Environment & the World

Friday, June 29, 2007

National Review LTE

Filed under: Climate Change, Media — Cathy @ 12:51 pm

A response to the National Review’s Cover Story on global warming.  

Dear Editor

I disagree with the conclusions of Jim Manzi’s recent cover article on global warming (“Game plan: what conservatives should do about global warming”), in which he argues that the economic costs of dealing with climate change do not justify the United States taking action to limit emissions.

Mr. Manzi rightly points out that estimates of climate sensitivity – how much the temperature will increase if we double atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – is uncertain; according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is likely 2-4.5C, with a best estimate of 3C.  Contrary to what Mr. Manzi suggests, it is very unlikely to be less than 1.5C.  At the global level, economic studies, including the one cited in the article, generally show net benefits to avoiding a warming above 2-3 C, relative to not taking action.

Mr. Manzi notes that the economic model discussed in his article predicts “large negative impacts in poorer areas closer to the equator,” but he then dismisses this problem because the economic impacts to the U.S. are roughly break-even.  Impacts to the developing world include increased water stress and reduced food security that is projected to impact 75-250 million people in Africa by 2020 and decreased freshwater availability in Asia that could affect a billion
people by the 2050s.  U.S. national security efforts will not be made easier by a do-nothing climate policy that effectively promotes global inequality and resource conflicts.

Mr. Manzi also dismisses the threat of abrupt climate change, arguing that the probability of such an event occurring is too slim to justify worrying about it.  He puts abrupt climate change in the same category with other low-probability potential disasters, such as nuclear war in Central Asia or a global disease pandemic.  But the key difference between abrupt climate change and these other disasters is that we know with certainty how to reduce the risk of abrupt climate change, i.e. reduce emissions.  Moreover, science provides rough estimates of how much the risk of abrupt climate change increases with higher emissions levels.  Yes, there are a number of unlikely risks which we cannot prepare for, but why does this mean we should not mitigate the risks which are at least partially under our control?

Because science gives us a guide for deciding the socially acceptable level of climate risk, it makes sense to implement some sort of cap or tax to prevent exceeding that threshold.  As Mr. Manzi states, “global warming is a manageable risk, not an existential crisis.”  We already have the technology we need to put us on a path to stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at levels that pose far less risk to world society than our present path.

Cathy Kunkel


Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of the Union ’07 & Energy

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:21 pm

I thought it would be worth discussing the President’s take on energy and the environment in his State of the Union speech. Here’s the relevant portion of his speech:

“Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

“It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

“We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

“To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

“Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

“America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)”

Watching the live delivery and generous applause during this section of the speech was more exciting than processing it and reading all the reactions.

-Recognizing “global climate change” and the need to confront it.
-Reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
-Reducing gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
-Strengthening fuel economy standards.
-Supporting more ethanol, hybrid technology, wind and solar power.

-Clean coal, clean diesel
-Nuclear power
-Doubling capacity of Strategic Petroleum Reserve
-“Alternative fuels” (coal to gas?)
-Not enough decisive action

Some reactions:
The Sierra Club is unimpressed.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the fuel economy proposals, but remains cautious and says more needs to be done to address global warming.

Steven Mufson at the Washington Post and Dave Roberts at Grist examine the energy proposals from the State of the Union ’07 point by point leaving us with little for which to cheer.

With the President increasingly supporting some political action on energy issues and a Democratic majority in Congress there is still a possibility for some positive developments. With the Democrats largely eager to push for progressive energy policies they might meet the President half way this year and finally get something done.

Friday, January 5, 2007

ExxonMobil’s approach to climate science

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil — Cathy @ 7:56 pm

Amir has previously written a couple of posts highlighting Exxon Mobil’s sky-high profits, so I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about where some of that money is going.  According to a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon has spent $16 million between 1998-2005 to basically spread confusion and disinformation on climate change, and has earned itself the honor of being the world’s most active corporation in undermining climate science.  Specifically, Exxon funds a network of organizations that publish and advocate for non-peer-reviewed scientific articles debunking climate change.  In many cases, donations from Exxon accounted for more than 10% of the annual budgets of these organizations.  Granted, the amount of money spent by Exxon on this issue pales in comparison to its $36 billion annual profits for 2005.  But on the other hand, perhaps Exxon’s huge profits make its actions against climate change all the more indefensible since the company is not exactly hurting. 

The fact that Exxon is one of the leading debunkers of climate science, is not exactly news.  However, I was rather impressed by the audacity of some of the organizations mentioned in the report.  To give an example of the quality of these organizations, many of them are still touting a petition that was allegedly signed by 17,000 scientists contradicting global warming and asking Congress to reject the Kyoto Protocol.  It turned out that the petition signatories included “numerous fictional characters” and Scientific American “estimated that approximately one percent of the petition signatories might actually have a PhD in a field related to climate science.”

The biggest lesson for environmentalists from Exxon Mobil’s work is the importance of framing.  By repeatedly emphasizing the uncertainty of the science, Exxon has forced environmentalists and scientists to keep debating with them in the media about the science.  With the debate still stuck on the science, there was no room to argue that perhaps the solutions to climate change would be desirable for non-environmental reasons, by bringing new manufacturing jobs or encouraging urban revitalization.

The UCS report also touches on how Exxon Mobil’s disinformation campaign might be brought down.  One of the most promising strategies is shareholder activism – promising because it has already started.  In 2006, institutional investors with $6.75 billion in ExxonMobil stock accused the company of “making a massive bet – with shareholder’s money – that the world’s addiction to oil will not abate for decades.”  Unlike the other major oil companies – including BP and Shell – Exxon has refused to start investing in renewable technologies and even divested in most of its alternative energy holdings under its previous CEO.  Although ExxonMobil’s recent profits suggest that their short-term strategy is good, it seems that everyone else – including shareholders and fellow oil companies – is starting to see the writing on the wall.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Hydropower – not so clean after all?

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Water — Cathy @ 7:18 pm

I have never been a fan of large dam projects.  In the United States, dams have decimated salmon populations, reduced the Colorado River to a trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific, and otherwise transformed the ecology of our western rivers.  And in many developing countries, dam projects displace hundreds of thousands of people, often without giving them adequate compensation.  Large popular movements have arisen against major dam projects like the 3 Gorges Dam in China or the Narmada River dams in India.

But dam proponents have argued that dams don’t emit carbon dioxide, so they must still be better than coal, right?  Well, perhaps not, at least in tropical regions.  A recent article in the journal Nature (“Methane quashes green credentials of hydropower”, Nature 444(30): 524-525, 2006) highlights recent research suggesting that “the global-warming impact of hydropower plants can often outweigh that of comparable fossil-fuel power stations.”  How?  When land is flooded to create the reservoir, a large amount of organic matter is trapped underwater, and more organic matter flows in over time.  In warm tropical waters, this organic matter decays into methane and carbon dioxide.  Since methane is a 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, these reservoir emissions can be quite significant.  Indeed, the article cites an example of Brazil’s Balbina Dam, whose construction caused the flooding of 2500 square kilometers of rainforest; it is now accepted that a coal plant would have been better for the climate!

The article notes that the debate over the magnitude of reservoir emissions is not yet settled, largely due to a lack of data on dam methane emissions.  However, by some estimates, counting the methane emitted by dams (95-120 million tons per year) would represent a 20% increase in global methane emissions!  This is a large enough number, and enough is known about dam methane emissions, to make many scientists want to start acting now on this problem. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Word of the Year: Carbon Neutral

Filed under: Books, Climate Change — amirj @ 2:08 pm

Okay, so actually it’s two words that together signify one concept, but don’t take issue with me over it. Oxford University Press announced carbon neutral as the word of the year.

“Being carbon neutral involves calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions, reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions, often by purchasing a carbon offset: paying to plant new trees or investing in “green” technologies such as solar and wind power.

Erin McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary 2e, said “The increasing use of the word carbon neutral reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language. When you see first graders trying to make their classrooms carbon neutral, you know the word has become mainstream.”

This mainstreaming of a somewhat wonky environmental concept offers an opportunity to reflect upon other ways in which concepts from the environmental movement have crept into pop culture. As beleaguered as much of the environmental movement may have fancied itself so far this decade, due to an unfavorable political climate in the U.S., some progress has still been made. Some celebrities have started to ditch SUV-limos in favor of hybrids to arrive at red carpet events. Al Gore made a big splash with An Inconvenient Truth, forcing many in the U.S. to confront the reality of climate change at a time when public discourse on the issue still called it into question. We’ve also seen leadership on the city and state levelballoon into something of a grassroots groundswell to reduce our emissions. Even corporations like Wal-Mart and Google have announced major initiatives to curb their emissions, and take the first steps towards sustainability.

While Bush certainly has not been the right president to elect to champion environmental protection, I never saw his election as a reason to give up hope. A good president can certainly give a cause a megaboost, but even Bush’s rather apathetic stance on climate change couldn’t stop us–there was just too to accomplish. So far this decade climate action didn’t come from the federal level, top down, in one ceremonious presidential signing ceremony. So what? Even in the 2006, during the reign of President Bush, “carbon neutral” became the word of the year. Yep, on his watch.  

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Britain’s Chief Economist on Climate Change

Filed under: Climate Change, Economics — Cathy @ 12:01 pm

I’m taking a break from China today to write on some recent developments in England on the climate change front.  I just received a copy of the executive summary of the Stern Report, which came out on Monday.  This is a report written by Britain’s Chief Economist, Nicholas Stern, assessing the economics of taking action on climate change.

The report basically reiterates what many of us have known or suspected for a long time: that “the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs.”  Specifically, they estimate that following the “business as usual” emissions scenario would result in an average reduction in global per-capital consumption of at least 5%.  This number ignores non-market impacts on the environment and human health; including these factors would lead to an average reduction in consumption of 11%.  And, of course, the impacts would fall much more heavily on the global poor.   By contrast, the report estimates that the emissions cuts required to stabilize at 500-550ppm (reductions of 1-4% per year, depending on how soon they are
implemented) will cost about 1% of GDP by 2050 – “a level that is significant but manageable.”  This stabilization level is generally agreed to be the maximum concentration that can be achieved and still avoid a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees C.

British civic organizations are taking the message of the Stern report to heart.  Britain’s largest march on global warming was held today, with protestors demanding stronger action from their government.  Note that I say “civic groups” and not “environmental groups” because the rally was organized by a diverse coalition of 40 groups – environmental groups, outdoor sports’ groups, women’s groups, religious organizations, humanitarian aid groups, etc (http://www.stopclimatechaos.org/about_us/9.asp).  This widespread concern over climate change is reflected in the population as a whole, with more than half of those polled in a survey this week stating that they think their government should impose taxes on carbon emitting industries.

In the United States, the few remaining climate contrarians will no doubt be able to endlessly debate the assumptions that go into the economic calculations of the Stern report.  Climate change economics presents a classic problem in discounting, as well as a problem in risk analysis and valuing ecosystem services.  That is, how do we count the benefits (of uncertain magnitude) that will accrue in the future from less climate change and weigh them against current costs? If we do something now that has potentially catastrophic consequences in 300 years, some economic analyses would still recommend that action because, with current interest rates, the value of that future catastrophe is nearly worthless today.  Yet, nevertheless, I think most of us would recoil at the moral consequences of such an action. Perhaps this simply teaches us that economics isn’t everything. Economics provides one way – often a useful way – of looking at the world and making decisions.  But it isn’t the only way, and people too often forget that.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

California Adopts Global Warming Solution’s Act 2006

Filed under: Climate Change — amirj @ 7:08 pm

The U.S.A. took a step towards becoming a leader in addressing climate change on September 27th, when California’s Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law (pdf) the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, also known as AB 32. The law requires the state of CA to cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The state estimates this will result in a 25% greenhouse gas reduction by 2020. While the law requires no more than this, Gov. Schwarzenegger intends to push CA to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

California now joins several other U.S. states that have already committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The six New England states (RI, CT, ME, MA, NH, VT) and the eastern Canadian provinces agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, and then to further reduce emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2020. Although neither as specific nor finalized, they also intend reduce their climate change emissions more dramatically in the long-term, which they currently estimate will amount to between 75% and 85% below current levels.

Another inter-state initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — signed by 7 Northeastern states (CT, DE, ME, NH, NJ, NY, CT). This initiative will cap power plant CO2 emissions by 2009, and will reduce them by 10% by 2019.

Several other states, like Arizona and New Mexico are also aiming to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

How do all these exciting new initiatives compare with Kyoto Protocol goals? Kyoto calls upon the U.S.A. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. Unfortunately, none of the state programs mentioned above would fulfill Kyoto standards. California’s laudable plan will only bring it back to 1990 levels by 2020. The Northeastern states’ plan, however, comes closer to Kyoto goals, bringing them back to 1990 levels by 2010 and commencing reductions below 1990 levels thereafter. Nevertheless, Kyoto itself is often considered more of a symbolic treaty than one that would really solve a future climate crisis. To that end, California and the Northeastern states’ long-term intentions could be quite substaintial if indeed realized in due time.

Most of these initiatives, including California’s, employ a cap-and-trade market-based approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This generally means that greenhouse gas emitters that reduce their emissions beyond the requirement will receive credits which they can sell to emitters who do not meet their reduction goals. It remains to be seen whether or not these U.S. market approaches will spawn the same controversies associated with Kyoto’s use of carbon sinks to receive credits and Clean Development Mechanism in which developed nations can receive reduction credits without actually reducing their own emissions, but rather by financing renewable, sustainable, energy efficiency programs in developing nations.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Beckett Talks Climate Change at UN General Assembly

Filed under: Climate Change, Politics — amirj @ 1:40 pm

British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Margaret Beckett devoted a good chunk of her speech at the 61st UN General Assembly to climate change, urging the world to cooperate in addressing it. Here’s an excerpt from her speech.

“If we don’t act on climate change, we risk undermining the very basis of the prosperity and security we are seeking to achieve. That is why we must recognise that talk of having either a successful economy or a stable climate is a false choice; we must work together to find paths for economic growth which protect our climate.

The truth is that we already have much of the technology we need to move to a low carbon economy. But we must now deploy it very much more rapidly. What we do in the next ten years will count the most.

It is the developed, rich world which bears a large responsibility for the present level of greenhouse gas emissions. But it is the poorest in our global commuinity — those least able to bear it — who will bear the brunt of climate insecurity. We all need to do more–but the rich world should continue to lead the effort, applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibility which must continue to be our guide.”

You can read her entire speech. The part about climate change begins on page five, paragraph 17. 

Branson and CGI Investments

Filed under: Climate Change, Corporate Sustainability, Energy — amirj @ 9:42 am

Money talks. So when billionaire Richard Branson announced yesterday an estimated three billion dollar investment in renewable energy initiatives over the next ten years people listened. It was nice to see that when Neil Cavuto suggested that some people believe climate change is still debatable (so why invest so much money in it?) Branson just wasn’t having it. I guess if people can’t be convinced by the scientists, maybe they’ll listen to the billionaires. That in and of itself might be a little irksome, though.

Anyway, back to the investment. You can trust that Branson’s being a savvy businessman about this. The three billion dollars will come from the proceeds of Virgin Group’s airline and train operations, and this money will be reinvested into a new Virgin company: Virgin Fuels. So shareholders and such need not fret–the money won’t wander far.

Virgin Fuels, which will initially focus on bio-fuels, will however share the wealth in the form of international investments. To kick-start the giving bonanza, Virgin Fuels gets $400 million over the next three years, some of which will go to their first investment in Cilion, Inc.–a California based company that will build seven new, cheaper, greener ethanol plants by 2009.

More bits and pieces about the Branson/Virgin investment at the Clinton Global Initiative website.
Bill Clinton has also been making headlines this week thanks, in part, to his 2006 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. The summit brings together a global elite of big names, spanning dozens of political heavyweights, celebrities, business people, academics, philanthropists, and others. The goal is to discuss four progressive global challenges and to secure commitments from these people to invest in projects that will alleviate these problems.

Energy and Climate Change is one of the four areas. You can read some of the issues they’re addressing and also watch taped webcasts of the sessions. One session about Cities of the Future features the Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, William McDonough, and Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba. Indeed the discussion will be interesting, and these people have plenty of great stuff to say.

So far the Clinton Global Initiative has secured $5.7 billion in commitments to invest in projects related to the four focus areas: Energy and Climate, Global Health, Poverty Alleviation, and Mitigating Religious and Ethnic Conflict. On the one hand, it’s great to see high-profile discussions of these issues, and it’s equally great to know that so much money will translate into efforts to address these problems. On the other hand, one wonders if these megaconferences do more to raise the profile of these global leaders than change the realities on the ground. Furthermore, while I do not doubt that close to $6 billion in investments will make some real differences, one has to wonder what it means when so much of these investments and progressive global leadership and change is couched in the language of business deals and/or relegated to the privilege and whims of a global elite of leaders.

What this sort of project also accomplishes is to strengthen the current patterns of hegemony, to reinforce social hierarchies. So, we might be able to go carbon neutral thanks to corporate leadership without doing too much to change the social structure of our societies. At the same time, one must also wonder how self-defeating these projects might be in other realms, such as mitigating religious and ethnic conflict, when these conflicts might be the very product of the unequal social structures that currently exist.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Al Gore Emphasizes Solutions at NYU Speech

Filed under: Climate Change — amirj @ 10:06 pm

On the heels of a hot summer of heatwaves, massive forest fires, drought, and the Inconvenient Truth movie/book tour/lecture series campaign to educate the American public about the perils of global warming, Al Gore delivered a new kind of speech yesterday at NYU. Practically ditching the science, the graphs, charts, figures, and images that prove the existence and consequences of anthropogenic global warming; Gore expounded upon solutions.

This time, there was little to none of the stuff most people find depressing about climate change lectures. In fact, Gore’s speech was a hopeful one. Referencing the United States’ “can do” spirit and its legacy of leading the world in innovation, the tone of the speech was neither scathing, disappointed, nor judgmental. Instead, it almost leads one to naturally assume that the U.S. will indeed rise to this challenge by taking the essential steps to prevent climate change from spiraling into a global disaster. Take the following excerpt, for example.

“After all, many Americans are tired of borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the Persian Gulf to make huge amounts of pollution that destroys the planet’s climate. Increasingly, Americans believe that we have to change every part of that pattern.”

In this paragraph, as in the rest of the speech, Gore links a diversity of socioeconomic and political issues to climate change. In this example, national nuisances like the U.S. foreign debt, reliance on imported oil, and air pollution all connect to the climate change issue in a clear way. Suddenly, we’re just as eager to rid ourselves of the threat of climate change as we are with regard to foreign debt, air pollution, and our reliance on foreign oil.

Any skeptics who believe we lack solutions to address this crisis or who believe the solutions are out of reach would be conviced otherwise after reading Gore’s lecture. Few to none of the ideas he proposes are new. He does, however, present in a palatable way a rather exhaustive lists of solutions spanning alternative auto fuels, renewable energy, improved building standards, carbon sequestration, support for international treaties, emissions cap and trade, and more decentralized energy grids among others. Beyond highlighting our ability to address climate change effectively, Gore makes doing so sound attractive. In true Apollo style, Gore argues that implementing these solutions would promote our energy and economic security, create jobs in the U.S., and encourage innovation.

Combine this speech with rumors that Bush may soon strengthen his climate policy and with an inspiring look at the many U.S. achievements in this arena thus far without national leadership on the issue (most notably and recently the new California law to reduce CO2 emissions) and one might begin to believe that the tide really is a’changin’.

Think Progress has the full text of Gore’s speech.

More coverage at Grist.

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