Climate Change, ‘Green’ energy, and the ‘Green’ New Deal

Climate Change, ‘Green’ energy, and the ‘Green’ New Deal

Climate change is contentious. It shouldn’t be, because it’s happening. And if we’re to have any scientific ethos and credibility whatsoever (us at this website and the general public) we’re going to need to brush off our 7th-grade chemistry and accept that.

What we don’t need to accept, however, is a ‘Green New Deal’ in which half the language employed is:

“To promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities”

Because of course, for some reason, all women and BIPOC community members are for some reason more oppressed by… the climate? than everyone else.

This is the scourge of social justice sabre-rattling. Progressives take something pressing, terrifying, and urgent and find a way to weave its narrative around their constituency in the same way the right does with fossil fuel interests.

If we’re going to write a Green New Deal, we ought to talk about the climate instead of wasting five pages of ink telling everyone who isn’t a city-living white dude how oppressed they are by… city living white dudes burning their trash? Seriously, Ms. Cortez, WTF is the connection here? Anyways, we’re going to need solutions.

What AOC and the GND (which banks on the patently impossible goal of being carbon-neutral by 2060) don’t tell you is that many renewable energy ‘solutions’ end up looking like the neighborhood pig someone entered into your sister’s fashion show: OK from far but far from great when you get a closer look. I encourage everyone to read the facile 14-page Green New Deal memo linked above before diving into this article further. In it, I’ll discuss the carbon cycle (for a little background on how the climate self-regulates and why burning greenhouse gases throws that out of proportion) and two of the most popular forms of alternative energy.

The Carbon Cycle

Want to understand Climate Change? Forget whether it’s anthropogenic (human-caused) or not. Greenhouse gases, of which carbon is the most cited, change the climate. The way carbon moves through the Earth’s systems explains why putting more of it in the air can have adverse effects, so anyone who wishes to really be educated about this talking point ought to understand the carbon cycle.

How the cycle works

The carbon cycle is not one cycle but a model that explains the way carbon is exchanged within the planetary system. This happens via two methods: how living organisms (trees, algae, humans) exchange carbon amongst themselves and how carbon is cycled through the Earth geologically.

Since both processes produce, dilute, and exchange carbon atoms we must think of them in conjunction instead of separately. The climate is interconnected and each process effects every other, even if only a little.

Carbon is taken in by plants and photosynthesized into HCO3 and organic molecules. These move through the food chain before being converted back into CO2 by cellular respiration.

The interesting part of the cycle comes in how carbon is stored over the long-term. Organic carbon gathers in the ocean by forming up into sedimentary rock. This rock is subducted into the Earth’s crust and eventually spewed back into the atmosphere by volcanoes, essentially ‘closing’ the system. Human burning of fossil fuels, which take millennia to form, adds CO2 into the closed system that wouldn’t otherwise have been introduced.

Though the oceans can deal with some of this excess carbon via the biological element of the carbon cycle, it’s known that an uptick in CO2 causes them to become more acidic and can thus cause habitat loss and coral bleaching. This exra carbon cannot all be taken in by the oceans and thus we’ve seen elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere coinciding almost perfectly with the uptick in the use of fossil fuels by humans.

It’s important not to focus only on fossil fuels, however. The uptick in CO2 is mediated by the natural processes of the carbon cycle, including volcanoes, clouds, vapor, winds, atmospheric particulates, and forests.

This information in its condensed form is courtesy of Khan Academy.

Biomass: The Dumbest ‘Renewable’ on the Planet

One of the leading causes of climate change is deforestation. Forests sequester, store, and convert carbon, and are thus considered carbon ‘sinks’. It stands then that deforestation is one of the major contributors to climate change.

Biomass, or the burning of organic matter to create energy, is often thought of as ‘green’. Since the vast majority of biomass used in the US is from dead trees, it makes sense to focus on that. Is biomass really green?

Trees store carbon and will release the same amount into the atmosphere whether they decompose naturally or are burned. The argument for biomass says that if we speed up the process by burning them it’s still carbon neutral because they would have decomposed anyways.

The problem comes in the fact that you’d have to replace all of the trees you burned for it to be truly carbon neutral. In fact, it’s rare for the companies and plants peddling biomass to replace those trees. Forest management allows for clear cutting without replanting and much of the biomass used in the US (biomass acounts for 12% of our total renewable energy sector), so widespread use of biomass (burning trees) results ultimately in accelearted climate change from both deforestation and from burning off the CO2 of dead and recently living tress before their long-term decomposition time.

Carbon capture by replanted forests isn’t a catch-all for carbon neutrality either. It can take more than a century for carbon to be re-sequestered, and thus the acceleration of decomposition through burning has many of the same effects as burning fossil fuels.

Africa is in fact the region with the highest usage of biomass for fuel (they burn forest residues as well as animal dung). This has over time made their agriculture sector less productive, caused widespread deforestation in the Congo basin and in their other tropical forests, and polluted their air.

So why are we insistent on moving toward biomass? Easy. The government considers it ‘renewable’, even after hundreds of scientists have contested that point in congress. They, therefore, subsidize the production and burning of biomass up to 24%, creating huge financial incentives for the burning of forests as biomass. The demand has been increasing for biomass in both Europe and the global south, and the US is already the world’s largest exporter of biomass.

This means an increase in logging and clear-cutting in the US. Trump’s proposal to open up the Tongass (called ‘the Amazon of North America’ and the largest temperate rainforest in the world, in Southeastern Alaska) forest to clear-cutting reflects this burgeoning demand.

As we can see, the way biomass is used in the US and abroad makes it non-renewable in the sense we usually think of renewable – that is, carbon neutral. ‘Renewable energy’ deserves as much if not more scrutiny than fossil fuels because the government tends to subsidize it.

If the government subsidizes something that produces just as much CO2 as fossil fuels while also destroying forests than we’re just trading one problem for another that’s arguably more serious by tacking on perverse incentives. This is where bad policy, public ignorance, and science intersect to exacerbate the problem of climate change while peddling the idea that we’re actually finding ‘solutions’. Deforesting and adding more CO2 for those sweet government subsidies are not solutions, and may cause more harm than good by having the opposite effect on the climate.

It’s also worth noting that biomass causes more air-quality problems than fossil fuels. The American heart and lung associatioin warns that waste and particulates from biomass cause cancer and respitory diseases on a scale unmatched by even the burning of coal – which, unfortunatley, is usually done in tandem with the burning of trees to meet the output requirements for alternative energy.

In other words, more biomass use in the US also means more coal use and air that’s less clean than if we just burned natural gas in biomass’s stead.

If you needed a final nail in the coffin of biomass, it’s probably this – today’s biomass plants produce 65% more CO2 per megawatt-hour than even modern coal plants.

Remember, folks; renewable can be as much of a misnomer as any other word that’s politically charged and associated with government subsidies. Human activity on the climate is inevitable, but it would be best if we didn’t subsidize sectors that arose to counter our ‘dirtiest’ energy producers while actually having the opposite effect. Think about that next time you hear leftists talking about ‘expanding renewable energy in the form of biomass‘.

Solar Power

Solar panels require rare-earth minerals. Unfortunately, just like most of our products, these minerals often come from China. In fact, China produced 90% of the rare-earth minerals used in renewable energy sources in 2017.

We all know that their extraction technologies aren’t exactly ‘green’. What’s worse, though, is that a significant percentage of the materials we get from China come from black-market mining, which is far more destructive than state-sponsored resource extraction in China.

Rare-earth mining comes with its own significant environmental costs. Most notably, one ton of rare-earth mineral production results in a byproduct of acidic wastewater, which is harmful to human health and especially fetal development. It goes without saying that China doesn’t treat this water as it ought to and lets it leech into other water supplies, literally poisoning millions of people thanks to the fact that so many of these minerals are mined black-market style. International law tolerates this at best and encourages it at worst.

Solar energy, if not used immediately, needs to be stored in batteries. Batteries are also rife with rare-earth minerals and other toxic substances that need to be mined in countries with lax environmental regulations. Though green at home (besides all the pollution caused by transportation and instillation), solar panels come with huge costs to the energy markets and environments of devloping countries with bad regualtions.

Though Michael Moore’s contention that solar panels only work at about 8% efficiency isn’t perfect (the best panels in commercial use in the US work at about 22% and that number is increasing every year), it stands that this efficiency isn’t very high and that the demand of minerals from developing countries has important offsetting effects with regards to how ‘green’ solar is. That’s not to say we can’t make it more efficient; it is to say, however, that solar has nothing to do with energy independence and that, just as we’re destroying our forests for biomass exports, the Chinese are destroying many of their pristine ecosystems more fully and irreparably so we can have solar panels which operate at 22% efficiency.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try and make them more efficient. However, once again we need to examine the policy prescriptions which enable the dark sides of alternative energy. It’s not all carbon neutrality and lifting us out of the mire of climate change. Profit motives operate just as fruitfully in the alternative energy sector as they do in the fossil fuel sector, and this usually comes at the detriment and expense of devloping countries.

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