September 30, 2008

The Bailout and Climate Change
Just my style to launch a blog on sustainability in the middle of a global financial crisis - it makes it a challenge to get attention. But talk about unsustainable - all sorts of flimsy metaphors come to mind when thinking about the past eight years of the American economy. House of cards, for one. But I suppose that's not accurate as a metaphor since when a house of cards falls, no one typically gets hurt.

One thing that struck me while I watched the GOP vote No while the economy burned - the politics of the bailout and of climate change are remarkably similar. You've got a catastrophe whose likelihood is doubted. You've got the Republicans ready to watch things go boom rather than violate their "principles". And you've got lots of evidence that the sky really is falling. I find it interesting that now that the rescue plan that everyone hated has failed, people are suddenly calling their representatives to do SOMETHING. That, my friends, is political paralysis playing out in real-time.

And with all the talk of the unintended consequences of the bailout, here's an unintended consequence of the collapse of so many investment banks - we've risked losing the infrastructure and the institutions most invested in launching and maintaining a working market for US carbon-trading.

Perhaps if Congress gets its act together and passes something decent to stabilize the economy we can take heart that, in the face of a worldwide crisis, our politics haven't failed utterly. But watching the sideshow that is Washington DC for the last 24 hours, I don't find that argument particularly compelling. Do you?

Updated: There is now a direct connection between the bailout and climate change - the Senate has added an extension of renewable energy tax credits to the bailout. This extension has been caught up in House/Senate bickering for some time and had appeared to be dead, much to the chagrin on the environmental lobby. It's not exactly a silver lining, but it's something...

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September 29, 2008

What Is To Be Done?
Things are not looking good. First came reports that Americans would need to cut total carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change. Of course, that's not going to help us with the wee problem of our rapidly acidifying oceans. But at least it's a goal, right?

Then came this report in the WaPo:

The rise in global carbon dioxide emissions last year outpaced international researchers' most dire projections, according to figures being released today, as human-generated greenhouse gases continued to build up in the atmosphere despite international agreements and national policies aimed at curbing climate change.

In 2007, carbon released from burning fossil fuels and producing cement increased 2.9 percent over that released in 2006, to a total of 8.47 gigatons, or billions of metric tons, according to the Australia-based Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists that tracks emissions. This output is at the very high end of scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and could translate into a global temperature rise of more than 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to the panel's estimates.

"In a sense, it's a reality check," said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. "This is an extremely large number. The emissions are increasing at a rate that's faster than what the IPCC has used."

If that's reality, I'll pass. 11 degrees in 90 years? Now we're in Waterworld territory. No wonder Al Gore recently called upon young people to engage in civil disobedience to shut down coal-burning power plants.

Anyway, it's all moot since we can't hardly talk about global warming without sending the GOP into a filibuster frenzy. Meanwhile neither presidential candidate is really grappling head on with the issue (John McCain is for and against carbon caps. Obama is all about alternative energy but doesn't really like to talk about emissions cuts or carbon caps). The best our legislators have managed to date was the Lieberman-Warner bill that included a mere 70% cut by 2050 - and that was DOA in the Senate. Even during an Obama administration, can you imagine getting 60 Senators (the number you'd need to get past a filibuster) to vote for a law that would cut emissions by the requisite 90%?

Then we have the fact that American society had been built over the past century on the foundation of cheap, plentiful fuel. There isn't a single aspect of the way we live that doesn't require the consumption of massive amounts of hydrocarbons. From heating and cooling our homes to transportation to agriculture to toys to, well, everything.

Obviously, Americans are pretty adaptable. We did respond to the run up in fuel prices by (gasp) driving less. GM, for its part, just decided that building a business based on gas-guzzlers in an era of $4 gasoline is maybe a bad idea and has introduced an awfully nifty, if pricey, electric car. Meanwhile, scooter sales are through the roof.

And then there's Juneau, Alaska - usually supplied by cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power but forced in the spring by an act of nature (i.e. an avalanche) to cut its electricity use or face massive bills for "backup" diesel-generated power. They did so to the tune of a 30% reduction in a matter of weeks. But that's the crux of the problem right there. Yes, I have no doubt that we could cut back in the face of an immediate shortage. But cutting 30% of electricity use is not the same as cutting 90% of all carbon use.

So where does that leave us? Well, getting ready for the heat for one. And that doesn't just mean loading up on sunscreen. It means getting ready for living in a low-carbon world - if we're not going to reverse global warming, $4 gas will be the least of our problems.

We can always hope that innovation will help. I suspect this will be the clarion call from conservatives - why regulate when you can innovate. Of course, innovation was supposed to revolutionize the financial industry and we know how that turned out. But maybe futurist Ray Kurzweil is right and our energy production will be 100% solar-powered in 20 years. And there's bad innovation, too. Clean coal, anyone? Clean coal, my friends, is the smokeless cigarette of the 21st century - a corporatist fantasy to get you to take your eyes off the ball. Don't believe me? Then try and find some.

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September 22, 2008

And So We Begin
What's a blog doing right here on the Weavers Way website? One way to think of this blog and the motivations behind it is as an extension of the various passionate debates that occur in the Weavers Way store aisles every day. After all, the Weavers Way mission statement says:
We are committed to the environment. We work to sustain a healthy planet, promote environmentally sound products and practices, encourage and support local and organic farming, and try to act with environmental consciousness in all our endeavors.
It seemed like an obvious idea to try to apply those values to a blog that would serve our community. But how best to do that? Initially, I thought I would simply serve up my take on the interesting eco-news of the day. But as I began looking around for inspiration, I was astounded at the number of mass-media "green" news and blog services launched in just the last few months. From the NYT Magazine's recent Green Issue to Time Magazine's version to Discovery Channel's brand spanking new Planet Green Channel, it's starting to get pretty crowded out there in greenspace.

All that MSM attention made me realize that the green movement is staring down the gullet of a massive "contrary indicator" as the financial folks might say. The fact that the MSM is fully on board this whole global warming thing can mean only one thing - it's too late.

I almost made this blog's tagline, "How to stop worrying and love the heat." But I couldn't do it. That would be too defeatist. There's a lot for us to do between now and when the ocean comes lapping at my Philadelphia Mt. Airy doorstep. We need to look at all these green developments with an eye to the following:

1) Figuring out how to live sustainably in an unsustainable culture
2) Forcing our government into meaningful action to slow global warming AND
3) Preparing ourselves for living in a warm[er] world

So what I'm hoping to offer on this blog is a kind of informational triage for our current unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyle - making "news you can use" out of all these threads of science, politics, technology and the like. Needless to say, I welcome any and all constructive comments, suggestions, links and blogs of note. Let's get things rolling, shall we?