Archive for March, 2005

It won’t be easy

Monday, March 21st, 2005

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Mary Ann raises two interesting points in her comments on Peak Oil. One is the situation described in the first chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, that we all see different sides of the elephant, and so agreement is difficult. A wider perspective can bring us a more complete solution, or it can just lead to status quo or compromise as we cant agree how to move forward.

It is necessary to drive up the cost of using fossil fuels in order to discourage its use. The hoped-for consequence is that individuals will use less, businesses will use less, and businesses and business practices that depend on fossil fuels will be replaced by other businesses and business practices. Someone sent me a cartoon once: when a door closes, another opens, but the hallway is a bitch.

Mary Ann’s second point is on the difficulty of weighing choices, and on the importance of buying local over buying organic. An article on the subject discusses a report I haven’t read in the journal Food Policy: organic food is not better for the environment if you transport it more than 12 miles. Much more important is buying local food. The journal suggests that buying organic is approximately as important as whether you drive to the store; perhaps in Britain, more walk or take the bus to the store than do here in the US. There are other issues about organic food, such as how large meat production must be to totally grow large quantitites of organic food, but that distracts from the point of the article.

We need to find ways to make it through that hallway together.

The Climate Change Commitment

The latest Science magazine has two articles on the inertia in both temperature increases and sea level increase. Just as noon and June 20 are not the warmest part of the day/year, just as water set in the sun takes a while to warm and expand as it warms, the temperature and sea level will continue to rise from carbon already added. This has been known since the beginning of the discussion. This week however, Wigley from the National Center for Atmospheric Research made a new prediction as to how much warming commitment and sea level rise commitment has been made. These estimates, assuming no further changes in our atmosphere after 2000, represent the extreme lower end of predictions on climate change.

As the Earth warms, it radiates more infrared. It will take some time before this balances out, and then the Earth will be 0.7 C warmer than today (defined as 2000), for a total increase of 1.5 C from pre-industrial times. This assumes the continued cooling effect of pollutants, atmospheric aerosols (small suspended solid or liquid particles). By 2100, the increase would be a little less. The inertia in the warming ocean is greater: approximately 10 cm (4 inch) increase per century for several centuries. Additionally, there will be sea level increase of some 40 cm due to the melting of ice on land, not counting Greenland or Antarctica. All numbers include great uncertainties.

Meehl, et al, also from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also address in a different model How Much More Global Warming and Sea Level Rise? At any given point in time, even if concentrations are stabilized, there is a commitment to future climate changes that will be greater than those we have already observed.

Many (most? all?) climatologists would like to see atmospheric carbon levels fall below current levels. This could happen in the near term if the amount of carbon we added yearly fell below the amount the ocean absorbs (due to increases in atmospheric carbon, the ocean absorbs a greater amount of carbon than in pre-industrial times) and increased land productivity. The ocean is a temporary repository of carbon, but may last long enough to get us through this hallway (can anyone tell me more?) Ocean life will continue to suffer more, because carbon dioxide is an acid.

I rarely hear people talk about the importance of addressing climate change. Yes, we hear it all the time, along with exhortations for this or that. For most people, yes the environment is important, yes I’m glad others are working on it, it’s just not my focus. You think maybe there are already too many people addressing this?


Sunday, March 20th, 2005

A good F/friend, Peter Trier, died unexpectedly last week.

Peter was a great mind and a great heart in a not particularly good body. He had some use of his hands and arms when I met him more than 22 years ago, but he had long since lost that.

Peter’s mother fought to get Peter out of schools for what we now call special ed students. Once he entered the regular school, he was kicked out of the classroom and into the library to do independent research. Eventually he earned a PhD in philosophy from UC, Berkeley, and taught philosophy at Fresno State.

From Peter I learned about nonviolence, as a way of life, the strength needed to live that way, the respect for others. He taught nonviolence, and he lived it. From Peter I learned much of what I know about Friends’ ways.

Peter was the Friend I went to when I first began reading about energy issues. Reading all those graphs, reading Friends’ testimonies (how our lives testify to our beliefs). We talked and talked and worked it out over a period of time: what is true, what is important, and what is ours as individuals and Friends to work on.

Peter left Friends feeling hurt. He tried to communicate to us that we ignore the needs of the disabled. Few listened. I never heard those who disagree explain why, though it is our way in seeking unity to move beyond agreement and disagreement to explain the whys and hows.

After Peter left Friends, we still saw each other almost weekly; he continued to teach me Friends’ ways.

Peter, I will miss you.

Peak Oil

Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

I’ve seen several articles debating when oil production will peak. For those of you who have missed them, oil prices rise due to scarcity (real or not) or increased production costs, and the latter become important sometime around when oil production peaks. Also, the time for us to go through the second half of the world’s oil will be considerably less than the history of oil use to date, and our transportation infrastructure in particular is heavily oil-based.

Among climate change scientists, there seems to be less worry about running out of oil, and considerably more worry about its use. Recent readings have given me some understanding.

David Greene, et al, from (pdf file) Running Out of and into Oil: Analyzing Global Oil Depletion and Transition Through 2050

“It is possible that the world could go partway down the path of developing unconventional oil resources and later reverse direction. But such a strategy would strand huge investments in the more capital-intensive production and refining of unconventional oil. If the transition to unconventional oil is gradual, there might be time to introduce low-carbon alternatives and a reversal might not be too costly. But if the transition to unconventional oil is sudden and massive, the world’s economies might quickly become locked into a high carbon future. Avoiding or even slowing the transition to unconventional fossil resources might improve the world’s chances of successfully dealing with global climate change.”

The unconventional oil sources referred to are coal to liquids (synfuel), for example, or natural gas to liquids (isn’t all natural gas needed for electricity and heating?) Both increase carbon emissions, in part because of the energy needed to convert them to liquid. Both are expensive because they require so much energy for the process.

Oil prices will rise if we hit a peak, but Europeans and others are already living with much higher gasoline prices.

Detour: A vote on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is expected soon. My understanding is that oil companies are not particularly interested in drilling there without some kind of guarantee (a large guarantee, but will that dissuade Congress?), as there is relatively little oil, and it’s relatively far from where it would be used. I’m not sure why anyone would vote for opening up the site to oil drilling, both for practical reasons and because it’s nice to imagine those few places in the world not crowded by us. What I hear is, “got you, you crummy environmentalists”, but perhaps our legislators have other reasons, poorly articulated to date. Certainly these reasons have little to do with oil security, even for the rare person who also votes to increase car mileage standards. That said, the overwhelming concern to the caribou is not the drilling, but the use of oil. Climate change alters the environment at high altitudes faster, and refuge status will not protect ANWR.

Return: From my reading, it is apparent that the rest of the world, as non-OPEC is generally referred to, is running out of oil much faster than is OPEC. Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad points out that governments that finance themselves without taxes are not as accountable to citizens. Hence there is worldwide discomfort at financing these governments. But the discomfort is not great enough here in the United States to taxing oil in order to encourage us to change our behavior.

We would be much better off raising taxes on oil use today. Even a moderate tax, perhaps as little as $1/gallon, will begin to shift behavior, to help stretch out our current oil supply and allow the transitions away from fossil fuels, so that we don’t finance OPEC governments so heavily.

Oh, I’ve heard many, particularly poor people, say, but we can’t afford it. Perhaps more earned income credit, or some other mechanism, could help the poor in this transition, and let people choose whether to spend the extra money on a car or the bus. It isn’t right to ignore those who will be hurt in a transition. But we are wrong if we do not transition. Some talk about making the carbon tax revenue neutral, an idea I was more sympathetic to until the Bush deficits, and back when I thought roads and bridges are paid for by the current gasoline tax rather than out of general revenue.

We could do more regional planning of mass transit systems. We could use some of the gasoline tax to pay for the roads and mass transit that makes our roads less crowded. We could teach bicycling as a PE option, as those who learn to bicycle and signal correctly are less dangerous to themselves and others and are more likely to continue bicycling as adults. This would leave more oil for those of you who can’t or don’t want to bicycle. There’s lots we can do.

The cost of our transportation continues to increase. The obvious increases in price are accompanied by the continued power of corrupt governments, the costs to agriculture and water supplies and human settlements and peace from climate change. Let’s add some of these costs, or the desire to avoid these costs, to the price of gasoline. The costs will be paid, either as lower costs consciously assumed today or higher costs imposed tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

When I first began reading about energy issues almost a decade ago, I began with a prejudice against exclamation points. My local newspaper coverage of nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops rarely appeared without !!! Later its coverage of MTBE would say that this gasoline additive pollutes!!!! our water!!, leaving readers to fill in the blanks: my informal survey showed that MTBE as carcinogen was a more popular blank-filler than MTBE as a cause of birth defects. (In high enough concentrations, MTBE makes water unpalatable to the minority who can taste it. This is a good enough reason for regulating its use.)

So there I was reading, trying to get a sense of what the issues are and how important. I began by looking at coal and nuclear power, and with my sense of balance, began by assuming that coal power is as bad as nuclear power. On the one hand those opposed to nuclear power, state with !!! galore that nuclear power might kill people. Since the number of people who might be killed is not stated, the reader is left to make assumptions. Pretty much ignored were the tens of thousands of Americans who die yearly from fossil fuel particulates. And a couple thousand coal miners. On the other hand, scientists were using even more and larger ! to describe climate change; well those of us used to understatement can recognize all the !!!! in scientists writings on climate change and related topics. For them, the tens of thousands (some 70,000) Americans dying from fossil fuels are an add-on another benefit to addressing fossil fuels, besides the really large concern, climate change. I listened, but I also reacted to the use of !, so I had to listen longer before I really heard.

Our president talks about social security, and the mainstream media and bloggers follow suit. Most of us know that social security is a tiny issue, even if Congress decides to address it, compared to the great human, ecological, and financial costs of climate change. Yet all that seems to be happening is a few people shaking their heads before they return to covering whatever the President is talking about. Because social security is where the !!! are.

Find the !!! in the report issued by the International Climate Change Taskforce, Meeting the Climate Challenge. For the first time, a respected body has set a lower limit to dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide: 400 parts per million, a level we are likely to reach in about a decade.

From the report:

The vast majority of international scientists and peer-reviewed reports affirm that climate change is a serious and growing threat, leaving no country, however wealthy, immune from the extreme weather events and rising sea levels that scientists predict will occur, unless action is taken.

Climate change represents one of the most serious and far-reaching challenges facing humankind in the twenty-first Century.

The cost of failing to mobilise in the face of this threat is likely to be extremely high. The economic costs alone will be very large: as extreme weather events such as droughts and floods become more destructive and frequent; communities, cities, and island nations are damaged or inundated as sea level rises; and agricultural output is disrupted. The social and human costs are likely to be even greater, encompassing mass loss of life, the spread or exacerbation of diseases, dislocation of populations, geopolitical instability, and a pronounced decrease in the quality of life. Impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity are also likely to be devastating. Preventing dangerous climate change, therefore, must be seen as a precondition for prosperity and a public good, like national security and public health.

By contrast, the cost of taking smart, effective action to meet the challenge of climate change should be entirely manageable. Such action need not undermine standards of living. Furthermore, by taking action now and developing a long-term climate policy regime we can ensure that the benefits of climate protection are achieved at least cost.

On the basis of an extensive review of the relevant scientific literature, we propose a long-term objective of preventing average global surface temperature from rising by more than 2C (3.6F) above its pre-industrial level (taken as the level in 1750, when carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations first began to rise appreciably as a result of human activities).

Beyond the 2C level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly. It is likely, for example, that average temperature increases larger than this will entail substantial agricultural losses, greatly increased numbers of people at risk of water shortages, and widespread adverse health impacts. Exceeding a global average increase of more than 2C could also imperil a very high proportion of the worlds coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to important terrestrial ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest.

Above the 2C level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change also increase. The possibilities include reaching climatic tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (which, between them, could raise sea levels more than ten meters over the space of a few centuries), the shutdown of the thermohaline ocean circulation (and, with it, the Gulf Stream), and the transformation of the planets forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon.

Climate science is not yet able to specify the trajectory of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that corresponds precisely to any particular global temperature rise. Based on current knowledge, however, it appears that achieving a high probability of limiting global average temperature rise to 2C will require that the increase in greenhouse-gas concentrations as well as all the other warming and cooling influences on global climate in the year 2100, as compared with 1750, should add up to a net warming no greater than what would be associated with a CO2 concentration of about 400 parts per million (ppm).

Read the report. How should we react to valid warnings!!!!! of severe consequences if we continue on our path? One role we could play is requesting the media to focus on climate change and other topics, including this report. What else can we do?

The Paradox of Choice

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

The cooperation of hundreds of millions of people is needed if we are to address climate change and other major environmental worries. The destruction of the ozone layer, while no less serious, is easier to address, because there are a limited number of products contributing to the problems, and most have easy substitutes. Confronting climate change will require us to change how we live, change our expectations of what will give us pleasure. Confronting the problems of the environment requires us to make choices.

Much has been written about choice. Barry Schwartz based The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less on the Nobel Prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (collaborator who died first and did not share the prize), as well as that of Amartya Sen.

Most people dislike too little choice or too much choice. We’ve seen survey after survey where people extol choice, but when it comes to exercising choice, we are more reluctant. Often this appears as a refusal to opt for something: even when the company kicks in some money, or there’s a dollar off coupon, choice is hard. The more options on the table, the less likely that any choice will be made, and the less likely we will be happy with our choice. Several studies lead to these conclusions: a table in a store provides a $1 off coupon and displays either 6 or 24 types of jam. Thirty percent of the customers with fewer choices bought a jar of jam, but only three percent did when more choices were offered. Similarly, students offered 6 topics for an extra credit essay were more likely to write essays, and wrote better essays, than students offered 30 topics. Those selecting one out of either 6 or 30 gourmet chocolates gave higher ratings to the chocolate when it came from the sample of six.

(Given a choice between a sure $100 and a 50% chance for $200, most opt for the $100. The current social security system is preferred by those who dislike making choices and those who want a sure benefit. President Bush is rowing upstream.)

Many of today’s parents give their children a paralyzing number of choices, from what color candy (does it really matter?), which toy, which classes to take in school. Not only is precious energy devoted to solving the problem, but there is a burden: I might make the wrong choice. This burden appears even with unimportant choices, such as whether to accept $1.50 in cash or a $2 pen. Schwartz believes that citizens in societies that offer too few or two many choices have greater levels of depression.

We also find it difficult to opt out. Some enormous percentage of SUV owners go into debt to buy a car; they cannot afford the car + fuel + insurance. It is hard to opt out of what “everyone” is doing.

Studies of how change affects happiness show that the act of change often produces a blip in one direction or the other, but that even large changes such as losing a leg or gaining or losing a marriage produces a much smaller long-term effect than we expect. The consequences of buying that car are even less profound.

I haven’t read enough to know whether the various authors discuss the destructive effects of thinking choice helps. If we buy that car today, are we even less likely in the future to address what we really want? If we opt for a higher-paying job in lieu of time with our family and friends or in lieu of work that provides more non-monetary rewards, we lose twice: we lose what really matters, and we lose by thinking that money and things nurture us. (This does not apply to people whose income is low. But studies of reported happiness vs. income show that people do not report happiness increasing at an income less than American per capita income, and that it can even decrease as income level rises.)

One psychologist who worked with teenagers described what they needed: to have one person who loves you, and to accomplish something. (Does anyone remember his name?) For older people I would add a need to feel that I am contributing to my family and to my community: to feel connected.

When I ask people in one interest group what comes up for them when they think about changing their lives for the environment, adjectives such as dread and resentment head the list. Those who have begun changing their lives almost always talk of joy. This in part because of what Friends call simplicity, of living one’s life according to what is important (so as to be able to hear God’s voice). People who are consciously living with less have made choices about what they value. They are happier, happier with who they are.

People who live with less also have fewer choices, and this removes a burden. When my car broke in 1991, I told myself that I didn’t have money to replace it. It was an expensive luxury. Now I could buy a car without going into debt, but I find that by continuing to live without a car, I am less able to over schedule (I will never lose that ability totally). Almost as important is the pleasure of transporting myself through muscle power, the pleasure I receive at the time and the pleasure I receive when I can vacation with the help of muscle power. I don’t know if I would have made this change for the environment – it’s on the list of reasons, but not at the top.

We want choices in our lives, we thrive on choice. That said, I am pleased to have fewer options because I don’t have a car (except when the rains won’t end, or I need to transport something difficult, but in the latter case, there are options).

Many say that they can’t make choices about their lives because they live where there are fewer choices. How would you respond?

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Michael addresses this line in the previous post: “An older friend named a few of the problems of the 20th century: world wars, famines, genocides. Does concern about the environment really compete with such horrors?” “Yes.” he says, followed by some details.

Shifting how we talk and think about the environment

Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus were part of a panel discussion at UC, Berkeley on changing the direction of the environmental movement.

They point out that groups that want to do things right spend time analyzing their process, and that environmentalists are woefully lacking compared to librarians in this regard. That most Americans care about the environment, just not very much.

Everyone on stage feels that climate change, biodiversity loss and related issues are the most important environmental issues ever to face mankind, and perhaps the most important issues facing mankind ever. So why is it so difficult to get the attention of the general public?

[An older friend named a few of the problems of the 20th century: world wars, famines, genocides. Does concern about the environment really compete with such horrors? Yes.]

There are a variety of reasons. The authors blame the approach of progressives in general and environmentalists in particular. One point on which I agree with the authors: people are not sitting on their duff re the environment only because they lack information about how serious the problems are, or because they lack a plan.

The authors cite many problems with the environmental movement. Here are some of their concerns mixed with my comments, yes, there are overgeneralizations:

• Solutions frequently are technical, rather than requiring us to examine our own behavior and prejudices. I have learned from people that if not much is asked of us, the problems can’t be all that bad.

Many of the solutions are technical. We need to improve current technical solutions, and find more. But of even more concern is how much of the solution must be more than technical.

• Environmentalists see large memberships as a sign of success. They often emphasize projects that generate membership and revenue. In particular, they overplay concern about nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops, feeding into worries that the government and scientists are out to poison us. They focus on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place to protect. Yes, subsidizing oil exploration there doesn’t make sense, but if one is really concerned about ANWR, it is better to focus on not burning the oil; climate change will make it toast. It was a shock to read that environmentalists traded opposition from the auto industry on ANWR drilling for neglect of car mileage standards. (ANWR is of interest to oil companies only if they are provided economic guarantees protecting them against loss.)

Of course, the UAW did not win either. It is not in the best interest of American autoworkers for American companies to continue their attachment to low mileage technologies. Nor does it do them any good if some of the core problems of the industry are not addressed, such as the high cost of health insurance.

• Because environmentalists are flush with money, they don’t need to make alliances with other movements. As a result, labor doesn’t see that there will be more jobs if we shift away from the use of fossil fuels, both because solar and wind power are more labor intensive, and because money wasted on energy costs is not available for other uses. OK, greater efficiency will accomplish the second, and wind and solar are more expensive, but will still produce a net gain for labor.

• The use of the word “environment” can be confusing. In my own process, I was initially concerned about what will happen to people this century and gradually began to understand the enormous consequences to the Earth. Tens of thousands of people died in Eurasia during the summer of 2003 from a heat wave that is considered an indication of climate change, far outside normal variability. Concerns about “the environment” are too often left unconnected to human behaviors with human consequences.

• Over the next 50 years, we need to reduce carbon emissions precipitously (figure some 90+% per capita in the US alone, less in countries with lower emissions), and then zero them out from there. This is not the same task as dealing with a small number of acid rain or ozone hole producing facilities. We need to get our act together and we need to help developing countries. Yet environmentalists will tout compact fluorescents and hybrid cars (they deserve to be touted) rather than a remake of society, in which compacts fluorescents and hybrid cars play vital roles.

• (My comment) We are so used to hearing unnecessary ! and !! in the speeches of environmentalists, we often ignore the !!!! emerging from the scientific community. Many justify ignoring the !!!!, after all, they are paying attention to the (trivial, but good for fundraising) !.

Michael Brower and Warren Leon emphasized in the excellent “Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: practical advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists” that we need to spend less time worrying about paper vs. plastic, and more on how we get to the store. The same should be true of all interested in the environment: focus on the big questions.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus call their article “The Death of Environmentalism.” I am pleased to see discussions beginning on how to make concern for the environment more effective.