Do no harm is a general concept

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By The Staff

The fundamental rule of the medical profession given to students early in their career is to “do no harm.”

This general concept can be applied to different areas and different issues. Today we apply it to the perceived problem of Earth’s climate.

One school of thought holds that with no doubt whatsoever carbon dioxide produced by burning coal, oil and natural gas is responsible for man-made global warming. The evidence includes climate warming, melting of glaciers and arctic ice, and worse to come. These notions are supported by otherwise responsible scientists, articles in otherwise responsible magazines, large complicated computer programs, the qualitative effect of warmer weather and the psychological effect of giant international conferences that issue profound statements and dire warnings for the future. Earth, from this point of view, is ill and needs treatment.

The remedy suggested is to restrict the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere to an amount equal to 25 percent less than what was released in 1990 and accomplish this by the year 2020.

Unfortunately this suggested remedy is likely to be disastrous and holds no relation to the fundamental dictum quoted above.  

The other point of view is that Earth’s climate is variable, that variations occurred in the geologic and historical past, and the causes are not known with any certainty or even not at all. Examples that have not been explained adequately include the Medieval Warm Period that allowed the Vikings to colonize and farm Greenland, the Little Ice Age, the era of flourishing Roman civilization on the Mediterranean south coast.

In the Eighth Century Arabs could ride to the Atlantic “in the shade of palm trees.” In the past, the Sahara was grassland. Indeed, the melting of continental glaciations by global warming 10,000 years ago is the beginning of civilization in the current interglacial summer.

With these strong differences of opinion, we propose to find those common points upon which we can agree and suggest a treatment that will do no harm and preserve quality of life.

We believe that electricity is vital. Power outage is the first news media item after a storm, flood, earthquake or some other disaster. Our first objective then is to maintain electricity – we see no reason to risk causing people to starve and freeze in the dark.

We find good reasons to reduce the burning of coal, quite apart from the dispute about CO2. Burning coal releases noxious materials that cause the death of several thousand compromised persons each year. To stop harming these people would be a blessing indeed. The ash from coal is not easy to dispose of – the ruined valley in Tennessee last year is a clear example. The underground mining of coal is extremely dangerous and mining can leave a mess. However, a drastic reduction in the amount of coal burned would cause a crisis in the supply and cost of electricity and severe problems in a number of necessary industrial activities. We must proceed carefully – we must do no harm.

We believe that new generation methods must be in place and operating adequately before we dismantle the existing supply centers – before shutting down the coal plants. Alternatives include natural gas (methane), nuclear, solar and wind. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas that when burned produces CO2, and the supply is limited. Oil is much too expensive to use to make electricity.

We have argued elsewhere that neither solar nor wind can provide adequate power to supply the national grid. Denmark, a leader in wind power, has 20 percent from wind as the upper limit for a stable grid. Excess, when it occurs, is dumped in Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Low Countries as a gift. Solar power, based on documented performance, is hopeless for large applications. The solution is to remove the legal obstacles, and build nuclear power plants as fast as we can. Moreover, we must make use of all of the spent fuel in fast neutron reactors. This program, if pursued, will provide electric power for millennia.

Nuclear expansion has the smallest footprint, certain energy production, the least potential to affect the environment and the economy and it will do no harm, but we must work as fast as we can.

“It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that,” the Red Queen said in Lewis Caroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”