Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

Are Boosting U.S. Oil Supply and Cutting U.S. Oil Demand in Conflict?

by Michael Levi Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see strong pushback from some of President Obama’s traditional allies to his energy security speech this morning, but I genuinely was. The main crux of the complaints I’ve heard is that efforts to expand domestic oil supply are fundamentally at odds with efforts to reduce U.S. oil demand. Let me explain in some detail why I think that’s largely wrong. (If you want my broader take on the speech, click here.) Read more »

Two Additions to CFR’s Energy Roster

by Michael Levi Thursday, March 24, 2011

I’m thrilled to share the news that Atul Arya and Daniel Ahn have joined CFR as adjunct fellows for energy. This is part of a broader ramping up of CFR’s work on energy and security, about which I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months. Atul and Dan are both tremendous talents. Each will bring unique experiences and insights to CFR’s work. You can also expect to see them contributing to this blog once in a while. Read more »

How Much Radioactive Contamination Is Too Much?

by Michael Levi Wednesday, March 23, 2011

First it was radioactive material in milk and spinach near the Fukushima reactors. Now it’s radioactive iodine in Tokyo tapwater that exceeds limits for infant consumption. All of which makes me think back to some work that I did in 2002 on dirty bombs. (Even if you aren’t interested in dirty bombs, read through; there’s a lesson for the current situation here too.)

My colleagues and I wanted to estimate the consequences of a dirty bomb attack. To do that, we simulated the dispersal of radioactive material and then determined the area over which contamination levels would exceed established safety limits. The results were disturbing: large swaths of a city could be put off limits by a relatively modest attack.

Some smart people pushed back. Contamination was considered unacceptable under existing regulations if continued exposure raised the risk of death from cancer by more than one-in-ten thousand. But the background rate of death from cancer was already one in five. If a large area became contaminated in a dirty bomb attack, they asked, wouldn’t authorities relax the limits? Faced with a choice between abandoning chunks of a city and accepting, say, a one-in-a-thousand increase in the cancer fatality rate, wouldn’t people pick the latter?

Over the years, I became somewhat sympathetic to that argument, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. In particular, I was pretty sure that changing the safety thresholds after an event (rather than developing a set of alternative rules in advance) would be tough. Few people have the technical knowledge to judge for themselves what’s safe or not. In the aftermath of an ugly incident, they may also lose trust in authorities, which means that they won’t trust revisions to the rules either. Authorities may be stuck with the preexisting guidelines even if there’s a more rational alternative. Read more »

Markets vs Governments in Energy Policy

by Michael Levi Monday, March 21, 2011

I started reading Dani Rodrik’s engaging new book, The Globalization Paradox, last week. Rodrik makes his core point early and often: Too many policymakers and economists assume that markets and governments are substitutes; much more often, though, they’re complements. As he notes, this is particularly important to remember at the international level, where governance is inherently weak. Students of energy and climate policy would do well to keep this powerful idea in mind. Read more »