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Hansen trashes renewable energy

I just noticed an interesting criticism of renewable energy on James Hansen's website:


This site is effectively Hansen's blog. The relevant document is called "Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid" dated July 29th 2011.

Hansen, probably the world's most famous climate scientist, is often portrayed as a Green activist by environmental journalists and also by the AGW sceptic blogosphere. A few days ago he was arrested over a protest against a tar sands oil pipeline. But it would be more accurate to describe him as a sort of American equivalent of James Lovelock. Like Lovelock he doesn't just think AGW is a catastrophe, he sees it as an apocalyptic event (Lovelock thinks up to 80% of the world's population could be dead by the end of the 21st Century, Hansen goes even further believing that the human race could be extinct due to the Earth turning into Venus, both positions are much more extreme than mainstream climate science). The other thing he has in common with Lovelock is that he shows unexpected signs of realism when it comes to the issue of how a low carbon world might seriously be achieved, both of them being big fans of nuclear power and expressing a degree of scepticism towards renewable energy.

In the "Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid" document Hansen steps up his scepticism towards renewable energy a couple of notches. The increased scepticism seems to come from personal experience of deploying about $70K worth of solar panels (paid for by the prize money for various awards he receives as part of the life that goes with being a high profile, politically correct scientist).

Hansen comes up with a number of observations. One surprisingly astute observation is that he thinks the people on the pro-AGW side are actually a bigger problem to the pursuit of a low carbon world than the AGW sceptics:

"A facile explanation would focus on the 'merchants of doubt' who have managed to confuse the public about the reality of human-made climate change. The merchants play a role, to be sure, a sordid one, but they are not the main obstacle to solution of human-made climate change.

The bigger problem is that people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation."

In another bit he compares belief that renewable energy can supply a large proportion of the world's energy to believing in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy:

"Can renewable energies provide all of society's energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of 'policy' thinking of many liberal politicians. Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. maybe even a tar sands pipeline. Why the inconsistency?

Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan. They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics. They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels."

He seems to identify Amory Lovins (Green renewable energy guru with the almost caricature hippy-type name, reminiscent of 1960s love-ins, who has been at the forefront of promoting renewable energy since the 1970s) as being the main culprit for the overconfidence in the near-term potential of renewable energy. He puts it down to Lovins just telling people what they want to hear:

"Yet Amory Lovins is the most popular person that I know and has received uncountable awards. He deserves them. But I believe his popularity is in part because he says everything people want to hear. He even says there is no need to have a tax on carbon. Thus even fossil fuel companies love him. Fossil fuel companies are happy to support energy efficiency, which places the onus on the public and guarantees fossil fuel dominance far into the future."

In this bit he seems to be likening the enthusiasm of proponents of renewable energy to the followers of cult leader Jim Jones, Amory Lovins presumably being the equivalent of Jim Jones. The reference to Kool-aid, which is used in the title of the piece as well, is that this was the American soft drink, laced with cyanide, that Jim Jones used to poison his followers:

"Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization. Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable energies (specifically wind and solar power). Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless.

The problem is that, by drinking the kool-aid, you are also pouring it down the throats of my dear grandchildren and yours. The tragedy in doing so is much greater than that of Jim Jones' gullible followers, who forced their children to drink his kool-aid. All life will bear the consequences."

This outburst by Hansen is very newsworthy, but as it's all off-message from a Green viewpoint, the discretion of environmental journalists can be relied upon to keep this sort of stuff out of the newspapers. The story seems to have only been picked up by a few AGW sceptic blogs like Greenie Watch and Climate Audit.

I think there's a further complication to all this that I don't think Hansen realises. I'd say a lot of Greenies believe in AGW precisely because it is seen as a method of promoting renewable energy. Renewable energy suffered a massive setback in the 1980s when former US President Jimmy Carter's peak oil prediction failed to materialise, and the Greenies were more or less forced to switch the driving argument for renewable energy from peak oil to AGW around 1990. (Peak oilers have only come back out of the woodwork in the last five years or so). Take out renewable energy as being the 'solution' to AGW and Green support for AGW might collapse.

Re: Hansen trashes renewable energy

I don't think I'd compare James Hansen with James Lovelock - Lovelock is intelligent.
There might be a verbal infelicity in the statement that "up to 80% of the world's population could be dead by the end of the 21st Century", since as it stands it is an entirely unexceptionable statement. At the very least 80% of the world's current population will be dead by the end of the 21st century, among them me, James' Hansen and Lovelock and the vast majority of you. Such is the nature of average human lifetimes of less than a century. I see no cause for concern therein.
Presumably what is meant is that the world's population may be 20% of its current size by 2100. Again, is this a problem? This septic isle had a population of about 1.5 million in Roman times, rising to about 3 million by 1700. Such a density supported several major towns and a sufficient degree of social interaction to give rise to a flowering of the sciences and arts leading to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. To get back to that level of population would require a 95% reduction and still not lead to social collapse - indeed, I suspect it would lead to a veritable Arcadia with bosky dells and shepherdesses all over the place. Sure, getting there from here could be a bit sticky, but all it really requires is a continued drop in fertility rates plus a major plague.

Re: Hansen trashes renewable energy

Hansen and Lovelock's statements show that at the back of much Warmism is the universal Prometheus myth, the idea that we have all been too clever by half with our SUVs, space rockets and outdoor hot tubs and that the gods will visit some dreadful revenge on us for our extreme cheek. The Aztecs sacrificed other people to ensure that their gods would keep time from ending. We, now, have to placate Mother Gaia. We must dress and act penitentially; we must deny ourselves; we must make sacrifices (except for the Priests, of course).

It's a very powerful myth and grips people who might otherwise have turned to religion. It also helps to explain why Warmists become so angry when their faith is questioned ang why they were so disappointed when Tropical Storm Irene only killed 40 or so people.

Re: Hansen trashes renewable energy

In reply to Disputin, I think both Lovelock and Hansen would have to be regarded as intelligent, if we interpret intelligence the way employers do. Lovelock is an FRS and Hansen is the US equivalent, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

You may be swallowing the UK media hype, particularly by the BBC, that Lovelock is some sort of scientific genius. Lovelock is a scientist who environmentalists regard as a genius because of two major contributions he has made to the Green agenda - he invented some gadget called the 'electron capture detector' which provided a major boost to anti-pesticide campaigners, and he developed something called 'Gaia theory' which gives a semblance of scientific credibility to the notion that mankind should live in awe of nature. The BBC takes a chattering class-type view of science where somehow 'the environment' is conflated with science, an example being that the science news webpage is broadened into being the science and environment news webpage, and hence Lovelock is portrayed as a scientific genius.

On your point where a reduction of the Earth's population to about a billion or so wouldn't necessarily be that big a setback, I thought I'd check what Lovelock has said on that. According to this link:

"Lovelock’s “80% figure” was given in 2008. In his 2009 book (op. cit.) he states (p. 6) “we do have to take seriously the possibility that global heating may all but eliminate people from Earth.” And (p. 33): “The climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave the few survivors living a Stone Age existence.”"

So it looks like Lovelock is predicting a regression to the Stone Age rather than just pre-Industrial Revolution conditions.

For anybody interested in Hansen's not very well publicised view that the Earth is in grave danger of turning into Venus, some details are given in a lecture he gave in 2008 with presentation slides available on this link:

The relevant bit is the second half of the document, and he calls it the 'Venus Syndrome'. I remember Hansen was called in as an expert witness by Greenpeace to defend some of their activists who climbed up a chimney at Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. Hansen's view is that civil disobedience is necessary to avoid the Venus Syndrome. Greenpeace managed to win the case, but the prosecution could, if they'd known what they were doing, have discredited Hansen as an expert witness because he takes such an extreme view of the consequences of AGW.

Re: Hansen trashes renewable energy

Thanks, Dave, I'd never heard of the electron capture detector - sounds interesting. I'd agree that by the narrow standards of IQ tests Hansen probably is intelligent, but to judge by some Mensa members that's not saying much.
Hansen's Venus hypothesis is obvious junk for the simple reason that Venus' atmosphere is opaque to IR and visible light and there is no liquid water to remove the heat from the surface. On Earth, incoming radiation heats the surface, evaporating water which then convects to release its latent heat near the tropopause whence it is radiated to space. This doesn't happen on Venus, so Earth can never get like it as long as there is liquid water on the surface.

Re: Hansen trashes renewable energy

On the electron capture detector, here is a description of its importance to the Green agenda by Lovelock himself (from ):

"When devising a series of ionisation detectors for gas chromatography in the mid 1950's I had no notion that one of them, the electron capture detector, would significantly affect the development of environmental thinking. It was invented in 1957, and is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytical methods in existence; moreover it is specifically sensitive to those chemicals that are a threat to the environment. Its use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment, and to Rachel Carson's book, The Silent Spring, which can be said to have started the environmental movement. It was later used to discover and measure the abundance of PCBs, chlorofluorcarbons and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Most recently, the detector has made possible a system of atmospheric and oceanic tracer technology. Perfluorocarbons, which are othervise inert and harmless, are easily detected tracers by electron capture. This system has enabled meteorologists to follow the movement of air masses across continents and is now finding use in ocean research."

If you regard modern-day environmentalism as a religion, Lovelock would be one of its saints. Modern day environmentalism (as opposed to the older version of environmentalism that was concerned about things like dirty rivers, London smogs and litter) is all about detecting vanishingly small amounts of some man-made chemical and creating a scare around it. So the people who invent the sensitive detectors like Lovelock are critical to the whole malarkey.

The electron capture detector played a big role in the DDT scare, and later on it detected the CFCs which eventually led to the ozone hole scare.