First-ever EPA Paper Finally Gets Attention
Boy, talk about being a little bit ahead of the parade! The Scientific American blog by Robert McLachlan recently showcased a paper I wrote with Kan Chen and Dick Winter forty years ago . The paper, “Carbon Dioxide from Fossil Fuels: Adapting to Uncertainty,” was the first commissioned by the US Environmental Protection Agency on global warming. The paper was one of the products from a major study called the Coal Technology Assessment (CTA) , for which I was then the project manager. The paper was drawn from the first position paper on global warming within the US Environmental Protection Agency , also prepared by the CTA. (I believe there had been earlier government reports at NOAA, but this was the first for the EPA.)
The Scientific American piece features some major quotes from the paper and gives it more attention than it ever received when released. The SA piece lauds our paper for having highlighted the tragedy of the commons nature of problems like global warming. While I think that angle is useful, I remember the paper more for its common-sense approach to policymaking for problems with both high degrees of uncertainty and great potential for adverse impact. The sad truth of the paper is that it received very little attention inside or outside the agency — in fact, MacLachlan notes it “bombed” — with only four contemporaneous citations.
I spent five years of my life working on the CTA, the last with my good friend Bob Dykes, and we produced what I think was some awfully good and often prescient work. We skewered the idea of the greater use of coal in industrial boilers, conducted the first net energy analysis of complete end-use energy trajectories, noted the importance of better conservation standards for homes and appliances, foresaw a near-term future of natural gas abundance, emphasized the importance of trace metals pollution from coal, rejected the idea of synfuels from coal ever being economic, and saw the most likely avenues for future coal use to lie in metallurgy and in well-controlled electric power plants. Unfortunately, most all of our dozen or so reports were suppressed by the agency because we pissed off either the Carter or Reagan administrations, over which our project study straddled. The energy crises of those times led to very strange politics and political reactions. I guess maybe some things never change.
Hearing of the treatment of our CO2 paper by SA has caused me to think about revisiting some of those old CTA findings. Our mandate for the Coal Technology Assessment was to “assess the technological, cultural, economic and social impacts of the greatly increased use of coal over the next 50 years,” to the year 2030. We are now 80% of the way through that forecast horizon, probably far enough along to judge how well we did. (Pretty well from my vantage point!) Maybe I can get to that appraisal before the forecast horizon is past.
BTW, you can also get the original paper outside the pay firewall. But, please: Do not let the subsequent story of no action and time lost depress you too much.