Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Word

Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester.

There, the word is now meaningless. There’s a linguistic term for this effect: semantic satiation. Supposedly it’s only temporary, so we may in time retrieve the proper use of the word. Good thing, too, because its current usage both is incorrect and has overtaken its use as an important environmental concept.

First, the incorrect part. The word sequester has several related meanings: to  set apart, as in sequester a jury; to legally seize, as in hold until a law or court order is complied with;  to place in custody. Note that, in all those cases, the sequestration is temporary (as, oddly enough, is semantic satiation). That would mean that the items sequestered from the federal budget are to be returned when (if?) the government gets its act together enough to, er, govern.

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

But I’m not concerned with that misappropriation (pun intended) of the word. My objection has to do with its prior usage in the context of the environment and climate change. The word is used there to refer to sequestering carbon, as in temporarily removing it from the atmosphere.  It’s the reason tree planting is often an integral part of fighting climate change; trees draw carbon (in the form of CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen while retaining the carbon in the tree’s cells. So we refer to plants in general and trees especially as carbon sequesterers. The fewer forests we have, the less CO2 is absorbed. And burning trees or forests re-releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels are also carbon sequesterers since they are composed of the remains of ancient animals and plants (which are, of course, carbon based). Burn that fuel, and all the carbon that’s been stored there for millennia goes into the atmosphere.

The other great natural carbon sequesterers (or “carbon dumps”) are the oceans. They currently absorb a huge percentage of both natural and anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they can continue to absorb more. And there are proposals to increase, via geoengineering, the amount of carbon stored in the oceans. Problem is: the oceans’ chemistry changes as more carbon is absorbed, and mucking with ecosystems that are so fundamental to the planet’s workings carries the potential of unforeseeable risks.

There are other methods of carbon sequestration, often referred to these days as carbon capture and storage or CSS. Storing it underground, perhaps in large natural geological caverns (or ones left over after drilling operations), is one such suggestion. But this brings us back to my initial problem with the current use of the word sequester: that a sequester is temporary. At best, carbon sequestration merely defers the problem to later generations, assuming the oceans can handle it or our underground storage systems don’t leak. At worst, it deceives us into thinking we can continue emitting carbon as we currently do (or emit increasing amounts).

Were the budget sequester actually a sequester, it too would just be kicking the bucket down the road in that the funds would be restored at some (presumably near) future point. I’ll leave it Washington pundits to discuss whether that would be better or worse than the sequester we’ve got. But in its environmental usage, carbon sequestration, except perhaps in the case of reforestation, is not a solution. It’s only a temporary mitigation. And that’s if it works according to plan.

The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer

Consider this my atonement for not making it to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington this past Sunday. My self-serving defense was a conveniently scheduled family get together. (And how often are family events conveniently scheduled?) My admiration and thanks go to the 40,000 or so who braved the biting cold.

Excuses aside, I was there in mind if not body. The pipeline and the tar sands production it would help enable are just a thoroughly bad idea. They make no sense from any perspective, except perhaps for the few people (and I guess corporations now get included in that category) who would profit from them. Many have written about this, but I think a summarized categorical break down is worthwhile.

Energy

Like all post-peak fossil fuels, the tar sands have a diminishing EROEI or Energy Return On Energy Invested. In other words, as fuels become scarcer, it takes increasing amounts of energy (and money, see below) to get energy out of them. EROEI is the after-the-fact problem discovered with ethanol from corn as a fuel; it takes a lot of energy to grow and convert the corn into ethanol.

The oil in the tar sands is in what’s called an “unconventional form.” It’s a very thick slurry, a tar, called bitumen. You may know bitumen as that pungent black stuff that’s heated and spread on roofs. Making usable oil out of the semi-solid tar is an energy intense process, rendering the resulting energy far less productive.

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing

Bitumen from the Alberta tar sand before processing

Cost

Directly related to the above, energy from tar sands costs more than many other types of energy. Why then, you ask, is it financially attractive to business? The short answer is that the deck is stacked. The combination of perverse tax incentives (incentives, usually supported by special interests, which work against the public and/or government’s interest) and the market’s failure to include true costs create the illusion of cost competitiveness.

Independence

The common rationale here is the expanding tar sands oil production will reduce dependence on Middle East oil sources. But because US oil demand is already diminishing due to higher fuel efficiency standards and the recession, most of the tar sands oil will end up being exported.

exporting tar sands oil

Environment

The Canadian tar sands are located under the Boreal forest, according to Treehugger “one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet.” The open pit mining process utterly obliterates any ecosystem that has the misfortune to have resided above it.

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

Boreal forest before; tar sands after. source

In addition to the energy required, it takes vast amounts of water to extract oil from tar sands, causing both water depletion and pollution.

Most damningly, the extraction process has “three times the global warming pollution of conventional crude production.” Releasing the carbon imbedded in the tar sands, accompanied by the burning of fuel to extract it, would push the CO2 levels in the atmosphere past the tipping point, constituting “game over” for the climate in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.

So even if oil from tar sands was truly economically viable – which it isn’t – it would be a huge and irreversible environmental mistake to use it.

Significance

An oft-used rationale for the pipeline is that Canada is going to utilize the tar sands regardless of whether the US allows building the means to transport it by pipe down to the Gulf of Mexico refineries. Perhaps, but there is no reason we should enable them to do so. And by no means all of Canada supports tar sands production; our sending such a message may encourage Canadian opposition.

Furthermore, KC Golden writes at Grist “It’s a statement of principle for climate action….It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.”

OK, so….

You may ask: where’s the EcoOptimism aspect here? Since all we get from tar sands oil is a delay in the upcoming end of oil age, accompanied by the potentially disastrous (in the truest sense of the word) increase in climate disruption, wouldn’t it make a helluva lot more sense to take the government and commercial investments and place them in energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy? (You know, the ones like solar and wind that both don’t run out and don’t screw up the climate we depend on.) The Return on Investment for these holds much higher promise, and that’s before we start to include the avoided costs of rising sea levels. It should, in short, be a no-brainer.

In fact, Joe Nocera wrote “this should be a no-brainer for the president” in today’s Times. Unfortunately, however, he was referring to supporting the pipeline, and the fact that he was unable to sway the “boneheaded” (his word) opinion of James Hansen in a conversation they just had.

I’d prefer to refrain from such descriptions, but if there is boneheadedness to be found, it is in Nocera’s contorted logic, which ranges from fatalist statements such as “Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future” to writing off the idea that a carbon fee could reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent within 10 years with a mere “well, maybe.”

Kind of makes you wonder about the meaning of “no-brainer.”

 

 

Everything But the Facts

In my recent post for National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge Blog , “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” (which was a version of my EcoOptimism post “Answering the Wrong Question”), one of the commenters wrote:  “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I wrote back “It is far from “fact” that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several things I’d read including the WWF’s 2011 “Energy Report,” which states “By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources,” and a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables.” An indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction was a Climate Progress post “Wind And Solar Make Up 100% Of New U.S. Electricity Capacity In September” and other reports that the growth in renewable energy outpaced conventional sources last year.

Um, yes we can?

Um, yes we can?

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change.

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.”

Then “conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and windpower — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confidant sounding reports supporting his statement.

Believing in facts?

  Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I'm often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: "Do you believe in Gravity?" Image source: Sodahead


Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?” Image source: Sodahead

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climate gate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know this is a dangerously broad statement and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

It’s Not the Economy vs the Environment

What to make of the mixed message in Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by David Leonhardt? Dispelling the prevalent and stubborn myth that environmental measures are a drag on economic recovery is critical to efforts to gain public and political support. Leonhardt attempts to help, but misses some of the most important points.

In a piece with the overused title “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (and, speaking of mixed messages,  the opposing title, “It’s Easy Being Green,” is just as cliché), Leonhardt at first downplays the promise and economic viability of a national policy to address climate change. “The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day — a necessary effect of helping the climate — is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.” With that, he seems to validate the environment versus economy faceoff.

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

He then tempers that a bit when he writes “Alternative energy may not be a solution to our economic problems. But neither is it guaranteed to make those problems much worse, despite the continuing claims of opponents.” Faint praise, but at least it’s not condemnation.

And he starts to get it right with “The stronger argument for a major government response to climate change is the more obvious argument: climate change.” Problem is: climate change, in and of itself, has not proved to be a strong enough argument, at least not in our current head-in-the-sands, corporate-driven political arena. It’s clear that in a head to head battle, even with a public relations boost from Sandy and Nemo and the like, the environment still loses out to the economy. So it doesn’t help when Leonhardt continues:

In some cases, [government environmental programs] may even save taxpayers money over the long run. In most cases, however, they probably will not. Government agencies, like households and businesses, use dirty energy today because it is cheaper. And while it’s true that new clean-energy companies may help the economy by earning profits and employing workers, the same is true of coal and oil companies.

Leonhardt misses the boat in exactly the same way, as I pointed out last week, the pro-nuclear power advocates do – seeing only parts of pictures rather than wholes. When he says dirty energy is cheaper, he is looking only at a partial set of costs, ignoring major “external costs” like public health, resource depletion and national security. The savings he refers to are merely the direct ones like reduced energy bills and (inconclusively, in his mind) new jobs. Those are well and fine, but it’s incomplete accounting.

This is the same reason elected officials from coal mining states think they’re doing the right thing in opposing environmental regulations on coal; the loss of coal industry jobs, according to this type of partial accounting, will hurt their constituents. But when true costs such as the health costs for miners and those living nearby and the costs of polluted waters and ravaged land are taken into account, that calculation is turned on its head. (Help me out here – I read a post just last week which cited numbers for exactly this example, but I can’t find it now. Send me the link if you have it.)

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The same point can be made with mass transit. The benefits are not only in the reduced fuel consumption and air pollution that people tend to focus on, but also in time saved due to less congestion and even improved well-being arising from commuting less stressfully as a passenger rather than a frustrated driver. Not to mention the fact that you can safely text your heart away. (See “Public Transportation Saved 865 Million Hours Of Delay On US Roads In 2011.”)

At the very bottom of his column, Leonhardt almost gets it. “In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.” Ahah, now we’re talking about the larger picture, or at least some of it. But it’s so far down at the end that it’s all but a footnote, and an incomplete one at that.

Yes, in that battle for public support, if it’s the environment versus the economy – especially in a troubled economic time like this – the environment’s gonna lose.  But that’s an entirely wrong scenario, one created by the limited vision of conventional political-economic thinking (and avidly supported by corporate self-interests). I’ve noted this in earlier posts as, of course, others have as well. In a blog post wonderfully titled “It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm,” Paula Williams writes “the economy and the environment are not separate (contrary to the claims of many economists).”

Public support for environmentalism has been waning since the start of the Great Recession, and not just in the US, as Greenbiz.com notes.

Across eighteen countries, public concern about all six issues – water pollution, fresh water shortages, natural resource depletion, air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss – is way down from its peak in 2009, with double-digit falls in the proportion of the public considering them “very serious.”

[O]ur figures suggest people are starting to tune…out [messages of doom and gloom]. Ultimately, the challenge for the environmental movement is to articulate an alternative to our current economic model that empowers people rather than constrains them, and that is politically achievable in difficult times.

The alternative economic model is the understanding that our environmental solutions are our economic solutions. That, along with the observation that those combined solutions – contrary once again to the claims of many economists and others — will also improve the quality of our lives, is the foundation of EcoOptimism.

 

How wise is political wisdom?

In a post a few weeks ago, I discussed why environmentalism is not a topic in the election, and why the public doesn’t seem interested. I wrote: “… the public lack of support is, in part, a Catch-22. Politicians don’t put it on their agendas because they are told people aren’t interested. Then people think it’s not important because no one is talking about it. This is what’s known as a positive feedback loop. Too bad its effect isn’t so positive.” (Is it bad form to be quoting myself already?)

Well, it turns out there is somewhat more positive news out there. A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication investigated what the effect would be on a candidacy if the candidate were to come out in support of climate initiatives. Surprisingly, their finding is voters do want to hear views on global warming and that such a stand would benefit candidates more than it would hurt them. Even more surprising, Republican candidates would not lose votes overall. The study found:

  • A majority of all registered voters (55%) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.
  • Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the U.S. to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.
  • A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.
  • These patterns are found nationally and among ten swing states.

So, what’s going on? Why the difference between the common political “wisdom” and these findings? “80 percent support action to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs,” the study reports, but that’s different from what we hear elsewhere, and way far different from what that political wisdom believes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, it’s a cheap shot and I lifted the image from a Tee Shirt site.

The explanation, of course, lies in where the money and influence come from. No new news there. And it still leaves us with the question of how to balance that undue influence. Maybe with better slogans? That might be a start at least.

There’s a lot of other interesting info within that Yale study. One that particularly grabbed me was this chart:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though the title reads like something only a policy wonk would be interested in, its implications are significant. Among other conclusions, it says that more than half of Republicans (and of course higher percentages of Dems and Independents) believe that oil companies should be responsible for hidden costs. In my post “Where’s the (true cost) in beef?” I discussed “true costs” and externalities, both of which are similar to “hidden costs.”

Why is this significant? The largest component of hidden costs or externalities in the oil industry, even when spills are included, is climate disruption. The largest causal factor there is carbon emissions.  And what’s the simplest way to tie carbon emissions to the hidden costs of climate disruption? Carbon pricing.

According to that chart, somewhere around 60% – 65% of voters support true costing of oil. Stands to reason, then, they should support carbon pricing. Yet mention of any kind of carbon pricing, whether it’s called a carbon tax or cap-and-dividend, falls into the black hole of politics.

It’s a disconnect, obviously. “We like this idea,” polls indicate, but not when you call it something else. Which brings us right back to the issue of communication and EcoOptimism. A lot of people have been concluding lately that rational or scientific explanations and arguments do not work in the public sphere. With that in mind, I’m very curious to read the new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s written not by a semiologist or a political flack, but by the head of ClimateProgress and claims to “reveal the secrets of the world’s greatest and most memorable communicators.” If a climate wonk like Romm can help us find ways to more effectively get “the word” out, then we may have solved a significant part of that disconnect, and be better able to make the case for EcoOptimism.

Bouncing Back, or Elastic Demand: The Historical Parallels Between Rubber and Renewable Energy

If history truly does repeat itself, then perhaps we can take a chapter from World War II and fruitfully apply it to the 21st century. At the outset of hostilities, even before 1941, it became clear that the military had a significant supply problem with a particular material needed for mobility and other uses such as wire insulation: rubber.

Rubber had been originally sourced from rubber trees in the Amazon. (The rubber, or latex, is tapped from the trees in sort of the way that maple syrup is harvested.)

Harvesting latex from a rubber tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the development of the automobile, demand for rubber soared and a vicious Brazilian industry rapidly grew. But by the late 19th century, rubber seeds had been successfully exported to Southeast Asia and, from then on, the Brazilian sourcing of rubber declined dramatically from basically 100% to, by 1940, merely1.3%.

Playing the national security card

Which brings us to the start of WWII. The US was dependent on Asia for its rubber supply, and wars on two oceans cut off 90% of the supply. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rubber Reserve Company, forcing the major rubber companies to work together and all but conscripted the scientists and engineers in the field to develop reliable synthetic sources of rubber. That source: petroleum.

Germany had, out of necessity, actually produced synthetic rubber in WW1, but it was much more expensive than natural rubber and, therefore, manufacturing ceased when that war ended. Now, there was an immediate dire need for the US to advance that research and put it into cost-effective production.

The wartime effort prevailed (along with such conservation measures as lowered speed limits to decrease wear on tires) and by the end of the war the US was producing almost as much rubber as it had been importing.

 

Manufacture of natural rubber versus synthetic rubber. Source: Mindfully.org.

 

It’s not a perfect environmental parable since natural rubber was displaced by synthetic rubber, dependent on petroleum supplies that eventually had to be imported. The synthetic rubber manufacturing process, too, is not exactly a clean industry. (Not that natural rubber harvesting, as conventionally practiced, was all that sustainable either.) The point, though, is that the US recognized a severe problem of national security and determined that the response had to be stimulation of domestic industry. An all-out effort was initiated and, five years later, amidst wartime conditions, the problem was essentially solved.

The new rubber?

Ironically, seventy years later, it’s the petroleum whose supply is threatened. This time, though, it’s not only rubber production that is in jeopardy; it’s our entire industrial base as well as our lifestyles, that “American Way of Life.” And what’s our national response? Let’s frantically grab onto a diminishing supply of increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty fossil fuel sources and perhaps postpone the problem by a few years while doing nothing to address the core problem. And in going that route, those core problems become even harder and more painful to remedy – if indeed remedies are then still possible — later.

If we had the leadership we had in the 1940’s, it would be a different picture. Yes, speed limits would be reduced to conserve fuel (as they were, but only temporarily, in the seventies). But moreover, we’d see a national effort – one akin to a wartime effort, not our current haphazard and intermittent programs – to ensure our national security by simultaneously decreasing demand for fossil fuels and developing alternative sources.

The synthetic rubber initiative in the 1940s was a matter of life or death. Without alternative rubber production, the war may well have turned out differently. Is the need now for renewable energy significantly different? As then, we face endangered supply lines. On top of that, the supply currently endangered is itself finite and disappearing rapidly (we’ve used up 500 million years of accumulated fossil fuel in less than two centuries) and its usage is creating issues both local and global, and threatening our health, our food supplies and perhaps our survival.

Hubbert’s Curve (above, source: Wikipedia Commons) is a common depiction of imminent peak oil. But perhaps more illuminating and dramatic is this graph (below) from one of my favorite geek blogs, Do the Math. Over millions of years, the Earth slowly accumulated a stockpile of fossil fuels. We suddenly started extracting them only a century or two ago, and are using them up far faster than the planet can replace them. “Blowing through our inheritance” is what Do the Math author, Tom Murphy, calls it.

 


The enemy is different. It’s not as easily identifiable or as obviously evil as countries attacking us (leaving aside Middle East politics and terrorism), but it is at least as menacing. Our way of life is endangered not, as George W. Bush said, by action to fix a combined strategic, economic and ecological problem, but by inaction. Perhaps the big difference is that, at the end of this “war” effort, the outcome is not merely survival, but our flourishing: better, healthier and happier lives on a cleaner, healthier planet. Not acting puts everything at risk. In acting, on the other hand, there is very little to lose, and everything to gain. It’s the consummate win-win-win scenario and shying away from it is not merely foolhardy and shortsighted, but in fact unpatriotic.

So our role models are petroleum-based rubber and the atomic bomb?

Many say we need a contemporary Manhattan Project to develop renewable energy. Perhaps the concurrent rubber project, with its industry focus and strategic parallels, is a better model.

A big, and positive, difference is that, while there was really only one possible substitute for imported rubber, there are quite a few potential substitutes for petroleum. We use oil both as an energy source and as a basis for synthetic materials (like, ahem, rubber). However, we can generate energy from a number of renewable sources, and there are alternatives – existing or in development — to making plastics and other materials from petroleum.

 

Produce packaged, appropriately enough, in bioplastic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The question might be: how do we create the political environment, as WWII did for rubber, for renewable energy? Preferably, without a war. The strategic importance argument is there, but it hasn’t taken hold in the imperative way that synthetic rubber did. And if I am to be consistent in favoring the carrot over the stick, the demand should not arise from fear – though it’s a helluva motivator – but from desire. What’s needed to engage the next Manhattan or Rubber Project?