would be fatal to most people if they were forced to endure them without artificial protection. What happens if the valley is exposed to sustained temperatures above 125 degrees for most of a week?

So, to summarize the first part of the argument, there is a major ongoing catastrophe that is likely to get worse in the short run and could be widely fatal after a little more time.

So why do I plan to vote against the motion coming to my neighborhood council on Monday night? It’s simple. The motion, if ever a governmental entity took such things seriously, is itself self-defeating. It rules out technologies that could potentially help in defeating carbon dioxide buildup and its resultant global warming.

There is one prohibition that is arguably not that bad. The resolution rejects any use of methane after 2030. This may be the best part of section 2 since methane is itself a greenhouse gas of particularly large effect. But what of biomass and biogas? If for example the region were to develop a system of algal ponds which would effectively sequester carbon dioxide as biomass (in other words, the algae suck up CO2 and turn it into more algae) then we could be on our way to a carbon dioxide neutral system. If we grow as much algal mass as we burn, then we have achieved carbon neutrality for that part of the system. It’s a lot better for the world than burning oil or coal.

But biomass and biogas are probably just put into the resolution to achieve a sort of mathematical purity to the zero-carbon concept. The real point here is the demand that nuclear power be ruled out entirely.

The arguments against the use of nuclear energy to generate electric power are generally well known. I would argue that in the face of the current climate emergency those arguments are superficial and facile.

Let’s consider. The most legitimate arguments involve the small danger of a modern nuclear plant exploding or imploding or melting down in some way. Although we could argue that we’ve learned a lot from a very few incidents such as Three Mile Island and have improved our technology accordingly, we can’t pretend that no such incident could ever occur in the future. The other argument involves the long term storage of spent fuel. I don’t think it is necessary to attempt a full scale response to these concerns, but there is one point that I would like to underscore. For the most part, concerns about nuclear power are in fact concerns about risks to human life and health in the immediate vicinity of a plant or a waste storage facility. Not to be snide, but these arguments are basically another version of Not In My Backyard. If the San Onofre plant had blown sky high, it would have imperiled many of us who live along the coast, but it would not have affected the polar ice cap or any of the millions of species that are presently threatened by increasing global warming. And like other nuclear plants of its general design, it did not blow up.

Reasonable calculations suggest that we could make a dent in global warming over the next couple of decades if we take the problem seriously, and that means we have to use all techniques at our disposal. Replacing coal generated electricity with the next generation of nuclear plants is one such possibility. To avoid even thinking about such attempts is to submerge oneself in ideological quicksand. It is to get oneself stuck in a version of the party line that derives from thinking narrowly about our human comforts without concerning oneself with the ongoing damage to the rest of life.

Maybe we need a new term – something like species-ism – to convey the moral attributes of refusing to use all available measures to combat global warming. It’s a clumsy term, but humanist is already taken and means something entirely different. What we refer to is the human propensity to imagine that everything else in heaven and earth is here for us to exploit and, if need be, destroy in pursuit of our own comfort.

Argument by and from authority

In speech class, you are taught that argument from authority is weaker than argument by logical inference. (Argument through attacking the character or motives of your opponents is considered the weakest form of argument.) OK, I’m going to use a little argument from authority here.

I recently attended a class reunion at my old alma mater MIT. It was particularly interesting to discover that the current version of radical thinkers (at least in terms of global warming) appear to be the faculty and administration. In previous columns I have sometimes pointed out that although I can’t be an expert on very many things, I’ve developed an intuition (and logic) for who I can trust. Put it this way: I trust the MIT faculty to speak honestly and competently about science more than I trust talk radio or even elected officials. This does not extend to political views, obviously, but when it comes to discussions of how mathematical modeling works for predicting climate change, there is an obvious hierarchy of competence and honesty.

Interestingly, the reunion weekend included a series of talks by faculty members (and one MIT grad who is now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). That session concentrated on climate change and what we can (and must) do about it. After listening to the experts, it became clear that the situation is even worse than I assumed. When one of the faculty members, at the completion of her talk, said plainly, “We need nuclear power,” there was no complaint either from the other panel members or from the audience. And, I might add, everybody there was technically educated to the extent that the institution required its students to take training in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, and most of us had taken advanced training in either an engineering discipline or in one of the sciences.

The logic of the situation and the testimony of the experts leads me to the conclusion that we are in an ongoing climate emergency, that we have a limited collection of tools available to us, and we can’t arbitrarily throw away any one of those tools.

So that’s why I plan to vote against the resolution coming up.

I take global warming seriously. Even politicians refer to it as an existential crisis, meaning a danger to our continued existence as a civilized species. We are going to need all the tools that are available, and the chance to generate a fifth of our electricity in a carbon neutral way is too good to pass up.

One last point. This argument does not mean that the United States is required to build dozens or hundreds of reactors using the same designs and construction practices that have been ruinous to investors in recent years. It does mean that we need to stay open minded about variations on current technology and possible new technologies. The argument does say that we must not automatically rule out an entire realm of energy because it uses fission instead of photon energy.

By the way, there was an additional talk at my reunion about newer technologies for storing electricity obtained from solar power. The developing technology uses metals and salts heated to liquid form. The investment market refers to such devices as liquid metal batteries. What’s particularly useful about them is that they don’t rely on lithium ions. The speaker pointed out that we should develop such technologies using cheap, commonly available elements. In his words, “If you want it to be dirt cheap, get it from dirt.” There are working models (in small scale) at the moment, not only from this group but from other competing but related technologies.

I had been hoping to show a video of this talk at the annual neighborhood council congress meeting this September 28 (be sure to register and to sign up for the emergency preparedness meeting in session 1). Unfortunately, this has not, so far, worked out, but we shall see.

And now for something completely the same

We seem to have a major international problem what with the attack on the Saudi oil refinery. In any of the more recent decades, this would have been a major international crisis resulting in overtime hours at the U.N. Security Council, banner headlines around the globe, and the placing of American and European forces on high alert. Even a couple of decades ago, the attacks might very well have been enough to induce a worldwide economic crisis and associated recession. The older generation may remember the oil shocks of the early 1970s that led to a permanent financial slowdown.

We have a second problem as a nation that goes beyond the financial issues. We have a government that has lost pretty much every shred of credibility. For example, one administration spokesperson who was featured on the national news was Kellyanne Conway. Why should any sane person suddenly decide that she is credible this week? We’ve got plenty of reason to doubt that credibility based on three years of deceptive practice.

Even more serious sorts of administration types are left in the shade of the administration and its president. Is Mike Pompeo a more serious sort than Kellyanne? Even I would have to concede that much, but it’s kind of a So What. And that’s because it’s well known that every high ranking official in this administration is subject to being undercut by the president (often enough by a middle-of-the-night tweet) on any topic and on any day.

We’ve gotten to a real world version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

The great negotiator

The propensity for lying isn’t the only thing. The president has also shown that his threats and bluster are not really fully meant. I’m trying to think of a clever way of saying that the guy folds like a player with nine high and his last two dollars in his pocket, but you get the drift. Trump was used to blustering and bluffing subcontractors in his shady business dealings, but world leaders aren’t in the same class. They have assets and advisors and they have gotten Trump’s number. Equally to the point, dictators (think Iran) are not as subject to public opinion as Trump’s legislative supporters back home. Maybe Iran was behind the Saudi refinery attack, but Trump is in such a weakened position with respect to our allies that we will be effectively on our own in the event of increasing hostilities. Maybe the English Prime Minister will take Trump’s side, but he seems to be bound up in troubles of his own at the moment.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)



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