December 7, 2014

Are We Missing the Big Picture on Climate Change?

So Rebecca Solnit asks in today's New York Times Magazine, going on to show that she is indeed.

She begins by describing the remains of a bird scorched to death by the Ivanpah concentrated solar power facility, which has paved over a chunk of the desert "nearly five times the size of Central Park" (3,500 acres, to produce, according to Solnit, 392 megawatts of power at full capacity).

However, it can generate at that rate only when sun position and atmospheric conditions are ideal. The developers themselves project an average output of 30% capacity, or a total annual generation of just over 1,000,000 megawatt-hours. With an average household use of 10 megawatt-hours per year, that's equivalent to the electricity use of 100,000 households, not 140,000 as Solnit writes.

Therein lie her first manipulations of the story. Besides exaggerating the projected output of the Ivanpah facility and ignoring the fact that actual output has not been reported and is almost invariably much less than projected, as well as not considering the loss of at least 3,500 acres of desert habitat (new roads and transmission corridors were also built; desert tortoises were forcibly moved out), she uses the deceptive industry practice of expressing output in terms of "homes served". Domestic use of electricity represents only around 35% of the total. So in terms of total per-capita electricity use, the projected output of the Ivanpah facility would be equivalent to only the total amount used by the people from only 35,000 households.

And it would provide electricity for none at night. And electrical energy represents less than 40% of our total energy use. So the benefit in terms of reducing the use of other fuels becomes negligible. Considering the vast resources required to build the facility and the vast amount of land required to harness the energy, this hardly seems a wise path.

[Update:  In fact, the actual generation of electricity from the Ivanpah facility is reported to and by the Department of Energy. Those data can be daunting to sift through, but more than a month ago it was reported by Pete Danko at Breaking Energy that production was running well under 40% of what was projected (ie, less than 14,000 households, one tenth Solnit's claim), and that use of "auxiliary" natural gas had to be increased by 60%.]

Some waterfowl mistake that shining sea of mirrors for a real lake, so they try to land on it. But without water to launch themselves back into the air, they’re stranded, prey for coyotes or doomed to die of thirst or hunger. Other birds fly into Ivanpah, where, dazzled by glare, they collide with the mirrors or towers. Still others are scorched by the heat and fall to their deaths.

It’s this last form of avian death that became news. In August, The Atlantic described Ivanpah “incinerating” birds in flight; The Associated Press reported that wildlife investigators saw birds “ignite,” and that birds “burned and fell” every two minutes. Ivanpah’s corporate website noted that a death every two minutes would mean 100,000 dead birds a year, while only 321 dead and injured birds had been recovered. The actual number of deaths seems to be well above the power plant’s tally and far below the number reported by The Associated Press. But birds do die there, in many ways.

A second manipulation is in presenting the figure of "only 321" recovered bird corpses without context. Every such survey calculates an estimated "true" figure from such a sampling, considering imperfect recovery and loss to predators (such as the coyotes that Solnit mentions). In other words, Solnit's low figure, which she presents as final, is in fact only the starting point towards a much higher estimate.

But who cares, Solnit implies, because she's looking at the big picture. Let's not talk about what's actually happening at the Ivanpah facility, or whether the Ivanpah facility's benefits are enough to justify its harms, because climate change is a much bigger issue. And if you insist on worrying about the birds being killed there (or the displaced tortoises), you obviously don't care about climate change.
Supporters of fossil fuel and deniers of climate change love to trade in stories like the one about Ivanpah, individual tales that make renewable energy seem counterproductive, perverse. Stories cannot so readily capture the far larger avian death toll from coal, gas and nuclear power generation. Benjamin Sovacool, an energy-policy expert, looked into the deaths of birds at wind farms (where the blades can chop them down) and concluded that per gigawatt hour, nuclear power plants kill more than twice as many birds and fossil-fuel plants kill more than 30 times as many. He noted that over the course of a year fossil-fuel plants in the United States actually kill about 24 million birds, compared to 46,000 by wind farms. His calculations factor in climate change as part of their deadly impact.
That paragraph, typical of the logic of big energy apologists, is an absolute muddle. First, "individual tales" are precisely what make the climate change story compelling. So why write off these particular victims as something less? Yes, the toll from other sources of energy is much greater — that's because they represent a much greater proportion of our energy. Non-hydro renewable energy is still — and will likely always remain, because of its intermittency and variability — in the low single percentage points. And that's just electrical energy, which, recall, is less than 40% of total energy use.

So the question is not who kills more, but what can be done to kill less. Without meaningfully reducing our use of other fuels, giant wind and solar facilities are only adding to the toll, not reducing it.

Furthermore, the factoring of climate change in the calculation of bird deaths is the flip side of citing "only 321" bird corpses. It's meaningless. It's particularly questionable in the case of nuclear power, which does not emit carbon and so does not contribute to climate change (at least by that means).

Besides being manipulative, it is also simplistic, ignoring the fact that wind turbines, for example, are a particular danger to raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls), whose populations (never mind the individuals!) are already challenged by habitat loss to humans. It ignores the toll on bats. And it ignores the huge increase of human land use (so much of it for supporting livestock, which represents massive deforestation, water depletion and pollution, and emissions of methane, which has 25 times the greenhouse effect of CO₂), ie, destruction of natural habitat, obviously the greatest barrier to plant and animal survival, resilience, and adaptation to climate change.
For a while our eyes were on the photographs of oil-soaked pelicans, victims of the 2010 BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The devastation of the region is no longer news, but scientists, who track data for long unnewsworthy swathes of time, have found that the spill has killed more than 600,000 birds. It is still killing sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins and contaminating the seafood in areas where human beings fish. ... A recent Audubon Society report on climate change concludes: “Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. Of the 314 species at risk from global warming, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered. These birds are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050.”
The latter part of the preceding excerpt points to the loss of habitat as being as much a problem as climate change. And the former part is relevant to oil use, but irrelevant to the toll at Ivanpah — because oil is used for transport and heating (and lubricating wind turbines and insulating their transformers), not for generating electricity. And again, these deaths are due to a catastrophic well blowout, not to climate change.
The technology for wind and solar farms can still be improved, but they are among the few remedies we have to the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. All over the world, renewable energy is proliferating — even on the plains of West Texas, there are now wind turbines among the fracking wells. Wind and solar are not only problems but solutions to the deadliness of the fossil fuel industry, whether it’s through routine devastation, as with tar sands, or catastrophic accidents, as with the BP spill, or the sabotage of the whole planetary system by climate change.
Having raising the unquestionable harms of an oil spill, now Solnit more directly contrasts it to wind and solar, even though, again, oil is not used for electricity. Even if wind and solar were everything their promoters claim (including the eternal canard that next year's technology and planning will solve all problems so don't worry about the continuing harm from last year's which if you think should be decommissioned you must really hate the planet), they would not change anything about oil at all. Insisting that wind and solar will save us almost seems a means of shrugging off the real problems of oil use, eg, that it is our use of it that drives all that drilling. Pave the desert with solar panels, string wind turbines across the mountain ridges: Just don't look, as Solnit's title suggests, at the big picture. Instead: Blame everything on climate change, and justify everything as fighting climate change.

She ends with a fire-and-brimstone vision of absolute calamity. She may not be wrong, but she would have us accept the deaths of birds and bats and the massive loss of habitat from building giant wind and solar projects as a distraction from the calamities due to climate change. That is exactly the self-rationalizing casuistry that guarantees — and justifies — only more calamity.

  • “Before human populations swelled to the point at which we could denude whole forests and wipe out entire animal populations, extinction rates were at least ten times lower. And the future does not look any brighter. Climate change and the spread of invasive species (often facilitated by humans) will drive extinction rates only higher.” —Protect and serve, Nature 516, 144 (11 December 2014)
  • ‘Many species are already critically endangered and close to extinction, including the Sumatran elephant, Amur leopard and mountain gorilla. But also in danger of vanishing from the wild, it now appears, are animals that are currently rated as merely being endangered: bonobos, bluefin tuna and loggerhead turtles, for example.

    ‘In each case, the finger of blame points directly at human activities. The continuing spread of agriculture is destroying millions of hectares of wild habitats every year, leaving animals without homes, while the introduction of invasive species, often helped by humans, is also devastating native populations. At the same time, pollution and overfishing are destroying marine ecosystems.

    ‘“Habitat destruction, pollution or overfishing either kills off wild creatures and plants or leaves them badly weakened,” said Derek Tittensor, a marine ecologist at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge. “The trouble is that in coming decades, the additional threat of worsening climate change will become more and more pronounced and could then kill off these survivors.”’ —Earth faces sixth ‘great extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo, The Observer, 14 December 2014
Update: Ando Arike writes:  ‘The climate-change angle we usually ignore is the apocalyptic side of the human “success story” — our phenomenal growth in population to seven billion from one billion in little more than two centuries. But our cleverness in transforming fossil-fuel energy into labor-saving technology and high-yield agriculture has gone to our heads. It’s not just the climate denialists who are anti-science; it’s also those renewable-energy optimists who ignore basic laws of thermodynamics and entertain the fantasy that it will be possible for seven billion to live in the style of the American middle class. The new story we need to tell is “managed degrowth” — gradually but significantly paring down our demands for resources and learning to live within the ecological budget of the earth.’