Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Abrupt Climate Change - Yes

Scientist Paul Beckwith speaks out on Arctic methane and abrupt climate change - and ways to stave it off. Scientist Douglas McCauley, University of California: industrializing the ocean could lead to mass extinction of marine animals. Radio Ecoshock 150128

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!

It's a long blog this week. There are so many big stories to cover. You may have to take it in pieces. Anyone who followed all the links, and watched the videos on offer, would likely get the equivalent of a week or two of a college course on climate change.

If you came for the big story on extinction in the oceans, scroll down a couple of page/screens to my interview with Dr. Douglas McCauley.


According to one climate scientist, "We are at the extreme weather stage and rapidly heading into the red zone." That is when "all hell breaks loose". Who else says so? Your insurance company. Both Lloyd's of London and Zurich Insurance in Switzerland just warned of extreme weather events coming this year of 2015.

The climate scientist is Paul Beckwith from the University of Ottawa. He has two Masters Degrees, and is working on his PHD in climate science. Paul lives out the late Steven Schneider's call for scientists that communicate. I follow Paul's Tweets, Facebook page, and You tube videos to see what's new and what's hot.

Paul is this week's feature guest on Radio Ecoshock.

We've tons to talk about, after the hottest year on record, climate talks in Lima, Peru - Paul was there - and still more alarming news coming out of the Arctic.


Before we get to that important stuff, I ask for Paul's help in a little fact-checking. A couple of people seem to have misunderstandings about the possible 50 gigaton burst of methane suggested by Dr. Natalia Shahkova from the University of Alaska, and her Russian colleagues.

One You tube speaker says this 50 gig burst has already begun. As Paul tells us, that is not correct. Yes methane emissions from the Arctic are increasing due to melting of frozen methane ("clathrates") on the sea bed, and from melting permafrost. But the increased methane is in the order of millions of tons, not billions of tons (also known as gigatons.)

Another scientist on You tube says the Shakhova's 50 gigaton release could happen "any day now". Yes, that's technically true. But the eruption depends on more than just melting sea ice. It also requires some sort of undersea event, whether an earthquake, or a land-slide under the sea, for example. That would release the methane held many meters below the sediment.

I give the example of Vancouver, where seismologists say an earthquake is over-due, based on past records. They've been saying it could happen any time for the past 35 years or more. The great West Coast quake could happen tomorrow, or it could happen 200 years from now, or 500 years.

I'm not a scientist, but I think I heard the last major release of methane from under the sea is thought to be over 8,000 years ago. [See more on this from P. Beckwith below.] So don't sell your house and move to Alaska or the Yukon based solely on fear of a methane burst.

That doesn't mean I'm saying it won't happen, or that I'm not seriously concerned about rising methane levels in the Arctic. It is a mega-threat, as some Arctic scientists say. There will come a point, and we don't yet know when, that methane from the Arctic could overwhelm our own carbon dioxide emissions. We may already have crossed an unseen tipping point where this is unstoppable.

I'll have more about unseen tipping points in my coming interview with Dr. James White. Meanwhile, Paul Beckwith and other scientists in the Arctic Methane Emergency Group say we should try extreme means to restore the reflective cover of white ice on the top of the world. Paul says we could cool ocean currents going in the Arctic, while mimicking the impact of volcanoes, which can cool the Earth, or parts of it, for a few years.

One final fact check, before we head off into the real science. One scientist who needs to check his facts says in a You tube video that the British Parliament predicted all the Arctic sea ice could be gone by 2015. I thought this was really a presentation made by John Nissan of AMEG, and that the Parliamentary Committee rejected his prediction. Certainly the whole UK Parliament never met and agreed on a 2015 date for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice.

Anway, Paul writes:

"The undersea landslide idea that Shakhova is talking about is well covered in th[is] book by [James] Kennett: "Methane hydrates in Quaternary Climate change: The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis" [published in 2003].

[online book listing here. See also this free online paper by Kennett "Role of Methane Hydrates in Climate Change: Compellling evidence and debate."]

Beckwith continues:

"In particular, there were 3 "Storegga Slides" (see it in Wikipedia) that were amongst the largest known landslides. The latest was around 8200 years ago, and they may have released large amounts of methane.

Interestingly, rapid sea level change either up or down can trigger landslides. Down, since the pressure on the seafloor decreases that could trigger a methane release and cause a landslide, and up, since glaciated continents rebound from rapid ice loss.

Here is a key passage from Natalia Shakova, taken an interview by John Mason, in the Sceptical Science blog:

John Mason, Skeptical Science:

"With respect to future events, in your EGU 2008 abstract it is stated that "we consider release of up to 50Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time". This represents a colossal quantity of gas. How quickly could such a release occur and what would be the most likely mechanism?"


"There could be several different triggers for massive releases: a seismic or tectonic event, endogenous seismicity caused by sediments subsiding pursuant to hydrate decay, or sediment sliding on the shelf break; the shelf slope is very steep, and the sedimentation rates are among the highest in the ESAS."

In our interview, Paul Beckwith also references an influential paper by another member of the AMEG group, Dr. Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Institute at Cambridge. Here is the listing for the paper "Climate science: Vast cost of Arctic change" in the Journal Nature. Below the title are a number of blog articles you can use to follow up.

This article from the University of Cambridge hits the bleak note: "Cost of Arctic methane release could 'size of the global economy' warn experts."

The UK newspaper the Guardian has a good article on it too. "Ice-free Arctic in two years heralds methane catastrophe - scientist."

Do keep in mind that there is a whole school of scientists, including NASA's Gavin Schmidt and David Archer from the University of Chicago who either disagree that Arctic methane is a threat, or disagree that it warrants our attention. They suggest we keep our focus on man-made carbon dioxide, which we can control, and which will determine the fate of the earth for tens of thousands of years. Find my interview with Dr. David Archer on Arctic methane here.


Some new science out bears on what we've been talking about. Sub-sea permafrost is melting in the Kara Sea, unexpectedly releasing methane in shallow seas. This isn't the East Siberian shelf other scientists studied. How could those frozen balls of methane, the clathrates exist in such shallow water in the Kara Sea? Paul explains this well.

People who want to follow up on this story can search for the paper title: "Offshore permafrost decay and massive seabed methane escape in water depths less than 20 meteres at the South Kara Sea shelf" The lead author is Alexey Portnov.

Here is a good article about this Portnov paper.

The full paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, is available free here

Paul Beckwith adds this comment on the Kara Sea research:

"The Kara Sea info adds more support to what I have said in the past to David Archer, and goes against the mainstream view that it will take 100s of years for heat to move downward in the permafrost to cause significant thawing."

Speaking of scary, Paul pointed me to a press release from NASA about increased solar radiation in the Arctic. We talk about that. Since 1970, the amount of heat being absorbed from the sun, in the Arctic with less sea ice cover, has gone up almost 5%. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a huge bump in solar heating of the Earth, because we are talking about a gigantic area. Read about it from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science here.


Here is a link to Paul's video on abrupt climate change.

The cats in this video seem distracting but (a) you can't get anything to go viral on the Net these days without cats and (b) I think it's symbolic of how distracted we all are as we discuss these amazing threats. Even while you watch, you may also be thinking of your job, a TV series you like, the next Facebook post, and some trip you'd like to takes. And oh yeah, the climate may shift so Montreal Canada feels like Miami, and crops don't grow anymore.

In our interview, Beckwith says:

"...and the probability is very high, and increasing all the time, that we will have an abrupt change. I think it's going on myself, and that's the hypothesis of my whole research."

We talk about abrupt climate changes that have happened in the past. In times 40,000 to 70,000 years ago, the Greenland ice cores show a warming of 5 to 6 degrees C within one decade. (Imagine that today!). It has gone as high as 16 degree C change in one decade or two. (Unimaginable.)

"The planet is capable of very large, rapid swings in temperature. We've changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and CO2 and temperature and things, they are increasing at least an order of magniture, at least 10 or maybe 20 times faster than anything in the geological record."

"I think there's no question that we will have abrupt warming again on this planet. The only question is 'what is the time scale?' Is it going to be 10 years? Is it going to be a hundred years? Is it going to be a thousand years?

The system does change quickly. It goes from one state to another state. I mean it's not a linear thing. There's so many non-linear feed-backs at play that the system is quite capable of switching and switching very quickly

I strongly suggest you listen to the interview.

Download/listen to this 33 minute interview with Paul Beckwith in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


The world's biggest insurance companies agree. Check out this report from Lloyd's.

"Risks to the environment outnumbered economic threats in the report this year, with experts negatively assessing the preparations in place to cope with extreme weather and climate change."

That report was prepared for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 2015.

And then we have Zurich, another of the world's biggest insurance companies. Here are the five biggest risks rated by impact, according to a new report from Zurich:

1. Water crisis

2. Spread of infectious diseases

3. Weapons of mass destruction

4. Interstate conflict

5. Failure of climate change adaption.

I would say four out of the top five risks in terms of impact are climate-related. See if you can pick which ones. Strangely, Zurich lists biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse at only number 10 in terms of impacts!!! If we experience "ecosystem collapse" it's all over, in my opinion.

Zurich also predicts extreme weather events are likely to occur this year.

Regarding an abrupt climate change, whether stimulated by methane or not, it's a doubled-edged sword. If we could experience just a little abrupt warming, and then plateau for a while, maybe humanity would be forced to act. On the other hand, if we just slowly and gradually warm, we may experience the boiling frog phenomenon, where we go over the climate cliff bit by bit, decade by decade, without reacting.


During our Radio Ecoshock interview, Paul recommends You tube videos of scientist Eric Rignot talking about the rapid and unexpected melting of ice on Greenland (which will eventually flood our coastal cities). Here are the links: ERIC RIGNOT You tube videos at the AGU, on Greenland melting:

Part 1 (4 min)

Part 2 (2 min)

Part 3 (4 min)


We also discuss the results, or lack of them, at the recent Climate Conference in Lima Peru. Paul was there, giving a series of press conferences. Here are the links to several of those You tube videos.


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #1 (12-4-2014 in Lima Peru)


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #2 (12-5-2014 in Lima Peru) (Paul Beckwith briefing)


COP20: Global Arctic Methane Emergency #3 (12-6-2014 in Lima Peru)

Paul's presentation (in the 2nd Press Briefing) is the best, but I also highly recommend this briefing by Stuart Scott on "Ecology Vs. Economy in the Age of Climate Change".

Paul and I get into some wild discussions about science and climate change, as we always do. This is one of my favorite interviews. I hope you think so too.


We all fear there is something terribly wrong at sea. Call it extinction, or call it something else, stories of dwindling ocean life are daily washing ashore. A new paper published in the journal "Science" says we are at a cross-roads for marine life. The lead author, and our second guest this week, is Dr. Douglas J. McCauley, head of the McCauley Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

For once this was a science story that did get out to the world. The New York Times and the BBC covered the new science on mass extinction in the ocean. But did they get it right?

The paper is "Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean." It was published in the journal "Science" on January 16th, 2015.

First of all, note the term "defaunation" rather than extinction. Basically defaunation means removing animals (the paper is about animals, not plants) from their essential services in the ocean. For example, suppose there are still sharks hiding out in some faraway reef (so they are not extinct) - but not enough sharks left to clean up weakness in the food system.

McCauley gives the example of garbage workers. Suppose there are only 100 left in the world. Technically, they are not "extinct". But mountains of garbage pile up everywhere, because there aren't anywhere near enough workers to carry out their function.

This defaunation is happening at sea. It's very hard to say for sure that a species is extinct, everywhere in the hard-to-reach ocean. But we can say they are not where we expect them to be, doing the things we expect them to do.


That's point one. The second warning, and this is really new from the paper by McCauley and his colleagues at Stanford and Rugers. Their overview of a huge collection of papers on threats to sea life finds that we are on the verge of industrialization of the ocean.

There are under-sea mines, and many more planned. Mass feeding lots, similar to cattle feed lots, already exist for Tuna. We plan to harvest tidal energy with underwater propellers looking like undersea wind mills. Some countries cramped for land have already built things like airports (Japan) into the sea. We are stripping away protective mangrove swamps to build suburbs in Asia.

The fishing industry is already heavily industrialized. Masses of trawlers are essentially bull-dozing the bottom of the sea flat. It's wrecked the Baltic and parts of the North Sea. Chinese fisheries are flattening all around that country. The Canadian Grand Banks were wiped clean of cod with trawling. That's an industrial fishery. Add in the ability to use sonar, and even satellite guidance, to find fish at any depth.

So McCauley and his co-authors discovered that we are at a knowable point in the history of marine life. Essentially, we are about 200 years behind where humans are on land with the industrial revolution that began in the late 1700's. We know what happened, and is still happening to the species on land as we industrialize.

Image courtesy of University of California

About 500 land animals have gone extinct in the last 100 years or so. Marine scientists think only about 15 animals have gone extinct in the ocean, although, as I said above, it's harder to tell.

I ask McCauley point blank if we are entering the 6th Great Extinction in the sea. The answer is "not yet". But we are headed there.

Creating giant marine parks (sea animals need more space than land animals) is one solution. We've begun to do that, but not yet on a scale to prevent more extinctions.

Marine protected areas also face the challenge of climate change. As ocean waters warm (and that's where most of our excess heating is going) - some marine species can move toward the poles to find cooler water. Sadly, they can't take the estuaries, shallow seas or other breeding places with them. We just don't know what will happen with the hotter seas.

There are other very desperate reasons to hope, not mentioned in this paper. For example, the large scale industrialization of the ocean may not happen. Maybe we run out of fossil fuels, or this civilization has to retreat, due to economic or climatic failures.

We also talk about another study about mass die-offs just came out in mid-January, led by scientists at the University of California Berkeley, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy. They found increasing mass-die offs in the past 75 years. Fish and marine invertebrates are among the hardest hit.

And then we have another study released last November, this time led by scientists from the Smithsonian Institute. They warn dead zones are increasing, and will greatly expand as the climate warms. Are these dead zones tiny, or are they signficant in the big picture of threats to ocean life?

The paper by McCauley et. al. doesn't attempt to catalog every threat to sea life. I'm alarmed by the huge masses of plastic particles in the sea, and by radiation leaking out of Fukushima, but those aren't in this work. Instead, the point of this new science is to ask "where are we" on the timeline of industrialization and extinction, when it comes to marine animals.

The answer seems to be that we are on a precipice. The optimists (including McCauley) say we can see what happened on land, and so wisely avoid the same slaughter of species in the oceans. The pessimists will say we will fall off the cliff, because we are too blind to change. Is the ocean cup of life half empty, or half full?


I got a message from our friend Albert Bates, at the Farm. They still need another half dozen students to pull off the planned permaculture workshop in Belize. Personally, I think the carbon from flying to Central America might overcome the carbon saved by permculture. But maybe not. This is not just any course. It features biochar, and knowledge from Latin America, plus Mr. Bates himself. Albert is at the center of a flurry of activity teaching how to restore carbon to the soil.

If those who attend eventually become soil-masters and permaculture leaders themselves, then the carbon savings could snowball. It's your call, if you want to get the in-depth grip on permaculture and soil/climate management.

Albert writes:

"We offset everyone's air travel with the trees we will plant and biochar we will make in Belize, no worries. My guarantee."

Here is the blurb, with some powerful guests:


"come to Belize...

Travel far south; to the back of beyond; to a remote valley accessible only by dugout canoe. Study permaculture surrounded by a lush, productive forest of edibles, medicinals and tropical hardwoods. Eat organic food, sleep in dorms powered by renewable energy, bathe in a sparkling pure river....



Permaculture Design Certificate Course Dates Feb 21 to Mar 6 2015 Place: Maya Mountain Research Farm San Pedro Columbia, Belize

To register, please see or contact Christopher at info(a)


There you go, my first classified ad in the Radio Ecoshock blog. Now Albert owes us, perhaps he'll show up as a guest after the course. We have lots to talk about, especially if restoring carbon to the soil is basically humanity's greatest hope.

Next week we'll talk more science, about abrupt climate change, and those invisible tipping points.

Thanks for all your encouraging emails and tips! Feedback from listeners enriches my life, and this program. Find a handy "Contact Me" form at my web site,

I'm Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and for caring about our world.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Engines of Life Hit Stall Speed

SUMMARY: The world could warm 17 degrees hotter - scientist Thomas J. Goreau. Plus America's most dangerous nuclear reactor, Indian Point 25 miles from New York City. Lawyer/activist Susan Hito-Shapiro. Radio Ecoshock

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what –- I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

- U.S. President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, 2015.


You can't make this stuff up. The hub of world financial activity, Wall Street and all, is gambling every day that two old reactors just 25 miles away won't finally melt-down, Fukushima-style. Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission thinks Indian Point has the most at-risk-for-an-earthquake reactors in the country. Later in this program we'll talk with environmental lawyer, activist and local resident Susan Hito Shapiro about the real threat.

But first, I found another jaw-dropping, gasp-for-breath story in climate science. Is two degrees Centigrade of warming safe? What about 17 or 20 degrees hotter? That's right. The United Nations panel on climate change doesn't tell you the ultimate destination. When our current emissions at 400 parts per million finally stabilizes, London will be a tropical swamp with hippos and crocodiles - again.

I've been on the climate watch since 1990. How come nobody told us? And our source is not a blogger from nowhere-istan. He's a scientist with decades of experience and a who's who of scientific connections. The only good news is there is some good news. Dr. Goreau can also see a way to bring the world's climate back to the place we can recognize, and survive. It's all in a day's work at Radio Ecoshock.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!


Are we heading toward a super-tropical planet with today's coastlines deep underwater? We're going to talk about what the United Nations doesn't tell you, and the best way to save what's left. Our guest is Dr. Thomas J. Goreau. He studied planetary physics and astronomy, before getting his doctorate in biogeochemistry at Harvard. Born in Jamaica, among many fields of expertise, Thomas Goreau is an expert in coral reef science. He is President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance.

But I've asked Dr. Goreau to join us because of a startling speech he made last November at Tufts University. The conference was called "Biodiversity for a Livable Climate".


Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Thomas J Goreau in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

Let's just go over a few main points from my interview with Thomas Goreau. You probably haven't heard that news before, and may not hear it again. I'm not a scientist. This is just what I've found in Google searches, which you can do for yourself.

The actual climate record says that the world will keep warming for thousands of years. At our current level of 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it may settle out between 17 degrees and 20 degrees C. warmer, at least 30 degrees hotter in Fahrenheit. The seas will be some 27 feet higher, at least. Back in the last great warming period, the Emian, most of the world's coral reefs died, sea levels were super high, and the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were only 280 parts per million, much lower than today.

I found that hard to believe. So I went back into the charts myself. Has the Earth ever been that hot? We won't count the very early days of the planet, or the time when a collision split off the moon. NASA estimates temperatures in the atmosphere may have hit 3600 degrees Fahernheit. There was no life then.

According to Wiki, the hottest point in the last 500 million years was around 15 degrees C warmer than the 1960 to 1990 average global mean temperature.

In days of living things, Earth was at least 5-8 degrees C, 13 degrees hotter in Fahrenheit than today, reaching 73 degrees global mean temperature, versus our 60 degree Fahhrenheit global average today. That was the the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or (PETM) around 55 million years ago. There was no ice on Earth, but palm trees and crocodiles around the Arctic sea. Many species went extinct.

There are two striking points about the United Nations approach to climate change, coming out of this interview with Thomas Goreau. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been blinkered to look at just the next 100 years at the most. We've all become conditioned to that, without asking what happens in the NEXT 100 years, or 500 years.

Sure, we'll all be dead by then. But think back. If people in Medieval Europe developed this fossil-fuelled civilization, right about now we'd all be struggling to avoid extinction, living on mountain-tops or in the Arctic. Most of our animal and plant friends, including our food, would have been long gone. That's what we apparently agree to leave to our descendants.

In his Tufts lecture, at 6 minute 30 seconds into the video, Goreau says the actual long-term climate change operates on a sensitivity about 10 times what IPCC projects, sea level 100 times, and CO2 much more again.

The second big point about the U.N. climate framework is they don't count carbon soil at all. They don't measure it. Nobody rewards people who can put carbon back in the soil. Our whole effort is not agricultural, but industrial. Let's cut back carbon emissions, close the coal mines and the Tar Sands. Sure, but that won't stabilize Earth's climate at all. It just makes our future less worse, or stalls the big change one or two hundred years.

The UN watered down the language on sinks, and focused on fossil fuels, wanted credits for photosynthesis, but not respiration. The whole carbon accounting system makes no sense. You can get credits for planting trees, even if they burn, or die. But there's no credits for putting carbon in the ground. Soils need to be counted as carbon sinks, and use that as the ultimate measurement. Governments are running away from reality.


I know plenty of so-called realists who blast Bill McKibben's for being so whimsical demanding we go backwards in carbon emission time. It's obvious carbon in the atmosphere is going up, up, up. Except... that does mean we are doomed, and our world with it. Thomas Goreau is part of a growing chorus of scientists and activists who expose the awful truth: even 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere is too high. We need to wind the carbon clock way back, to about 260 ppm.

Here is another video of Goreau on a panel, worth watching if you want to dive deeper.

Goreau says: Biochar treated at high temps doesn't decompose. There are forest fire ashes 350 million years old, still recognizable, didn't decompose.

We spend half the Radio Ecoshock interview talking not about climate catastrophe, but about the real solution that is out there in soil carbon. We do know how to do it! We could avoid climate catastrophe!


Find a lot more sources on soil carbon here at

Also listen to my interview with soil carbon champion Alan Savory. Here is the blog for that 2011 show on the soil carbon solution.

And listen to my 2014 interview with Courteny White on putting carbon back in the soil, to save the earth. Download/listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Courtney White in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Or read about in this Radio Ecoshock blog entry.

Goreau's latest book book is more of a scientific textbook (at $100-something dollars). It's "Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase" by Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe, published in December 2014.


I just had an interesting email conversation with Albert Bates, the counter-culture thinker from The Farm. He's really into dirt, and getting carbon back into it. Albert is off teaching the ways of permaculture and carbon farming, this time in Belize. Some of the most ardent students, and maybe our best hope, come from South America, where the whole idea of biochar originated some 5,000 years ago. Some big names are getting interested in the soil carbon solution. Expect to hear more about it. If you don't, our great grand-kids may be cooked.

Perhaps coincidentally, Albert Bates' blog "Peaksurfer" has this in-depth article on the folly of nuclear power.

My second interview for this program looks at another way the world financial system can melt down, just like Fukushima.


Today, and every day, tens of millions of Americans in and around New York City risk a Fukushima-style melt down of two nearby reactors. The Indian Point Energy Center is just 25 miles north of New York City. These old reactors have leaks, fires, and shutdowns galore. The reactors are within a mile of a known earthquake fault. For all this and much more, Indian Point could be America's most dangerous nuclear plant.

The triple melt-down of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan taught us that a nuclear accident is not a local issue. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, or anywhere near an ocean, this is your problem. This is your story.

Two Indian Point Nuclear Reactors On the Hudson River, Outside of New York City

Radio Ecoshock investigates with long-time nuclear activist and New York State environmental lawyer Susan Hito-Shapiro.

Download or listen to this interview with Susan Hito-Shapiro in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

There are so many dangerous problems there, I hardly know where to begin. Why don't we start with mega-risk: the possibility of an earthquake. This was just in the news, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission turned down an attempt by the reactor operator to avoid doing proper quake risk studies.

The NRC is amazingly slow to protect the public. Entergy has until 2017 to come up with a plan to protect against a quake - and then more years to implement whatever hardening is needed. We just have to hope it doesn't blow before then!


The other huge risk, revealed by the Fukushima melt-down in Japan, is the stupendous amount of highly radioactive spent fuel stored on site. What is the situation at Indian Point?

The Boraflex liners of storage ponds are aging, the battery backup is questionable, the pools are fantastically overcrowded beyond their design, some materials have been moved to dry cask, but not enough, there is no real protection for the ponds to contain nuclear radiation, and absolutely nothing to stop a jet-liner from crashing into these waste pool buildings, which have the strength of an average WalMart roof.

Other than that there's nothing to worry about, except of course the high earth quake risk and good old human error. While looking into all this, I came across news that a former supervisor at the Indian Point nuclear plant, Daniel Wilson, has been charged with lying to federal regulators about having reliable quality fuel for the emergency power generators.


There are 2800 tons of poorly protected, poorly guarded high level radioactive waste just sitting at Indian Point, on the edge of New York City. Remember, the 911 terrorists considered flying a plane into Indian Point, but decided to hit the World Trade Center instead. One of the 911 planes flew right over the nuclear reactors. There is nothing to stop that. Shapiro says today you can paddle a kayak right up to the reactor.

But Shapiro says the real every day risk is not terrorism - it's those old corroded reactors, unsafe at any speed. In a sense, until we shut these ageing reactors down, WE are the terrorists.


Amazingly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted an exemption to Entergy at Indian Point when it comes to fire regulations. The Indian Point reactors don't begin to meet basic fire safety requirements.

Here's just one example that Susan explains. The equipment is supposed to have fire suppression material. They used a material called "Hemyc" that was meant to give hours of protection, but under real-world testing only lasts about 24 minutes. That's how long before a major fire and nuclear accident can happen.

Here is a .pdf report "Fire When Not Ready" on the whole fire protection mess in pretty well all American nuclear reactors. The NRC knows some materials were simply falsified in testing, while others don't work even for an hour.


Let's talk about getting out of Rockland County, or maybe even New York City, if and when the Indian Point nuclear plant blows. It looks to me like the NRC is only requiring an evacuation plan for a ten mile radius around Indian Point. That's strange, considering the American government advised its citizens to pull back 50 miles during the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Even the Governor of New York State acknowledges that there is no workable way to evacuate ten or twenty million people. As Susan Shapiro tells us, New York City is actually surrounded by the remains of an ancient mountain range. There are geographical bottlenecks which make an evacuation a nightmare.

We talk about the high cancer rates around the Indian Point reactor. Thyroid cancers near the Indian Point reactors are way, way above the average for the United States. Go to for all the details on that. Then there's the incessant fish kills as hot reactor water goes into the Hudson River.

The list of negative effects just goes on and on - and that's even before there is a big accident there. When Indian Point melts down - think about it! Fukushima was much further from Tokyo, but the Japanese government at one point considered abandoning Tokyo. Only a fortunate wind saved that city. The prevailing winds in New York blow straight from the Indian Point reactor site.

If there is a nuclear melt-down, 25 miles from Times Square, it could cause a world-wide financial melt-down. Wall Street would be evacuated, along with the core of American media production. We're talking about trillions of dollars worth of real estate as well, all poisoned for centuries.

I said at the start of our chat, that a blown reactor is everybody's problem. That's triple-true of New York City, the world's financial capital. You would think Wall Street might worry they could have to leave town permanently due to a nearby nuclear accident.

Here are some notes from Susan Hito-Shapiro, as a follow-up to our interview. The study she refers to about putting solar on NYC municipal buildings was some years ago.

Susan writes:

"More recently the City University of New York did a study - the link is here - that show NYC rooftops can generate up to 5,847 MW. Indian Point only produces 2200 MW and since 2014 NYC only purchases 550 MW from Indian Point."

Other key points Susan forwards:

"Earthquake Risk:

* NRC doesn't use the Richter Scale , instead they useg-force ground acceleration. Indian Point containment buildings and spent fuel pools are designed to withstand .15g

* The 5.8 Earthquake in Virginia in 2011 registered .26g -.28 g.

* The Epicenter of North Ana was 10 miles from the Reactor, Indian Point's reactors are one mile from the intersection to two intersecting faults.

Energy Use:

* The 2013 Consolidated Edison Annual Report says 350 MW are being contracted from Indian Point. An unspecified amount of additional energy goes into the Lower New York State Grid, through daily auction of NYISO. NYS has not required Entergy to provide recordson sales and profits.

* New York City must have internal capacity tosupply 80% of its own energy.


Hudson River Clearwater (founded by Pete Seeger) and their Indian Point Campaign

River Keepers and their close Indian Point campaign

Scenic Hudson

All these groups co-operate as part of the Indian Point Faith Energy Coalition

...and this activist blog "Shut Down Indian Point Now!"

Here is Susan Hito-Shapiro's Facebook page.

What I didn't know, is that Susan Hito-Shapiro is also a film-maker, who more recently started up a biodynamic farm with her husband, Santi Hitorangi, in New York State. It's called "Goshen Green Farm". This is one high-powered woman, who can go from growing green to making formal legal presentations at nuclear waste hearings. Thanks Susan for all you do!


You may have heard more bad news about ocean extinction. I'll be talking with lead author Douglas McCauley about that. Paul Beckwith is coming back. Maybe we'll argue about Arctic methane. And I've got more mind-boggling climate science for you, as Radio Ecoshock paces back and forth inside the carbon cage.

Until then, keep calm and carry on.

Get this program, and all our past shows, as free mp3 downloads from our web site at Or visit the Radio Ecoshock Soundcloud page to listen in.

I close out this program with a tune from my buddy, California musician Dana Pearson, also known as vastmandana on soundclick. It's his new creation "The Engines of Life".

I also run a clip from British rap poet Dave Allen performing his piece "Serotonin Fix". Find it on You tube here. Warning, Dave's piece contains some rude words, and some hard truth.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Green Dreams - Future or Fantasy?

SUMMARY: UK guest host Greg Moffitt interviews scientist David Fridley, from Berkeley National Lab and the Post-Carbon Institute. Radio Ecoshock 150114

We will switch away from fossil fuels sooner or later, because they will run out. If it's later, our kids get a wrecked civilization trying to cope with a wrecked climate. This week on Radio Ecoshock we finish out a three-part series on alternative energy, what it can do, and what it can't.

The take-home from green energy lovers and haters alike is simple: we can't have this crazy civilization running just on the sun and wind. When we stop milking the billion year-pile of concentrated solar, known as oil, gas and coal - something has to change.

That's all in this rebroadcast of a podcast out of Britain, called Host Greg Moffit interviews David Fridley, a long-term energy expert working with both the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Post Carbon Institute. Pull up an ear, and let's listen in.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now!


David Fridley is a staff scientist at the China Energy Group of the Berkeley National Lab. He's also a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

It would be interesting to hear a second interview with David about the energy situation in China. But this chat is more global, looking at the heavy load alternative energy must pick up, to support even a fraction of what we do now with fossil fuels. To think we can go on with business as usual under green power is, Fridley says, "magical thinking." That's partly because of the underlying physics behind energy itself.

It all makes sense when you think about it. Fossil fuels are composed of millions of years of solar power - stored in concentrated form by plants and then geological and chemical changes over aeons. The sunlight coming in now can hardly compete with millions of years of storage.

Pretty well all renewable energy ultimately depends upon the sun. Geothermal doesn't. But heat from the sun drives the winds for wind power. Even biofuel depends on sunlight hitting plants.

Fridley also points out a dark fact: not all problems have solutions. I think those cases are more what we call a "predicament". That's what we have now.


Can greater efficiency save us? Not really, as the "Jevons Paradox" tells us. Back in 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons realized that as coal burning equipment became more efficient, more people used more coal. Similarly, Fridley says refrigerators today are twice as energy efficient as those built in 1980. A lot of people have two fridges, and of course at least a billion more people around the world bought new fridges, now that they can afford to run them.

There is a second feed-back loop to energy efficiency. Let's say you don't buy a second fridge, but now you have more money to spend. Energy effiency simply mobilizes more money for more energy consumption in other ways. Almost everything we do, and all wealth, is related to energy consumption, as our Radio Ecoshock guest Tim Garrett showed in a scientific paper. Find a transcript of that interview "Energy = Wealth = Inflation + A Ruined Atmosphere" here.

David Fridley points out that nature's model for survival on a greatly changing Earth is low energy efficiency, but very high redundancy. Our civilization is going the opposite direction. We keep getting more efficient, but knock out any redundancy. (Think about just-in time food deliveries, where the truck are the warehouses, and there are no back-up food supplies in major cities). That makes our society very fragile, and open to collapse.

Making that worse, Fridley refers to a statement by the first American Energy Secretary, James Schlesinger. He said Americans have two main states of existence: complacency and panic.

Like our speaker two weeks ago, Ozzie Zehner, David Fridley thinks that oil, and other fossil fuels, are the foundation behind all renewable energy, whether it's building hydro dams, or solar panels, or wind machines. That is true now, but it doesn't have to be that way, in my opinion.

One real barrier to total conversion to renewables, Fridley says, is the concept of net return of energy. That's the amount of energy you get after investing whatever energy it takes to build and maintain the facility. Coal has a huge return of net energy, getting from 50 to 80 units of power from one unit of power invested. That's why it's relatively cheap, and beloved by some developing countries. Of course that assumes you can wreck the local environment, don't have to pay for the health care for everyone who gets sick breathing the fumes from the power plant, and can dump toxins and climate-wrecking CO2 into the atmosphere for free, forever.

There's also a difficult question of how much net energy, or energy profit, we need to maintain our current level of complexity and specialization. The American systems ecologist Charles A. S. Hall calculates we need from 5 to 8 units of energy profit, for every unit of energy expended to get it - to keep a complex system like ours alive. The Post Carbon Institute has published a report by Charles Hall called "Energy Return on Investment". Find that report free here.

According to David Fridley, who is after all a scientist and energy specialist - biofuels can NOT reach this level of 5 to 8 units of energy profit, once all energy inputs are accounted for. The same is true, he says, of ethanol, or oil derived from the Tar Sands. These energy sources don't create enough surplus energy to maintain a complex civilization. I suppose if that's all we have, we either go back to some pre-fossil Dark Age, or we develop a new low-tech, low energy civilization.

David and host Greg Moffitt get into a discussion of electric cars. They progress to a topic close to my heart, which is the possibility of a decentralized world. Renewables like solar and wind don't need a giant power grid (that wastes half of all electricity put into it).

It's a wide-ranging conversation, about whether renewables can self-replicate, the possibilities of thorium reactors.

In summary, David Fridley says we have enough power now to convert to large-scale renewables. But if we wait 20 or 30 years, then the remaining fossil fuels will be so depleted, there won't be enough to power civilization AND make the conversion. It's another reason to get going with greener energy.


Does that sound impossible? Tune in next week for an experienced scientist who explains how it could happen.

That wraps up our three-part series on alternative energy, and our prospects of powering our future. Find all three programs as free mp3 downloads at our web site, or on the Radio Ecoshock downloads page. My thanks to Greg Moffitt of for this show. You can listen to the full 1 hour 18 minute interview of David Fridley on You tube here.

Next week we get back to interviewing top scientists and trouble-makers about the really big picture. It's startling stuff, as Radio Ecoshock hits the airwaves. Please join us again.

Don't forget to get our past programs as free mp3 downloads from the web site,

I'm Alex Smith. I don't think humans are going extinct any time soon - so please keep tuning in.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Green Reality VS. Ozzie Zehner

Green tech investor Dan Miller, and host Alex Smith answer Ozzie Zehner's claims the green energy is an "illusion". Ecoshock 150107

This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. My original goal for this Radio Ecoshock series on alternative energy, was to find the most reasonable critic of green energy, who was not directly a beneficiary of competing energy - that is, a person with academic credentials who is not receiving money or other benefits from the coal, oil, and gas industries. California author and green energy expert Ozzie Zehner fits that bill.

I ran Ozzie's speech at Google last week on Radio Ecoshock. If you missed that, download it from our web site at Or listen to it on our Soundcloud page.

Then I hoped to hold a second program where I ask for listener questions, and pose them to Ozzie in an extended interview. Ozzie replied he is willing to come on Radio Ecoshock, but could not appear until next summer, due to a project he is presently working on. So we can't hear from Ozzie right now, but I hope we can pick this up again later in the season.

Ozzie applies his years of study, his European experience, and his keen intellect to persuade us alternative energy like wind and solar are not really green. They cannot power our civilization without heavy fossil fuel inputs. They damage the environment, from cutting down trees to toxic bi-products. We should put our focus and money into indirect methods of cutting carbon dioxide by creating a better society. In particular, Ozzie suggests population control, via a fair health care system, could be coupled with conservation, urban densification, and other energy saving techniques to reduce carbon emissions.

Ozzie makes some statements that raise serious questions. For example, he says increasing the current low amount of solar energy in the United States would bankrupt the American government. I thought the U.S. government was already bankrupt, and not because of solar subsidies. Going even further with solar to power our world would, Ozzie claims, destroy civilization within a generation. Later in this program, I'll check on some of the claims made in Ozzie's presentation, and suggest other possibilities. Hang in for that. But first we have a conversation with clean energy tech guru Dan Miller.

Download or listen to this program in CD Quality or Lo-Fi

Or listen right now on Soundcloud!


Dan Miller is Managing Director of The Roda Group, a Berkeley venture capital group he co-founded that is focused on clean tech.

The other principal and chairman of that group is Roger A Strauch, who was the first CEO of "Ask Jeeves" which is now The Roda Group has several interesting projects on the go. In the show, we talk a little about their new tech to improve common batteries for use with renewable energy. They also have a company claiming the tech to remove CO2 from power plant emissions (carbon capture). It's startling to think in the future we may be able to run a gas fired power plant with no CO2 emissions. We'll see.

Dan Miller has a history in the telecommunications and aerospace industries. Dan is passionate about solving climate change, as you can hear in his Tedx talk on You tube. Dan regularly gives talks to the public and business on climate change. We have a wide- ranging discussion on alternative energy, plus his appraisal of the problems with the Ozzie Zehner talk.

Dan makes a lot of good points. Probably the best is that Ozzie seems to make his projections based on our current energy system, rather than assessing the changes as more and more renewable energy comes online. Or course, since fossil fuels are limited, the world must change to renewable energy sooner or later. If later, we encounter climate catastrophe first.


Since making this program, I've been advised by a couple of listeners that Ozzie Zehner left his car company history out of his online bio. He graduated from Kettering University in Flint Michigan, a school formerly known as General Motors Institute. Then it appears Ozzie worked for the Opel Division of General Motors in Europe for at least 3 years. I don't know if this background influenced his low opinion of electric cars, or whether he was involved in any part of General Motors that famously "killed" it's electric car. Certainly his General Motors history would indicate some experience and interest in cars. It should be part of his online bio, in my opinion.

What follows is mostly a print version of my comments in this week's Radio Ecoshock show.


Before I begin to counter some of Ozzie Zehners' positions on alternative energy, I want to outline the many ways I agree with Zehner. I appreciate his courage in speaking unpopular thoughts. I can't emphasize this enough. Ozzie Zehner, in his book "Green Illusions" and in his talks, raises fundamental issues about our direction into the future. Don't miss any opportunity to learn from him.

For example, Zehner says alternative energy cannot power the wasteful civilization we have not, without killing off the planet. I agree. A society powered by alternative energy will have to use a lot less power, and should, to preserve what is left of nature.

There are many ways this can happen, too many ways to list them all there. In short, we could stop making things that don't last, stop buying things we don't need, and make sure our purchases are the least ecologically and socially harmful possible. Those require a major change in lifestyles in developed countries, and changes in aspirations in less developed nations.

Alternative energy if properly applied can also reduce the waste involved in centralized power production and transmission. It drives me crazy that we lose about 50% of all electricity produced in the big grid model of transmission. Solar panels on the roof, or a wind generator in the yard (when appropriate) involves a few feet of transmission, rather than a continental grid. I suggest the rural electrification program of the 1930's needs to be reversed. We should power only major cities and corridors with the grid. Remote homes, farms and mines should produce their own power.

We can also get a lot smarter, either personally or through computer-mediated power management, to avoid the peaks of use that demand coal or other fossil fuel backup. There is no need for all fridges and washing machines to run at the same predictable times.

Demanding Passivhaus or net-zero standards for all new construction would eventually replace most of our inefficient building stock. Dump the all glass models for apartments and skyscraper office buildings, replacing them with smaller windows and insulated walls.

The list goes on, and Ozzie supports these kinds of energy changes. Green energy will not power the wasteful system we have now. In a coming Radio Ecoshock show, I plan to run an in-depth conversation about that, from the Post Carbon Institute. Meanwhile, Zehner is correct about trying to fill the "leaky bucket" we have now. "We don't have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis" he says. That's absolutely correct. [26:40]

There is also a lot of truth that the promise of green energy has paradoxically encouraged some people to carry on with deadly amounts of energy use. The drive for a technical fix is very strong. It's true just pasting a few solar panels on a complete energy hog of a building is window dressing. It's also true that we might very well wreck the earth if we engage in a binge of making and installing alternative energy to keep the status quo. Few sane people are suggesting that.

We may create a burst of new carbon, in a mass plan to change over from fossil fuel plants to solar and wind energy. However, as Mark Jacobson from Stanford told us, this new carbon can be offset by cleaner production anywhere from six months to a year later. Then there is a long period, up to 25 years or more, when carbon would be reduced greatly, from the alternative of not building that green energy.

I do object when Ozzie Zehner uses emotional triggers, which are not based on science. He compares solar power, for example, to a religion. Some of his heated words are not the language of science, but might be at home on Fox News. I feel he communicates a personal grudge which remains unexplained.


Let's start with electric vehicles.

In his Google talk, and in other talks, Ozzie says: "But the National Academy of Sciences did a study, a life-cycle analysis. It's the broadest life-cycle analysis done on electric cars and they found that the harm steming from electric cars are a little bit larger than the harm stemming from a regular internal combustion engine of a car the same size.

In fact the only way we can find that electric cars are cleaner is if we narrow our research to just one metric, like CO2.

First of all, this one narrow metric of carbon dioxide is actually the largest threat to humans and all species in millions of years. Building carbon dioxide threatens us with great harm, and possibly extinction. This is a completely different "metric" than possible increased cancers from improperly storing the toxic waste from batteries, or solar panels. Carbon dioxide is the really big deal, Reducing it is a bonus strong enough on it's own to justify electric cars. Ozzie doesn't tell us about the scale of threats.

The paper he refers to was published by The Nation Academies Press. It's "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use". The book represents the work of many scientists and was issued by a committee of the National Research Council in 2010.

You can find out more about Ozzie's objections to electric vehicles in his feature article in the publication "Spectrum". It was published June 20, 2013. The title is "Unclean at any Speed".

The conclusions of the 2010 National Academy Press publication that Ozzie uses are directly contradicted by more recent research, in two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, or PNAS.

The first is "Valuation of plug-in vehicle life-cycle air emissions and oil displacement benefits" by Jeremy J. Michaleka et al.

That study does not support the radical statements that Zehner makes in his talk.

The most recent study was published by scientists in PNAS this November 2014, about two years after Ozzie's speech. It's titled "Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States" by Christopher W. Tessuma et al.

This paper summarizes the situation as follows:

"We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or 'grid average' electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles."

Sure, if you run electric cars on biofuels made of corn, or on coal, you make the environment worse. There's no suprise there. But electric vehicles can easily use clean sources, unlike gas vehicles. So far most electric vehicles have been sold in California, which uses very, very little corn ethanol or coal. Ozzie told his audience electric vehicles run on bull manure. New science shows they can be a much better choice, not only for the climate, but for public health. Sorry Ozzie.


My next major objection to Ozzie's presentation is when he says alternative energy cannot replace itself. As we heard from Dan Miller, there are already solar manufacturing facilities run on solar power. Ozzie says:

"The problem is that certain types of industries rely on certain types of energy. So it's difficult to explore for copper and bring the trucks out there if they are only running on electricity." [ at 46:20 of this Radio Ecoshock show]

So I looked into that. My research finds that mining companies, particularly in South Africa, are beginning to power their intensive milling operations with alternative energy. See this article "Unlikely bedfellows: mines that run on solar or wind power" by Andrew Topf for example.

Certainly mines can operate with hydro power or nuclear power, which existing mines already use. Electricity is electricity, and that's what mines use most.

Surely we can't run the big trucks on anything but fossil fuels? Nonsense. Electric vehicles can be stronger, with more torque, real working power, than any diesel engine. An all-electric mine is completely possible. Again, as we see often in his work, it seems to me that Ozzie's vision is limited by what exists today, the old fossil industrial model. That's the way it is, so it's the only way it could be, Zehner tries to tell us, reinforcing our stereotypes.

German heavy industry has run entirely fossil free on some days, including manufacturing wind generators. Iceland runs entirely on renewable geothermal energy - including it's energy-intensive aluminum industry.


Next up: Ozzie Zehner spends much time in his talk explaining that solar power is a threat to our forests. This argument against deforestation by solar power is ludicrous. Ozzie found a few instances where solar panels were installed by cutting down trees. In the global picture of deforestation, the pin-prick of solar deforestation is so small it could not be seen. We should also remember the deforestation caused by tar sands mining, creating roads for fracking rigs, and mountain-top coal mining. He doesn't mention those or compare them. This argument is a straw man.

Similarly, the fact that some maintenance is needed for solar power in a desert setting is also a straw man agrument. First of all, a study done by an oil producing state like the United Arab Emirates is immediately suspect. They are evaluating a product that could wipe out their profits and possibly their economy.

Secondly, what other source of energy runs with without employees? Coal-fired, gas-fired, oil-fired electric plants all need employees too, and regular maintenance. These power stations also occasionally explode, which solar does not. Oil and coal power plants kill people locally and even at great distances with their emissions. Solar operators might have to clean dust off the solar panels. So what? I wonder why Ozzie works so hard to catalog minor to very minor aspects of alternative energy? And why doesn't he give us comparable figures from fossil fuel plants?


Ozzie says: "The Mohave Desert may be the Saudi Arabia of solar. But if we were to cover it with solar cells, and cover the world's deserts with solar cells, it would destroy civilization as we know it, within a single generation."

I would love to ask Ozzie about his sources, or even his reasoning for such a statement. First of all, no one is suggesting, especially Mark Jacobson, that we could or should "cover the world's deserts with solar cells". That is a vast area, and not what Jacobson said was needed at all.

Nobody is suggesting we cover ALL the world's deserts with solar panels. The European Union worked through a plan to power most of Europe with a relatively small area of the Sahara desert. So Ozzie is arguing with a plan that has never been suggested by anyone that I know of.

Secondly, the idea that deploying solar fully would kill off civilization in a single generation is wild speculation, and the kind of scare statement we can do without.

He then says thermal solar has the same side effects, even though it is mainly concrete and glass, not the heavy metals in amounts used in other panels. Solar thermal may even use liquid sodium as batteries, instead of lithium. It's a quick statement that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.


"What if we multiply solar cells by 100 [times current production], which would incidentally bankrupt the federal government".

This is another scare statement. Obviously, if we stopped subsidizing the fossil fuel industries, and used a free market system where the consumer of energy pays for not only the power, but the carbon pollution, we could multiply solar production by 100 times without bankrupting the federal government. Only a government built on fossil power and fossil industry corruption could go bankrupt by building clean energy. More fearful listener hears that we cannot proceed with green energy without bankrupting society, which is nonsense. [18:30]

Maybe you could reach a few trillion dollars in taxpayer costs if you based all your calculations on government give-aways meant to stimulate the beginning of an American solar industry. But who would stick with that? Once solar becomes more affordable, available, and common, it can easily compete with coal - assuming coal subsidies are dropped.

Anyway, the U.S. government seems headed for bankruptcy on it's own, with trillions of dollars in new debts, with no help from solar. China will likely increase it's solar power by 100 times what it had in 1990. I doubt the government will collapse because of that. It's a strange claim, and an extreme one, that does not help his argument.


Why does Ozzie Zehner pick up on solar energy as his main thrust against green energy. We'll grant him the time limitations in his talk - but still wind energy has become the major source of power for countries like Denmark, and provides a lot of power for Germany. We don't hear about geothermal energy, which already powers Iceland, and can do much more in many countries, including Australia and the United States. Then there's hydro power and nuclear power. I agree that nuclear is too dangerous to use, but it's there now.

My point is, we don't get a picture of solar energy as part of a large alternative energy mix, doing what it does best where it can. Instead we are brought to fear the expansion of some allegedly toxic giant.

Zehner doesn't offer us a balance between using alternative energy, with it's known risks, versus not using it, with the gigantic risk of mass extinction, including ourselves. As Dan Miller says, he doesn't really seem to get the big risks of climate change.

Assuming we have to choose between better health care (already available in almost every other developed country) and alternative energy is a false choice. We can do both. We will continue to use energy. It may as well be less harmful energy. Climate change threatens to wipe out not only our health, but our food and water sources in many cases.


Zehner says there is no proof that adding alternative energy actually decreases the use of fossil fuels. The Jevons Paradox, which he doesn't cite directly, calling it the "boomerang effect" has been true. It's a big worry, but the past is not necessarily an image of the future. For various reasons, the United States HAS decreased it's emissions and it's use of fossil fuels. Germany has greatly reduced their fossil fuel emissions, not only through the addition of solar and wind power, but also through better building techniques, mass transit, more energy awareness, and so on.

To say adding a cleaner energy source will just add to the waste, and make things worse, is demonstrably wrong already in some countries, and will become increasingly wrong, as more alternative energy is added to the mix.


Zehner says solar panels have the illusion of a price drop, which are really based on subsidies. But he fails to provide the comparative assessment of massive subsidies to solar competitors, like oil and gas. These fossil fuels get direct subsidies and tax breaks of many billions of dollars from governments, for decades, while they build their empires. They get free dumping of carbon dioxide into the air, and do not pay for the health costs of the pollution. The whole highway system is build for their products. The subsidies to fossil fuels are almost beyond calculation, and make the tiny subsidies to solar and wind laughable.

His argument that solar panels tend to age, and parts like the regulators have to be replaced is specious. Anyone who runs a fossil powered car knows they fall apart, and need maintenance. Ditto power plants of any kind. How do the costs of solar power compare to fossil power, that's what we need to know, and that Ozzie doesn't provide. That is a disservice, warning us away from a source of power that may in fact be cheaper to maintain, but he doesn't tell us that.

Again in the so-tiny-it-doesn't-matter reasons to not install solar: the panels might be stolen. What are the figures for stolen solar in the United States? What about in Europe? He doesn't say. Your car is far more likely to be stolen. So don't ever buy a car? Would you buy that argument?

He's also found some solar panels not facing the sun. What percentage of solar installations is that? .0001 percent or less? Why look for human foibles to argue against a much cleaner technology which might prevent the climate catastrophe? It's a shopping list of pointless objections.

In his talk, Ozzie Zehner claims "Even some of the most expensive options for dealing with CO2 would be become cost-competitive long before today's solar technologies". Really? First of all, I'm not aware of ANY viable technology for reliably removing and storing CO2, other than not producing it, as solar does. So he's comparing a technology that does not exist, with one that does. Second, I haven't seen any such paper, nor are we likely to. I think it's an example of the extreme statments that Zehner makes, in the long reach to make his case.

While it may be true that the current manufacturing techniques making solar panels involves the release of greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than CO2, Zehner doesn't give us a comparison between these billion parts per million emissions, with the masses of CO2 averted by the use of solar. It's just the tip of an iceberg of facts and studies we need to evaluate this claim. Perhaps he includes such numbers in his book, where he has more space.

Zehner tells his audience "There's no evidence that alternative energy offsets fossil fuel use in the United States". First of all, why limit this statement to the United States, which is the world model for energy profligacy. The U.S. is more or less the last of the developed nation to deploy alternative energy on a scale which matters. America has avoided infrastructure like mass transit, high-speed rail and other techniques which can match up well with alternative energy to reduce fossil dependence. It's a misleading statement, implying that alternative energy cannot reduce fossil fuel use, which is a wrong-headed approach. [16.:30]

Ozzie says: "Most importantly, alternative energy financing relies ultimately on the kind of economic growth that fossil fuels provide." This is an intriguing argument, with some truth. However, as discussed above, continuing to find and provide fossil fuels also relies on growth. The growth model may be breaking, which threatens all energy sources, not just solar.

Because once installed solar does not require the continued production and importation of fuel, it may in fact be a better answer to the problem of needing continual growth. In any case, it is the large economic system of growth that is unsustainable, not the power system feeding it. If we disinvest from things like Tar sands and Arctic drilling, not to mention military, we could create much more alternative energy, even without growth. [19:10]


Zehner repeatedly maligns people who want solar power as being religious, worshipping solar cells and setting up temples to them. [at 29:10] Then he says we make a "fetish" out of solar cells, using a negative image from psychology. Let's stop the vilification of people trying to find solutions to climate change. Zehner frankly fails to offer good solutions himself. Sorry, his solutions of better health care and densification of cities will take decades, and we don't have that long.

Zehner replies to a question about Mark Jacobson's research, by saying "if you ask a ridiculous question, you can find a ridiculous answer". [54:10] Is it ridiculous to ask if we can find enough power using alternative energy sources? I don't think so. Listen to my recent Radio Ecoshock interview with Mark Jacobson. He says Jacobson hasn't asked meaningful questions. In fact, Ozzie's answer is very weak and dismissive of the work of a major scientist, who has published over 100 valuable scientific papers. Jacobson at Stanford is far above Ozzie's grade. [and 55:20]

One of Ozzie's questioners asks if there is any example for history of conserving our way out of a crisis? (41:50). That is the crux of Zehner's argument, but he has no such examples. He might have given the Soviet Union, or Cuba after 1990 as examples, but did not.


I've run out of time, before I could go into the many more ways I agree with Ozzie Zehner. He's dead on about our addiction to technical solutions, and our harmful consumer lifestyles. We have a tendency to damage nature with the best of intentions.

I like Ozzie Zehner and his work. He serves as a valuable caution of how we can do alternative energy in damaging ways. But I think his main venture is a disservice to the future. We need solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and all sorts of non-carbon energy. We need them quickly.

"Clean energy is less energy" says Zehner. Yes that's true, but clean energy is not a situation of NO energy. We will continue to use energy, and getting it from the Canadian Tar Sands, or Arctic deep water drilling, will fill the atmosphere with carbon and kill us. We need to use the greenest tech to produce the minimum energy we need.

Fortunately, Ozzie Zehner can't stop solar or any green energy. I'm told one out of four homes in Australia has solar panels on the roof right now. European countries are decarbonizing rapidly. The nations that listen to Ozzie, and stall new forms of climate-friendly power, will be last in the economic competition. America needs to catch up quickly, or be stuck in a left-behind old coal age.

At the end of his talk, Ozzie Zehner calls for "a green movement that is not simply a receptacle for energy firms and car companies to plug into. A green movement that looks beyond the eco-gadgets on the stage to consider the social and environmental justices behind the curtain." He's absolutely right. I applaud Ozzie Zehner for demanding we move into the future with our eyes open, always asking questions.

Next week, we'll conclude this series on the prospects for alternative energy, with a conversation with a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute.

I'm Alex Smith. Find all our past Radio Ecoshock programs free at the web site Or listen to our most recent programs at the Ecoshock Soundcloud page.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.