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THE ISLAND OF DOUBT

An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.

Inspiration
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org


Other Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo

The Meaning of
  the Island of Doubt

Author's site:
www.cyamid.net

email: jamesh@cyamid.net



Archives

May 3, 2005:
  Climate of Bias

May 10, 2005:
  Repent or Resign

COAL-MINERS' DAUGHTERS
May 17, 2005

Imagine a bevy of gorgeous, sweat-soaked, muscle-ripped models. Wait. You don't have to. General Electric has gone to the trouble of producing a television commercial featuring exactly that. Why? To sell you on a newfound commitment to clean energy and climate change, of course.

The campaign, perhaps the most outrageous use of sex in corporate propaganda's history, is part of a large scheme GE calls "Ecomagination." It's all about embracing new sources of energy, and cutting back on the carbon emissions that are hogging all the infrared radiation that used to bounce back out into space, and making ol' Planet Earth that much warmer than it should be.

A big part of GE's strategy for saving the Earth is replacing nasty, dirty old-fashioned coal with newfangled clean coal. They've got something called "Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle," a process that extracts natural gas from coal. Presto, clean energy. Well, clean-er energy, at least.

To hear GE tell it, ICGC is God's (i.e., their) gift to the environmental movement: "Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technologies from GE, the power of coal is getting more beautiful every day." (See Grist Magazine for more details.)

The supporting documentation on the GE website is less histrionic, but just as disingenuous: "If all conventional coal plants operating in the U.S. today could have been built with GE's ICGC technology, the result would be annual reductions of: more than 320 million tons of carbon dioxide, or nearly one quarter of the greenhouse gas reduction goal proposed for the U.S. under the Kyoto Protocol."

Which is true. In theory. ICGC cuts carbon dioxide emissions by about 17 per cent compared with ordinary coal-fired plants. But what GE neglects to mention is that the (now hypothetical and entirely academic) greenhouse gas reduction goal assigned under Kyoto to the U.S. is a measly 7 per cent below 1990 levels.

So: 25 per cent of 7 per cent is 1.75 per cent. And even if pigs could fly and all Kyoto signatories met their commitments, the predicted warming would ease off by just one half of one tenth of one degree centigrade. In order to actually stabilize the climate, we'd need to cut emissions by something like 60 per cent. Avoiding really bad climate change will require even more ambitious cuts.

Coal gasification, which is still prohibitively costly (although it will likely go down in price in the future), is hardly the kind of project that will play a consequential role in changing the course we energy hogs are on.

Much more serious and less expensive proposals are out there. Pacala and Socolow's "Wedges" of existing energy mitigation technology, for example, chart a more believable, non-sleazy route.

To be fair, GE's Ecomagination package also deals with real clean energy, including wind and solar photovoltaics. Just because one of the world's largest corporations is decades behind some of their European competitors is no reason to dismiss the sincerity of the people who bring good things to life. And I understand that advertising executives always prefer a positive approach to the negative. Nobody wants to be reminded of the latest doomsday message. (But I will anyway: Australian scientists have declared a "climate emergency".)

But if sexy miners and "coal is getting more beautiful every day" is GE's idea of a new approach, then we're in a lot of trouble. Civilization can't afford to waste time with non-starter ideas like "clean coal."

James Hrynyshyn

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