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  • Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through

    The following is a guest essay from Jamais Cascio, a cross-disciplinary futurist specializing in the interplay between technology and society. He co-founded Worldchanging.com, and now blogs at OpenTheFuture.com.

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    With the recent release of a detailed comparison between different geoengineering strategies and the launch of a German-Indian joint experiment in ocean-iron-fertilization, the debate over whether geoengineering will have any place in our efforts to combat global warming is one again churning. I've been writing about the geoengineering dilemma since 2005, and Grist's David Roberts -- no big fan of geoengineering -- asked me to give my take on where the issue stands today. My top-line summary?

    Geoengineering is risky, likely to provoke international tension, certain to have unanticipated consequences, and pretty much inevitable.

    Just to be clear, here's what I want to see happen over the next decade: An aggressive effort to reduce carbon emissions through the adoption of radical levels of energy efficiency, a revolution in how we design our cities and communities, a move away from auto-centered culture, greater localism in agriculture, expanded use of renewable energy systems, and myriad other measures, large and small, that reduce our footprints and improve how we live.

    This plan, or something very much like it, is required for us to have the best chance of avoiding disastrous climate disruption. Could we make it happen within the next decade? Definitely. Are we likely to do so? I really want to say yes ... but I can't.

    And that's a real problem, because we're not exactly overburdened with global warming response plans that have a solid chance of actually doing something about it in time. We all know that half-measures and denial masquerading as caution certainly won't be enough to avoid disastrous warming; unfortunately, neither will the kinds of ideas still coming out of the world's capitals. Although clearly better than nothing, they simply won't get carbon emissions down far enough fast enough to avoid a catastrophic climate shift.

    Here's why: No matter what we do, even if we were to suddenly cut off all anthropogenic sources of carbon right this very second, we are committed to at least another two to three decades of warming, simply due to thermal inertia. Add to that the feedback effects from environmental changes that have already happened: ice cap losses increasing polar ocean temperatures, accelerating overall warming; melting permafrost in Siberia releasing methane, which can be up to 72 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; overloaded carbon sinks in oceans and soil losing their ability to absorb CO2. These factors combine in a way that could make even our best efforts too slow to avoid disaster.

    So what would we do?

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    Your choice vs. the 'expert' choice in video contest

    The following guest post was written by Keith Gaby, communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund's national climate campaign. This was originally posted on Climate 411.

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    Who is right when a national environmental group holds a video competition and the public and the "experts" disagree on who should win?

    At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the jury of film experts chose Forty Shades of Blue as the best dramatic film. The Audience Award went to Hustle & Flow. I don't know which was a better film, but I do know Hustle & Flow went on to earn $20 million in wide release in the U.S., while Forty Shades of Blue topped out at $75,000. I'm sure it doesn't always happen that way, but it goes to show that the experts don't always know what will succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

    We at Environmental Defense Fund just finished something a bit like a film festival -- a competition that challenged participants to make a 30-second ad that explains how capping greenhouse gas pollution will help cure our national addition to oil. This week we announced two winners, one selected by our staff and another chosen by thousands of voters online. Like at Sundance, the voters and the judges chose different winners ... in fact, the video chosen by us "experts" came in dead last in the online voting.

    I thought it might be interesting to explain our decision and see what others think.

  • Proposed renewable-energy bill is better than nothing

    The following is a guest post from Tom Casten, chairman of Recycled Energy Development LLC.

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    Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, along with Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), has introduced legislation calling for 25 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean energy by 2025. What will such legislation do to electricity costs?

    Most pundits assume the current system is optimal, and thus claim that any mandate to change this "best of all possible worlds" will raise the price of delivered electricity. It is hilarious to think the protected and regulated electric system is optimal, but depressing to realize no one is laughing. Consider two questions:

    1. Do market forces drive electricity suppliers to lowest-delivered-cost solutions?
    2. What is the delivered cost of clean energy from various generation options?

    What market forces? All electricity distribution systems and many generation plants enjoy monopoly protection. Subsidies abound. Profits are guaranteed. Old plants can legally emit up to 100 times the pollution of a new plant. A century of rules reward and protect yesterday's approaches and the resulting vested interests.

    Congressman Markey has never seen current generation as optimal, and now that he chairs the relevant subcommittee, he proposes to mandate cleaner and, in our view, cheaper electricity generation. Yes, we said cheaper. Anyone interested in some facts?

  • James Hansen apologizes to U.K. environmentalists

    This is a guest post by noted NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

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    I have relearned a basic lesson re interviews -- which will have to be fewer and more guarded. I recall giving only one interview to U.K. media this year, but perhaps it was two. One resulting story was that I said the climate problem must be solved in four years -- of course, what I meant to say was that we needed to start moving in a fundamentally different direction during President Obama's first term. CO2 in the air will continue to increase in those four years -- we are not going to take the vehicles off the roads or shut down commerce.

    I must have said something dumber in response to a question about air travel. Special apologies to people working in opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport -- I had no intention of damaging their case. All I intended to say was that aviation fuel is not a killer for the climate problem -- at worst case we can use carbon-neutral biofuels (not current biofuels -- there are ways to do biofuels right, for the fuel volume needed for global air traffic -- ground transport will need a different energy source). When asked about the proposed added runway at Heathrow, I apparently said, in effect, that coal is the (climate) problem, not an added runway -- in any case, what was reported angered a huge number of people, as indicated by my full e-mail inbox. I should have deferred questions on Heathrow to local experts -- I am sure there are many good environmental reasons to oppose airport expansion. I am very sorry that I was not more guarded. You can be sure that in the future I will be more careful to avoid making comments that can be used against good causes. Telling President Obama About Coal River Mountain and the Heathrow Airport runway reminds me how important it is to keep our eye on the ball.

    Coal River Mountain is the site of an absurdity. I learned about Coal River Mountain from students at Virginia Tech last fall. They were concerned about Coal River Mountain, but at that time most of them were working to support Barack Obama. They assumed Barack Obama would not allow such outrages to continue.

    The issue at Coal River Mountain is whether the top of the mountain will be blown up, so that coal can be dredged out of it, or whether the mountain will be allowed to stand. It has been shown that more energy can be obtained from a proposed wind farm, if Coal River Mountain continues to stand. More jobs would be created. More tax revenue would flow, locally and to the state, and the revenue flow would continue indefinitely. Clean water and the environment would be preserved. But if planned mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain loses its potential to be a useful wind source.

    There are two major requirements for solving the global warming problem: