David Roberts strongly objected to a critique of offsets and especially of credits for tree planting. The critique was originally made in the comments section of a post on a "carbon neutral" Super Bowl. Bruce Sterling chimed in, noting that nobody can compete for purity with the dead. This is first rate irony, but unless the intention is that no one should ever criticize false solutions, no matter how wrongheaded, it only has bite if the solutions critiqued actually work. Tree planting may do all sorts of good things, but outside the tropics, it is not a significant way to fight global warming.
Terry Bisson's underappreciated alternate reality masterwork Fire on the Mountain posits an alternative Civil War, where Harriet Tubman was well enough to join John Brown in his ill-fated raid against Harper's Ferry. In Bisson's book, her tactical common sense leads to the raid's success, and rather than the Civil War beginning with a Southern Rebellion, it begins with a slave revolt. I'm going to post a bit of speculative fiction myself, on the same premise. But rather than leading to an egalitarian utopia, as it does in Bisson's novel, I'm going to assume it leads a world rather like our own, except that the technology evolves based on biofuels and renewable energy rather than on coal, then oil. The point of this is not to compete with Bisson's literary genius, but to riff off it to explore some of the oversimplifications made about the relation between oil and war. [Attention conserving notice: this post is a bit of a shaggy dog story.]
Under the headline "A Coalition for Firm Limit on Emissions," The New York Times writes about a new coalition of major corporations and "moderate" environmental groups. As usual for the NYT, the lead is buried deep in the story:
David Roberts has been writing about environmental talking points. But I think that skips a step. We need to examine what kind of politics the talking points are intended to contribute to. I don't think I have to persuade anyone reading this blog to forget about informed, competent insiders trying persuasion from the inside. Romm tried that with both government and business since the early '90s. Al Gore spent decades as a Senator and Vice President of the U.S. playing insider baseball on the issue. Amory Lovins has been pursuing the "appeal to rational business self-interest" strategy since 1976! The only thing will make change is a bunch of ordinary people getting together and exercising their democratic rights as citizens. And it is not just us dirty hippies saying that. Non-hippie former VP Al Gore says:
As a method of processing biomass into liquid fuel, methanol tends to be less discussed than its more glamorous cousin ethanol. But it is much more efficient, and can accept just about any biological input besides.
As promised, this is a catch-up post, wherein I belatedly reply to various comments.
There is a great deal of argument over biofuels, and indeed we don't want to overuse them. But I don't think anyone argues that we can't get some of our power from biomass, or that we won't need a sustainable source of hydrocarbons for chemicals and liquid or gaseous fuels. I'm going to ignore the usual suspects for a moment to discuss the Fischer-Tropsch process, which uses catalysts to convert biomass to gasoline, diesel, or kerosene (pretty much in whatever ratios you wish). Unlike biodiesel and ethanol, these products are 100% compatible with existing engines in all temperatures, without needing dilution by fossil fuels and without needed engine modifications, even minor ones. The net energy balance is better than for cellulosic ethanol, too.
I've posted before about Stirling Energy Systems, which sells solar electricity from concentrating mirrors and heat engines for around 11 cents per kWh. But at least one technical advocacy group -- Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) -- suggests that mass production could bring prices down to 5 cents per kWh or less (PDF), even without technical breakthroughs.
Joe Romm, author of Hell and High Water, wrote me about the review I posted earlier. I referred to the book as "depressing," but the tone is frank, not truly gloomy. Romm has none of Lovelock's penchant for drama. Nonetheless, depression really was my reaction, because I'm familiar with Romm's work. He is known as a level-headed, optimistic analyst. His book is no exception -- he documents the problem and the (quite mainstream) solutions he endorses throughly and meticulously. So what is the problem?
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