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Beyond widgets: Envisioning a real transportation revolution

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences issued a massive report analyzing how to cut U.S. gasoline use in half by 2030, and beyond that, how to reduce transportation emissions 80 percent by 2050.

If you don't want to read all 395 pages, Brad Plumer has an excellent write-up. The take-home message is that no one technology or policy -- efficiency, feebates, plug-in electrics, fuel cell vehicles, natural gas vehicles, what have you -- can get us to those goals. To make the numbers add up, you have to do them all together.

I don't have a bone to pick with any of the report's numbers, but I do want to use it to make a point.

In a previous post I made a distinction between widgets, which are the discrete elements of a system, and systems themselves. It is possible to model changes in widgets with some precision. You establish a baseline scenario ("business as usual") in which status quo policies, behaviors, and trends are locked into place and then model changes in a single variable, or small set of variables. This makes things manageable. If you set out to model changes in a large number of variables and how those changes interact with one another -- i.e., to model systemic changes -- things quickly become computationally intractable.

This is why modelers are always at pains to say that they are not making predictions, especially regarding scenarios stretching out to 2030 or 2050. Most such scenarios amount to, "what would happen if everything else stayed the same but this particular thing(s) changed?"

In the real world of human societies, of course, everything is changing at once. There are multiple overlapping complex systems, all of them displaying emergent properties and nonlinear dynamics. It makes predictions difficult -- especially, as they say, about the future.

You can't predict long-term changes in human cultures with models, though models can inform such predictions. Envisioning long-term change scenarios requires an understanding of history and political economy, serious engagement with culture and technology, a good grasp of systems dynamics, and a substantial dollop of intuition. Models can bring clarity to such analysis, but they cannot prove or disprove any scenario. Only time can do that.

Anyway, why am I blathering on about this? Because I fear that people take reports like the NAS one the wrong way, as a kind of delineation of what's possible. It is not that. It merely demonstrates the limits of widget-based analysis.

Plumer notes that the report passes almost entirely over changes in land use and public transit, but I think that's just one aspect of a larger phenomenon, which is that the report confines itself entirely to changes in vehicles. (To be fair, that's what lots of people seem to do when imagining changes in transportation.)

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


More coal-fired idiocy and mendacity in Nevada

Last year, I shared the sad and pathetic story of NV Energy, owners of a Nevada coal plant that's polluting and sickening the nearby Paiute Native Americans, and the company's crude attempts to manipulate local media into thinking that the pollution is no big deal.

Well, it seems that in the interim, the story has gotten sadder and even more pathetic.

NV Energy is required by law to monitor and report the particulate pollution that comes from its Reid Gardner coal plant, to ensure that it doesn't exceed legal limits. The Paiutes who live nearby have been getting sick and dying at suspicious rates for years, so naturally they were curious about those reports. They filed an open records request.

Guess what they found?

Turns out, NV Energy has been falsifying those reports since at least 2006. And not in some clever, Bond-villain way, but more in a ham-handed, Austin Powers-villain way. Which is to say: Particulate data was just cut and pasted from previous reports, year after year. Here's an example from an analysis the Paiutes had done:

NV Energy particulate monitoringClick to embiggen.

See the numbers highlighted in dark pink? What a coincidence!


Bipartisan support for distributed clean energy, in Iowa of all places

Something extraordinary happened in Iowa earlier this month. Almost nobody noticed.

On March 7, the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would encourage ownership of small-scale wind power by the state's farmers. What's extraordinary is that the bill passed unanimously, supported by the committee's eight Democrats and five Republicans, backed by both the Iowa Farmers Union and the Iowa Environmental Council.

In other words, what we've got here is a bona fide example of bipartisan clean-energy policy. And you thought there was no such thing!

As far as I can tell, the only stories that have been written on this are one by wind analyst Paul Gipe and another by the (low-key but consistently excellent) Midwest Energy News.

But ... it's Democrats and Republicans working together to support distributed clean energy! That is a milestone and, I hope, a sign of things to come. Let's take a moment to celebrate.


OK, enough of that. Now I'll explain all the caveats and qualifications and reasons not to get too excited yet.


Two reasons climate change is not like other environmental problems

If you'll forgive me for stating the obvious: Most people don't understand climate change very well. This includes a large proportion of the nation's politicians, journalists, and pundits -- even the pundits who write about it. (I'm looking at you, Joe Nocera.)

One reason for the widespread misunderstanding is that climate change has been culturally coded as an "environmental problem." This has been, in all sorts of ways, a disaster. Lots of pundits, especially brain-dead "centrist" pundits, have simply transferred their framing and conception of environmental problems to climate. They approach it as just another air pollution problem.

However, there are two features of climate change that make it importantly different from other environmental problems, not just in degree but in kind. And these differences have important public policy implications.

Taylor Dawn Fortune

The first difference is that carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants.

To make this clear, let's use the old bathtub analogy. The faucet is the source of the pollutant. The tub is the environment. And the drain represents the means by which the pollutant exits the environment. The key fact to remember: The damage to public health is determined by the total amount of pollutant in the tub.

Take a familiar air pollutant like particulate matter. We are spewing it into the air from tailpipes and smokestacks (the faucet). It leaves the air through simple gravity (the drain). Most of it falls to earth in days or weeks.

So when it comes to the particulate-matter bathtub, the drain is very large. We can reduce the total level of particulate matter in the tub any time we want; all we have to do is turn the faucet down, or off, and the tub will drain rapidly.

Carbon dioxide is not like that. Once it's in the tub, it stays there for up to 100 years before it drains out. And the drain in the bathtub (so-called "sinks" that absorb carbon out of the air, like oceans and forests) is comparatively small relative to the enormous amounts coming out of the faucet. And by the way, we're actively making the drain smaller by cutting down forests and carbon-loading the oceans.

This makes for a very different situation. Even if we cut our emissions by a third tomorrow, we would still be increasing the total amount in the bathtub:

Read more: Climate & Energy


10 reasons why fracking for dirty oil in California is a stupid idea

As if Hollywood isn't fracked up enough already.
As if Hollywood isn't fracked up enough already.
NYT: Monterey Shale
The New York Times
Click on graphics in this post to embiggen.

The latest target of the unconventional oil craze is California, specifically the Monterey Shale in southern California (see map). Will California become the next North Dakota? Let us ponder.

Oil in California is nothing new -- it's the third highest oil-producing state in the U.S. (after Texas and North Dakota, which recently displaced Alaska for the No. 2 spot). The Monterey area has been drilled for years, profitably, though production has been steadily declining since its peak in the mid '80s.

However, as you've no doubt read in recent breathless media accounts, drilling technology has advanced.


What do the young conservatives at CPAC think about climate change? [VIDEO]

This weekend marked the 40th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which brings together a broad array of attendees from across the right-leaning spectrum, from older white people to younger white people, hyper-conservatives to severe conservatives.

Needless to say, climate change was not a big topic of conversation. So Mike Stark of brought his camera along and asked a few of the younger CPACers what they thought of it. Here's what they said:


The push for local control over energy makes the NYT

I've written about efforts by the citizens of Boulder, Colo., to escape from their investor-owned utility (Xcel) and create their own, publicly owned municipal utility. Apparently that story is part of a trend! The New York Times covers it today. There's not much new in the piece for those who have been following this stuff, but it's a nice introduction.

Most Americans don't understand that "private" utilities are not really "private" in the sense that other businesses are private. They are investor-owned, yes. They make profits for executives and shareholders, yes. But they also enjoy government-granted monopolies, which is to say, they face no competition. Their profits are guaranteed. Those of you who have read your Adam Smith will recall that competition is the fundamental force behind the beneficent Invisible Hand of the Market.

What happens if you take a market and remove competition but leave private profits in place? You get what you have traditionally gotten from U.S. utilities: lazy, bloated, hyper-cautious, innovation-averse giants.

Now, I'm generalizing, obviously. Some utilities are better than others; some really do take efficiency seriously; some really do innovate. But overall, historically, the U.S. utility sector has been a shit sandwich.

What to do?


Help Henry Waxman write a new carbon-tax bill

Henry Waxman
Talk Radio News Service
Henry Waxman is trying a new approach with his latest climate bill.

One of the common criticisms of the cap-and-trade effort -- well-captured in sociologist Theda Skocpol's after-battle report [PDF] -- is that the legislation was crafted almost entirely behind closed doors, first between green groups and corporations in the USCAP coalition, then between horse-trading members of Congress.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has heard this criticism and acted on it.

Waxman, cosponsor of the climate bill that passed the House in 2009, is one of the great unsung heroes of the climate fight. He's the liberal legislator's liberal legislator: He works for the public good but cares about results above all and will pursue them with insane persistence, for years on end. He draws little attention to himself -- you'll never see him on the Sunday talk shows -- but his work inside Congress is unceasing. Ever since the failure of the last climate bill, he's been pushing for hearings, issuing letters and reports, and generally agitating the (now Republican-controlled) Energy and Commerce Committee to take climate change seriously.

Now Waxman and a few colleagues -- Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) -- have kicked off a process that looks very different from the USCAP one. They have put a discussion draft of a climate bill online and are seeking public and expert input.

Here's what the bill does:


Where innovation advocates go wrong

I wrote a post yesterday about the (dumb) fight between those focused on cleantech innovation and those focused on cleantech deployment. I want to follow up today by engaging with some specific arguments from an enthusiastic innovation supporter and show where I agree and where I don't. (It's more exciting than it sounds.)

The arguments are mainly found in this post, written by Matthew Stepp of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. In it, he makes the case for better innovation policy, a cause I support wholeheartedly. But there is an implication in the post -- a point made more explicitly by Stepp in other posts -- that I disagree with. Let's take a look.

We can break the typical energy innovation argument down into three stages.

Stage one: The innovation pipeline is busted

Stepp begins by pointing out the Department of Energy has a somewhat muddled mandate -- environmental cleanup, security of the nuclear arsenal, and overseeing most U.S. energy research -- which has prevented it from being an effective tool of energy policy. Consequently, "energy deployment policies are largely conducted through the tax and regulatory code, including EPA mandates on power plant emissions and production tax credits, and not through the DOE."


Ending the stupid technology innovation vs. deployment fight once and for all

Human beings are pretty damn clever. We have adapted and invented our way out of some extremely grim situations. And we can do the same in the face of climate change! The ideas and innovations necessary to ensure our security, and the security of future generations, are within our power. What's needed is a smooth, effective conveyor belt to carry those ideas and innovations from our heads, into the world, and up to sufficient scale.

Unfortunately, as things now stand, that conveyor belt is rusty and full of gaps. Clever ideas get stuck in our heads, or fail to make it across the "valley of death" between labs and markets, or fail to take hold and grow in those markets. We call these gaps "market failures," but that is a misleadingly passive construction. The conveyor belt is not something that exists in Platonic market space, a priori, that we merely need to uncover. It is something we must build, consciously, using markets among other tools.

Tastes great vs. less filling

For many years, climate hawks have been engaged in misguided and self-defeating debates about which end of the conveyor belt to fix. On one side are those who want to fix the early end, where ideas move from imagination to lab to early market. These folks talk a lot about innovation and are criticized (somewhat unfairly) as denying the need for deployment.

On the other side are those who want to fix the later end, where ideas move from early market to large, world-changing scale. These folks talk a lot about deployment and are criticized (somewhat unfairly) as denying the need for innovation.

Both sides accuse the other of failing to grasp the threat of climate change.

The innovation side accuses the deployment side of misunderstanding the scale of the problem. There is so much energy poverty remaining in the world, so many people in the developing world rising toward the middle class, such massive demand, that we can't hope to satisfy this century's energy (or agricultural, water, transportation ...) needs with today's technologies.

The deployment side accuses the innovation side of misunderstanding the urgency of the problem. If we are to stay within our carbon budget for the century, global emissions must peak and begin falling (quickly) within five years or so. To have a real chance at preventing catastrophe, we ideally ought to drive carbon emissions to zero, or even negative, well before the end of the century. There is simply no way to do that unless we rapidly deploy the technology we have today. Even if a technology breakthrough appeared in a lab tomorrow, there simply isn't enough time to drive it past all the market barriers to wide adoption fast enough to forestall disaster.

So, who is right? Well, they are both right, about everything except the fact that the other is wrong.

So why fight at all? Here it's worth briefly pondering the history of the debate.