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19 April 2019

Can climate change drift into the US consciousness by the next election

In the last couple of weeks US republicans have put their names to a couple of climate change strategy documents, something you might never have expected to see in a Trump administration that does not appear to acknowledge man made climate change.

The two attempts at forming policy came as a reaction. You wait ten years for the Republicans to have a climate change policy and then two come along at once. The only thing that made this happen was the attention bestowed on the New Real Deal, which almost upset things for Mr. Trump, by bringing climate change to the fore.

The attempts to form a belated policy were called The Green Real Deal, proposed by Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, and a call for a second Manhattan project, put down in a speech by Lamar Alexander. Both go back ten years or more and rest on the word of previous tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.

Both of these are responses to the huge splash made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the original Green New Deal idea.

The quote from Lamar Alexander which to us puts this all into context is when he said, “…with nuclear power available, a strategy for fighting climate change with windmills makes as much sense as going to war in sailboats,” as he set about criticizing the Green New Deal.

Alexander’s ten point plan to get to grip with climate change in 5 years managed to completely ignore most renewable energy successes. The list effectively gave the game away – the rationale behind this new strategy is based on oil company appeasement.  Clearly Trump’s comments about “The wind’s not blowing, sorry honey you can’t watch TV today” has put Alexander off Wind power, so he has completely ignored it.

The list reads;

  • Advanced Nuclear
  • Natural Gas
  • Carbon Capture
  • Better Batteries
  • Greener Buildings
  • Electric Vehicles
  • Cheaper Solar
  • Fusion
  • Advanced Computing
  • Double Energy Research Funding

Nuclear power has been deserted by the French, and many other countries, and the UK has seen two project cancelled in the past few months, because it takes ten years to build a major nuclear facility, and costs too much. It only continues to be a mainstay of Chinese policy because china will take any electricity from any source to update its entire society.

Item 8 on the list is the elusive fusion power and China has been chasing this for about 12 years, and has a project that may yield usable results in the 2050 times frame. It is much the same as the nuclear issue – too far off and it involves high costs and temperatures of 100 million degrees. It is an accident waiting to happen. The Chinese have spent more on this than the entire Manhattan Project anticipated spend and it has still led nowhere.

Why is natural gas on the list. It produces CO2 and it is already being widely used. Are we planning to make it more efficient – the CCGT turbines are the most efficient at producing electricity of any technology. Surely there are few forward steps left here. What this does is underline where these ideas come from – the oil and Coal industries who’s commentary has always centered on natural gas.

Once again Carbon Capture, as the least promising of all these technologies, it is the idea of just sucking the carbon out of the air. This can be done, if you have an area the size of Nova Scotia, a dedicated power plant, so that you produce 1 tonne of CO2 for every 2 you take out of the air. It is this core inefficiency that makes it the least promising idea we have ever heard economically speaking.

Better Batteries is on the list and this really is a great area of basic research. Greener Buildings too, and Electric Vehicles are already being pushed by every major car company in the world – so need little help. Cheap solar made us laugh – if the US wants cheap solar, why place tariffs on the cheapest solar panels in the world? Or is that a case of the right hand not understanding what the left is doing?

Finally Alexander added Advanced Computing, which simply means AI which has had oceans of investment lately and still has led to almost no major breakthroughs, and he wants to double Energy Research Funding to pay for al of this. Presumably that means doubling the $58.8 Billion that the Department of Energy budget. Of that it has only allocated $1.43 billion on science energy programs. Most of the rest is allocated on defense. So is that a $1.4 billion spend?

The Republican party, as the party that wants the least intervention by government has always liked the idea of doubling research funding, as the party’s stance on market intervention prevents it pretty much from doing anything else.

Alexander said, “Meeting these Grand Challenges would create breakthroughs in advanced nuclear reactors, natural gas, carbon capture, better batteries, greener buildings, electric vehicles, cheaper solar, and fusion. To provide the tools to create these breakthroughs, the federal government should double its funding for energy research and keep the United States number one in the world in advanced computing. This strategy takes advantage of the United States’ secret weapon; our extraordinary capacity for basic research, especially at our 17 national laboratories. It will raise family incomes at home, strengthen our economy and show the rest of the world how to reduce carbon emissions – because the rest of the world is where the carbon emissions problem has to be solved.”

That last comment is a barbed comment which we keep coming across, that China has a poor record of getting off coal, and so does India. Defending these two positions is difficult, and new coal plants which will likely run for 30 years are being added to the investments that these two countries and handfuls of others continue to make. Until the US takes a lead on cutting emissions it is likely that it has no moral high ground to take and no leadership by example. Alexander insists that the US has made huge progress that the rest of the world should follow – he’s clearly out of touch.

He said “When it comes to climate change, China, India and developing countries are the problem; American innovation is the answer.”

So far the US is employing solar and wind at about one tenth the speed of China and falling behind every year by further. So the exact opposite is true of his assertions.

According to the Global Carbon Project, he said, over the last 13 years, the United States has reduced production of greenhouse gases more than any major country. It depends on how you define major country. If it is any country with over 200 million people, that’s only 5 or 6 countries, and it may well be true.

If we define it as countries with 20 million population’s then it is not even close to being true. The US has seen a fall of 10% since 2005. Europe across 28 countries has seen a fall of 19.5% since then with many countries closer to 50%. Much of that has been due to key members of the EU – Norway, Denmark, Germany, Spain, the UK, France and Portugal ‘s use of wind turbines. This is a technology not mentioned because the US has one wind turbine maker, in GE, that has a minor market share compared with European suppliers Vestas and Siemens Gamesa. Currently GE is a financial basket case, with investors treating its’ stock as junk, a candidate to be broken up.

His other claims are that in a single year the US has seen a 3 X increase in clean energy, LNG is up 135%, much of it now exported and Electric vehicles are up 80%. Is Alexander including LNG as a clean fuel? That’s the only way the sums add up.

What about the Green Real Deal? Are there any fresher ideas there? No it was the same fare – more investment in R&D, so give large corporations lots of money and fail to regulate them in any way shape or form. The Green Real Deal rejects regulation and wants American innovation to lead the way – an echo of the Alexander approach

Matt Gaetz said that the Democratic party wanted to “outlaw cars, cows, planes, and buildings,” and refused to imposed any sanctions against carbon emissions, believing that carbon-creating jobs would just move overseas. And that carbon-emission bans would do the same to export pollution.”

If the next US election is fought on climate change, the Republicans have zero chance of winning, but according to a recent Gallup poll held around the time of the mid-terms, the issue is only number 11 on the list of priorities. People we speak to wonder about whether or not it is part and parcel of the second highest ranking topic the Economy, which would benefit from a push into renewables, and out of coal, with more jobs and a more competitive position against China on solar panels and Wind farms. Meanwhile Healthcare was the clear top issue after Trump managed to kill off Obamacare. But a year is a long time in politics and the coverage around Climate Change is on a roll and by the time of the election, it could well have moved into top spot.

A candidate taking the line that it would pass the New Green Deal, as a springboard for US economic development, with less poor health jobs in the extractive industries, and nicer jobs in renewables, might get heard. Trading coal mining for inspecting Wind turbines, and making homes more energy efficient, and installing Solar with all the renewables companies incentivized to include health plans, might be just the kind of platform that would wrap in all main US issues into one.

And taking all those coal mines and turning them into engineering projects like hydrolysis of Green Hydrogen or turning coal plants into massive electricity batteries, as we have seen happen in Germany and parts of Asia, that might tip the scales in the rust belt too. Clearly at present the Republicans just hope the issue dies before then.