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.

'The War on Terra'

The Daily Show goes green

The Daily Show has instituted another regular feature called "The War on Terra," which as you might imagine is about environmental matters. You can see the first one -- about melting polar ice caps and dying Chinese tigers -- here. I must say, I'm happy they're doing this, but the results are a little dispiriting. Even these guys, the funniest guys on the planet (except maybe the writers on Arrested Development) have trouble making green issues funny. Why is that? Why is humor about the environment never, ever funny? And music about it never good? And art about it never interesting? It seems to repel everything except earnest sanctimony. Truly vexing. Does anyone have any counter-examples to prove me wrong?

Reducing energy use painlessly

Via Matt, an intriguing (though troublingly citation-free) case by John Quiggin that the energy-use reductions required to curb climate change are achievable through a combination of thoughtful public policy and rising prices -- without any particular damage to our standard of living. Definitely worth a read. A common estimate is that to stabilise the global climate, we would need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent, and proposals to achieve this by 2050 have been put forward. Assuming only a limited role for alternative energy sources, it seems reasonably to look at a 50 per cent reduction in primary energy use. It’s a widely-held view that the kinds of changes required to stabilise the global climate must imply a fairly radical reduction in our material standard of living. This view is shared by radical environmentalists, who see such a reduction as a good thing, and by opponents of such changes most of whom, at least in developed countries are on the free-market right. The fact that radical environmentalists view the modern economy as critically dependent on unsustainable patterns of energy use is not surprising. On the other hand, supporters of the free-market generally praise the flexibility of dynamism. Currently, energy use accounts for about 6 per cent of GDP. The suggestion that reducing this proportion to, say, 3 per cent, is beyond our capacity seems to represent a very pessimistic view of our economic potential. ... Given a consistent upward trend in prices and a coherent set of public policies, massive reductions in energy use would follow as surely as night follows day.

Oil’s tentacles

The Wall Street Journal (sorry, sub. only) offers just a teeny tiny glimpse of what genuine oil shortages might look like with a story on all the other industries suffering from the oil-supply damage done by the hurricanes. The recent hurricanes are sending aftershocks through manufacturers who depend on materials derived from petroleum and natural gas, such as foam and resin. Producers of furniture, building materials, tires and even golf balls are feeling the pain of storm-related shortages and soaring prices for key raw materials. If oil goes up another $10 or $20, you'll see the list of industries "feeling pain" grow much longer.

Asia-Pacific climate pact talks postponed

Kyoto back in the spotlight

Here's an obscure but significant piece of news: Remember that Asia-Pacific climate pact that was announced to great fanfare in July? Though the participating governments -- U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia -- denied it, it was widely seen as an attempt to establish an alternative to Kyoto, one that conspicuously involved no mandatory emissions cuts. Heightening that impression was the stated plan to hold the inaugural ministerial meeting in November, thus stealing the spotlight from the next round of U.N. climate talks to be held in Montreal on Nov. 28. Well, now that inaugural Asia-Pacific meeting has been postponed -- until January at the earliest, probably longer. Depending on your perspective, this could mean: that, as FoE's Stephanie Long puts it, "Nothing has happened to take this pact forwards, there's been nothing to disclose what it would entail, and it doesn't seem like it's as important to get around the table as it was to announce the setting up of this pact" -- in other words, the countries just couldn't get their shit together to make this fantasy any kind of tangible reality; the pendulum of international opinion is swinging back toward Kyoto-style mandatory cuts; oh, gosh, nothing, just some bureaucratic details that need to be ironed out.

Rebuilding: dreams and reality

Good, if hopeless, ideas on how to rebuild N.O.

It sure would be nice if New Orleans were rebuilt according to the principles of sustainability, wouldn't it? In a way that puts it in balance with nature? A way that's more equitable for the poor and disadvantaged? A way that could serve as an example of state-of-the-art urban design? ... wait for it ... And a pony! Back in the real world, the same people who ran the "reconstruction" of Iraq are running this gig. Literally: several of the officials who worked in Iraq are being hired by the companies contracted to work in N.O. Money is flooding in, accountability and transparency are completely absent, and the forces of good are being caught flat-footed. Expect travesty. But still, we can dream. If we did have a responsible, imaginative government, what would the rebuilding process look like? Turns out the editors of Environmental Building News have a fantastic piece about just this subject. Read the whole thing -- seriously -- but here are the 10 steps they lay out:

Burning in New Orleans

Don't miss Carl Pope on the decidedly brown clean-up techniques being used by the recipients of the no-bid contracts for New Orleans remediation. In particular: they're burning the debris, which is likely loaded with toxic chemicals. This, of course is the same reckless approach to cleaning up after a disaster that the Bush administration adopted in its official disaster response plans for another terrorist attack after 9/11. A Sierra Club analysis discovered that the Administration had decided that in another terrorist attack it would "waive" cleanup standards otherwise required under federal law, and that devastated communities would be left contaminated forever. We protested at the time that it seemed clinically insane to say that, if terrorists attacked a community, it would not get the same kind of protection and cleanup that would follow a natural disaster. Now it turns out that we hadn't heard the sound of the second shoe dropping. The response to Katrina shows that our government has no intention of protecting communities after they suffer any disaster, whether natural or terrorist.

Conserving credit

How many kudos does Bush deserve for endorsing conservation?

George W. Bush recently endorsed energy conservation. How much credit does he deserve? The other post-Katrina recommendations featured in yesterday's press conference include trimming back environmental regulation on oil refineries, giving the feds siting authority over said refineries, and trimming money from Medicare, Medicaid, and the food-stamp program to pay for hurricane cleanup. No military or homeland-security programs will be touched, nor will there be any pause in the serial tax cuts for the rich. Oh, and in the event of an avian flu outbreak, U.S. military grunts may be used as quarantine-enforcing first responders. Throw ya hands up for the Posse Comitatus Act! No, seriously. Put your hands up. How much credit? Not so much.

Distributed electrical grids and such

Small-scale microgrids are more efficient, cheaper, and work just as well

If I were the kind of person who really dug in and learned about subjects in depth instead of a quasi-pundit dilettante who knows just enough about a lot of subjects to be dangerous [takes breath] I would study distributed electrical grids. They are, after all, the new black. Here's the take-home message: Smaller-scale, distributed electrical generation (solar, wind, etc.), built closer to consumers, run by intelligent grids, is cheaper and more efficient than the big, centralized kind, could be implemented with no loss of quality or service, and would sharply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. It is, as Martha is wont to say, a good thing. The impediments are not only technical but political, since distributed electrical grids are by nature democratizing. More below the fold.

Nobel goes to green chemists

Via WC, check it out: The guys who just won the Nobel Prize for chemistry are green chemists:

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