Climate & Energy

Most opinion leaders just don't get global warming: Part I

The intelligentsia isn’t helping the public understand the urgency of the climate crisis

Why does the public largely lack a sense of urgency on climate? Maybe because most opinion leaders also lack that sense of urgency. To mark its 150th Anniversary, the Atlantic Monthly (subs. reqd) ... ... invited an eclectic group of thinkers who have had cause to consider the American idea to describe its future and the greatest challenges to it. Now this one is real easy -- you don't have to be scientifically literate or read the work of James Hansen, you just have to have seen Al Gore's movie or maybe read Time magazine (reading the Atlantic itself is, however, no help, as previously noted). By far the greatest challenge to the American idea (i.e., unlimited abundance, supreme optimism about the future, global moral leadership, and our special place in the world -- OK, that one's a bit tarnished already -- is global warming. In fact, if we don't adopt something close to Barack Obama's extraordinary climate plan within the next few years -- and I suspect conservatives will block such an ambitious, albeit necessary, approach as too "big-government" -- then global warming will destroy the American idea, perhaps for a millennium or more. Global warming means we move from great abundance to oppressive scarcity, from optimism to pessimism (especially if we cross carbon-cycle tipping points that cause an accelerating greenhouse effect in the second half of this century), and finally, as I wrote in my book: For decades, the United States has been the moral, economic, and military leader of the free world. What will happen when we end up in Planetary Purgatory, facing 20 or more feet of sea level rise, and the rest of the world blames our inaction and obstructionism, blames the wealthiest nation on Earth for refusing to embrace even cost-effective solutions that could spare the planet from millennia of misery? The indispensable nation will become a global pariah. The Atlantic assembled a who's who of the intelligentsia -- who in the main, though very thoughtful, just don't get it:

Stepping it up on activism

New book from McKibben & co. aids grassroots action

Tuesday marks the release (yes, on recycled paper) of Fight Global Warming Now, the Step It Up 2007 team's handbook for grassroots action on climate (and most other issues) in our communities. It's a blueprint for success based on their own experiences. Step It Up 2: Who's a Leader is just around the corner (Nov. 3), and there is an increasing corps of leaders committing to turn up at the events: eight members of Congress and two presidential candidates: go here to find an event in your neighborhood to support. If you find your choices lacking (hello, North Dakota?) organize one of your own: like coal, it's easy, cheap, and high-impact.

Killing me loudly

Big Green savages Dingell’s carbon tax

"Man always kills the thing he loves," wrote naturalist Aldo Leopold in the environmentalist bible, A Sand County Almanac. Leopold was referring to Americans' destruction of the wilderness, but he could have been describing the green establishment's hostile reaction to the "hybrid carbon tax" proposed by Michigan Rep. John Dingell last month. Dingell's tax package, combining a carbon-busting tax on fossil fuels, a surtax on gasoline and jet fuel, and a phase-out of subsidies for sprawl homes, should have been greeted by environmentalists like the Second Coming. Extrapolated to 2025, the carbon tax alone would cut annual CO2 emissions by 1.3 billion metric tons (a sixth of current emissions) and curb U.S. oil usage by 2.8 millions barrels a day (mbd). With Dingell's petrol surcharge, the savings swell to nearly 1.6 billion metric tons of CO2 and 4.5 mbd, more than the entire oil output of Iran. Further savings would come from abolishing the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest on houses larger than 4,200 square feet, a loophole that has underwritten millions of McMansions on America's SUV-crazed exurban fringe. (Smaller houses down to 3,000 square feet would also lose some deductions, on a sliding scale.) Taken as a whole, Dingell's proposal would be a giant step toward what Friends of the Earth terms "decarbonizing the tax code." It would also embody the cardinal sustainability precept that keeps Europe's carbon footprint at half of ours: energy prices must tell the truth, even if it requires taxing fuels. Alas, with the lone exception of FoE, leading Big Green groups have gone after Dingell's proposed bill like a clear-cutter on crank.

Umbra on carbon offsets

Dear Umbra, I’ve been reading the whole back-and-forth about carbon offsets, and it seems strange to me that most (all?) of the ones I’ve seen fund projects that, while worthwhile, may or may not result in the promised emissions reduction. It seems that a simple way around this problem would be to buy actual emissions permits from an established carbon market like Europe. Are there any companies or organizations that would allow me to do this? (Yes, I already conserve about as much as is possible for me at the moment.) Jane Athens, Ga. Dearest Jane, We must fill in …

Quote of the day

Why do I keep harping on coal? Here’s why: “It’s becoming impossible to build coal stations,” Michael Liebreich, founder and CEO of New Energy Finance, a London-based research company, said during a visit to Paris on Friday. The backlash against coal “is one of the driving forces for the clean energy industry.”

A prize for Mr. Gore and science

NY Times editors get the Gore Nobel story right

With everyone weighing in on this year's Nobel Peace Prize, it's been revealing to see what the media makes of it, and how oddly misdirected their questions have been: Will Al run for president? (Argh.) What has climate change got to do with peace? (Huh?) Is this merely a political jab to the current U.S. administration? (So what?) But the editors of the NYT pretty much nailed it: What the citation didn't mention but needs to be said is that it shouldn't have to be left to a private citizen -- even one so well known as Mr. Gore -- or a panel of scientists to raise that alarm or prove what is now clearly an undeniable link or champion solutions to a problem that endangers the entire planet.That should be, and must be the job of governments. And governments -- above all the Bush administration -- have failed miserably. There will be skeptics who ask what the Peace Prize has to do with global warming. The committee answered that unhesitatingly with its warning that climate change, if unchecked, could unleash massive migrations, violent competitions for resources and, ultimately, threaten the "security of mankind." There will also be those who complain that this prize -- like the committee's earlier awards to Jimmy Carter and the chief United Nations nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei -- is an intentional slap at President Bush. It should be. We only wish that it would finally wake up the president. What has your favorite Nobel coverage (good or bad) been?

Suburban legend

Widening roads does not, in fact, reduce emissions

Why is it that stupid ideas get all the air time? For months, fellow climate geeks have been telling me that road-builders -- and the politicians who love them -- have started to make a startling claim: namely, that widening a congested highway will help curb global warming. By reducing stop-and-go traffic, the argument goes, cars will operate more efficiently and waste less fuel. So if you want to save the climate, you'd better widen that road! To me, this sounded too dopey to be worth refuting. I mean, sure, over the short term, congestion relief might help a bit. But what about all of the emissions from road building itself -- and, more importantly, from the extra traffic that will inevitably fill those new lanes? But despite its obvious absurdity (or perhaps because of it) this particular suburban legend seems to be getting a life of its own. Just take a look at what British Columbia's Premier had to say recently about a proposed highway widening project in greater Vancouver, BC: Campbell ... continued to defend the [highway] project ... saying that it will reduce emissions and make room for rapid-bus services along the highway. Because I couldn't find anything addressing this issue online (academics have better things to do with their time, apparently), I spent a bit of time running some numbers. You can read the full report here (PDF) if you're a real geek. But in a nutshell: congestion relief may offer some slim GHG benefits over the short term; but these benefits are absolutely dwarfed by the emissions from road construction and, more importantly, by all the extra traffic that fills the expanded roadway. In fact, it looks to me as if adding a single lane-mile to a congested urban highway will boost CO2 emissions by at least 100,000 tons over 50 years. And that's making some pretty optimistic assumptions about fuel economy improvements. So now, if anyone out there in Grist-world hears this particular suburban legend, you'll have some numbers you can use to smack it down.

<em>What a Way to Go</em>

A review of a new doomer cult classic

Some years ago I was alerted to the problem of peak oil by a friend from Bellingham, Wash., way up in the upper left corner of the continental U.S. A nuclear physicist and astronomer, the smartest guy I know, and no doubt someone who uses the serial comma, he had this to say about a new movie called What a Way to Go: Life at the end of empire:

Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus: Part V (and final)

Time to end the phony and historically inaccurate debate

This will, hopefully, be the last post devoted to debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus. As noted, S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community and Al Gore (and even Rachel Carson!) than they do proposing a viable solution. Worse, they don't even attack the real environmental community -- they create a strawman that is mostly a right-wing stereotype of environmentalists. Now it turns out they support the exact same thing the environmental community -- and energy technologists like me -- have been pushing for many years: an aggressive and intelligent regulatory strategy coupled with a significant increase in the energy R&D budget. To my great surprise, they have taken up my challenge and endorsed Barack Obama's terrific climate plan. So why are we fighting? Only because S&N keep attacking, keep trying to rewrite history. S&N claim over and over again that environmentalists don't support increases in clean energy budgets. They even claim I don't support an increase in the budget of the very office I ran at the Energy Department -- and that "'experts' like Romm" shift our analysis "after the political winds changed direction." Silly (and petty). In this post, I will set the record straight.

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