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The rare non-sucky infographic on climate change

There was a time in the distant past -- call it the late 2000s -- when infographics seemed like a good idea. You can pack all kinds of info into a visually appealing file that's easy to share! What could go wrong?

What could go wrong is that infographics became the No. 1 answer of every middle-aged person in a meeting discussing how to get their organization exposure and create something "viral." Consequently, the internet is chockablock with terrible infographics -- cluttered, over-long flusterclucks that would be better, in every conceivable way, if they were "words" gathered into "paragraphs" to provide "explanations."

Anyway, infographics are a scourge. Nonetheless, every so often I come across one that's genuinely informative and helpful. For example, take this one, from the info-ninjas at Information Is Beautiful:


Activism and policy are not the same thing

Josh Lopez / tarsandsaction

I was on vacation earlier this week (snowboarding in Utah, while I still can) and missed the latest round of VSP scolding about the Keystone XL campaign. There was New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who despite being thoroughly debunked and humiliated regarding his last column, continued his jihad against climate scientist James Hansen. And there was the Washington Post editorial board, which once again lectured environmentalists that they are "fighting the wrong battles."

To be honest, I'm tired of responding to these things; they just keep repeating the same stupid arguments with no acknowledgement of the counter-arguments. If you want a sampling of my previous responses, try:

For now, I just want to make one quick point that I don't think I've made previously.

WaPo editors, Nocera, and the rest of the legion of Keystone scolds seem to think that what activists are engaged in is a policy proposal -- as though they surveyed the policy options and decided that blocking this one pipeline is the most significant, impactful policy available. And that's why they're rallying for it.

Thus, Nocera et al. spend thousands of words arguing that, no, it's not the optimal policy.

But that's stupid. Comparing activism and a policy proposal using the metric of direct carbon reductions is a category error.


A defense of Keystone protesters from the dark heart of the MSM

When I wrote my essay on the virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone XL, I implied, unfairly, that TIME journalist Mike Grunwald was among the ranks of Very Serious People who think anti-Keystone activism is misguided. He protested, and I promised that if he wrote on the subject I would do a special post on it.

Well, Grunwald has written a column about Keystone XL and it is a doozy, just about the best thing I've ever read on the subject in a mainstream publication. Unlike the Monday morning (or rather, Sunday afternoon!) quarterbacks who have been swarming, stroking their chins and asking whether this is the right time, the right target, the right tone, the right everything to satisfy their fussy standards, Grunwald recognizes that the fight is already joined. What's left now is only to win or lose.

The pipeline isn't the worst threat to the climate, but it's a threat. Keystone isn't the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it's the fight we're having. Now is the time to choose sides. It's always easy to quibble with the politics of radical protest: Did ACT UP need to be so obnoxious? Didn't the tax evasion optics of the Boston Tea Party muddle the anti-imperial message? But if we're in a war to stop global warming -- a war TIME declared on a green-bordered cover five years ago -- then we need to fight it on the beaches, the landing zones and the carbon-spewing tar sands of Alberta. If we're serious about reducing atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million, we need to start leaving some carbon in the ground.


Oh, wait, this is good too:


The era of energy dinosaurs is coming to an end

Working in clean energy can be frustrating. Tons of exciting things are happening, but elite conventional wisdom isn't keeping pace and nobody listens to bloggers like me shouting about it.

One of the few outlets in the mainstream energy world to consistently stay ahead of the curve is Bloomberg New Energy Finance. (I have interviewed its chief executive, Michael Liebreich, before.) As Exhibit A, I offer this new "VIP brief" written by Liebreich and his able colleague Nathaniel Bullard. It's a big old chunk of brain food, slightly dense and buzzwordy in a few places but chock-full of insight about dynamics of the energy world in the coming decade. Let's take a look, shall we?

Like too few writers and analysts in this area, Liebreich explicitly takes a systems approach:

What happens when you saturate the system with wind or solar depends on what you think is going to happen next with power storage, demand response, electric vehicles, mandated back-up and dozens of other factors. These are all highly dynamic because, of course, they are part of a complex system, and systems exhibit emergent behavior. You can spend a lifetime studying the construction of a single neuron, yet know little of what drives a nematode, let alone a human. Real-life systems exhibit unexpected population surges and crashes, periods of equilibrium punctuated by periods of shattering change, tipping points, phase changes, extinctions.

... The value of a solar rooftop in a world of electric vehicles is very different from the value of the same solar rooftop in a world without. The value of demand response is negligible in a world optimised around "baseload-plus-peak" generating capacity. The value of energy efficiency is negligible in a world of fuel subsidies. And so on.

You will note that this echoes, somewhat eerily, my widgets vs. systems language. Naturally I agree!

Here, in capsule form, is the shift in perspective Liebreich urges for those making decisions in today's energy markets:


Nine reasons China won’t need enough coal to justify coal ports in the Pacific Northwest

U.S. coal companies claim that exporting low-grade coal from the Powder River Basin through ports in the Pacific Northwest to Asia is big business, a sure thing, easily worth the pollution and disruption the new coal infrastructure would cause. Their case to investors, local communities, and state regulators is based on a simple premise: China's demand for coal is steady and rising. And that does seem to be the conventional wisdom.

But there are reasons to think the premise is false, and that the extraordinary sacrifices being asked of Northwest communities -- dozens of trains a day passing through, spewing dust and noise; gigantic, polluting ports crowding out the cultural amenities in some of America's most bucolic coastal towns -- will lead not to jobs and enduring prosperity, but wasted time, wasted money, and disappointment.

I've been seeing threads of this story here and there for a while. Now Greenpeace USA has done us the service of weaving them all together into a (remarkably brief and readable, as these things go) new report: "The Myth of China's Endless Coal Demand." It acknowledges that China will continue to rely on coal in the short term, but notes that long-term trends are not in coal's favor:


Seattle ‘green’ consultants sell out for coal money, whine

As I've argued several times, the battle over coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest is the key U.S. climate fight of the next few years. Coal-port expansion is the fifth most carbon-intensive project currently planned in the world, bigger than anything else over which American politicians have control.

In other words, it's a defining issue for climate hawks. No ambiguity about it.

So imagine my surprise when I read in The Seattle Times that several purportedly "green" Seattle consultants and strategists are working for the coal companies, trying to bribe and cajole Seattle towns into accepting these polluting monstrosities.

Can you imagine? I mean, how much of a cash-grubbing mercenary do you have to be to throw your "green" reputation overboard for coal money, the dirtiest money on the planet?

Bruce Gryniewski
Gallatin Public Affairs
Bruce Gryniewski, sellout.

I wasn't going to write anything about this, because "consultants sell out" is not exactly world-shaking news, but then I read this, from sellout Bruce Gryniewski: "I don't believe in this eco-McCarthyism view that if you work for coal, you can't do anything good in the world."

That's right: He doesn't just want to sell out his principles and work for one of the scummiest industries on the planet on behalf of one of the most carbon-intensive projects on the planet, he wants to do it and be free from criticism. If his bewildered ex-allies in the green movement disapprove -- not use the force of government against him, mind you, just speak out in disapproval -- it's "McCarthyism."

So he's not just a planet-fucking, money-grubbing sellout, he's a whiner with a victim complex too. Wonderful fellow, that Bruce Gryniewski.

And then there's this:


Keystone scolds should let activists be activists

Josh Lopez

What should the climate movement do next, after Keystone? Last week I approached the question through the lens of supply-side vs. demand-side fights: Should activists protest against mines, pipelines, ports, and other means through which fossil fuels reach consumers, or should they focus on reducing demand for those fuels?

Now I want to approach the same question through another lens, which is related but not quite the same: Should activists focus on fighting the negative or promoting the positive? Or put another way, on dismantling our dirty stautus-quo systems or building up sustainable new ones?

Climate change is not like the problems that have occupied the environmental movement since its heyday in the '60s and '70s. Those typically involved local pollutants; the solution was to modify some class of industrial widget, e.g., stick a scrubber on a coal plant.

Carbon pollution is different. It's not a marginal byproduct of industrialization; it is an intrinsic feature of economies based on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are made of carbon. There aren't enough scrubbers in the world to solve climate change at the widget level. Climate change calls for new systems.

Addressing climate change is at least as much about designing and building a new world as it is about battling and dismantling the status quo. It is creation and destruction, yin and yang.

One critique of the climate movement (and the Keystone campaign) has been that yin and yang are out of balance, that there is too much focus on the negative. What are we to make of this critique?


The next big thing in energy: Decentralization

The smart energy analysts over at Pike Research -- which puts out weekly reports I'd love to see but can never afford -- recently published an interesting brief, and for once it's free! It's a high-level overview of "Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond" in the energy sector. Metatrends! (I really wanted to call this post "Metatrends Vs. Crocosaurus." Here they are:

  1. Energy is becoming increasingly democratized.
  2. The role of government innovation funds is changing.
  3. Technologies are converging.
  4. The Southern African Power Pool is becoming the new BRIC.
  5. The role of utilities is changing.

Let's put aside Nos. 2 and 4, fascinating as they are.

Faithful readers know that I'm obsessed with No. 1, the democratization of energy, which refers to more and more consumers also being producers, more and more municipalities taking charge of their own energy, and thus power over power (as it were) devolving into local hands.

But what strikes me is that 1, 3, and 5 are all aspects of the same trend -- a METAmetatrend. (Take that, Pike!)

The metametatrend in energy is, for lack of a better term, decentralization. Systems that were once composed of a few big technologies and a few big companies -- along with thousands or millions of passive consumers -- are beginning to be replaced by recombinant swarms of small producers and consumers engaging in millions of peer-to-peer transactions with a wild and woolly mix of small-scale technologies.

It's going to be awesome! We have lived through a revolution like this before: the information revolution. I'm old enough to remember a time when it was vastly easier to consume information than to produce and distribute it. Even the internet started as what amounted to a large library, from which individuals downloaded info. But the spread of cheap processing power and bandwidth now means that anyone can produce information -- a song, a video, an app, a funny cat picture -- and get it in front of millions of people, instantly and virtually effortlessly, for dirt cheap.

The same kind of thing is just beginning to happen in energy. Pike is wise on this:


Supply, demand, and activism: What should the climate movement do next?

I've been writing a lot about the activist campaign to block the Keystone XL pipeline. Much of that writing has been devoted to pushing back against the squadron of Very Serious People who want to pooh-pooh the campaign as mistargeted, misguided, and futile.

But whether you like the campaign or not, it's too late for second-guessing at this point. The fight is underway; it's already freighted with symbolism. Within the next few months, the Keystone decision will be made, for good or ill. Then the question arises: What's next for the climate movement?

This is an opportunity to take a step back and think carefully about the effort to address climate change and the role activism plays in it. I'll probably do several posts on this -- it's a rich subject -- and I hope others will join in the discussion too.

I want to kick things off by discussing one important distinction that has lurked beneath a lot of the conflict over Keystone:

Supply vs. demand

One of the recurring critiques of the Keystone campaign goes like this:


Oregon governor questions wisdom of headlong coal-export push

John Kitzhaber
Oregon Department of Transportation
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber likes to look at the big picture.

Keystone is getting all the attention, but the brewing battle over coal exports in the Pacific Northwest is, from a pure carbon standpoint, far more significant. Right now one of the main problems for climate hawks is that all the decisions about new coal trains and coal export terminals are being made locally, one at a time, as rail and coal companies bribe this town and that town with promises of economic development. There's no global assessment being done and no real plan in place.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has refused thus far to do a comprehensive assessment, which is absurd -- something to rally behind after the Keystone thing is resolved, perhaps. But most of the real authority lies in the hands of state lawmakers. So climate hawks have been watching new Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) like, um, hawks.

Kitzhaber, who has called for a federal review of coal ports before, had some interesting things to say yesterday at a summit of the American Wind Energy Association. Here's a short clip: