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The REINS Act shows, again, just how f’ing crazy the House GOP is

When I first started writing at Grist, in 2004 and 2005, the Bush administration was in charge and Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress. Every day -- and I mean, really, almost every single day -- brought some new outrage, some bit of mendacity or corruption or plutocratic greed or just terrible policy.

I realized quickly that there's no way for a healthy human being to maintain the level of outrage warranted by the situation. When offenses to decency follow one after another after another after another, it's difficult to pay attention to each one, much less work up righteous umbrage anew each morning. It's mentally and physically exhausting.

I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced, that this was a deliberate strategy on the part of conservatives: flood the zone and overwhelm the ability of the press, public, and political opposition to react. When you have power, use it to help your friends and secure future power; do not hesitate; do not ask permission.

Obama, whatever you think of his strategies or policies, has led a remarkably scandal-free presidency. That's why, when something like the IRS (non-)scandal comes along, everyone jumps on it and it stays in the news for weeks. It's a singular event, a marker, a symbol around which we arrange our perceptions and arguments. Under Bush, the IRS thing would simply have blurred into a parade of far worse transgressions. It's no accident that "cocaine-fueled sex romp" is a mere fourth on our list of Bush Era WTFs. You just couldn't keep up. It was numbing and profoundly disempowering -- which, again, was the point.

I've been thinking about this ever since Republicans won the House of Representatives and an historic number of state legislatures in 2010, which they promptly used to gerrymander themselves a decade-long death grip on the House. The minute they took charge, they started doing insane things. Lots of these things became news -- threats to tank the American economy, forty-eleven votes to repeal Obamacare, stripping food stamps out of the farm subsidy bill -- but many, perhaps most, did not, because crazy bills that passed the House were doomed in the Senate. "House passes crazy bill in futile gesture" is a story political journalists tire of writing.


We are consigning hundreds of coastal cities to destruction. Who cares?

Humanity's difficulties dealing with climate change trace back to a simple fact: We are animals. Our cognitive and limbic systems were shaped by evolution to heed threats and rewards close by, involving faces and teeth. That's how we survived. Those systems were not shaped to heed, much less emotionally respond to, faceless threats distant in time and space -- like, say, climate change. No evil genius could design a problem less likely to grab our attention.

This is a familiar point, but some new research on sea level throws it into sharp relief. Let's quickly review the research, and while we do, keep this question in the back of our minds: "Does this make me feel anything? Even if I understand, do I care?"


This post is not about seal levels, so I'm outta here.
This post is not about seal levels, so I'm outta here.

The first bit of research is a paper that's gotten a lot of press attention: "The multimillennial sea-level commitment of global warming."

Sea-level rise is a vexed issue in climate discussions because everyone wants to know where sea level's going to be in 2050, or 2100 -- years that we can, at least dimly, imagine. I'll still be alive in 2050, presumably, and my kids or grandkids in 2100, with any luck.

The problem is that it's much easier to project long-term sea levels than short term. It's difficult to nail down the near-term timing of "nonlinear" (abrupt) events involving, say, ice sheets, but over a few thousand years, it all evens out. A century just isn't that long in climatic terms.

A team of researchers led by Anders Levermann at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has done something novel. They said, screw the short term. We know that CO2, once it's in the atmosphere, is effectively permanent. We know that for a given level of CO2 concentrations, eventually you get a given temperature, and for a given temperature, sooner or later sea level will rise to adjust. When you raise the temperature, you "lock in" a certain amount of sea-level rise, even if you don't know exactly how quickly it will happen.

Read more: Climate & Energy


White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome: An apology

So, I said something horrible on Twitter. Since I can't go back in time and take it back, I thought I'd try to make something worthwhile out of it. Here goes.

Read more: Uncategorized


Despite slowdown, global coal remains a planet-destroying monster

In my last post, I referenced a new report from Goldman Sachs analysts showing that the market for seaborne thermal coal (overseas imports and exports used to fuel power plants) is likely to fall from 7 percent annual growth to around 1 percent, and stay there for the foreseeable future. This is great news, in that it has the potential to render several new large-scale coal-extraction projects around the world -- including export terminals in the U.S. Pacific Northwest -- unprofitable before they are completed or, in some cases, begun.

However, this bit of good news should not distract from the larger picture, which is decidedly grim. As oil prices remain stubbornly high, the rapidly urbanizing developing world has turned to coal, which has been growing at a furious pace and is on the verge of becoming the world's primary energy source. Even if its momentum is slowing slightly, it remains a world-crushing behemoth.

No one has been following this story more closely than energy analyst Gregor Macdonald. This is from his blog: world coal consumption
Click to embiggen

Yikes! As Macdonald writes, "Only a very small portion of the global public is aware that global coal consumption has advanced by over 50% in the past decade."

By 2011, coal represented 30.34 percent of total global energy use, according to the BP Statistical Review, just a few points shy of Old King Oil:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Goldman Sachs says coal-export terminals are a bad investment

No less an investor than the mighty Warren Buffett has proclaimed that the decline of coal in the U.S. will be gradual but inevitable. Given flat demand for electricity, cheap natural gas, burgeoning renewables, rising efficiency, and future carbon regulations, new coal-fired power plants are bad bet, which is why they aren't getting built.

To save their bacon, U.S. coal mining companies want to export their coal to hungrier markets, mainly Asian markets. OK, mainly China. Demand for coal in China is a crucial justification for the export infrastructure coal companies want to build in the Pacific Northwest -- export terminals in Oregon and Washington that would handle coal shipped by train from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. (Activists are battling those plans, with some success. A similar fight is happening in British Columbia.)

But overseas demand for thermal coal -- the kind used in power plants -- has been overestimated. New investments in thermal coal infrastructure, unless they come online quickly, will miss a rapidly closing window for profitability. In coming years, there won't be enough demand growth to justify such investments.

That's the explosive conclusion of a report recently issued by analysts at Goldman Sachs. (It's not public, so I can't link to it.) The implication for coal-export projects in the Pacific Northwest is clear: They are bum investments. You don't need to share concerns over climate change to see it. Just economics.


The positive economic impact of a carbon tax in, uh, hang on … 10 charts

There is no federal carbon tax coming to the U.S. any time soon, not as long as a revanchist, reactionary bunch of fruitbats runs the Republican Party and gerrymanders itself a decade-long House majority. (Ahem.) But just as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else, let's take note of the fact that warnings about the calamitous effects of a carbon tax are nonsense.

Two new data points on this.

First, as it happens, there's a real, honest-to-God carbon tax happening, as we speak, right above our heads (at least our heads in Seattle): British Columbia has had a carbon tax in place since 2008. Per design, it started at $10 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and rose $5 a year until it reached $30 in 2012. It's focused on petroleum fuels, since most of B.C.'s electricity comes from low-carbon hydro. Also, it is revenue neutral, which means it is offset by decreases in corporate and personal income taxes.

How's it doing? Turns out, just fine.

A couple of University of Ottawa scholars just put out a short report on the B.C. carbon tax, examining its environmental and economic effects.

Has it reduced fossil fuel consumption? Yes. Consumption of all petroleum fuels subject to the tax declined in B.C., 18.8 percent more than in the rest of Canada:

BC carbon tax, fuel consumption
Sustainable Prosperity
Click to embiggen.

Has it reduced greenhouse gas emissions? Yes.


How the White House watered down rules on coal-plant water pollution

Coal power plants are the biggest source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., mainly via coal combustion waste, which is the ash and sludge left over after burning the coal and filtering the exhaust (to keep the pollutants out of the air). Combustion waste contains heavy metals like lead and mercury that never degrade -- they just "bioaccumulate" up the food chain until they reach us, doing untold damage along the way.

This week, a coalition of green groups released a report [PDF] about water pollution from coal plants, the extensive health and environmental costs it imposes, and the opportunity now before the EPA to finally do something about it. It's worth reading the whole thing just to get a sense of the sheer scale of unregulated, unlimited water pollution that's going on right now.

But I want to focus on one episode related in the report, something that should be prompting more outrage, not only from enviros but from anyone who cares about small-d democratic government. I demand more outrage!

First, a bit of background.


Is humanity smarter than a protozoan?

So, how's humanity doing?

Good question. One way of answering is to look at global per-capita GDP -- that is, the average amount of economic activity per person in the world. From that perspective, humanity is kicking ass:

Click to embiggen.

We're getting richer!

Here's the thing, though: While GDP has come to serve as a stand-in for human welfare, it was not originally developed for that purpose. What's more, it kind of sucks for that purpose. Objections to GDP as a measure of human welfare are as old as GDP itself; I've written about them before. It doesn't distinguish between welfare-enhancing economic activity and the welfare-degrading kind. It doesn't value natural capital. It doesn't incorporate life satisfaction or economic inequality. And so on. Any true measure of human welfare should be far more nuanced.


Why coal has a hit on “America’s Got Talent”

America's Got Talent is watched by around 10 million people a week. On Tuesday, Jimmy Rose, a former coal miner and Iraq War vet, appeared on the show to sing an original song, "Coal Keeps the Lights On":

This is an extraordinary cultural artifact, for all sorts of reasons. There are lessons in here for social change agents in general and climate hawks in particular.

First off: It is genuinely affecting! Not least because Jimmy Rose has the kind of deep Appalachian accent and adenoidal, high-lonesome voice you don't hear much in country music these days. It brings to mind lots of other amazing music out of that tradition. And of course lyrics about a hard-working man watching over his family can hardly fail to tug the heartstrings, even if "clothes on their back and shoes on their feet" might not be the most original turn of phrase. He sells it.

But the segment also draws a great deal of power from the larger narratives and tropes it evokes. It's pure Americana: Rose served in the military, which makes him an object of instant, bipartisan adoration in the post-9/11 world. He's got the twang. He's got Pineville, Ky., which to these hyper-groomed L.A. judges might as well be another planet. He's got the anti-style haircut and the fish-out-of-water family. He's got a dream. And he's got a history as a coal miner. It's all of a piece.

What's fascinating to me, and significant for climate hawks, is how the coal mining piece fits into that larger tapestry.

Jimmy RoseOn the show, before he starts singing, Rose emphasizes twice how dangerous coal mining is -- even says he joined the Marines and deployed to Iraq to escape it. Yet the implicit message is not that coal mining is a crappy job or that coal companies are neglectful, inconsiderate employers. Instead the job is presented as a kind of heroism: Rose went underground, put himself in danger, so that he could feed his family and keep the lights on for the rest of us. It's a kind of national service, an analogue to his stint in the military: These are the guys who work and suffer so that the rest of us can live in luxury. Heroes. It's powerful stuff, clearly enough to get the crowd rooting for him.

Why does coal mining evoke these kinds of feelings? One obvious explanation is that working-class guys are taking a battering all over the country, not just in Appalachia. Coal mining is hard, dangerous work, but it's honest work, available to anyone willing to do it, and it can -- or could -- support a family. Those kinds of jobs have been steadily disappearing for decades. Now America is a land of knowledge workers and service workers, ever-increasing inequality and ever-decreasing social mobility. That kind of economy can work, at least for a while, for large urban areas with lots of knowledge workers to service, but it's hell on places like Pineville (or Detroit) that relied entirely on decent-paying working-class jobs. Lots of people around the country understand the anger and loss in places like eastern Kentucky even if they don't share all the cultural signifiers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Conservatives seek alternatives to climate denialism, come up short

old man head scratch

You know how old people start to tell the same stories over and over again? Well, old bloggers start quoting themselves. In October 2011, I wrote this about Republican intransigence on climate change:

The climate change situation in U.S. politics is not stable. There's only so long a political party can wall itself off from reality when Americans in business, state and local government, and the military are acknowledging it. It's evident even now that Republicans are vulnerable on the issue. When pressed, they grope around for some position that's short of crazypants denialism, since they know that doesn't look good and perhaps have some vestigial sense of shame. They are stung by charges of being "anti-science," or they wouldn't spend so much time trying to rebut them. But they also want a position that doesn't obligate them to do anything. Right now they're dancing around with various versions of "there's warming but we don't know if humans are causing it." Their stumbling incoherence gives them away.

All of that remains true. The Republican position on climate change has always been internally incoherent and confused, but it has stumbled along because nobody, including the media, pushes them on it. It can't last. And indeed, it is showing new signs of stress. That's got "reasonable Republicans" casting about for a new approach. Their efforts so far are ... uninspiring.


On climate change, the GOP faces the same situation it faces on many other issues (gay marriage, immigration, guns): The right-wing base holds extreme positions that embarrass more reasonable Republicans. But the party leadership remains terrified of the base, especially after the primary massacres of the last few cycles. So Republican politicians have to be extremely careful not to publicly cross the crazies. At the same time, they are trying to "rebrand" the party to appeal to new demographics (young people, minorities, women). It's a difficult -- perhaps impossible -- tightrope to walk.