Bad cycle: More carbon, more heat, more power, more carbon

July 1, 2014 

Rick Clewett is a professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University.

On June 24, an important new study was released: "Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States."

It was commissioned by prominent businessmen and overseen by a bipartisan set of former government officials. The analysis was conducted by several independent companies. The report can be found at Riskybusiness.org.

Its focus is on the likely economic costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels and emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at our present rate. It is very conservative, in that it does not try to estimate a wide array of financial and human costs that are real and tremendously important but difficult to assess.

I'll focus on just one effect of climate change studied in the report: rising temperatures.

"By the middle of this century," the report says, "the average American will likely see 27 to 50 days over 95 degrees Fahrenheit each year — two to more than three times the average annual number of 95 F days we've seen over the past 30 years. By the end of this century, this number will likely reach 45 to 96 days over 95 F each year on average.

"During portions of the year, extreme heat could surpass the threshold at which the human body can maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. ... During these periods, anyone whose job requires them to work outdoors, as well as anyone lacking access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and potential death."

That's breathtaking.

But let's narrow our focus to what the report says this means for electricity usage. A failure to dramatically decrease our emission of carbon will mean that, in the next five to 25 years, "greenhouse gas-driven changes in temperature will likely necessitate the construction of up to 95 gigawatts of new power generation capacity." That's "the equivalent of roughly 200 average coal or natural gas-fired power plants, costing residential and commercial ratepayers up to $12 billion per year."

This is a classic example of a negative feedback loop, a trend that feeds on itself and continues to worsen the situation. The more carbon dioxide we emit burning fossil fuels to make electricity, the more the average temperatures (and the frequency of extremely high summer temperatures) increase. The more hot days we have, the more electricity we need for air conditioning to avoid potential dangers to our health.

Of course, the reverse is also true. The more we conserve electricity and the more electricity we generate from clean and renewable sources such as solar, wind and small-scale hydro, the lower the average temperatures. As the number of dangerously hot days decreases, the more money we save in a variety of ways, and the healthier and happier we are.

The increase in hot weather that will result from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, at anything like their present levels creates problems for the electrical industry itself.

Most coal-fired power plants are water-cooled. Having to operate more frequently will require more energy and water, and increase the cost of producing energy.

As well, these coal-fired plants will be competing for what, in many parts of the country, will be increasingly scarce water supplies. We simply cannot ride the fossil fuel bandwagon to anywhere we want to go.

Increasingly in recent years, investment houses have been considering the carbon footprints of companies before investing in them. And, an increasing number of major companies have started assessing their contributions to climate change and are trying to minimize them.

Corporations and groups of corporations have begun lobbying at different levels of government to provide the guidance, help and policies the country needs to decrease our climate risks and improve outlooks for a livable future.

That's the train we want to be on.

Rick Clewett is a professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University.

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