Archive for February, 2006

How Journalists Skew Discussions

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

On PBS’s The News Hour some months ago, the guests included a man from industry speaking in favor of real time pricing of electricity, charging companies different prices for electricity, depending on the costs to produce electricity in real time. Speaking against this idea were several self-declared environmentalists/representatives of the public. There was no way for a listener to ascertain that the “industry” solution is actually the policy solution recommended by experts in economics and energy policy. PBS was able to influence the way the message was heard by labeling mainstream thinking as “industry”.

This seems to be the pattern for discussions on nuclear power. PBS obtained an “expert” on nuclear power from The Economist; he spoke rapidly, articulately, and erroneously. Representing nuclear power were two people from industry, no one from academia or energy policy. Occasionally one of the industry people would break in and correct what the journalist was saying, but it is difficult to correct people who get so much information wrong in such a short time.

I was struck in earlier decades by the journalistic technique of interviewing an extreme right winger and an extreme left winger so as to get “both sides”. The practice today too often includes an interview with someone knowledgeable paid by the industry, and someone unknowledgeable from outside the field.

And jeez, when are journalists going to stop saying, “some scientists believe that greenhouse gases cause climate change”. Uh, that’s not in doubt. There is some doubt as to how much damage climate change will cause, with the bulk of scientists saying it looks bad, and a small number, make that a tiny number, who advocate addressing climate change slowly, just in case the overwhelming majority is overstating the possible consequences.

Comments that go beyond nays and praise Bob supplemented his comment to a post on biofuels with another comment to the previous post. His point is important to talk about: does focusing on technology take energy away from changing behavior?

For people who may have forgotten how much we need to cut back on carbon emissions, we’re talking 65 – 85% in the next few decades, even as population and per capita consumption continue to rise. For climate justice, so that people in Cambodia can some day emit carbon while Americans begin to emit only their share, cutbacks would have to be much more than 90% in the first world, and even larger in the US.

Your thinking on the policy changes vs technology changes vs voluntary simplicity even without policy changes?

Question and Comments

Friday, February 24th, 2006

I have received one question and two comments since I last posted.

What is ppm C?

I am sorry for abbreviating, this should be spelled out at least once/blog, and it’s been a while. ppm C is an abbreviation for ppmv C which means parts per million volume carbon. The current level of atmospheric carbon is 380 ppmv C — out of every million units of air, 380 units are carbon dioxide. Doesn’t sound like much to be having such a great effect?

Methane is measured in even smaller units, ppb, or parts per billion.

Comments that go beyond nays and praise Thanks to Susan for her comments on the previous post on how we talk, and how we think about issues. Please read her comment!

Thanks as well to Bob for his comments on biofuels. He points out (in a longish comment, read the whole thing) that we need to look at behavior as well. This is absolutely true, but go to the post on Making Transit Work to see how difficult it is to effect behavior change. For those who missed it, this is a National Academy of Science examination of how to double transit use in the US from 2% to 4%. This modest goal, which will likely take decades to achieve, will be a small blip in the upward exponential use of airplane and automobile.

In reality, we need both technology and policy changes and behavior changes on top of those. Policy changes will lead to behavior changes, but we need behavior to change more rapidly.

There are two reasons for this. First, there is reason to doubt that policy and technology changes will be fast or deep enough to confront climate change and other environmental disasters. And second, people who look at their own flying and driving, who look at how far their food travels and the environmental impact of where they live, are more likely to push the issues with the general public and with legislators.

Why Aren’t WE Talking About Climate Change?

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

In the past, I’ve asked Friends (Quakers) in interest groups, what makes addressing climate change difficult? I’ve heard about fears and guilt, a sense of being overwhelmed. People talked of resentment that we need to change, and a feeling that living with less means deprivation.

I recently asked two Quaker lists why WE aren’t talking about climate change though James Hansen and so many other climatologists give stark warnings about the consequences of failing to act rapidly and radically.

I appreciate how much people opened up about this. The same ideas, different wordings, apply to struggling in our religious and public lives, in our families, with our legislators.

We must find ways to talk about climate change, as a group, or we won’t find ourselves on the paths to serve God, won’t find ways to address the largest challenges of our lifetime.


More on Biofuels

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

More on biofuels from the January 27 Science (also see post on net benefits from ethanol): the US, EU, and India expect that 5% of their fuels will be bioderived within 5 years. Up to 30% of (today’s? future?) global fuels can be supplied “in an environmentally responsible manner without affecting food reduction,” according to Steven Koonin (BP). The rest of this post comes from The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials, same issue.

Currently, about 2% of the US fuel mix comes from ethanol, 0.01% from biodiesel. The US Department of Energy goal is to replace 30% of liquid petroleum transportation fuel with biofuels, and 25% of organic chemicals (dyes, synthetic fibers, solvents, etc) with biomass-derived chemicals, all by 2025.


Tests are Good!

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

According to a short piece in the January 27 Science (p 437), not only do tests assess student learning and encourage student learning, but they help students remember the material. Students studied for a test (TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language), then were either tested or allowed to study again. They were then tested on how well they remembered the material. The study-study people remembered more initially, but the study-test group did better after a week.

So welcome those midterms!

Change in Sea Level Rise Estimates

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

In the SF Chronicle, this information rates a page 14 treatment. Where was the article in your paper?

The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports estimated sea level rise of 0.5 m, give or take 0.4 m (up to about a yard), this century. This would primarily result from water expansion in warming oceans, just like the liquid in a thermometer expands when warmed. The addition of Greenland’s water to the oceans, which would raise sea level by 7 m, was expected to take a thousand years, or thousands of years. New results show Greenland melt will be an important portion of sea level rise this year.

A sea level rise of 0.5 m could have enormous consequences. The sea moves in about 50 – 100 m for every m increase in sea level, and ocean surges during high tide in a powerful storm would further devastate coastal communities, push salt water inland, affecting rivers and ground water, and generally make life unpleasant for much of mankind. It is not encouraging to learn that this may be an underestimate.

Melting icebergs don’t raise sea level, just like melting ice in a full glass of water doesn’t cause spillage. However, estimates of sea level rise due to land ice melt have increased in recent years. The latest study shows that it’s increasing much more rapidly than had been thought.


Making Transit Work

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Making Transit Work (pdf, Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences) compares reasons for differences in transit use in the US (2%), Canada (4%), and West Europe (10%), and produces a set of ideas which over many decades may work together to make the US as transit-friendly as Canada.

In 1900, the US had a greater percentage of people living in cities and more mass transit than other industrialized countries. However, the US also moved rapidly to mass-produced goods, including cars.

To some extent, the difference in behavior has to do with wealth; as Europeans become wealthier, they drive more. Still, car ownership/GDP is less in other countries, from about 95% US levels in Canada, to 55% US levels in Denmark.

Historical differences between the US and West Europe explain much about transit use. Europeans often wish to protect fragile city centers. This means fewer freeways, which led to traffic congestion back in the 1960s, when car ownership was still low. After WW2, European governments took over housing, building transit centers and housing both. While US population and jobs doubled since WW2, increase was only about 25% in France, Britain, and Germany. Racial and other tensions led many to move out of the US central city to the suburb, as did US land and transportation policies. Much of the US growth was in the South and West, where restrictions were fewer. In Europe however, central cities did not lose population, and some even gained.

Policies vary among these countries. Most European countries have very strong national planning (state in Germany). The provinces are most important in Canadian decision-making. The US depends on local planning. [In my city (greater San Francisco) means considerably more than 10 (20? 50?) transit districts. Someone from Berkeley who travels often in San Francisco might buy 3 transit passes, one for buses in each city, and one for BART.]

The US provides capital funding at the national level, which leads to more capital construction of both highways and light rail systems than is true in Europe. Subsidies skew planning in the US, encouraging and subsidizing driving, and in the case of mass transit, can lead to lower ridership as cities build more expensive light rail and ignore much less costly buses. [An old analysis shows both capital and operating expenses for BART to be much higher than for local bus lines.] US planning is mostly reactive, reviewing local plans. Florida and Oregon control of the planning process is still very small by Europeans standards. Europeans and Canadians are more accepting of top-down decision-making. Canadians share the European vision of planning transit and housing together. Additionally, the large differences in the density of US cities (and cultural values) make creating a common vision difficult. Additional chaos is introduced into American decision-making by our method of electing directors to the local transit.

Because so few owned cars for such a long time, Europeans became very accepting of high fuel prices, and fuels are taxed to raise money for non-automotive uses. Canadians began with low taxes and have been increasing them, but are not yet at European levels.

The differences in who uses transit may affect policies. In the US, 2/3 of transit use is in 6 cities. New York has the largest use, 140 transit rides per capita per year. Transit use in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and DC also exceeds 75 rides per person per year. Nationwide, a quarter of transit users make less than $15,000 (1995 dollars). In the suburbs, 70% of users are poor.

In both Canada and Europe, a comfortable, clean, speedy ride is emphasized, and perks are available to attract new customers. The ride is faster due for a variety of reasons, such as spacing bus stops twice as far apart as in the US, requiring or encouraging pre-bought tickets, picking people up on median strips that allow rapid integration back into traffic, and giving bus drivers the ability to change traffic lights. Bus stops are often covered, sometimes provide current bus information, and are often located in small shopping centers or at least near kiosks. Heavy discounts may be offered to museums and sports events to attract bus users during off-peak hours – and perhaps a new customer. Discounts may be available to regular users for weekend car rentals or car-sharing. Taxis in some places are dispatched hourly or every half hour during night service.

The main alternative, cars, are made less attractive by higher fuel costs, much higher purchase taxes (180% in Denmark) and yearly registration fees, and less highly subsidized parking.

Canadian and West European transit operators work with fewer mandates re the poor and elderly, and less restrictive labor contracts. Local districts are given more time and opportunity to solve problems, and often show more creativity as a result.

The recommendations in brief, as to preconditions that foster success:

• Transit operational and quality-of-service enhancements

Flexible transit workforce; management autonomy, including latitude and incentives to innovate; regional coordination of transit fares and services; public expectations of dependable and convenient service

• Transit priority in traffic

Integration of highway and transit management and policy-making; limited street space and suitable geometry; latitude and incentives for operators to innovate

• Transit-oriented site design in land use zoning

Tradition of strong government regulation of development and land use; commonly accepted standards and guidelines for site design.

• Parking restrictions

Regional governance that allows for parking coordination across a metropolitan area

• Increase in cost of automobile use

Acceptance/tradition of high taxes on vehicles and fuel; public concern over pollution, noise, traffic, and other adverse side effects of driving; good alternatives to driving, including walking, biking, and transit

• Regional coordination of land use and transportation planning

Regional governance, including revenue sharing; government land ownership; tradition of strong regional governance; public concerns about environment and land scarcity

Smart Growth vs. Free Market

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Recent readings on Smart Growth sometimes point out that great progress could be made not by forcing extra regulations on a free market, but by removing restrictions that impede the free market. One of these is Michael Lewyn’s How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning). Unit note: there are about 2.5 acres in a hectare.

As Houston doesn’t have a formal zoning code, allowing commercial/residential mixing, it is sometimes presented as an example of a city formed by the free market, and proof that the free market leads to sprawl.

Nothing I’ve read implies that all transit and housing problems can be solved via the free market. They do indicate that currently, city planning often interferes with free market solutions.


Evangelical Climate Initiative

Saturday, February 11th, 2006

Check out the evangelical statement on climate change, reasons, and suggested actions.

Claim 1: Human-Induced Climate Change is Real
Claim 2: The Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Significant, and Will Hit the Poor the Hardest
Claim 3: Christian Moral Convictions Demand Our Response to the Climate Change Problem
Claim 4: The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change starting now.

On their action page, they site three crucial steps: pray, study, and act.


What Changes Have You Seen?

Friday, February 10th, 2006

This started out as a post on how we discuss climate change in groups: the problems and the solutions and our role in each. Then came Gerwazy’s comment on nature (previous post) and Chuck’s forward of an article describing how the Canada geese are still on Prince Edward Island, waiting for the cold that signals time for migration.

Note: climate change can have a variety of causes. Some, such as earlier springs and later falls, are predicted by global warming models.


Avoiding Dangerous Levels of Warming

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

The International Climate Change Taskforce warned a year or so ago that 400 ppm (parts per million) atmospheric carbon would be dangerous, as the chance of accelerated, runaway, or abrupt climate change becomes dangerously high if the temperature increase is 2 C (3.6 F) — at 400 ppm C, the chance is one in five that a 2 C increase would occur. There were several points of confusion for me, thanks to RealClimate for clarification. Go to their explanation or read my slightly simplified one, which also includes explanations from John Holdren’s US Climate Policy Post-Kyoto: Scientific Underpinnings, Policy History, and the Path Ahead (pdf), a 2003 report.

Where does 400 ppm come from? and other questions


We Have a Decade

Friday, February 3rd, 2006

James Hansen’s speech (pdf) at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union implies that there is a much better sense of what is going to happen with the climate, and that the changes will be significantly faster than was expected.


Ethanol Helps

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006

As someone who helped spread incorrect information about the energy and carbon benefits of ethanol, I am pleased to find that I was wrong. From Science’s news release for the January 26 issue: Ethanol More Energy Efficient Than Thought.

Corn-based ethanol, the plant fuel that contributes about 2 percent to the total transportation fuels mix in the United States, is a more energy efficient fuel than previous studies would suggest, according to a new rigorous review reported in Science.

Alexander Farrell and colleagues closely examined six previous studies, two of which found that the energy used to produce ethanol outweighed any energy provided by the fuel. By correcting a number of assumptions and calculations, including the use of outdated information on production methods and the failure to account for the energy benefits of ethanol byproducts, the authors estimate that corn ethanol reduces petroleum use by about 95 percent per gallon of fuel, but only reduces greenhouse gases by about 13 percent. Improved agricultural practices and ethanol made from plants other than corn could boost ethanol’s environmental performance, Farrell and colleagues say.

Dwindling fossil fuel supplies, global warming and economic woes tied in to rising gas prices all point toward the necessity of a biofueled future, according to Arthur Ragauskas and colleagues in this “Review” article. The authors lay out a roadmap for the near future of biofuel production.

To prepare for this future, researchers are at work building a better biorefinery, using genomic tools to boost the yield of fuel crops, applying new chemical techniques to break down and convert the raw material of a biofuel “feedstock” into both fuel and byproducts such as commercially useful plastics and lubricants. Biorefineries could also find ways to recycle their own waste products, the authors say.

In a related “Editorial,” Steven Koonin says biomass can provide a secure fuel supply with lower greenhouse gas emissions while supporting the agricultural economy, without significant changes to our current vehicles or the way we buy fuel.

The largest error in previous studies that showed a negative benefit was assuming that there were no co-products, such as feed and corn oil.

The article itself says that improvements in these numbers would occur with improved agricultural methods:

(P)olicies aimed at reducing environmental externalities in the agricultural sector may result in significantly improved environmental performance of this fuel. For example, conservation tillage reduces petroleum consumption and GHG emissions as well as soil erosion and agrichemical runoff.

The article also says that ethanol is more effective at decreasing petroleum than is ethanol from switchgrass, but that switchgrass-based ethanol decreases carbon emissions substantially.

Correction Thanks to RP for correcting my wording of the last sentence.

One More Set of Factoids

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

More from the (US) Transportation Energy Data Book.

Consumers continue to demand gas guzzling automobiles. The IRS collected over $79 million in 2002 from those buying autos with fuel economy less than 22.5 miles per gallon. This tax does not apply to light trucks such as pickups, minivans, sport utility vehicles, and vans.

These taxes are from $1,000 – $7,000 each. Many of us still don’t understand why the taxes don’t apply to light trucks. Consumers are paying much more in direct than taxes than are the manufacturers:

Manufacturers of autos and light trucks whose vehicles do not meet the CAFE standards are fined. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that nearly $20 million has been collected from the manufacturers for model year (MY) 2002 and $34 million for MY 2001.

We all know that people with children drive more, 28,300 miles/year in 2001 vs. 16,700 miles/year for those without — some of that has to be age, as younger and older drivers spend less time behind the wheel. A big surprise to me is the urban/rural divide: 19,300 miles/year for urban households, up 300 miles from 11 years earlier; 28,400 miles/year for households, up 6,200 miles from 11 years earlier. That’s a lot of hours in the sitting position, not good for the health.

Correction Thanks to SD for catching my error in posting a 71% loss in electricity once it’s been manufactured. Most of that 71% is the huge loss in energy when molecules are burned (or atoms fissioned) to make heat, because only a percentage of heat energy is available for useful work.

His source (pdf) says, “Energy losses in the U.S. T&D [transmission and distribution] system were 7.2% in 1995, accounting for 2.5 quads of primary energy and 36.5 MtC. Losses are divided such that about 60% are from lines and 40% are from transformers (most of which are for distribution).”

In California, where we use less electricity than the size of our population would indicate, losses are closer to half, though I haven’t verified that by looking into the details. Electricity is shipped enormous distances: our coal power comes from out of state as we’re not allowed to pollute locally, and we regularly ship power from Washington State and back up to same. The size of our boonies (north or east of Sacramento) is larger than many states.

The independent operators lose about 4% by keeping production levels above use levels — if a large number of people turn on their electric dryers simultaneously, the surge could do terrible things. The power companies, no longer in charge due to deregulation, were more skilled, and kept that loss about 2%. Additionally, there is waste due to electricity manufacture at night. Nuclear power is stored by transporting water up, to be used the next day as hydroelectric power, with a loss of 10%? Wind power — 3 to 5 AM is the windy season — is lost.