A Victorian view of climate change and energy resources

A Victorian view of climate change and energy resources

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the local branch of IPENZ. The speaker was Bryan Leyland, a consultant in the energy sector with very strong views on a number of global issues. Then the May/June issue of  Engineering Insight contained an opinion piece by  Leyland covering similar ground. In his view, for example:

  • The world has plentiful resources (fossil fuels, food).
  • Man-made CO2 does not cause global warming.
  • Nuclear power is safe and should be widely adopted.

His presentation certainly was thought provoking. I found it disturbing, not because I disagreed with many of his views (even though I do), but because of his certainty and the way he used data to support his arguments.  I thought I’d share some of my reactions.

Abundance

According to Leyland, the world has an abundance of resources.  “History tells us that technological innovation is the key to sustainability.”  Technology will provide us with ways to utilise resources that are currently deemed an economic or inaccessible. Economic growth is essential for protecting our environment. He quotes the Victorian definition of an engineer, who practices “the art of directing the great forces of power in nature for the use and convenience of Man” (which puts women in their place).

If there were no limits to growth, he may well be right. New methods for extracting fossil fuels, for example, have indeed reduced production costs and made accessible greater reserves of oil and gas. As long as the adverse consequences don’t catch up with us.

I do agree with Leyland that the world is not all “doom and gloom”. I remembered a talk by Hans Rosling who gives a real and very positive view of global health and economic development.  Unfortunately, before we can accept Leyland’s message of unlimited growth thanks to engineers, he has to get rid of the constraint provided by global warming.

Man-made CO2 does not cause global warming

Leyland is not a climate change sceptic, he is a climate change denier.  To quote from his opinion piece: “The evidence tells us that the world has not warmed significantly in the last 10 to 15 years. This proves that man-made CO2 does not cause dangerous global warming.” .

In his talk he went into more detail, presenting a whole heap of evidence.  Trouble was, for someone so certain of his ground he seemed to be very unsure about some of his sources.  To me the whole thing smacked of pseudoscience, he appeared to be cherry-picking the data to come up with the desired conclusion. (See the graph at the end of this post for a discussion about the temperature record for the last 10 years or so as an example.)  Michael Shermer in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things” explains how intelligent people can get so far off track. I think it should be required reading before one accepts Leyland’s comments at face value.

But could he be correct?  Unfortunately it’s not very easy to prove or disprove his assertions.  Science very seldom simplifies matters, it almost always shows us that the world is far more complicated than we had imagined. That is the case here: it’s possible to find apparently plausible arguments on either side of the debate.  It’s quite difficult to get to the original, unfiltered data and, even if we could, it often doesn’t mean much until it’s correctly interpreted.  To make sense of all the available information is difficult and would require an enormous effort.

Gareth Morgan’s book “Poles Apart” describes his attempts to objectively examine the issues. Morgan paid a group of experts to assemble the arguments from both sides and translate them into plain English.  His conclusion? He was much more impressed with the case for anthropogenic global warming than with the case against. But (in 2008) there were still plenty of uncertainties.

Nuclear power is safe (says Leyland)

Nuclear power is a very attractive option because of its low carbon footprint. I’m aware that Leyland is not the only advocate: even climate change activists like James Hansen see it as a better option than coal .

There are some parallels between the debates on global warming and nuclear safety. In both cases we are asked to take action, or refrain from taking action, because of the risk of adverse consequences in the long-term. Leyland quoted the safety record of nuclear power plants, measured in conventional terms (deaths, lost time injuries, etc). It’s a lot better than that for coal-fired power plants, for example.  That’s not the point, however. The real concern is events which have a low probability but massive adverse consequences. Such events are notoriously difficult to accurately predict.

I must confess that I have always taken statements about nuclear safety with a grain of salt, especially those coming from academics or professionals without much heavy industry experience.  I’ve seen how difficult it is to do a really good hazard and operability analysis for a conventional process plant, seen and read about so many horror stories involving operator error, lack of organisational memory, blinkered design, or a failure to recognise the potential for common mode failures.

Even in Japan, a country renowned for its quality systems, we saw mistakes on a monumental scale.  Leyland has made a brave statement about Fukushima: “It is now clear that nobody will die from radiation from Fukushima. Nobody.”  I very much hope he’s right.  We’ll be watching those spent fuel rods up in the rooftop pools with great interest over the next year or so.

I firmly believe there is no role for nuclear power in New Zealand, that Leyland is talking rubbish.

Some links:

Climate Change Information New Zealand  (NZ  Government website)

The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (sceptics)

New Zealand Climate Change Centre (combined website for NZ crown research institutes and three universities)

Fukushima nuclear disaster

“Poles Apart” website ( with more links to sceptics sites)

Last 10 -15 years?

Here’s a graph from Gareth Morgan’s book:

 

Yes, just as Leyland stated, the temperature over the past decade hasn’t gone up.  CO2 is obviously not the whole story.  But if we look at the last 50 years, I would conclude that there is a relation.   Perhaps that’s just the chemical engineer in me coming out.  Unlike the other engineers, we’re very used to dealing with rough data.

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