David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

Rebuilding: what to do with New Orleans

I hope to write quite a bit on issues around the rebuilding of New Orleans. It's a bit overwhelming in two ways, the first logistical and the second political: The issues involved are just incredibly complex, in terms of social and physical engineering. The Bush administration is almost certain to run this the same way they ran the rebuilding of Iraq: badly, with maximum inefficiency, graft, and cronyism. Resistance is futile. But just as a teaser, check out a couple of intriguing ideas, both via City Comforts. Both start from the basic problem that much of New Orleans is built beneath sea level, and is sinking (and oh yeah, sea level is rising). So there's two things you could do: Rebuild the city as another Venice, with deep canals and elevated buildings. Fill it up until it's above sea level, the way they did with Galveston, Texas in the early 1900s. Crazy, maybe, but then, razing wetlands to build a major seaport beneath sea level is crazy to begin with. (See also: 5-point plan for sustainable rebuilding.)

Operation Offset

Republicans want to pay for Gulf Coast rebuilding with cuts to enviro and social programs

You may have heard, President Bush is trying to bolster his sagging poll numbers by throwing money at the Gulf Coast -- or rather, throwing money at politically connected contributors in the Gulf Coast while cutting wages for the poor saps who work there. $200 billion. How are we going to pay for that? Well, Think Progress points out that you could get most of it from rolling back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the rich. Ha ha ha ha ha! No, seriously, we have to "cut unnecessary spending." And the House Republicans are ready, with their "Operation Offset," a list of cuts (PDF) they say could squeeze $500 billion in 10 years out of the federal budget. Unsurprisingly, the cuts impose pain almost exclusively on programs meant to help the environment and the less fortunate. Here are a few of the cuts: Eliminate the EnergyStar program; eliminate state and community grants for energy conservation; eliminate National Parks Heritage Areas; reduce Amtrak subsidies (how come they never call highway spending "subsidies"?); eliminate the high-speed rail and light-rail programs; reduce fish and wildlife habitat construction; reduce Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management; eliminate the Applied Research for Renewable Energy Sources program; eliminate the FreedomCar program; and eliminate the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. Note that, as Brad Plumer points out, almost every federal program to encourage clean energy is cut, while the energy bill's recent billions in subsidies to oil and gas companies remain untouched. There are more -- these are just the most salient environmental cuts. Some 30% of the cuts come from Medicaid. Others would eliminate a variety of foreign aid programs. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be de-funded, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many of the cuts are trivial in terms of the money they save. It's just a chance for House Republicans to take out some of their longtime enemies. It's really a stunning look into their priorities. If you want to avoid cuts like this, get on the phone with your Congressional representatives. (There are many, many blogs writing about this. Read around.) (See also E.J. Dionne on the subject.)

Expert testimony

This Wednesday, the Senate Environment Committee is holding a hearing on global warming. The lead witness? Michael Crichton. You really can't make this stuff up.

Now he tells us …

Well I'll be damned. Did our president just encourage us to conserve? He really has lost his swagger! Matt Yglesias says what needs to be said about this wan little gesture. (See also Pascal Riche on European conservation programs.)

Revkin on uncertainty

Okay, let's get to it. Via Pielke, a brief but interesting account of a talk given by Andrew Revkin, esteemed environment reporter for The New York Times. Here's the nut: In his lecture, Revkin said that after covering global warming for almost 20 years, he is convinced that there will never be a time when he can write a story that states clearly that global warming "happened today." "It is never going to be the kind of story that will give you the level of certainty that everyone seems to crave," he said. "We are assaulted with complexity and uncertainty. Somehow, we need to convey that in all that information, with those question marks, there is a trajectory to knowledge." American society is uneasy with the equivocal answers that often are the best environmental scientists can provide, said Revkin. Newspapers are uncomfortable with "murk," and politicians and Congress "hate it," he said. Yet, despite the lack of crystal clarity, "you can still make decisions. Uncertainties don't let you off the hook," he said, even though some people in politics have used the uncertainties for that purpose. Unfortunately for, um, everybody, it seems to me that the American public is growing less, not more, tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. This is partly a reaction to troubling and confusing times, I suppose, but it's not helped by a ruling political party that traffics almost exclusively in slogans and nostrums.

Reporting for duty

Hi. I'm back. For those who care: the kid is healthy and cute -- eating, sleeping, and pooping per his genetic programming. Oh yeah, and consuming the earth's precious resources. Bad baby! Bad, bad baby! For two weeks I've been on a total news blackout, and let me tell you friends, it's been nice. Prior to my paternity leave, I was sinking into a malaise, depressed about the racism, incompetence, and short-sightedness exposed by Katrina. Browsing the headlines today, I see that ... nothing's changed. But I, at least, am recharged, and shall forthwith resume bringing you all the earth's grim tidings. Whee!

Katrina and global warming, part zillion

Some recent pieces on the perennial topic of Katrina and global warming: In Slate, Paul Recer makes basically the same point Chip and I did in our op-ed: The science drawing a firm connection just isn't there yet, and anyway, there are plenty more immediate concerns on which environmentalists should be focused. On KatrinaNoMore.com, a whole website devoted to the subject, Mike Tidwell says global warming will lead to more New Orleans-style disasters, not so much because of stronger hurricanes as because of rising sea levels. In The New Yorker, the inimitable Elizabeth Kolbert gets the science basically right: The fact that climbing CO2 levels are expected to produce more storms like Katrina doesn't mean that Katrina itself was caused by global warming. No single storm, no matter how extreme, can be accounted for in this way; weather events are a function both of factors that can be identified, like the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth and the greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and of factors that are stochastic, or purely random. In response to the many confused claims that were being made about the hurricane, a group of prominent climatologists posted an essay on the Web site RealClimate that asked, "Could New Orleans be the first major U.S. city ravaged by human-caused climate change?" The correct answer, they pointed out, is that this is the wrong question. The science of global warming has nothing to say about any particular hurricane (or drought or heat wave or flood), only about the larger statistical pattern. If I have any criticism of Kolbert's piece, it's that she, like so many people commenting on this topic, focuses unduly on cutting CO2 emissions. But if our goal is to save lives, we could save a lot more, a lot faster, by focusing on shorter term demographic and political solutions. This is not to say that we shouldn't cut down on greenhouse gases -- we should -- just that doing so should be thought of as part of a larger package of severe-weather-disaster preparation and mitigation strategies. (And yes, I really am on paternity leave. Pretend like this post never happened.)

Bowen and baby

Two notes: There's a fantastic story in Washington Monthly about coal-fired power plants and the latest efforts to control their damage. It focuses in on Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Ga. In 2003, Bowen spewed more sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any plant in the United States. Bowen alone emits more sulfur dioxide than all the power plants combined in 12 states and the District of Columbia -- including large states such as California, Washington, and Oregon. And it would take more than three million cars to emit the 21.35 million tons of carbon dioxide Bowen's smokestacks belched out in 2003, according to the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The point of the piece is that traditional environmentalist tactics are no longer working, as Bowen's continuing existence painfully demonstrates. The old paradigm through which environmental activists tried to take on powerful and deadly polluters relied on three separate but equally important tactics: campaigns to stoke public outrage by linking the illnesses and deaths of particular victims to a particular polluter; aggressive lawsuits brought by the private torts bar; and prescriptive federal regulation to penalize non-compliant localities and industries. Yet the persisting pollution at Plant Bowen shows how ineffective the old paradigm has become in dealing with the most important emerging environmental threats to public health, from fine particle pollution to global warming to agricultural runoff -- all cases where it's difficult to tie specific polluters to individuals who have been harmed. Fortunately, changes now afoot at Bowen also point the way to a solution -- one in which a modernized regulatory regime uses market-like forces to let federal officials pick up the work that lawyers and environmental activists can no longer effectively accomplish. I don't agree with everything in it, but this really is a must-read for those interested in environmental policy. Secondly: I -- or more accurately, my wife -- had a baby on Friday. (Oh, I'm such an earth f**ker!) I'll be taking two weeks off, so posting will be extremely light, if not nonexistent. I hope our other contributors will slake your insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Ceres on Katrina, insurance, and weather-related risk

Ceres, the "national network of investment funds, environmental organizations and other public interest groups working to advance environmental stewardship on the part of businesses," has just released a report on the enormous challenge to the insurance industry represented by escalating weather-related losses. You can read the executive summary here and the full report here (PDF). An excerpt: Yet, despite these rising insurance risks, climate change has received little attention to date from U.S. insurers, regulators and governments. Among the problem areas highlighted in the report: Only a small fraction of U.S. insurance companies have seriously examined the business implications of climate change and fewer still work closely with climate scientists or present their analyses publicly. Insurers and regulators currently do not have a comprehensive capacity to assess the cumulative weather-related risks from both catastrophic events and the growing number of small-scale events. The U.S. government's full financial exposure from insurance programs (flood, multi-crop insurance etc), disaster relief and other forms of weather-related assistance has never been assessed. The report recommends the following actions, among others: Insurers need to: collect more complete data on weather-related losses; incorporate climate modeling into their risk analyses; analyze the implications of climate change on their business and investments and share the results with shareholders; and encourage policy action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Regulators need to: include climate risks in company solvency and consumer-impact analysis; review the "standards of insurability" to identify new challenges, including climate-related hazards in the US and abroad; encourage insurers to collect more comprehensive data on losses; elevate standards for catastrophe modeling; and assess exposure of insurer investments and adequacy of capital and surplus to extreme weather events. Government needs to: foster and participate in public-private partnership for insurance risk spreading; comprehensively assess the government's overall financial exposure to weather disasters; reduce vulnerability to disaster losses through improved early warning systems, land use planning and other measures; and take policy action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.