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.

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.

SEJ on Katrina

The Society of Environmental Journalists publishes its first official op-ed

As far as I know (readers, correct me if I'm wrong), the Society of Environmental Journalists has never before released an official op-ed. Now they've done so, in response to official stonewalling on the environmental damage done by Katrina. It is reprinted in full below the fold.

Klare on Katrina and foreign oil

Michael Klare writes in The Nation about Katrina's implications for our oil situation and our foreign policy (is there any difference?). A taste: But it is not the short-term picture that we should worry about the most; it is the long-term situation. This is so because the Gulf was the only area of the United States that showed any promise of compensating for the decline of older onshore fields and thus of dampening, to some degree, the nation's thirst for imported oil. ... Spurred by the Bush Administration's energy plan, which calls for massive investment in deep-water fields, the big oil firms have poured billions of dollars into new offshore drilling facilities in the Gulf. Before Katrina, these facilities were expected to supply more than 12 percent of America's Lower 48 petroleum output by the end of 2005, and a much larger share in the years thereafter. It is this promise of future oil that is most in question: Even if older, close-to-shore rigs can be brought back on line, there is considerable doubt about the viability of the billion-dollar deep-water rigs, most of which lie right along the path of recent hurricanes, including Ivan and Katrina. If these cannot be salvaged, there is no hope of slowing the rise in US dependence on imports, ANWR or no ANWR. This can mean one thing only: growing US reliance on oil from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Angola, Nigeria, Colombia, Venezuela and other conflict-torn producers in the developing world. And it is this that should set the alarm bells ringing. If recent US behavior is any indication, the Bush Administration will respond to this predicament by increasing the involvement of American military forces in the protection of foreign oil potentates (like the Saudi royal family) and the defense of overseas oil installations. Katrina has only heightened the tensions of our oil-soaked imperial project. Something's got to give. Update [2005-9-8 16:49:30 by Dave Roberts]: More thoughts on New Orleans' geopolitical significance over on Stratfor, arguing that the city's main import is not as a hub of oil production but as a port:The United States historically has depended on the Mississippi and its tributaries for transport. Barges navigate the river. Ships go on the ocean. The barges must offload to the ships and vice versa. There must be a facility to empower this exchange. It is also the facility where goods are stored in transit. Without this port, the river can't be used. Protecting that port has been, from the time of the Louisiana Purchase, a fundamental national security issue for the United States.

Disasters and social bonds

Why was there looting after Katrina?

We are entering an age when severe weather events, terrorist attacks, and other abrupt dislocations and catastrophes will be more common. It is thus to our great benefit to learn how best to marshal an effective response. Over on Reason, Jesse Walker's got a fascinating piece (via Jim Henley) on when social bonds do and do not break down after disasters, and the kinds of spontaneously arising community responses that authorities should learn to work with rather than against. Oddly comforting.