Imagine Earth with toxic air, stifling heat, no water, and no signs of life -- sort of like Los Angeles. This is a world laid bare by massive and catastrophic climate change, and believe it or not, it isn't science fiction. It’s our neighbor, Venus, and it’s more similar to Earth than you might want to believe.
Venus and Earth have a lot in common: They’re practically the same size, they’re made up of basically the same stuff, and early in the life of our solar system they were nearly identical, right down to oceans and moderate atmospheres. But then climate change arrived on Venus -- the same processes that are playing out on our planet today with rising carbon dioxide and an increasing greenhouse effect -- and transformed the planet into an uninhabitable, 900-degree-F wasteland swathed in clouds of sulfuric acid.
“It’s almost as if you had a twin study -- you take these identical twins and give them different experiences in life and see how they grow up,” says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the NASA-sponsored astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center.
Boosters of natural gas frequently argue that it can serve as a "bridge fuel," spanning the chasm between our current global electricity systems, dominated by coal, and systems mostly or completely comprised of low-carbon sources like wind and solar. The idea is, we ramp up natural gas, the least dirty of the fossil fuels, to displace coal, thereby giving ourselves a few more decades to develop renewable energy, which will then replace natural gas. Natgas gets us from here to there.
This argument has become popular for a broad swath of U.S. elites, not only typical fossil-fuel boosters but lefty luminaries like Center for American Progress founder John Podesta and green leaders like Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp.
Despite the notion becoming common to the point of cliché, however, there's been almost no effort to model a natural gas bridge -- that is to say, to construct a climate scenario that a) stabilizes atmospheric carbon dioxide at a safe level and b) includes a large-but-temporary increase in natural gas consumption. There have been climate scenarios that incorporate a baseline level of natural gas consumption (assuming no significant policy shifts), and some that model consumption substantially and permanently increasing, but none that explicitly model a bridge, that is, a rise and subsequent decline.
Into the breach steps Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, with a new paper, "Climate consequences of natural gas as a bridge fuel," published in the journal Climatic Change. It's a fascinating and timely bit of work that takes as its goal "to explore the properties of scenarios that feature natural gas as a bridge and that stabilize CO2 concentrations at or near the oft discussed targets of 450 and 550 ppm."
You know what’s fun? What’s fun is watching young people figure out how to change the world they've inherited.
Case in point: Billy Parish. When I first met him, he’d just dropped out of Yale. Not because he couldn't hack it. Because he didn't think it was as important as fighting climate change. And so he built the Energy Action Coalition, the nationwide student mobilization against global warming. And he built it in a particular way, as a coalition of like-minded groups on hundreds of campuses -- he was charismatic, but he put his charisma to use helping to leverage many disparate voices into one force.
As he got older, he let others take over the student movement, and he went to work looking for practical solutions to the same crisis. Given his skills and drive, he could have become a conventional entrepreneur, starting some solar start-up that would make deals and build projects and collect revenues. But his basic sense never wavered: What we needed was a way for communities to work together.
And so, Monday, Solar Mosaic starts accepting investments. If you live in New York or California, or you are an "accredited investor" in other states, you can invest money; it will be used to put up solar panels on a grand scale, and the revenues will pay you a nice rate of interest. It's a way, one of the first, to put lots of individuals' money to work building the future we need.
Just before Christmas, and ever so quietly, the Federal Trade Commission released a review [PDF] of corporate food marketing to kids. The FTC hasn’t examined this kind of data since 2006, so this was its chance to check up on the processed food and beverage industry’s much-ballyhooed self-regulation of food advertising aimed at young kids and teens. The data for the new report is from 2009. The upshot? Food marketing to kids totaled $1.79 billion and went down a skosh from 2006 levels.
Does this mean corporate self-regulation is working? Not at all. First off, in 2009 this country was in the teeth of the Great Recession, so all marketing spending was down. The good intentions of food companies may have had little to do with the drop. But what’s more interesting is the fact that food companies shifted spending away from television advertising and toward online and social media spending.
Food companies spent 19.5 percent less on television ads and 60 percent more online between 2006 and 2009. Because TV ads are so expensive, reducing them explains most of the overall drop in spending. But that doesn’t mean ads weren’t being seen; companies also get significant bang for the buck when they invest in online marketing -- and they spent $122 million online in 2009. One can only imagine what that number looked like in 2012.
So it's lovely that this time of year you can get little baby oranges in abundance, but you know those mesh nets they come in? They look dangerous. Are they killing sea critters? Should I cut every little piece apart before I throw it away like you should soda can rings? Should I stop buying them? Help!!
Laura S. Bar Harbor, Me.
A. Dearest Laura,
It is lovely that we can buy baby oranges in deepest mid-winter, isn’t it? It’s also a sign of just how reliant we are on a massive, unwieldy global food system. But more on that in a moment.
First, those mesh nets. The packaging that has you in knots is typically made of plastic, usually polypropylene (#5) or nylon, and is often referred to as “poly mesh.” It is used to hold ungainly products like citrus, nuts, onions, and potatoes. It keeps them in one place while presenting shipping benefits over small boxes, such as being lighter and cheaper.
Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, has long been confused about climate change ... and yet concerned about it too. He has a history of obstructing climate action, but also a record of elevating climate as a national security issue. If he's confirmed to head the Department of Defense, he might ultimately show himself to be a climate hawk -- though not one who hews to green orthodoxy or any party line.
On the one hand, Hagel -- a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2008 and now co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board -- has professed many views you might associate with a climate denier.
In fact, his name is tied to the Senate's first high-profile repudiation of climate action: In 1997, he cosponsored the Byrd-Hagel resolution calling for rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that it would hurt the U.S. economy and should have required emissions cuts from developing countries. Five years later, he was still enthusiastically bashing the treaty:
The Kyoto Protocol would have eliminated millions of jobs in America. It would have driven our economy downward. It would have eliminated opportunities for investment, such as clean energy technology, in developing countries. It would have driven a stake through any hope of prosperity for America.
In 2001, at the start of the George W. Bush administration, Hagel and three other senators sent Bush a letter asking him to clarify his positions on Kyoto and on regulation of carbon dioxide. As Hagel explained later, "There was talk within this new administration that EPA had the power, through the Clean Air Act, to be able to enforce, in particular, carbon dioxide emissions. We didn't think that the EPA had that power." Bush wrote a letter in response saying that he didn't think the EPA had that power either, setting the course for his administration to do essentially nothing about climate change over its eight years.
Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.
Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and … we’re still in the midst of “fixing” education, many generations of students later.
Even facing undeniably real problems -- say, discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.
Which is not to say that there weren’t millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.
And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.
When Charles Darwin wrote, "Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die," do you think he thought to himself, “Dude, I'm about to piss a bunch of people off”? Or when Copernicus and Galileo forwarded the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, do you think they were trying to ruffle Vatican feathers?
Well, OK, maybe these guys saw trouble brewing. But another, contemporary scientist didn't. In the mid-1990s, Benjamin Santer authored a chapter in a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that included this sentence: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
Innocuous enough, right? But it would prove to be a pivotal moment for the discussion of global warming. Today, the political cacophony surrounding climate science is so loud that it drowns scientific reasoning like a Jack White solo at a Simon and Garfunkel concert. And much of the noise can be traced back to that sentence.
I recently sat down with Santer, a MacArthur Award-winning researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to get his firsthand account of the day the global warming show went from soft acoustic to power-blasting electric.
“I was blissfully unaware of what would happen at the end of 1995,” he told me. “The only thing I thought about was doing the best possible science and searching for that holy grail of objectivity.”
In the course of reading Kevin Drum's great piece on lead and crime and writing my reply, I started reading a bit about the history of lead in gasoline, and holy crap it's fascinating! The guy who invented Ethyl, the lead-based additive to gasoline, also invented chlorofluorocarbons, which just about destroyed the ozone layer. Mild-mannered chemist Thomas Midgley is basically history's greatest monster. Luckily, he got polio, invented a wire-and-pulley system to get himself out of bed, and then ended up being strangled by it. Seriously!
Meanwhile, workers in the plants that produced Ethyl had hallucinations and went crazy -- according to the plant manager, because they were "working too hard." There are just tons of fascinating details like that. Somebody should make a movie of it. You can read a short, lively account of it here, or a longer, more academic version here [PDF].
Aside from the entertainment value, though, the important thing to note is that there were in fact concerns about the safety of lead additives even back in the 1920s when they were being developed. Big companies colluded with government to cover up and lie about the dangers, thus resulting in untold lost human potential and an enormous crime wave that cost the country billions.
This is the story, over and over. Big money screws the public health and lies about it. The same fight is happening over mercury right now. The same fight is happening over greenhouse gases. The same fight is still happening over lead! We never learn.
Shortly after being nominated to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2009, Ron Sims declared, “President Obama has … challenged his Cabinet to prepare for the age of global warming. Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas.”
Ah, those were the days! The following year, the Tea Party would sweep into the House of Representatives. In 2011, Sims, who held a major elected role in the Seattle metro area before his stint in D.C., would retire to Washington state, missing his family and frustrated with the slow pace of change in the nation’s capital.
Today, roughly two years after his return to the West Coast, Sims says he sees progress. Before he went to HUD, as the county executive of King County, Wash., he led the effort to prepare the region for the unavoidable impacts of global warming and worked to weave public health concerns into planning decisions. “We realized that we could predict life outcomes of children, health outcomes of adults, by the zip code they live in,” he says. “If you have a park a quarter mile from your home, your children are not going to be obese. If it’s a half mile away, you begin to see the early signs. But if a park is a mile or more away from a residence, obesity will be a problem. How a neighborhood is designed determines health outcomes.”
As deputy secretary of HUD, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations, he worked to bring this awareness to decisions at the federal level, arguing for housing, transportation, and environmental policies that emphasized dense, walk- and bike-friendly development rather than car-centric sprawl. And while these efforts hit roadblock after roadblock, Sims says there has been a shift in thinking in Washington, D.C. That, combined with economic and environmental realities, he says, is reshaping American cities.
Here, Sims talks about his work in Washington, D.C., how the bill is coming due for suburban sprawl, and why he believes we may see riots in inner cities.
Q.How much progress has President Obama been able to make on urban policy issues, given the roadblocks put up by Republicans in Congress?
A. There’s a lot of silo breaking. For example, the collaboration between the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Republicans in the House have attempted to put barriers to that, but you know, the fact is, the staff still meet, so there’s a culture created among how you look at urban areas.