Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, ten years on: What the response to 9/11 can tell us about responding to climate change

I'm not going to link to a big picture of the towers burning, OK? We're all going to see enough of that today.

No one is going to hold up our response to 9/11 as a model of success. In retrospect, we ought to have spent more time pushing the Taliban to turn on Al Qaeda. We ought to have started and finished with ruthless intelligence work/assassination -- the thing that ultimately brought Bin Laden down. But it is a model of what we can do; the resources we command and the lengths to which we can go without sacrificing our first-world lifestyle.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us $2 trillion so far. (Operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya are a statistical flutter by comparison at this point.) We are on the hook for a total of $3 trillion when we include things like veteran's benefits, healthcare, replacing gear and evacuating the two countries.

We did all that without throwing away our smartphones, doing our washing by hand, or living in tents. What would $3 trillion get us in climate mitigation? 

The cost of new nuclear capacity is somewhere between $2,100/kW -- $5,000/kW, depending on the particular project. In 2007 (per wikipedia) the total installed electricity generation capacity in the United States was 1,088 Gigawatts, 20% of which was already nuclear power,  and of which the fossil fuel contribution was 857 GW (1 GW = 10^6 kW). So with a middle-of the road $3,500/kW, replacing the entire fossil fuel base with nuclear power would cost $2.66 trillion. We'd have some money left over for more wind and solar capacity to beef up the grid for our electric cars.

In the real world, we wouldn't go all-in on power generation; we'd get the most bang for our buck by attacking on a number of fronts. We could expand weatherization programs from low-income homeowners to all homeowners, and commercial businesses too (heating and cooling buildings represents about a third of our electricity consumption). We could upgrade our power grid to minimize transmission losses (6% of generated electricity is lost in transmission).

We don't have to spend trillions to get these improvements. A reasonable carbon tax will lead industry and consumers to make these changes on their own dime. But we could. In the last ten years we spent trillions in the service of the "1% doctrine" -- the notion that any chance of an attack on our soil like 9/11 justified massive efforts at prevention. With global warming, the same people who sold us the 1% doctrine on weapons of mass destruction are now advocating the opposite approach to climate change -- that until we are greater than 99% certain of disaster, until the 1% of doubt, not about climate change, but about the scale of the destruction -- is removed, we should not act to prevent it.

And this cynical doctrine is promoted with horror stories of green extremists forcing us back to the living standards of the 17th century to halt climate change. But it is 21st century technology, not Ludditism, that is the backbone of mitigation strategies. Yes, it's going to cost some money. But keep that in perspective. Most of my readers are Americans. You and I have spent $2 trillion in the last decade on the threat of terrorism. Do you see lamplighters and horse-drawn carriages in the streets? No? Then maybe we should take the fearmongering of do-nothings with a grain of salt.

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