Environment

Facing up to "Environmental Change"

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 21, 2011 9:35 PM

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Cleo Paskal, whose book I reviewed last year, has a smart piece on what's being left out in risk assessments for energy installations:

First, due to changing environmental conditions (sea level rise, subsidence, changing storm activity, etc.), historical records may no longer be reliable predictors for future risks. For example, the summer of 2003 was unusually hot. Many of the French nuclear power stations are cooled by river water. But, in 2003, the rivers were so warm, they couldn't be used to cool as normal. That caused the powering down or shutting off of 17 French nuclear reactors. It cost the French utilities hundreds of millions of dollars to buy power from neighboring countries. This 'anomaly' happened again in the summers of 2006 and 2009, again causing powering downs at French nuclear facilities. According to the Hadley Center, by 2040, it will be 'commonplace' for European summer temperatures to reach 2003 levels. This new environmental change variable is often left out of risk assessments for all manner of new infrastructure builds. Dams in India are seeing reduced generation capacity as a result of shifting monsoons. Sections of oil and gas infrastructure along the U.S. Gulf Coast are suffering repeated shutdowns due to flooding, hurricanes and subsidence. Homes in the US and UK are already being built on actual floodplains, let alone areas that are likely to become floodplains.

What I find notable (and refreshing) about Paskal's approach is that she frames energy and climate issues as part of the larger phenomenon of "environmental change." I know that's a bland rubric but in my opinion it's a more accurate characterization of the multiple, intertwined stresses on the planet today.

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