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Economists don’t know this: waste heat adds to global warming

The greenhouse effect is not the only thing causing our planet to warm.  Larry O’Hanlon at the American Geophysical Union also points to our own energy use as a cause of excess heating in developed regions:

“There is also the waste heat released when we generate and use energy – even clean energy. Yet the regional impact of that heat – which moves from warm buildings, engines and power plants into the world around us – has not been well accounted for.”

O’Hanlon cites a new study from the open university, which is the first to begin to calculate this effect.  However, the warming effect of energy transformation is an integral part of the laws of thermodynamics.  Indeed, economics is the only “science” (I would say pseudoscience) not to know this.

In an excellent post that should be required reading for any A-Level economics student, American physicist Tom Murphy Jnr explains the implications of this physical law to an economics professor who insists that humanity can continue to grow our economy endlessly (the full post is both humorous and serious in its implications):

“Alright, the Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. [Pained expression from economist.] And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.”

The point to note here is that Murphy is not accounting for the greenhouse effect.  The numbers here are simply based on humanity’s per capita energy use continuing to grow at more or less the rate it has been for the last 50 years.  And note also O’Hanlon’s point that renewable energy doesn’t save us.  What it boils down to is we either develop a new kind of steady-state or de-growth economy or we wipe ourselves out in the not too distant future.

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