It Will Take More than Holocaust Analogies

November 26th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Andy Revkin reports on a spat between NASA’s James Hansen and Kraig R. Naasz, the president of the National Mining Association. You can go read the details at Dot Earth. After you do that you might mull over the following factoids (emphasis added). . .

From the International Energy Association’s 2007 World Energy Report (PDF):

In line with the spectacular growth of the past few years, coal sees the biggest increase in demand in absolute terms, jumping by 73% between 2005 and 2030 and pushing its share of total energy demand up from 25% to 28%. Most of the increase in coal use arises in China and India. . . Higher oil and gas prices are making coal more competitive as a fuel for baseload generation. China and India, which already account for 45% of world coal use, drive over four-fifths of the increase to 2030 in the Reference Scenario. In the OECD, coal use grows only very slowly, with most of the increase coming from the United States. In all regions, the outlook for coal use depends largely on relative fuel prices, government policies on fuel diversification, climate change and air pollution, and developments in clean coal technology in power generation. The widespread deployment of more efficient power-generation technology is expected to cut the amount of coal needed to generate a kWh of electricity, but boost the attraction of coal over other fuels, thereby leading to higher demand.

From some excellent reporting by the Christian Science Monitor:

In all, at least 37 nations [in Asia, Americas, EU, and elsewhere] plan to add coal-fired capacity in the next five years – up from the 26 nations that added capacity during the past five years. With Sri Lanka, Laos, and even oil-producing nations like Iran getting set to join the coal-power pack, the world faces the prospect five years from now of having 7,474 coal-fired power plants in 79 countries pumping out 9 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually – out of 31 billion tons from all sources in 2012.

One can understand why Stanford’s David Victor offers a less-than-optimistic view of the issue, here is part of his comment posted at Dot Earth:

The reason coal matters so much is that it offers the best route for getting leverage on emissions–because coal is used mainly in large central generating stations that are managed by professionals and where economies of scale favor the installation of carbon storage, etc.

That means that simple-sounding solutions like shutting coal plants or passing moratoria are politically impractical and also probably will set back the cause. For example, some existing stations may offer cheaper routes for controlling emissions (such as through installation of post combustion capture) than building brand new units. We don’t know which routes will work, and until we know some more–which requires a much larger effort–it is hard to know what exactly to recommend.

Our group at Stanford has started tracking CCS projects, and what’s striking to us is that if you add up ALL the projects you get to an effort that is perhaps 1/100 of what is actually needed to halt emissions. The whole policy effort, so far, is Potemkin–it looks nice on the surface, but there’s little behind the facade. And to pin all that on coal isn’t right. The problem is us.

The reality is that energy from coal is here to stay. That David Victor sees coal plants as part of the solution to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and James Hansen does not illustrates how widely experts who agree on the need to limit emissions disagree on energy policy.

One Response to “It Will Take More than Holocaust Analogies”

  1. Mark Bahner Says:


    I just made the following comments on the NYT blog:

    James Hansen’s analogy lacks any semblance of science. He states: “If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.”

    But what does that mean? How many “uncountable” species his he talking about? How many “species” fit in a boxcar…and how fast is the train moving?

    Per Wikipedia, the 2006 International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) “Red List” of threatened species contains the following information:

    “From the species evaluated as a whole, 16,118 were considered threatened. Of these, 7,725 were animals, 8,390 were plants, and three were lichen and mushrooms.”

    Of those 16,118 species considered “threatened” in the 2006 IUCN Red List, how many is James Hansen predicting will go extinct in the next 100 years if we do not act to reduce CO2 emissions, and how many is he will go extinct if we do act?

    Science is all about making quantifiable predictions that can be shown to be false or true. “Boxcars” of species isn’t science. Absent any quantitative and verifiable predictions from Dr. Hansen in this matter (both with and without actions to reduce CO2 emissions), he should simply be ignored.