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August 27, 2007


In a fascinating piece that also appeared in the New Yorker James Surowiecki compared the public's attitudes on auto fuel efficiency to the attitudes of hockey players in the 1970's to mnandatory helmets.

The reason for this conflict, Schelling explained, was that not wearing a helmet conferred a slight advantage on the ice; crucially, it gave the player better peripheral vision, and it also made him look fearless. The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma: the players could protect their heads without suffering a competitive disadvantage. Without the rule, the players’ individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.
He sees something like this operating with cars. people make what they believe is a good choice for themselves, but would like the government to tilt the balance toward fuel efficiency so they could by somewhat smaller, more efficient cars, and other people would as well. Certainly the incentives for buying Priuses, plus the status, has made them the most, or among the most, prevalent cars in my area.

On the other hand, Inhofe (R-not OK) is still claiming global warming doesn't exist. His latest reason, so I heard, is that if it were real, they wouldn't be getting all that rain, because when it's hot it doesn't rain. (You'd think he'd know better, being from OK, but apparently connecting to reality isn't his strong suit. I'd suggest buying him a one-way ticket to a tropical rainforest during the wet season.)

Mimikatz, your piece is dead on... Sadly, hydrocarbon fuels have become equated with political power or vice versa. Regardless, our entire country is geared toward ONLY that issue -- ensuring that we continue to have oil. The politicians are afraid of getting caught holding the bag when we run out of domestic supplies, or another energy crisis happens -- which totally puts us at the mercy of foreign sources. Our economy, our transportation, our everything revolves around automobiles and getting around.

What people don't realize is that the time to start the alternative fuels / alternative technologies research is NOW. Our economy is going to continue to rely on hydrocarbons for a long time to come -- but if we don't get it in gear NOW, the economic dislocation that politicians fear will be the least of our worries.

If we can come up with the means to disconnect ourselves from our reliance on foreign fossil fuels, then we can regain our ability to be who we are. There will be no more need for wars over oil, or bending to the demands of petty tyrants in third world countries.

At the Al Gore Senate hearing (March?) Inhofe sat up there and ridiculed the reality of global warming because of all the lake effect snowfall in upstate New York this last winter--global warming couldn't be happening 'cause it was cold and snowy up there, right?
The man can't think his way out of a wet paper bag...or more likely he's sold his soul completely.

Mimikatz, thanks for the good posts -- appreciate it, really!

but OMG, just look what happens when emptywheel leaves!!! she can't turn her back for a minute--- get that, mr. emptywheel?

ok, we hope you had a good vacay!

Agreed, on all points, except that it is not going to take 50 years for the point to sink in. Maybe 10, maybe 20.

There is a good article in the NYT yesterday on pollution in China. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html I expect that Chinese intransigence will be the next impediment to our doing something in the U.S. about climate change. Consider this, however: if we set necessary goals and lead the way, then when China comes to its senses, we will have created some of the technology and resolved some of the tradeoffs that will be needed. China, and other developing countries, will thus have the opportunity to jump start their adoption of more climate friendly policies and practices, just as they have had the advantage of using science, technology and manufacturing processes discovered elsewhere.

In 2057 today's 15 year olds will wonder how their parents could be so retarded as to believe that a minuscule increase in co2 could destroy the planet. They will also be freezing their collective asses off due to a Maunder Minimum type downturn in sunspot activity, starting with solar cycle 25. They will wonder why their parents ignored the long historical record of temperatures reacting to sunspot activity. They will wonder why their parents tried to destroy the economy with excessive taxes an regulation in an effort to actually change the temperature of the planet. They will wonder if they will turn out to be as dumb as their parents.

Knock, knock, knock...okay here goes...I remember the energy crisis in the 70's..yep yep yep..I remember those lame long lines and alternate license plate days. Well that came and went. Solar Panels for houses was the next big idea and Edison was going to give peeps a break who installed them. Well some did and then that went away. The problem is, is we just bandaid and then go on our merry way. We need to stop this foolishness and think about the future indeed! Solar Panels should be revived in force for the energy companies and for the consumer. Wind mills and wind farms could be set up in areas that are non-populated due to I hear from others that live near them, the turbine makes a whine that sometimes can be irritating..but heck there's lots of spaces where there are none. Oh and theres the comment that they are ugly. Okay get artistic folks and engineers together to make them not so ugly...done! Wind power...we don't only need to harness dams but sea wave power as well, that is totally underexplored. It's amazing that these subjects where all in my High School science text books and no one remembers this stuff. How about magnets-reverse magnets for power...If we can build bloody cell phones, ipods, etc....I am sure our know how and technology can inspire us to go the distance to the next chapters of innovative tech! I remember once someone telling me that in the past history, there were engine designs to run off water but the oil and car companies would buy out the patents. I just wonder if that could have been real?

Gosh, lookie - a troll! A troll! A troll who claims he can predict the weather on the sun fifty years from now! ... but can't relate to the problem of fossil fuel exhaustion, or the problems of using carbon fixed by photosynthesis as fuel.

Of course, the present administration's strategy is to

1. Drive up the price of oil early, to make previously unprofitable hydrocarbon reserves profitable;
2. Abandon environmental protection laws to allow exploration;
3. Sieze control of oil reserves by military force - at any cost.

This is all to satisfy the addiction to oil rather than show any concern for the issues their behavior creates. In fact, I'm surprised that they aren't more up-front about it - do they really expect us to believe they're working to establish "a Beacon of Freedom" in the middle east? It's just so obviously untrue.

1957 ?

I was 8. Was it Ike ?

Foreward, 1970's issues,

The environment.( automobile pollution) (warming awareness begins)
The coming end (peak) of oil
Secret government
Islamic radicals
Highjacking airplanes, cockpit doors anyone.......

BIG Ron...........long sleep

Foreward, 2007, back to 70's issues. Welcome.

I think we will see the need for action by next year, and for serious action within 5 years. The melting of the polar ice and west Antarctic ice sheet are accelerating due to positive feedback mechanisms, such as darker seas and land absorbing more heat while ice reflects, and under-ice streams that accelerate melting from underneath. We could see sea levels rise by 20-30 feet if both go.

BTW, in the mid '50s, in response to Sputnik and the Soviet challenge, we ramped up science and math education and research and started the interstate highway system. Our forerunners weren't smarter, just more willing to work together for the common good. That soon got equated with communism, however, and we all were supposed to bow down before the markets and worship individualism, which is to say the rich get richer. I think we can do it again. Inhofe has a challenger, a bright young guy. We'll see.

Mimikatz -- Congratulations! You snagged a troll, must have hit a nerve, good for you!

Excellent post.

I changed out my household's lights with Compact Fluorescent bulbs and saw my electric bill drop by 1/3! Conservation means saving money!

In 2057 today's 15 year olds will wonder how their parents could be so retarded as to believe anything the GOP ever said, as they toil in seat shops as slave laborers under the 'temporary' martial law that had been in place ever since the GOP allowed the wave of 'terrorist' attacks before Emperor Bush II took power in 2008.

They will recall how their Ted Nugent neighbors slaughtered his parents after the GOP leadership and pundits and the MSM urged them on by spouting Nazi-era propaganda like 'Cockroaches must be exterminated'.

They will recall the College Republicans saying 'join us now or work for us later', not realizing at the time that the Republican Party was planning to end Democracy in America, transform the US into a 3rd World nation, and sell the country out to the two new SuperPowers, India and China.

They will curse their now-long-dead parents for not having done SOMETHING to stop the obvious rise of right-wing fascism that kicked into high gear with the fraudulent election of 'President' Bush I in 1980.

They will curse the name of the Democratic Leadership, Pelosi and Reid, and Leahy and Conyers, for not stopping them, for being in league with the GOP and helping bring about the end of America.

And they will curse the Republican 'voters' for being so retarded that they refused to see the obvious warning signs in the environment that doomed all mankind to extinction, and they will wonder why the Republican Party so desired to kill every human being and all other life on the planet.

And they will not be able to understand why the Republicans called themselves the Party of Life, when all they do is kill everything they can slowly and painfully.

Regulations are laws for Corporate entities.

De-Regulation equals anarchy.

Republicans want lawlessness in business.

Second, people need to understand that while climate change cannot be arrested at this point, it can be mitigated, and that a little effort actually can go a long way.

I beg to differ on this point. At least as a technical question, there are any number of ways we could arrest global warming and even begin to reverse it, and the price tag would be in the neighborhood of what we've spent on the Global War Over Oil (say, $1,000,000,000,000.00, more or less). Just like the case with CFC emissions, getting clean water to everyone in the the world, or getting Glen Beck to sit down and shut up, the challenges are political and economic, not technical.

-- MarkusQ

P.S. As a sketch of one thing you could do with a trillion dollars or so: use lunar materials to set up a system for producing orbital solar power stations. Stop burning coal. Switch to hydrogen fueled vehicles (using space based power to make the H2). Stop burning oil. Sell dirt cheap electricity to the rest of the world, if they agree to cut their carbon emissions too. Throw in clean water (via prefab solar powered purification systems) while you're at it.

Oh yeah, and prepare for an economic boom and growth in real wealth that makes the Apollo program windfall and the digital revolution look like little blips.

None of this is beyond us technically; what we lack is an electorate with the education and political coherence to pull it off. Most people's eyes glaze over when you start talking about anything technical; stealing other people's oil is possibly the worst way to go but at least they understand it.

There was a graphic that appeared in media three weeks ago showing a record already set in the northern Arctic extent of melt of ice. The best article at the time I found was from the NASA Goddard institute website, the one Inhofe and Barton attempted to shut down, and whose principal public lecturer was assigned a loyal Bush hire as a minder until the minder was fired, ostensibly for excessively burnishing a resume two years ago. The photo of the Arctic ice shows that one month before maximum seasonal melt the record was surpassed; and juxtaposed is a photo from as recently as 1979. It is the statisticians like the folks at NASA Goddard who are in turmoil over surprises like this, having occurred much earlier than prognostics only a few years ago, as if the events concatenating to cause sudden shifts in climate operate on a curve which is beginning to appear more exponential than geometrically progressive, which is to say, the slightest evidence at each occurrence is starting to indicate that in a very short time the change will be seen to be dramatic and immense. I see this time as a test of our institutions and polity, as well; a measure of whether the civilization is prepared to quit assigning minders and accessing the federal register to suppress well tempered management. The Mineral Management Service of government is one of the agencies at the heart of this policy maelstrom, as well; consider, for example, the MMS' recent setback in AK court for being too superficial about its responsibility to examine Arctic ocean offshore oil development impact, though according to this article, Shell has other legal avenues to try to undo the court ordered ban for 2007; one imagines Shell shopping for bandaids to try to relaunch the EIR in 2008; the project in question is alongside ANWR.

I laugh when I see the Subaru commercial with the forest and the deers behind it....too funny! Yeah right!

MarkusQ -- Your comment is intriguing, but orbital solar power generators are news to me. How precisely does one get power (and in what form would it be) transferred to the surface and distributed as needed?

One of the great advantages of solar power roof systems is that you waste less electricity because you skip the transmission line step where a lot of power is lost. I'm curious how power can be generated in orbit with sufficiently efficient transfer to the ground to make such a system cost effective?

Unlike the sort of pseduo-technological stories that we are exposed to in the media, where someone invents some magical gizmo (the "flux capacitor" or some such) real breakthrough technologies are almost alway the culmination of lots of little parts that, if combined cleverly, give you much more than you ever would have thought was possible.

The potential effectiveness of space based solar power is this sort of story.

Let's start with a premise: solar power is a good technology, but it isn't perfect. If we could transition the world from a fossil-fuel economy to a solar economy, we could solve global warming in a snap. Even as fast as we are pumping out CO2, plants still suck it in faster (driving atmospheric CO2 down sharply) during the peak growing season in the northern hemisphere, where most the plants are. If we could stop burning fossil fuels we'd essentially solve the problem.

But solar power at present can't do it for us. So let's look at the weaknesses of solar power as presently implemented and see what we could do to fix them:

  • Solar power is only available in the daytime.
  • Even then, peak efficiency is only possible over about half the earth's surface (mid-latitudes) and for about half the day (mid-day), when the sun is far enough above the horizon.
  • The atmosphere absorbs a fair amount of the incident solar energy even on a clear day; in bad weather it can absorb almost all of it.

These factors combined mean that over the course of a year a solar power system can only be expected to average about 5% of its peak output.


  • The sun's energy comes to us at a wide range of frequencies; systems designed to be efficient collectors at some range of frequencies are generally ineffective outside this range
  • Solar power systems are generally expensive to manufacture for the power they produce
  • There are a number of environmental concerns in their life cycle
  • The amount of solar power in a given area is limited by the amount of space that can be devoted to its collection

So what can we do about it?

Well, in space sunlight is available full strength 24/7/365. And there is a lot more of it (of the solar energy passing through the Earth/Moon system, far less than 1/10th of one percent makes it to the Earth surface in a usable form (and the vast majority of that is needed by the ecosystem; collecting more than a small fraction of it at the surface would be an ecological disaster).

Even a relatively low-tech system of collectors (think giant mirrors and something like a steam turbine, though not necessarily using water) could produce more energy than the Earth needs. In fact, the bulk (mass wise) of such systems could be so low-tech that they could be constructed in space from materials already found in space (e.g. in the lunar regolith).

The reason for building as much as you can in space is to reduce the cost (per station) of getting them up there. Instead of sending a hundred pre-built power stations into orbit you send a hundred small packages of the high-tech parts and a robot factory (think Toyota car factory robots, not R2D2) to build the other 99%.

But that only gets us so far. We could make lots of cheap, clean solar electricity in orbit, but we need it down here. So let's turn the problem around and look at it from the other end.

What we'd like for the Earth-side of the solar power is something that was available 24/7, at all latitudes, in a narrow band of the spectrum that could be collected easily and cheaply, by something much simpler than normal photovoltaic solar panels. How simple could the collectors be? Well, something as simple as a properly constructed grid of wires could do the trick*.

Of course, there are quite a few other design constraints. You'd want to be broadcasting at a frequency that passes straight through clouds (and birds), that can be broadcast directionally, and that can be easily produced by your space based facilities.

The devil is in the details, but they are engineering questions, and don't require any new science. Of course, it would still be a lot of work and no one is saying it would be cheap in an absolute sense. But compared to the trillion dollars the US has sunk into Iraq, or the $2,000,000,000,000 or so the world spends on oil each year, the price to break us out of the cycle of madness would be quite reasonable.

This is still only scratching the surface of the subject. If you're still interested I'd suggest googling "space based solar power" for lots more.

-- MarkusQ

* A fairly common "perpetual motion machine" con-job is based on the fact that you can even pull small amounts of power out of the air (from commercial radio broadcasts) with a deceptively simple system.

MarkusQ -- I appreciate your response, but you really didn't answer my question... How exactly do you get the power from orbit to the surface, the only thing you mention is a "properly constructed grid of wires", which still leaves me baffled.

MarkusQ -- I appreciate your response, but you really didn't answer my question... How exactly do you get the power from orbit to the surface, the only thing you mention is a "properly constructed grid of wires", which still leaves me baffled.

Sorry. I was writing that after getting the kids to sleep at the end of a long day and it wound up a bit rambly. Let's try again.

You transmit it (like with a radio). The grid of wires on the ground is basically an antenna. The key is picking a part of the spectrum that 1) isn't going to be absorbed by water, air, etc., 2) isn't going to interfere with other applications, 3) can be received by cheap hardware, 4) can be transmitted directionally by reasonably sized antenna, and 5) can't be focused / modified for use as a weapon (which is one of several reasons for not going with lasers).

There are several possibilities, but the region above the FM band (say 2.45 GHz) is generally considered to be the best.

See the web ( e.g. http://permanent.com/p-sps-bm.htm ) for more information.

-- MarkusQ

GREAT piece! But for one problem. When the author states that the new "mandate will be....".
UNFORTUNATELY, we all are seeing the "power" of the people's mandates. We need to take this country BACK, for and by We The People as the current crew in Congress and other branches of government are not responding to our mandates. That has to be fixed by electing representatives and an administration that will actually listen and respond to us. It is time, once again, to encourage all to go the polls in 2008 and vote against EVERY incumbent, and to keep doing so until we get the responses to our mandates that we expect and deserve, and are rightfully due to us. Only THEN can we put for the most important mandate of our time, to reverse the course we are taking with our planet.

MarkusQ -- Thanks for the extra explanation and the link -- I really appreciate it!

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