Climate & Energy

Giant Antarctic ice chunk collapses

A 160-square-mile chunk of ice — that’s seven times the size of Manhattan — has collapsed off of the Wilkins ice shelf in Antarctica. The …

ECO:nomics: A chat with Jim Rogers

Duke Energy CEO defends the need for free permit allocations

One of the most interesting political dynamics emerging around climate policy is the clash between coal utilities and utilities that rely more on natural gas …

How do you make people change?

What behavioral economics has to offer

Many critics of economists contend that because people aren't rational, economics has little predictive power. This is wrong for two reasons. First, people act relatively rational in many (if not most) circumstances; second, the deviations from rationality are predictable. As one of my professors at Berkeley used to say, it's not enough to say that people don't always act like perfect utility maximizers; the question is whether they do on average, and when they don't, what directions they take. It turns out that irrationality is not at all random, as claimed by some. What does this mean for environmentalists? A lot. Dealing with climate change and other major environmental issues will require major changes in behavior, and this is where behavioral economics comes in. There is an interesting piece in today's NYT on ways to get people to change their energy use; pay special attention to the "Further Reading" section near the top. And Monday on NPR, there was an hour-length program on behavioral economics entitled "Predictably Irrational," which offered a nice introduction to the field of behavioral economics. Educate yourself and enjoy.

Coal is not cheap: Kansas edition

Independent financial analysis finds that coal is a stinker of an investment for Kansas

We’ve been following the ongoing battle over coal in Kansas closely. (The latest is that Gov. Sebelius vetoed a bill that would have moved the …

Focus on fossil fools

A different way to mark April Fools’ Day

Just one week until Fossil Fools Day! April 1 will mark a day of creative protest against global fossil energy industry hegemony, sparked by grassroots action group Rising Tide. Here's their list of suggested targets: New coal plants Proposed liquefied natural gas import terminals Proposed oil and natural gas pipelines Oil refineries Existing coal plants Local electricity providers Mountaintop removal mining sites near or connected to you Tar sands Check their site for suggested actions.

Climate change may cloud Lake Tahoe’s waters, study says

Climate change will likely cloud Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters within a decade, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California …

Why FutureGen had to die

The blind alley of more coal

Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose book I adore, has written an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing in favor of large government investments in carbon capture and sequestration technology. His advocacy of CCS has long confused me -- my reading of his book suggested (to me, anyway) that large-scale CCS was precisely the kind of technology we should avoid like the plague. To recap: Homer-Dixon builds on the work of Joseph Tainter, who argues that societies respond to pressures and challenges by investing in complexity. But these investments come with increasing costs as time goes on, until society finds itself investing more in complexity than the challenge/pressure actually costs. In Tainter's example of the Roman Empire, it eventually became more expensive to run the Empire than it was worth to the local peasant, whose taxes had gone nowhere but up for the previous century, so the peasants didn't put up much of a fight when the Goths came through. Paying tribute to the barbarian was less of a burden than paying taxes to Rome, so the Empire imploded -- not because the Empire was militarily weak, but because people had been living in a system of negative returns. Homer-Dixon's book argues that when we start getting to negative returns on increasing complexity, the proper response is new, more resilient systems, less about "efficiency" than resilience, withstanding the inevitable shocks that face any system. We are at a pretty crucial decision point, or indeed past it: Do we keep investing in fossil fuels and the systems required to sustain them, or do we invest in the more resilient energy system of the future? Prof. Homer-Dixon and I agree that the grid of the future should be more renewable and resilient, but he argues in his op-ed that the scale of the climate crisis means we need to be using CCS now. But the two futures are not compatible, and I think we need to understand some pretty fundamental flaws with industrial CCS:

Run your car on coal? Maybe not

CTL fuels: still a bad idea

As the price of oil rises, coal company executives smell a huge opportunity: they are planning to ramp up a new global industry to turn coal into liquid fuels (diesel, kerosene and jet fuel), plus basic feedstocks for the chemical industry to make plastics, fertilizers, solvents, pesticides, and more. The coal-to-chemicals industry is already going gangbusters in China. U.S. coal companies like Peabody and Arch plan to combine well-known coal-to-liquids technology and rapidly-evolving coal-to-chemicals technologies with untested methods of capturing carbon dioxide (or CO2, the main global-warming gas), compressing it into a liquid, and injecting it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. (Burying CO2 is called "carbon capture and storage," or CCS.) If coal executives succeed in convincing the public to pay for all this, low-carbon renewable energy systems and waste-free "green chemistry" will be sidelined for decades to come. The coal industry has nearly universal support in Congress. During President Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, one of the few lines that drew enthusiastic applause was, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." A few days later, the president announced his latest budget, with $648 million in taxpayer subsidies for "clean coal." A few days after that, the government announced it was ending its participation in the nation's first "clean coal" demonstration, the Futuregen project in Mattoon, Illinois. Obviously, Washington is experiencing policy angst over global warming, and "clean coal" lies at the heart of the debate. Both coal-to-liquids and coal-to-chemicals depend entirely on carbon burial being possible, affordable, and convincingly safe and permanent. Despite political support in Congress, "coal-to-liquid fuels" had its coming-out party earlier this year, and it did not go well. Here's the story:

Plans for Indiana BioTown face obstacles, but sputter on

In 2005, Reynolds, Ind., was deemed the world’s first “BioTown,” as agricultural officials unveiled a plan to power the 550-person burg entirely with corn, hog …