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Getting warmer on warming

Ed Marshall · October 18th, 2012

In a prior post, The sensible center, I noted that those seeking to de-rail or delay policy addressing man-made global warming aimed to not simply deny the phenomenon or its cause, but to seed uncertainty among the populace so as to encourage doubt and inaction.

With that in mind, I read with interest media coverage of a recent polling showing that some solid majorities of the U.S. population now believe that global warming is indeed a real and currently occurring phenomenon (and with the bake and burn most of the country experienced this past summer you might expect an uptick in that perception).

So, progress, right?

Well, kind of. See recent polling also shows that, while a majority believes the climate is warming, only a minority believe human activity is the cause. Worse, that belief in a cause divide seems to break down solidly along political party identity lines.

So, yeah, more work to do to get the message through. Maybe a push on the appeal-to-authority front, but where to find an authority? In PR, leaning on the expert opinion of an authority to buttress a claim is a time-tested technique for swaying opinion. It’s why 4-out-of-5 dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. Those opposing action on global warming know this is an effective technique and made delegitimizing the most basic authorities – climate scientists – a top priority in their ongoing campaign of doubt and deceit. The scientists are all lying and conspiring about this global warming stuff so that they can get more government study grants and keep their cushy jobs in the ivory tower….or something.

But what about the insurance companies? Just this week, a very large re-insurance company (essentially, an insurance company for insurance companies) called Munich RE issued a report stating that North America has seen a dramatic increase in weather-related claims over the past decade and that “it is quite probable that changing climate conditions are the drivers. The climatic changes detected are in line with the modeled changes due to human-made climate change.”

Catch that last part? The multi-billion dollar international business entity said that climate change is real and likely being driven by human activity and, BTW, it’s costing you money – lots of money. It will be interesting to watch the deep-pocketed vested interests arrayed against the CO2 regulation battle to delegitimize the deep pocketed interests, such as large insurance companies, whose business models are jeopardized by an increase in CO2 levels and the costly extreme weather events it spawns. Oh, and the Pentagon, too – that’d be an interesting fight.

 

Export Land Model watch – news from the Citi

Ed Marshall · September 20th, 2012

Once upon a time, the United States of America was the world’s largest oil exporter. We grew rich from the oil we sold and the oil we used powered new industries and ways of living that, in turn, amped up our use of oil until we had nothing to spare. Simultaneously, natural events ran their course and oil fields became less productive, causing domestic production to peak in the early 1970s.

That about sums up the Export Land Model, a conundrum I touched upon in a previous post. Now, it seems to be playing out, with its own localized twists in the home of the current number one oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, a report by analysts at Citigroup echoed that assessment, saying that the world’s biggest oil exporter may become “an importer” by 2030 due to rising domestic use – which the Citgroup analysis estimated was growing by about eight percent per year.

Even more recently, a Reuters story notes that Saudi Arabia burned record monthly volumes of oil in June and July. The story notes that the reason for the increase is a need to produce more electricity for air conditioning. Unlike the United States and most other Western countries, Saudi Arabia uses oil to produce a large percentage of its electricity. Switching to solar would seem to be a no-brainer – they have a surplus of sun and the rise in oil prices is keeping the cash pipeline flowing. The trick is in the transition.

This Wall Street Journal article has some good numbers and perspective on the challenges the Saudis (and other OPEC countries) face in trying to transition up to a third of their electricity generation to alternatives by 2032.

Meanwhile, a story from this week quotes the Saudis as saying that they will be turning increasingly to natural gas for electricity generation to reduce their dependence on oil.

Ditching one fossil fuel for another to generate electricity? That sounds really familiar – where have I heard that idea before?

Why they were wrong

Ed Marshall · August 27th, 2012

Back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, environmentalists warned of coming disaster. The air would soon become unbreathable, clean water would be as rare as unicorn dander. Didn’t happen. That these dire warnings failed to accurately predict our present-day circumstances is often cited as evidence that any similar such claims – about, say, climate change or peak oil – should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, if not outright ignored as the usual ravings of hyperventilating Cassandras.

So why were those earlier prognosticators of doom wrong? Because they were right. Environmental degradation was a growing problem. Rivers actually were catching fire in these United States. Air quality in major metropolitan areas truly was bordering on the Dickensian. Acid really was falling from the skies as rain and a hole was opening in the ozone layer. By raising the issues with urgency, passion and creativity, environmentalists of the day were able to engage the larger public in these problems and build support for solutions: the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, for instance.

That public engagement and support for solutions helped ensure passage of legislation at the state and federal level that would guarantee those dire warnings of environmental Armageddon would not come true.

So, here we are again. Credible science and analysis points to real and pressing problems with the climate and energy supply. Dire warnings are being penned by those doing and as well as those interested in the science. Will their dystopian futures also fail to materialize? That, unfortunately, is an open question.

Unlike the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, today’s Internet-driven communications environment makes confusion and apathy as easy to create as clarity and action. What will finally ensure that today’s doomsayers are as inaccurate as yesterday’s? Compelling stories.

Those seeking to compel the actions that will ultimately prove their prophecy wrong must recognize that, for humans, story trumps data. For scientists and engineers, good data tells a compelling story. But for most people, a metaphor works better.

With the science established and consequences beginning to play out, bridging that communication gap may well be the first and most important problem those seeking change will need to solve.

Good (and bad) to the last drop

Ed Marshall · July 12th, 2012

Wildfires and heat waves have me thinking about peak oil, climate change and the efforts to convince folks that oil supply is not an issue. Here’s why. Across the Pond at the Guardian, George Monbiot, a British writer well known for his environmental activism, has recently declared Peak Oil a dead letter, lamenting that there is still enough in the ground to fry the climate. True, but also wrong.

Beyond the basic flaw of interpreting “Peak Oil” as shorthand for “imminently running out of,”others have done a detailed job rebutting not only Monbiot’s misunderstandings, but also the study that was his inspiration. My interest, however, is on the “boom” in oil production he mentions and this lament toward the bottom of the piece: “Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed…”

And I suspect that failure will continue. While some people are moved to change by the havoc wrought on the environment in pursuit of unconventional sources of fossil fuel, the vast majority aren’t – or are willing to look the other way.

The destruction Canada is doing to pristine wilderness in Alberta isn’t a secret, but it’s only increasing. That Macondo well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico a couple years back is still showing up in the coastal environment, but that hasn’t prevented large oil companies with spotty safety records from receiving permission to drill in even more hostile and environmentally sensitive places, like the Arctic.

But, humans are risk and change averse. We will stay with what we know, even if it’s got problems, rather than risk a radical change. Oil has proven it has the power – quite literally – to transform life from a nasty, brutish and short struggle for survival into a comfortable, convenient and extended tussle for entertainment. Moral persuasion is unlikely to make headway against that perception. People like comfort and convenience, not to mention entertainment.

The vast majority of “consumers” are not interested in going back to a mythically bucolic future. Even “country folk” like their gas-guzzling pick-up trucks, bass boats, chain saws and ATVs. They make life easier and more fun.

The challenge for those who care about our environment, and the affect fossil fuel use is having on it, is to care about our current lifestyle; what it offers and what it doesn’t.

Green and sustainable are, at base, moral persuasion arguments and they’re not working. Can your alternative, sustainable, greener offering make daily life more comfortable, convenient, secure or safe? Can it help a business be demonstrably more profitable, or insulate it from uncertainty in a key area?

If so, then that’s your lead message because for most consumers the only alternative they’re eager to embrace, especially in times of uncertainty, is one that improves their life.

Great green fleet under fire

Ed Marshall · June 12th, 2012

Staying on the military-meets-renewable-energy theme that my colleague Mike touched on, I felt compelled to offer a quick, if rather frustrating, update on a post I did at the end of last year. That post looked at the US Navy’s plans to deploy a “green fleet” in the Pacific this summer; green in the sense that it would be powered by a 50-50 blend of fossil and biofuel.

To fuel the green fleet’s cruise, the Navy contracted with a company out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and broke out the checkbook to pay a per-gallon biodiesel price substantially above the price for fossil-based diesel. At the time I wrote of this arrangement:

And progress often comes at a price above the going market rate. So thank goodness the Navy understands the threat that reliance on a finite vital resource represents to its way of life (and/or death) and is willing to pay those higher prices as an investment in companies that demonstrate they might have a promising solution.

So the Navy gets it. Congress? Sadly, no. According to recent reports, the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), is leading the charge on legislation that would prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing alternative fuels or building their own facilities to create them “if the cost exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuels used for the same purpose.” Meanwhile over in the Senate, a former Navy airman weighed in to support Buck’s stoppage:

“It’s a job for the Department of Energy, not the Department of Navy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “You shouldn’t be paying $244 per gallon when we are having to retire ships early.”

Of course, efforts by the DOE to push renewables and alternatives haven’t met a warm pachyderm embrace. Fossil fuel is finite. Their cost curve, barring complete global economic meltdown, only points up. Alternatives will be needed.

The US military spends a lot of time war gaming future scenarios and positioning for those most likely to develop. The investment it’s been making in efficiency and alternative energies could rightly be read as a positioning exercise. The move by green opponents in Congress could be seen as a depositioning exercise – for the country.

U.S. military goes on the renewable energy offensive

Mike McGrail · June 7th, 2012

Under orders from President Harry Truman in 1948, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines started a fundamental shift in American society by ending racial segregation well ahead of most civilian institutions.

A generation later, the military is at the forefront of another seismic social movement.

The U.S. military is one of the world’s top supporters of renewable energy. “Drill baby drill” isn’t hacking it among the military minds pondering the services’ long-term future. They see a basic weakness in relying on offshore energy resources. The military is funding some of the most basic renewable energy research going on in the world today, from solar to biofuels. The Air Force alone plans $7 billion in biofuel projects over the next decade. All branches of the military are  adding solar and wind power generating capacity on their land and buildings.

In other words, they’re way ahead of the civilian world on just about every level.

There has been a fair amount written about this development, but this piece is the most cogent and succinct assessment of the military’s importance that I’ve read. It’s by Nicole Lederer, a co-founder of national environmental and economic policy organization Environmental Entrepreneurs.

In a fairly short pieces, Lederer puts the military’s efforts in a broader context and lays out the issues that cut across military and civilian boundaries. Check it out and weigh in. Do you think the military’s renewable energy programs will nudge the civilian world ahead?

…Or your own lying eyes?

Ed Marshall · May 22nd, 2012

PR has its limits. You can only create so much belief in the face of a persistent, contradictory reality.

As the shale frenzy has bubbled along, stories about a United States and/or North American resurgence in oil production have been pushed in major media outlets from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times and all manner of blogs in between. At the same time, domestic prices at the pump remain stubbornly aloft.

Since economic “law” dictates that ample supply should result in lower prices rather than the upward trend we’re experiencing, there must be other factors at play, right? Anxiety over threats of war with Iran, commodity speculators, Big Government rules that hamstring drilling and the insatiable greed of Big Oil are all trotted out as the proximate cause of this seeming paradox. But for these transient, man-made issues, the storyline goes, we’d be swiftly on our way to Newt Gingrinch’s $2.50-or-less-a-gallon Promised Land. We are, after all, sitting on trillions of barrels of technically recoverable oil and 100 years of natural gas, right?

Those seeking the true contours of the energy landscape we’re traversing would do well to remember that good answers start with good questions. So, take a look around and ask yourself a few. If we are actually awash in oil:

  • Why are major airlines conducting flight tests of planes with biofuels?

The actions by the organizations cited above are not inconsequential. They represent major commitments of money and effort, and, in the case of the auto companies, a major directional shift for their businesses. If energy independence and a gushing supply of oil were just a few more horizontally drilled and fracked wells away, would these entities really be pursuing strategies that hedged their futures increasingly away from reliance on petroleum?

So, who are you going to believe; the hyped assurances of investment banks and oil companies, or your own lying eyes?

Smart gridlock in the Green Mountain State

Mike McGrail · May 15th, 2012

Sustainable energy and personal rights are colliding over smart meters, those long-touted pillars of energy-saving smart grids, on the unlikely battleground of Vermont.

Utilities and policy makers favor smart metering for its cost-cutting and energy-saving potential, but their entreaties are falling on granite ears in many quarters of the Green Mountain State.

Bucking an energy conservation technology like smart grids doesn’t sync with Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s/Birkenstock/organic image. It does, however, sync with an even deeper stratum in Vermont’s social bedrock, where live-and-let-live and minding your own business have been around a lot longer than Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield. Where jokes like:

“Q. How are you this morning Mr. Smith?

A. None of your business, and I wouldn’t tell you that much if you hadn’t been my neighbor for 30 years.”

aren’t jokes, they’re guidelines.

The Vermont smart meter conflict highlights a seldom-explored dimension of environmental sustainability – privacy. Like the siting of wind turbines, it’s an issue that sustainability advocates have to address if our energy consumption habits are going to change for the better.

Smart meters and a smart grid are part of a future where technology helps us consume less energy. Energy efficiency advocates envision a future when sensors in energy-sucking appliances like water heaters can detect when they’re not used for long periods and automatically put themselves in a dormant mode. When refrigerators adjust their cooling levels according to how much food is on the shelves. When household energy management systems automatically reduce heating and cooling and turn off lights in rooms they sense are unoccupied.

Smart metering and smart grids don’t reach nearly that far into ratepayers’ homes. They provide broad consumption data to support energy-saving measures like large-scale load balancing and variable rates to encourage off-peak usage. Nevertheless, they have a lot of people creeped out.

Privacy advocates have pointed out that government and private companies could use data gathered by smart grids – to intrude on ratepayers’ lives. It’s not hard to intuit from energy use patterns when people are home and what they’re doing, even behind closed doors and drawn curtains, they say.

The Vermont ACLU has joined with individuals and other advocacy groups in calling for tight restrictions on meter data. They also want a free opt-out of smart metering programs, unlike the paid opt-out that states like California have implemented.

Smart-grid advocates in Vermont and California, where the same debate is raging, say the smart grid needs information to be smart, and if too many people opt out they won’t have enough.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem with smart grid technology per se. There’s nothing more intrinsically intrusive about smart meters than there is about surfing the Web or giving a credit card number over the phone. The problem is that consumers have had their privacy pockets picked too many times to accept assurances from utilities that their information will only be used to save energy.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Company has devoted a section of its website to explaining consumer privacy protection around data collection. It points out where the company is constrained by existing utility laws and regulations, and that the meters can only measure a house’s overall electrical consumption, not individual appliances.

Even so, the company is shoveling against an avalanche. Spam-choked email inboxes and dinner-hour robocalls have made consumers wary about who collects their information and what they can use it for.

Like so many other pieces of the sustainability puzzle, this one needs government to put it in the proper place. Not all consumers will trust the government to protect their privacy any more than they trust private industry, but the weight of laws and regulations on their side is likely to win converts. Especially when they hear stories like Mike Butler’s and weigh the environmental upside.

Butler is a Houston homeowner who used a smart meter to cut his power consumption 36 percent during the summer of 2011, which was a scorcher even by Texas standards. “I found a few power hogs, such as leaving my laptop charging all the time,” Butler said. “I made some simple behavioral changes and checked my statistics weekly to verify the impact of my efforts.”

Privacy guarantees alone probably won’t carry the day for the smart grid. Privacy guarantees plus stories like Mike Butler’s just might.

 

The only drop in the bucket that matters

Mike McGrail · May 8th, 2012

This image from the U.S. Geological Survey shows what all of the water on the Earth would look like if collected into a single sphere. Underscore ALL of the water: oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, underground aquifers, what’s in plants and animals, what’s in the coffee cup on your desk … everything. Makes you wonder why we make such a big deal out of oil, doesn’t it?

Dots for our destiny

Steve McGrath · May 4th, 2012

Climate Impacts Day is Saturday, May 5

If Earth Day is like a birthday for the planet, Climate Impacts Day is the ominous doctor visit.

Aimed at spotlighting the nexus between climate change and extreme weather – e.g., drought, heat waves and torrential rains – tomorrow’s Climate Impacts Day is more about action than observance. Environmental advocacy organization 350.org urges everyone around the world to attend or start actions – rallies, presentations, art projects and more – that Connect the Dots between warming and weather for the mainstream media.

Since talk is cheap and logic is overrated, the common visual thread will be, yes, dots – painted, formed by groups of people holding hands, shot from above, etc. – a gimmick intended to roll up into a powerful multimedia statement. Why the heck not dots, since boring old science doesn’t seem to prompt much action. “We’ll hold up a mirror to the planet and force people to come face-to-face with the ravages of climate change,” writes Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of 350.org.

The organization predicts more than 1,000 Connect the Dots events in 100 countries. My neighbor Micum Davis, an arborist who can scale a tree as fast as any primate on the planet, will be attending one at the Portsmouth (NH) Farmer’s Market. Immediately afterward, he’ll invite participants to check out an urban garden he’s creating from a scruffy parking lot with his wife, Jennifer Wilhelm.

Climate Impacts Day “is an opportunity to bring attention to all the effects of climate change that many of us are already seeing,” he says. “ I feel like there’s no voice for climate change. It’s become taboo. It’s the elephant in the room. There’s nearly a consensus among scientists – basically, there is a consensus – but politically, it’s a black hole.”

Micum Davis is bringing positivity to the climate conversation.

Acknowledging that sacrificing the fossil fuel economy threatens the American way of life, Davis wants to emphasize the positive side of working for climate change. The garden is one example. “There are a lot of positive things we can do that not only happen to reduce carbon footprint, but also build community, build healthy soils and reduce pollution,” says Davis. “A whole array of positive activities go into the solution to climate change. It’s not just taking money from the consumer and shutting down corporations.”

Got a dot you want to connect? Find a nearby event here.