Nuclear Power, ANWR, and Global Warming

[1] Three specific problems in the Bush administration’s policies warrant further analysis: 1) the renewed commitment to nuclear energy, 2) the exploration for oil in ANWR, and 3) the administration’s dismissal of global warming. The renewed commitment to nuclear energy is highly risky, even if, as the administration claims, technological advances have made an already safe technology even safer.1 Certainly nuclear technologies can never be fail-safe, and problems with weapons proliferation, long term waste storage, and terrorism cannot be avoided. The problem with weapons proliferation is not as apparent now as it was just two decades ago but remains real. The threat of terror attack has increased significantly since September 11, 2001. The development of a deep geological repository at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is better in terms of safety than current on-site storage at power plants. There are, however, lingering questions about the geological stability of Yucca Mountain and the vociferous objections of Nevadans about the selection of their state. With few exceptions (see the Skull Valley Case) no one wants his or her home and the homes of generations to come to be converted into a dump, especially for the thousands of years it will take for radioactive waste to decay.

[2] The administration recommends that the federal government ease the way for nuclear and build the repository. President Bush has moved vigorously to overrule Nevadans and seems to have the support of Congress, few of whose members are from Nevada. Environmentalists remain in opposition, partly so to keep in place what has become an impediment to the expansion of nuclear power. Actually, environmentalists have given a mixed reception to nuclear over the years, some in spite of its risks, seeing it as preferable to available alternatives such as coal and hydroelectric. Other environmentalists deny the trade-off between these equally risky alternatives and maintain that conservation, reduced consumption, and renewable energy sources offer better options.

[3] The second problem is the administration’s proposal to open ANWR to oil exploration and exploitation.2 This issue is complicated by the dependence of the Gwich’in people, the Native American group that lives immediately south of ANWR, on the Porcupine caribou herd. As indicated before, in 2002 the House of Representatives approved opening, but the Senate rejected it. So for now it remains closed. This is the sort of proposal, however, that can be rejected dozens of times and still remain alive. The decision not to open is always reversible, while approval is only needed once and represents an irreversible decision once drilling begins. As a result, the proposal keeps coming back every few years, pushed by the oil industry and Alaskans for economic reasons.

[4] At first glance opening ANWR does not seem to do much to increase supplies. The oil would be pumped out in short order and could easily be compensated for by conservation measures. It offers a measure of independence but hardly enough to insure security.

[5] It figures so prominently because it is symbolic of the overall economy/environment trade-off that is central to energy decisions today. It may be a lightening rod to attract attention from the many other controversial features of the administration’s plan. Losing the battle for ANWR would be of little moment to the administration or the oil industry, give environmentalists a sense of battle victory in a lost war, and facilitate “compromise” on more essential elements, such as increasing supply and giving the oil companies what they want.

[6] The environmental impacts of exploration and drilling in ANWR are not known, but the U.S. Geological Survey thinks several animal species could be harmed.3 Both industry and their environmental critics so exaggerate their cases that discerning truth from ideology and propaganda is impossible. Skepticism is recommended. The fact of the matter is, however, that drilling is proposed for one the most critical habitats in ANWR, which in turn is one of the last pristine areas on earth. Scientists are unsure of impacts. Past experience with oil production on the North Slope of the Brooks Mountain Range in Alaska is mixed, and ANWR is sufficiently unlike other areas to make comparisons difficult. Whatever else, the plan is highly risky especially for the relatively little oil available. It hardly seems worth it.

[7] Native Americans in Alaska generally support drilling, but there are important exceptions within and between tribes. The Inupiat on the North Slope support it and stand to gain considerably. The Gwich’in who live south of the range stand to lose the most and strenuously oppose drilling. Their source of subsistence and the basis of their culture is the Porcupine caribou herd that winters on Gwich’in land and then in May treks through the Brooks Range to the 1002 land on the North Slope where females calve and the herd fattens on the rich Arctic tundra. Drilling is proposed for the herd’s richest summer habitat. The Gwich’in fear both for the herd and for the integrity of their own culture that is already under assault from globalizing forces. For now the matter is closed, but expect it to resurface anytime, especially if Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress.

[8] The third problem is global warming. The administration devotes all of five paragraphs to global warming in its plan and does not include the terms “global warming” or “greenhouse gases” in its glossary.4 President Bush has admitted that humans are the primary cause of global warming but has dismissed it as a major problem without offering any explanation.

[9] The temperature of the earth’s atmosphere has fluctuated over its history, and scientists have ways of measuring these fluctuations by investigating ice cores and fossil records. What these investigations reveal are alternating cycles of warming and cooling over long periods and smaller episodes of fluctuation within these longer cycles. Warming and cooling are thus natural elements of a dynamic atmosphere, and differentiating human-induced warming from natural fluctuation presents a problem.

[10] Some scientists think the longer-term fluctuations are random. Others relate them to variations in the sun’s cycles, the moon’s orbit, or the earth’s orbit. Some of the fluctuations appear to be caused by catastrophic events.5

[11] Were it not for the so-called “greenhouse” gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and others) the earth’s atmosphere would be about 33°C cooler. Scientists have known about the warming effect of these gases for over a century. The theory is well established and appears to be verified by the evidence. These gases allow solar radiation to pass through from the sun, but they absorb infrared (heat) reflected back into space. By trapping heat these gases serve as a blanket and keep the earth warmer than it would otherwise be. While carbon dioxide is only a small fraction of the gases in the atmosphere, periods of warming coincide historically with elevated levels. Carbon dioxide is the chief culprit, accounting for 60 percent of added gases.6

[12] Since measurements began in 1959 on the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, levels of carbon dioxide have increased about 15 percent. Average temperatures have risen in the in the twentieth century by 0.6°C or 1°F. The 1990s was the warmest decade in the past one thousand years. The oceans have warmed, apparently absorbing some of the heat that would have warmed the atmosphere even more. There is a notable loss of ice in both polar regions with a 42 percent decline in the thickness of Arctic ice. Sea levels are rising.7

[13] All this is circumstantial evidence, of course, but it points consistently in the same direction. In addition, most models of climate change point strongly in the direction of further overall warming, although the details vary from model to model.

[14] The main source of added carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels-oil, natural gas, and coal. The United States is the leading source of CO2 emissions. Most scientists now think the evidence is conclusive: Global warming in the past century is largely caused by human beings. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations designated body of two thousand scientists: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities.”8

[15] Unless unprecedented action takes place, temperatures will warm significantly in coming decades. Ice will melt, sea levels will rise, and low-lying coastal areas will be inundated. Storms will increase in their intensity. Biodiversity will decrease even further. Infectious diseases will increase. Many regions will experience increased drought, and weather patterns will change in unforeseen ways. The IPCC concludes in its Third Assessment Report: “We are courting climate catastrophe unless our burning of fossil fuels and release of CO2 is sharply reduced.”

[16] The Kyoto Treaty has recently emerged from international negotiations to stabilize and reduce the release of greenhouse gases. The Bush administration has dismissed this treaty. In a separate action it has recommended the “grandfathering-in” of the worst polluting coal-fired power plants. Its energy plan calls for an increase in supply of fossil fuels to meet energy demand. The administration’s position is clear. Global warming either does not exist or will be solved by new technology and market capitalism. Reduced levels of economic growth due to shortages are a far more serious problem.9

[17] The administration may be correct. It would seem based on sound science, considerations of sustainability, and the precautionary principle, however, that a more prudential course is in order. Conservation and research and development on renewable sources of energy would seem to be the preferred direction.

[18] Energy policy is complex. Comprehension requires basic knowledge of economics, politics, the natural sciences, and ethics. The depth and breadth of knowledge required is unfortunate because today’s energy choices will be an important factor in determining tomorrow’s society and the future of the global environment. Energy choices are that critical.

End Notes

1 William P. Cunningham and Barbara Woodworth Saigo. Environmental Science, pp. 485-91.

2 Robert L. Stivers. “Oil and the Caribou People,” in Robert L. Stivers et. al. Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach, second edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994, pp. 144-164.

3 Sam Howe Verhovek. “Drilling Could Hurt Wildlife, Federal Study of Arctic Says.” The New York Times, March 30, 2002.

4 Robert U. Ayres. “How Economists Have Misjudged Global Warming.” World Watch, September/October 2001, Vol. 14, No. 5, p. 14.

5 William P. Cunningham and Barbara Woodworth Saigo. Environmental Science, p. 385. United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Global Environmental Outlook 3, London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2002, pp. 214f.

6 UNEP. Global Environmental Outlook 3, p. 214.

7 Ibid. p. 214.

8 Ibid. p. 152. Also see IPCC (2001), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. The Contribution Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

9 Robert U. Ayres. “How Economists Have Misjudged Global Warming.”