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Earthquakes and Climate Change:

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:52 PM GMT on October 13, 2011

Earthquakes and Climate Change: Risks (1)

On March 11, 2011 there was a great earthquake in Tohoku, Japan. This earthquake caused large loss of life and property, and for the focus of this article large parts of the Fukushima nuclear power plant were destroyed. Therein is the link to climate change.

Figure 1: Poster describing 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake. (link to a LARGE version of this poster)

Global warming due to carbon dioxide increases is caused primarily by emissions from burning fossil fuels. Hence, there is the, now familiar, link of carbon dioxide to energy use to prosperity to population. Hence, our path to addressing climate change is finding sources of energy that do not emit carbon.

Nuclear power is a controversial issue, which I will discuss more below. But in the minds of many people, nuclear power is part of the paths to solution of the climate change problem. There is no doubt that nuclear power is low carbon, and it is a proven source of energy at societal scale. Below is a comparison of carbon emissions from different sources of energy.

Figure 2: Emissions of carbon dioxide from different sources of energy. This is from The World Nuclear Association.

The World Nuclear Association is an organization that supports the nuclear industry, and they make prominent points about the importance of nuclear energy in addressing climate change. The figure above is from a report that they generated, and it is based on a review of literature. I have looked through the report, and as a non expert, they have done a credible accumulation and reporting of information. The story that is definitive is that carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants is far smaller than from fossil fuel burning, and comparable to the emissions from renewable sources of energy. Given that carbon dioxide, once emitted, is around for many thousands of years, there is an urgency to address our emission levels, and increased use of nuclear energy would benefit the reduction of global warming.

In Japan, the loss of the Fukushima power plant was a loss of a major source of electrical generation. This led to a reduction of manufacturing that had direct effects on the world’s industries and economies. It also fueled and refueled opposition to the development of nuclear power plants. In Japan there have been massive protests opposing building nuclear power plants as well as calling for closing existing plants. There was a time not long ago where Japan, a country dependent on imports for most fossil fuels, was on a path to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels with the use of nuclear power. Japan has subsequently developed a policy to deemphasize nuclear power with a gradual fade out. Even with a focus on renewable energy, this decision in Japan will inevitably lead to more carbon dioxide emissions in the short term.

What I have thought was most interesting was the response in Germany. Germany decided to close its nuclear power plants by 2022. The Washington Post’s Editorial Board called this reaction to Fukushima a blunder, and there were wide spread comments that Germany’s demand for energy would inevitably lead to more coal use and an increase in both carbon dioxide emissions and public health risks. Germany’s position, however, is that they would accelerate their already aggressive programs in renewable energy. This is an interesting gamble. The challenges of meeting Germany’s energy demands with renewable energy are formidable, but if that challenge is met, then it is likely to provide Germany with technological developments and energy security that gives it huge economic advantage. Here is a nice summary story of Germany’s decision in the Christian Science Monitor.

In the earlier part of the Obama administration there was a renewed interest on nuclear energy in the U.S. Immediately after the 2011 earthquake there was significant decline in the U.S. public interest in nuclear power. This decrease came at a time when public support was at a near peak. Now a few months out, polling by the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is a “policy organization” for the nuclear energy industry, shows modest declines, but with a majority in the U.S. still supporting more nuclear energy.

Looking worldwide, there is no doubt that there will be some countries developing more nuclear energy and there will be some countries where the political environment will reduce the use of nuclear power. With regard to climate, most energy decisions are made with regard to energy needs, energy security and cost. All energy systems have their proponents. All energy systems have environmental impact; therefore, they all have opponents. The net result of this is that we continue to rely on fossil fuels, with increasing stress on energy systems and the environment. There is no doubt that the earthquake in March 2011 in Japan has influenced how we think about nuclear power. Therefore, the earthquake has an influence on how we address the energy issues that are at the root of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

There are two points I want to bring forward to carry to the next blog. The first is to reiterate that our world exists in many systems with fragile balance. Our energy systems are vulnerable to relatively small disruptions. Our economy is fragile. Our climate is in a balance where carbon dioxide emissions can drastically alter the balance of water between liquid and ice. The second is that all of these systems are connected. Global risks follow from an earthquake that is localized on the coast of a single island in Japan. It is this sort of systems impacts where the great risks are exposed, where climate change can have near-term impacts.


Climate Change Earthquake

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.