Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

The Good News

January 27, 2009

Obama indisputably gets it. Not just Chu at Energy, not just a real EPA, but now….a Climate Change Envoy, Todd Stern – a heavy hitter.

“7 in 10 Americans Reducing Carbon Footprint”

August 25, 2008

Or 7 in 10 at least say they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. That’s according to a new ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University Poll released August 9th.

Yes, this headline appears very much a result of higher gasoline prices, and so:

59 percent say they’re using less gasoline — driving less, using smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, carpooling, taking mass transit and the like.

Yet it goes beyond just gasoline:

60 percent, also say they’re cutting their consumption of power (and water), and 33 percent are recycling

Let’s dig in and run through some of the numbers –

Of those reducing:
25% – mainly to save money
33% – environmental reasons
41% – combination of money and environment

The sweet spot is undoubtedly the 2fer, money & environment. And while I’ve heard some argue that we should be careful not to dilute the environmental message with ideas of economic self interest, a.k.a. saving money – it seems a no-brainer that the economic benefits for average families are potentially substantial and fully exploiting that fact is imperative. We’ll all be conservatives! ;)

Of those not reducing:

54% plus – “say it’s unnecessary, too expensive, too inconvenient, won’t do any good, or that they just aren’t interested”
22% of those not reducing say they’re not trying because they’re not sure of what to do.

Like the 28% still supporting Bush, some are never going to come around – best to write them off and not be distracted by them. However for the 22% not knowing what to do we must make sure they are reached and helped to engage. Far beyond what “We” and 1Sky and other great privately run public awareness groups are capable of, a big federally financed public awareness and education campaign is a must.

On the global warming threat:
61% – say it’s not a threat in their lifetime – if nothing is done about it (reduced from 69% in 1997)
73% – say it will be a threat in their children’s lifetime – if nothing is done (no previous polling data shown)
81% – say it will be a threat to future generations (up 2 points from 2005)

It seems a safe bet, perhaps, that as more people come to think it threatens their children’s and even their own generation, more will take action to reduce their carbon footprints. I’m now 41 – so in 2050, health willing, I’ll be 83, and my daughter will be 43. And at the rate of things, it’s going to be very bad in 2050. The federally financed public awareness and education campaign must flip the first number and push it to 75% saying it WILL threaten their generation. (Again the last 25% are “Bush dead-enders”.)

Attitudes toward policy approaches:

78% – support stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars
59% – support Cap/Trade
74% – support Cap/Trade when told similar approach succeeded against acid rain
68% – support U.S. action even if other countries do less

Heartening numbers – particularly the last. The new administration needs to run with them.

Likely economic effects of addressing global warming:

33% – say will help U.S. economy
32% – say will hurt U.S. economy

I’m not sure how these numbers add up but the idea that there’s a split is not surprising and to me, heartening as well. Public education and effective implementation that demonstrates the economic benefits should drag the numbers into a clearly supporting position.

On the not so good side:
63% – favor expanding off-shore oil drilling
55% – favor wilderness area drilling

Only 44% favor building more nuclear. Split by party it’s: 60% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats favoring.

If not great, not surprising either. I think Obama’s approach to these is basically correct. Use them as bargaining chips to secure the real action that is going to meaningfully address the problem – getting beyond the stalling and to work.

25% – say global warming is the biggest environmental problem (down 8 points from 2007. First, how could this number be going down? And how could it be so ridiculously low, period? )
80% – say global warming is occurring (down 5 points from 2006 – how could this too possibly be going down? Maybe see here.)

50% – reduction in global warming news stories in month prior to poll, from same period in 2007. (Shocking, right?)

47% – trust scientists’ statements regarding climate
49% – don’t trust scientists’ statements regarding climate
(I believe in always retaining a healthy skepticism but these numbers are ridiculous.)

I think these last numbers are a testament to the power of FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh and the Right Wing Noise Machine – with their campaign, well coordinated with the GOP, to confuse, disinform and generally, as Stephen Colbert so deftly reveals, celebrate ignorance. They’ve cowed members of the 4th Estate into not fulfilling their civic responsibility to inform our citizens. All around it is shameful.

So as not to close on a sour note: I think the take away must be that despite the Right Wing Noise Machine’s best efforts, there is apparently broad support for meaningful public policy action to tackle the threat – with 68% supporting U.S. action even if other countries do less. That is hopeful indeed.

A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty

April 13, 2008

While the world is awakening to the horrific ramifications of climate change, our progress in combating it is dangerously slow – retarded by an inertia composed of mighty fossil fuel interests, our wanton personal habits, an indifferent press and short sighted political leadership. We await the promise of a new American administration but precious days are passing. What can be done before November, to stack the deck so that the new administration can’t just do “the right thing” wink, wink – but is compelled to do everything that needs to be done? It is as they say, a defining moment.

In his new slide show Al Gore speaks passionately to the predicament and possibilities of this extraordinary time. Along with his smart and well funded “we” branding strategy – Al Gore for many Americans is the face of global warming. History will treat Al Gore well, yet at this moment he’s unjustly trapped in the warped prism of Bush/Cheney World – and so his message is lost on too many fence sitting Americans.

But there is another leader right now: the conservative, mid-westerner James Hansen. Level-headed and firm, he has embarked on what seems to be a one man quest from another era; to stop the construction of new coal power plants. Hansen rightly defines the issue in terms of security – our existential security. He’s written letters to the heads of Britain and Australia, testified at public hearings and harangued energy officials in his effort to stop new plants.

Hansen sees the politicians as intractably beholden to fossil fuel interests and is increasingly stating that the only way to break the log jam is through the courts. He may be right.

Yet his clear insistence that coal plant construction be halted and that all existing coal plants be shut down – last year by 2050 and now ominously he says by by 2030. Hansen calls for a moratorium on coal as do others, including leading Democrats. A moratorium is the result we require. Yet the mechanism for getting such a moratorium at the requisite global scale remains nebulous and consequently ineffectual. A strong and clear mechanism to achieve a global moratorium on coal power plants is absolutely required. I believe the clear mechanism missing is a Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unambiguously defined humanity’s primary existential threat, this new treaty would unambiguously define humanity’s current threat. And as the pillars of nuclear non-proliferation do, the coal power treaty should not only halt the construction of new coal power plants but create the framework for disarmament – the dismantling of existing plants by 2030.

Ireland proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 – might they brush it off and put it to adaptive reuse in 2008? Could a “great power” do it? Germany? Britain? Japan?

If* done right, such a treaty would afford many unique opportunities and qualities:

1. It links the climate fight to the most popular vestige of the Cold War – a treaty whose clear military, national security and humanitarian interests were paramount, and by association, conveying to the climate crisis struggle those same attributes into today’s popular imagination.
2. By rhetorically linking to the Cold War era treaty, it can reach outside party politics and traditional international alignments – allowing for the possibility of entirely new and positive dynamics.
3. It kick-starts a national and international debate focused at the heart of the problem while decoupling it from the highly complex and esoteric negotiations of Kyoto and Bali.
4. It provides a clear and powerful mechanism to pressure all countries – most importantly the US, China and India to get on board.
5. It provides a concrete reference point, easy for all to understand and then work from. Because if you agree you can’t build another coal plant – what are you going to do?

What are we going to do? There’s a multitude of actions that must accelerate like an avalanche if we are to save ourselves. It’s my thought that such a “simple” act as this treaty might do a bit toward uncorking the bottle on our way to the next inauguration.

Come’on Ireland, the world again awaits your leadership!

* a big if.

Amazon left for dead by biofuels?

March 28, 2008

Time Magazine has a very good article “The Clean Energy Scam” by Michael Grunwald, on the terrifying connection between biofuels and the viability of the Amazon (and other tropical forests for that matter).

A Texan sets the tone:

“It gives me goose bumps,” says Carter, who founded a nonprofit to promote sustainable ranching on the Amazon frontier. “It’s like witnessing a rape.”

The perpetrator of this violence? The article answers:

This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.

The Amazon was once protected for it’s biodiversity, but now it’s survival is paramount for one thing: it’s ability to naturally sequester carbon. And the dynamic is explained thusly:

Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.


Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.

Just want to add this graph to underline the connection to the power of global commodity markets, which appears to have lifted the Amazon’s destruction to a higher level of magnitude.

More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it’s subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets. “The price of soybeans goes up,” laments Sandro Menezes, a biologist with Conservation International in Brazil, “and the forest comes down.”

Translating into a brutal short-term local logic:

The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact. Carter, who fell in love with the region after marrying a Brazilian and taking over her father’s ranch, says the rate of deforestation closely tracks commodity prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. “It’s just exponential right now because the economics are so good,” he says. “Everything tillable or grazeable is gouged out and cleared.”

Which brings us to the global warming phrase dejour, “tipping point”.

This destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display in Brazil, where a Rhode Island–size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007 and even more was degraded by fire. Some scientists believe fires are now altering the local microclimate and could eventually reduce the Amazon to a savanna or even a desert. “It’s approaching a tipping point,” says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center.

Dan Nepstad is not just any talking head scientist – he’s one of a handful of the world’s top earth scientists specializing in global warming dynamics. His recent report “Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point” describes a terrifying razors edge the Amazon finds itself on.

If the Amazon tips, it goes from a massive carbon sink to a massive carbon emitter – quite likely leaving much more than itself for dead.

The take away on biofuels is a very cautionary note:

The lesson behind the math is that on a warming planet, land is an incredibly precious commodity, and every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can’t be used to generate the food needed to feed us or the carbon storage needed to save us. Searchinger acknowledges that biofuels can be a godsend if they don’t use arable land. Possible feedstocks include municipal trash, agricultural waste, algae and even carbon dioxide, although none of the technologies are yet economical on a large scale. Tilman even holds out hope for fuel crops–he’s been experimenting with Midwestern prairie grasses–as long as they’re grown on “degraded lands” that can no longer support food crops or cattle.

Another nail in the coffin? China gone wild edition…

March 14, 2008

It’s generally agreed – despite the fact that America is, by far, historically the number one contributor to global warming – that the ultimate hurdle to climate stabilization will be China.

Alarmingly, the word on the street is that China’s emissions are not just growing at a furious pace, they are growing more than twice as fast as feared.

How bad is it? Conservatively estimated, China will have added between 2000 and 2010, 600m tons of CO2. For perspective, Kyoto was only seeking 116m tons of reductions worldwide by 2012. Death spiral anyone? The numbers are staggering – and conservative!

“A notable shift occurred in China around the year 2000, around the time when hope for an agreement with the U.S. on the Kyoto Protocol began to diminish along with external pressure for China to reduce its emissions,” said Carson. “Energy use started to grow faster than income, and much of the energy that was used wasn’t efficient.”

How do we stop China’s race into oblivion? I think we must start with radical reductions here in the United States. Then with the Europeans we’ll be in a position to exert political and economic pressure to slow and then turn around China’s runaway train (and our own in the process). To get started now – I humbly suggest – download this checklist, and get busy.