Climate & Energy

Notable quotable

“This idea of clean, green energy is no longer a tie-dyed T-shirt kind of idea. This is mainstream economics.” – Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio

Cheap technology or cheap biology?

Two solutions to global warming

Will reducing or stopping carbon dioxide emissions stop global warming? Not according to the IPCC. The Fourth Assessment FAQ, section 10.3, notes that "complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century." By going cold turkey on fossil fuels, we only get down to about 1985 levels in 92 years. The oceans will continue to heat up. In other words, we might as well try to drive a big wood screw into hard oak with a hammer. Yet the belief that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have some leverage on the problem is widespread. To examine our beliefs, which are often hidden from us, I offer two solutions to global warming. Both will likely work, but they are very different. 1. The Earth Bag. Many elaborate and expensive geoengineering proposals have been made, but here is the most practical. The earth's overall temperature depends in part on albedo, or reflectivity to solar radiation. Change this by a few percent, and we change the climate. We manufacture 5 trillion plastic bags each year. All we need to do is to make them all white and bright, and get them into the dark tropical oceans, where they will reflect huge amounts of solar radiation back into space.

Virgin Airlines flies first biofuel-powered plane, enviros unimpressed

Like a virgin, the world’s first biofuel-powered plane flew for the very first time from London to Amsterdam on Sunday. (Well, it was a little bit biofueled: One of the plane’s four main tanks was …

More oil than man

Is There Will Be Blood a dramatization of peak oil?

In the realm of art, no interpretation of a work can be final, but intriguing hints from no less than writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson suggest that the stunning movie There Will Be Blood is actually a story not about the rise and fall of a man so much as the rise and fall of a commodity: oil. Of course, even the intentions of the creators -- and in the case of There Will Be Blood, that means principally writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, star Daniel Day-Lewis, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and composer Jonny Greenwood -- don't necessarily prove anything. (After all, Anderson revealed in one interview that he "had no idea what we were doing" until he heard Greenwood's revelatory score.) But consider what Anderson said in an interview bout the movie with Terry Gross: We all know what has happened with oil, don't we? We all know the end of the story. It's a bit like Titanic, we all know the boat sinks. The fun of the story is watching how we get there. Or what he said in an interview with Charlie Rose, in reference to the oil industry's recent fortunes: I haven't been living in a bubble for the last six years. Or what the great music critic Alex Ross said of the score in The New Yorker: Greenwood, too, writes the music of an injured Earth; if the smeared string glissandos on the soundtrack suggest liquid welling up from underground, the accompanying dissonances communicate a kind of interior, inanimate pain. The cellos cry out most wrenchingly when Plainview scratches his name on a claim, preparing to bleed the land. Too literal an interpretation of what Anderson described to Charlie Rose as "a great boxing match" between the two of the most powerful forces in recent American history -- evangelical religion and the oil industry -- would be pointless. But when it comes to the controversial ending, we have to consider the possibility that this story is not about an individual, or even an industry. We have no choice, really, because it's only in this context that the finale makes sense. ***SPOILER ALERT*** For those who have seen the movie, or who have no intention seeing the movie but still want to consider the idea, please read on.

World fisheries still in danger of imminent collapse, says U.N.

When last we checked in on the world’s commercial fish stocks, they were in danger of collapsing within decades. And, sorry to say, they still are, according to a United Nations Environment Program report ominously …

Sun spotty

Borenstein analysis of solar PV misses the point of California’s solar program

I've been getting a lot of questions about this: "Solar panels a 'loser,' professor says." Severin Borenstein is an economics professor at UC Berkeley. He did an analysis of California's solar program and found that if you compare the current cost of distributed generation solar PV, which delivers retail power, with the wholesale power cost of a gas peaker running on pre-Katrina natural gas prices -- and leave global warming and environmental benefits out of the equation -- then solar "isn't cost effective." Quick, someone call the Nobel Committee. We can argue about faulty assumptions and apples-to-oranges comparisons, but that would continue to miss the forest for the trees. The point of the California Solar Initiative, and other solar programs, is not to deliver the cheapest kWh amongst all possible kWhs in year one. It's about market transformation. The entire premise of the program is to take an expensive but useful technology and make it cheap. A great historical analogy is the commercial development of the integrated circuit, as described by Denis Hayes in this 2001 report (PDF) for the Energy Foundation:


Via ThinkProgress comes this segment on NBC Nightly News: Obviously I am totally unable to judge these things with any sort of objectivity. All I see is a huge, wealthy, politically connected industry using propaganda …

Wasting time

A safety valve in Lieberman-Warner is senseless

I see no point whatsoever in passing a climate bill this year that includes a safety valve. I have blogged on this before, but it bears repeating as we appear to be getting to the endgame negotiations in the Senate on the Lieberman-Warner bill. Bottom line: If you want to get a 60% to 80% greenhouse gas cut in four decades, you just can't waste time with safety valves. We need to get to a price of $30 to $40 a ton for carbon dioxide as soon as possible -- and if it needs to go higher than that because conservatives block the progressives and moderates from legislating aggressive technology deployment strategies that would keep costs low, well, as the saying goes, "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it." If you just want to pass a bill that makes it seem like you're doing something while in fact doing little, then go for it! But surely a year's delay (waiting for a somewhat wiser Congress and an infinitely wiser president) is better than a pointless bill. In an article titled "Sponsors of Senate emissions bill seek compromise on cost provisions," Greenwire (subs. req'd) reports:

Fire and rain

The ‘hell’ before the ‘high water’ in the U.S.

I just wanted to alert Grist readers to an excellent post at The Oil Drum called "Fire and Rain: The Consequences of Changing Climate on Rainfall, Wildfire and Agriculture." The author points out that "Current climate change predictions for much of the West show increased precipitation in the winter or spring, along with earlier and drier summers." To summarize his post, the drier summers will have profound impacts on the forests, grasslands, and agricultural areas. It seems that many kinds of trees are very delicately attuned to particular patterns of precipitation and temperature; changes lead to weakening, disease, and then "megafires" that are much more destructive than "normal" fires. The author discusses the biggest fires in American history, over 100 years ago, that seem to have been caused by the massive deforestation then occurring. A question I have is, is the dessication of the American West similar to the accelerating dessication of the Amazon, both the result of deforestation? The post also discusses the plight of agricultural areas; basically, you're damned if you depend on rainfall that will be decreasing during the summer, and you're damned if you depend on irrigation, because the aquifers and mountain ice packs are decreasing. He details the effects on grains and other agricultural produce. I didn't know that potatoes, orchards, and vegetables all depend on irrigation for most of their water needs. I realize that modeling the long-term behavior of the climate is hard enough, but it seems to me that it would be important to model the effects of those changes on our local ecosystems as well.

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