We’ve been repeatedly told that 97% of climate scientists agree that CO2 emissions from human activity are a major cause of climate change. Scientists who question that assertion are villified as “climate change deniers” and marginalized as representing a fringe point of view. They’re frequently accused of being paid by fossil fuel interests.
Politicians, journalists and other observers challenge the credentials of those who ask legitimate questions, stating that the only credible commenters on this subject are those who have published peer-reviewed papers specifically aimed at explaining climate behavior over time.
There are calls within the media establishment for journalists to stop treating the topic as one that should be given balanced coverage. Some claim that the minority point of view shouldn’t even be included.
A more distressing recent development in the polarized political conversation about climate change that is taking place in the United States is the accusation that people who question expenditures on renewable energy programs that claim legitimacy because they will reduce CO2 emissions are denying science and endagering future generations.
I have no statistical data, but my guess is that something close to 100% of energy production experts, including scientists, engineers, investors, and energy company decision makers would agree that it is functionally impossible to increase the “wind, water and sun (WWS)” portion of the world’s energy supply to 30% from the current level of less than 5% of total primary energy supply (TPES).
People who challenge that statement are in a tiny minority. Their claims should be subjected to careful scrutiny, including asking questions and conducting investigations about their funding sources. Advocates of an energy supply system that doesn’t use fossil fuel, biomass or nuclear energy — which combine to provide more than 95% our our energy supply — may be able to produce colorful graphs and computer models, but the real world of power production and distribution doesn’t agree with their underlying assumptions.
The scientifically defensible path to substantial reductions in CO2 prodution includes a substantial and growing contribution from nuclear energy. Fuels like uranium and thorium produce heat that can replace the heat from burning fossil fuels or biomass using fission, a physical process that does not produce CO2.
The discovery and development of reliable power systems using fission instead of combustion heat was one of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century. The portion of the world’s primary energy supply provided by fission increased from zero in the late 1950s to nearly 10% by 2000. By that year, fission use had grown to the point where it added as much primary energy (the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day) to the available supply each year as the US produced from its thousands of oil wells in 2014.
Dozens of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists that contributed to our understanding of methods of extracting useful energy by rearranging atomic nuclei. There may be political reasons for not liking nuclear energy, but there are no scientific reasons to deny that fission produces vast quantities of usable heat from tiny quantities of natural elements without producing CO2 at the point of use.
What would you think if you learned that prominent climate scientists who have been aggressively marketing a vision where “wind, water and sun” provide 100% of the world’s energy supply for the past six years had been directly funded by fossil fuel interests?
Aside: If investments in nuclear energy are discouraged in favor of attempting to reach a 100% WWS energy system, the inevitable, predictable result is a continued and growing dependence on fossil fuel. End Aside.
I’ve recently written about Stanford University’s new Natural Gas Initiative. I also described the relationship between that effort and the Precourt Institute of Energy, which has received at least $80 million since 2006 from Jay Precourt.
Precourt is a Stanford alum with both a BS (’59) and and MS (’60) in petroleum engineering who has had a distintguished career as exective and board member for a number of oil and gas companies including Apache and Halliburton.
On Friday, June 5, Democracy Now aired a segment titled A Fossil Fuel Free World is Possible: How to Power a Warming Earth Without Oil, Coal and Nuclear that featured Mark Jacobson and Noah Diffenbaugh. They are both leading professors from Stanford University. That school is one of the most reputable universities in the world, ranking number 5 on The Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking 2015.
Amy Goodman, the show’s host, leaned on the Stanford connection in her introduction to the segment.
Is a 100% renewable energy future possible? According to Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, the answer is yes. Jacobson has developed plans for all 50 states to transform their power infrastructure to rely on wind, water and solar power.
Goodman went on to more fully establish her guests’ bona fides by giving her version of their current titles.
I’m Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting from Stanford University here in California. Will it be the climate scientists who save the world? Well we’ve got two in our studio today. Mark Jacobson is with us, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, Director of its Atmosphere / Energy Program. Professor Jacobson is also the Co-founder of The Solutions Project. That is what we’re going to talk about next, solutions.
We speak with Jacobson and Noah Diffenbaugh, Stanford University Associate Professor and a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
The program that Jacobson directs and the one where Diffenbaugh serves as a senior fellow are part of a well-resourced web of programs at Stanford that publicly promote a future vision of a low emission energy system powered by soft energy systems. Natural gas, however, figures prominently in the transition during the next several decades.
Early in his pitch about solutions to the dilemma of supplying energy to the world while reduing production of CO2, Jacobson dismissed nuclear energy and lumped it together with fossil fuel as something that needs to be replaced.
Well, our plans are to change the energy infrastructure in each and every state in the United States, and in fact, ultimately, every country of the world, to infrastructures run entirely on wind, water, and solar power for all purposes. So that is electricity, transportation, heating and cooling and industry. Right now, fossil fuels and nuclear power and biofuels are powering our energy infrastructure for all purposes. And the emissions associated with the burning of the fuels, primarily — from burning of fossil fuels and biofuels in particular — these emissions are causing both air pollution and global warming. And these are almost entirely the cause of both of these problems.
In addition to the Precourt Institue for Energy, which is funded by donations from petroleum engineering graduates who built successful careers in the oil and gas industry (like Jay Precourt) Stanford supports its professors with a growing base of named energy and environment programs that have received substantial funding from business school alumni.
Tom Steyer ($40 million to the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy) and Ward Woods ($30 milion to the Ward B. and Pricilla Woods Institute for the Environment) are two examples of Stanford alumni who are leaders of financial organizations with major involvement in funding oil and gas infrastructure investments who have demonstrated through actions that they are interested in shaping Stanford’s research efforts and curricula.
Stanford’s petroleum engineering undergraduate program that put Jay Precourt on the road to financial success has been replaced by Energy Resources Engineering, which provides the following mission statement in its promotional material.
The mission of the Energy Resources Engineering major is to provide students with the engineering skills and foundational knowledge needed to flourish as technical leaders within the energy industry. Such skills and knowledge include resource assessment, choices among energy alternatives, and carbon management, as well as the basic scientific background and technical skills common to engineers. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for immediate participation in many aspects of the energy industry and graduate school.
I wrote to Anthony Kovscek, the director of Stanford’s Energy Resources Engineering program to find out what his school teaches students about nuclear energy. Here is our correspondence.
Jun 5, 2015
Subj: What does Stanford teach undergraduates in Energy Resources about nuclear energy?
Dear Professor Kovscek:
This summer, I will be teaching a three week course in Nuclear Science to a group of 8-10 grade gifted students as part of the Duke TIP (Talent Identification Program).
As part of my preparation for the course, I have been sampling some of the programs that the students might consider for their college education based on their already expressed interest in nuclear science and engineering.
Since Stanford would be on the list of universities of interest for the gifted students that participate in Duke TIP’s summer programs, I read through the degree description and course work requirements for your Energy Resources program.
Based on the material published on your web site, your program would not attract students who wants to pursue a career in nuclear energy as a clean energy option and a tool for addressing climate change.
Did I miss something? Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
June 5, 2015
Our major focuses on energy resources. That is, we focus on the upstream energy industry and the production of energy resources. Our program is not appropriate for students who wish to work in the traditional nuclear industry although it is appropriate for someone who might wish to work in nuclear waste disposal.
Anthony R Kovscek, Professor
Energy Resources Engineering Department
Maybe I’m not interpreting this correctly, but that sounds like Standford does not view nuclear energy or actinide fuels as legitimate energy resources worth any study or consideration. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the institution’s educational offerings and research efforts have been directly influenced by the interests of the donors who provided both large sums of money and their names to the programs.
Let me try to be as clear as I can be. There is nothing wrong with successful alumni of great schools like Stanford wanting to give something back to the school that helped them prosper. It is perfectly understandable for graduates who gain technical understanding of important topics to want to contribute to programs that pass that knowlege to future generations.
Unlike many who are concerned about the climate, I don’t dislike or demonize fossil fuels. They are valuable natural tools that have made life better for human beings. That said, their use and total emissions should decrease as they are displaced by more capable fission fuels.
Stanford’s energy and environment programs are providing a slanted view of the world that ignores demonstrated scientific facts. There should not be any dispute about the fact that nuclear energy long ago proved that it was clean enough to operate inside sealed submarines.
A discussion about supplying the world’s energy while also reducing CO2 that ignores nuclear energy isn’t rooted in science. It isn’t worthy of one of the most respected institutions of higher education on the planet.
It seems to be driven by financial and political considerations.
Activists have made a big deal about encouraging institutions like Stanford to divest any investments that their endowments have in fossil fuels. Stanford took the step of eliminating coal industry investments in March of 2014.
However, it wouldn’t have much impact for Stanford to rid its endowment fund of fossil fuel investments while it is accepting tens to hundreds of millions in vanity grants from fossil fuel titans to perform unbalanced research, engage in stanted advocacy in public venues, and to offer incomplete courses of instruction.