Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Polar Bears, Wheat Futures, and Nuclear Reactors

What could Polar Bears, Wheat Futures, and Nuclear Reactors have in common?

There are millions of things in the world that can be measured (quantified, in science speak). At any given time roughly half of all measured things will be headed lower and half headed higher. Sometimes when two sets of numbers are headed in the same direction there is a causal link. One thing influences the other, or both are influenced by a third cause.

So, as many an oil company executive has observed, if indeed global temperatures are rising and so is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that in itself does not prove that carbon dioxide emissions lead to global warming. Of course oil-industry types and anti-environmentalists often will not even admit that global temperatures are rising.

This summer the ice in the arctic melted on an unprecedented scale. Reports are that a number of scientists who were reserving judgement on global warming threw in the towel and are finally agreeing that we are not just seeing some normal fluctuations in climate. Global warming is real and its root cause is carbon dioxide emmissions from burning fossil fuels.

Polar bears, of course, are a large species of mammal that is seeing a dramatic impact from global warming. The melting ice means starving and drowning polar bears.

Wheat has become very expensive. Here the causes are more complex, but go back to global warming. The consequences are dire, as well. Already the increased price of wheat means that budgets, from family budgets to humanitarian aid budgets, can't buy as much wheat flour. Calory counts are heading lower, and where famine is already a problem some carefully constructed statistics would probably show that the mortality rate for humans is climbing.

Wheat production has fallen for two reasons. One is widespread drought in key wheat producing areas, including in the U.S. and Australia. Droughts come and go, but most climate scientists believe that global warming is making them worse. The other factor is ethanol (which is the same subtance found in alcoholic beverages). Rather than raising the mileage per gallon requirements of automobiles, the Federal Government in its wisdom has decided to subsidize ethanol production as a substitute for gasoline. Corn (maize) is used to make ethanol in the U.S. That new use competes with corn for fattening animals, and making corn bread, popcorn, high-fructose corn syrup, etc. The value of corn sold by farmers has zoomed upward. So farmers started planting more corn and less wheat. The demand for wheat did not decrease, so the price of wheat has climbed as well. Wheat futures are the buying and selling of wheat in advance of its physical availability; they tell us where prices are heading. Up.

Next year, reacting to higher prices, farmers might plant less corn and more wheat. But the amount of viable agricultural land is limited; both cannot go up at the same time.

Which brings us to nuclear reactors. These formerly discredited (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island) machines can produce energy without significantly contributing to global warming. Does that mean they are a good idea?

Suppose nuclear power meets all new demand for energy, and even picks up some of the slack from carbon-based fuels as oil production continues to decline. Suppose the problems of disposing of radioactive waste and protecting the plants from terrorists (and more likely and dangerous: incompetent engineers, builders, and operators) were solved. What would that get us?

Very little. With unlimited power and ever-intensifying agricultural efforts we would just do one more lap of the Malthusian spiral. A larger human population would mean more ecological destruction. More polution. And more people just a few calories a day from starvation. It would buy the earth's ancient life-culture a few decades at most.

I see only two viable paths. One is cutting way back. Cutting back on the number of children people have, so that in a generation or two the earth's biped population falls substantially. Cutting back on energy consumption in rich nations. Cutting back on jet-enabled tourism. Cutting back on automobiles. Cutting back on air-conditioning.

The other is moving energy-intensive processes off-planet. Put the nuclear reactors on the moon, make the toasters and flat-screen TV's and Priuses there, then slip them down the gravity well to earth for distribution.

Best of all, do both. Even with much production moved off-planet, I don't think this earth can support more than about 1 billion humans over the long run.

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