November 28, 2008

Lessons in Efficiency

Matt Yglesias, while approving of Barack Obama's "lead by example" approach to showcasing energy efficiency through upgrades in the White House, also pooh-poohs it. Much as I love Yglesias's work, I think he often represents a form of "realism" that undercuts forceful efforts to combat climate change. And it's worth a bit of pushback.

Yglesias does make a legitimate point about how class interacts with "acting green:"
If you look at how people live in the United States, the real green individual is the poor person who lives in a small apartment, rides the bus to work, and consumes beef relatively sparingly. That guy's environmental footprint is probably smaller in most ways than that of a prosperous person who goes out of his way to consume green products.

But that shouldn't delegitimize the effort in the least. To Yglesias, Obama's efforts smack of peddling to bourgeois guilt since what would really need to happen in order to make a difference is that everyone moves to a smaller house. But that misses the scale on which efficiency operates and the cumulative effect of improving even small dwellings.

We're not talking about changing a few lightbulbs here. Al Gore in his recent NYT op-ed points to the fact that "40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from buildings" - and that improved windows, insulation and lighting in existing homes could provide a huge impact on our carbon use with modest cost. To put it in perspective, that 40% is just slightly less than the share of emissions from our huge fleet of coal-burning power plants.

And as an aside I would point out that Yglesias is talking, of course, about the urban poor. And yes, the urban poor do have a smaller carbon footprint. But so do the urban rich. New York City residents in general have just about the smallest carbon footprint of anyone. It's in the nature of cities. Of course, he doesn't take into account the eating habits of the urban poor, which are not low-carbon as their diet is often lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables and often relies on cheap, highly processed foods, including a lot of fast food. The rural poor, on the other hand, are often driving long distances in the oldest, worst-polluting cars, live in low-quality housing, heat with the cheapest, dirtiest forms of fuel, and generally enjoy none of the benefits of the low-carbon lifestyle to which living in a city, in however desperate circumstances, accrues.

Matt, dude, how about a little more love for the low hanging fruit? Because what we're talking about here is just that. We need to do everything now for the climate and energy efficiency is the easiest and most "now" thing we can do. Yes, applaud urban living for its carbon efficiency. But the rest of us deserve to be saved, too.

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November 26, 2008

Feel Bad for the Turkey? Then Don't Think about the Tuna.

While the Great Turkey Fight of Aught Eight rages on, Andy Revkin helpfully reminds us to enjoy our maguro while we still can. I bring this up not just because I'm committed to talking about a food other than turkey today. But also to observe that the debate over CAFO-produced meat vs. sustainably produced meat vs. no meat at all is focused entirely on the supply side. Yes, it's discouraging to see someone I assume to be an intelligent person like Jonathan Chait essentially mock another person for caring about the provenance of the food he eats. But at least their argument isn't about how to keep from eating all the turkeys. If nothing else, we've found ways to make acres and acres of turkeys (and chickens and pigs and cows) and sell them at a heavily subsidized price. "Turkey" will survive even if today's turkey on the table, god bless its wattled soul, didn't.

But the bluefin tuna? Let's put it this way: eat it while you still can. Tuna is being fished into oblivion, despite the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which sets quotas and "manages" the fishery. Replace the word "Conservation" with the word "Exploitation," and I think you'll get a better sense of their real interests. Revkin calls this managed destruction of the Atlantic tuna a "tragedy of the commons," which implies that we all just can't help ourselves from overfishing. Now, I don't know about you, but I personally haven't been fishing for tuna lately. The ICCAT represents a relatively small number of fishing fleets, all under the control of a set of sovereign nations. Some commons: this is an oligarchy. And what we're seeing is not a tragedy of the commons, but a tragedy by the oligarchy.

Indeed, the news from the oligarchs' recent meeting is not good (for the tuna). Revkin quotes Carl Safina, marine biologist and tuna fishery expert:
The fishing on this side of the ocean is in tatters. The big runs of autumn, the "tuna fever," the great herds of fish thundering across the blue prairies as they rounded Montauk, that's all gone. This was by far the worst year ever. But then, that's true every year. What was different this year was that in addition to bluefin, yellowfins and albacore were nearly absent, too.
What's really needed is a moratorium for bluefin, and I first said that in 1991. That's the bluefin situation. I must say that based on their whole history I would have been astounded if I.C.C.A.T. had set an eastern quota that complied with the science. I'm ashamed of what they do, but no longer surprised.
This is a crisis that, if Safina is to be believed, has been a long time coming. And yet this elite group who control tuna fishing rights and regulations cannot stop themselves from destroying their cash, um, cow? This is clearly an oligarchy that doesn't understand that managing supply and demand are, at the bottom of the ocean, pretty much the same thing and equally important.

The irony is that by creating the illusion of plenty through overfishing, the fishing industry creates a true tragedy of the commons among consumers. With turkeys (and meat in general) you can make the choice to eat sustainably produced meat: the competition is between different styles of, for lack of a better term, making meat. The problem at its core is too much, not too little.

But with tuna you are left with what I'll call the Chait Choice, which is to say the choice not to eat. So you don't eat tuna. But then it turns out that your friends (or at least the people at the table next to you) don't have the same compunction and they eat the tuna. Which makes you feel like you should eat the tuna after all - why make the sacrifice if no one else will, and this may be your last chance to enjoy it. So you eat the tuna, too. And soon the tuna are all gone, so no one gets to eat it. Someone somewhere (like, say, Jonathan Chait) will then say that it's all the tuna-eaters fault for eating what was (and is no longer) on the menu. At which point the ICCAT will change its name to ICC-"some other fish" until those fish are gone, too. We're left feeling like the guilty gluttons who've ruined the commons.

But, of course, we're not the bad guys really. I will leave you with one of my political scientist wife's favorite 17th century English protest rhymes:
They hang the man and flog the woman,
Who steals the goose from off the common,
Yet let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose
And by the way: goose, turkey or tuna, have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by bzibble used under a CC license

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November 25, 2008

I Repeat: Worldwide Recessions Are Bad
Companies and countries worldwide are finding that they'd rather save their economic skins than the planet. So says the New York Times in this article about stalling alternative energy projects. Ezra Klein muses that the recession may be just the excuse reluctant governments have been looking for to put the kaibosh on carbon reduction efforts. As I've said before, there's really no silver lining to worldwide recessions. Credit is tight so projects get delayed. Carbon emissions don't drop despite the reduction in industrial activity. Fuel prices go down so demand goes up.

But the fear of massive, ongoing backsliding is probably overstated. As we've now seen from President-elect Obama, the recession in fact provides an enormous opportunity on all climate fronts. With the economy in desperate need of a stimulus, a massive green infrastructure bill gets fast-tracked. Suddenly we've got billions of dollars a year pouring into just the priorities necessary for combating global warming and stimulating the economy. And, as Ezra rightly observes, lower fuel prices simply take the sting out of carbon market pricing - which should make it easier, not harder to implement such a system.

And I point you to a fascinating exchange between Joe Romm and Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. Revkin represents the enlightened end of the mainstream media regarding climate change. But as with the MSM generally, there remains in his reporting a - some might say healthy - skepticism of what we know and what we can actually do for the climate. Romm, much to his chagrin I imagine, is more of the Cassandra variety of expert - he's one of the few people who could make NASA climate prophet James Hansen look like a moderate. Note also that Romm's no ideologue (otherwise he wouldn't be featured so prominently on Beyond Green): his positions are convincingly backed by science. Anyway, Revkin wanted to get Romm's take on where things stand in terms of the enormity of the climate task before us. In the course of their email exchange, Romm says:
For me, 2015 is the target year. If you have any cost-effective, scalable low carbon technology then, that's what we'll go with. Obama will launch the $15 billion a year in 2009. I suspect the first two years will be part of the stimulus -- which I expect will have many more tens of billions of dollars in it for clean energy.
2015 is still, thankfully, seven years off. That's a long time by any standard. After all, seven years ago the world had just been transformed by 9/11, the Iraq War was still a gleam in Dick Cheney's eye and America had not yet been brought to its knees by the Republican Party (whoops! My ideology is showing!) On the technology side, in 2001 the Internet Boom had just busted, Google was still a small privately-held company, biodiesel was used vegetable oil not the equivalent of pure crude oil synthesized by vats of algae and the Prius (not the mention the Apple iPod) had just been introduced. Point being, a lot can happen politically and technologically in that time frame. This recession should be a distant memory by then and we will have invested, potentially, hundreds of billions of dollars in the green sector.

I'm not, of course, counseling complacency. But I am counseling skepticism towards a media that will push any simple narrative that sounds dramatic (Gas is cheap!! Here come the guzzlers!! Saving the climate is expensive and hard!!) and confidence that with the right leadership the recession will be a bump rather than a black hole for the climate.

Now if we can just convince the MSM that the narrative should be "seize the moment" and not "fear the moment," then perhaps we'll start acting like Americans again.

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November 24, 2008


Jill at La Vida Locavore reminds us that the turkey most of us will be tucking into come Thursday is in fact an unwieldy freak of animal husbandry. While industrial farming's misbegotten offspring, the Broad Breasted White, is broad-breasted and white (and abundant), that's about all you can say for it. The alternative? Heritage turkeys. Unfortunately, they're pretty hard to find. A search of the Eat Well Guide - which is a fantastic resource for finding locally-produced food anywhere in the country and if you haven't yet checked it out, do so right now - suggests that I'd need to go at least 30 miles to get a heritage bird. Not that it isn't tempting: you just need to ogle the breasts on the birds above to realize that a heritage turkey is no puny grouse. They look like a turkey should.

Meanwhile, if you can't find a Narragansett or a Bourbon Red or a Beltsville Small White, then at least get a sustainably-raised bird - those aren't nearly so hard to find. Come on, folks, you're not buying a Butterball this year, are you...?

Photo by ExperienceLA used under a CC license.

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What's the nicest way to say I told you so? Whatever it is, that's what I'd like to say. And once again, the Meese Rule, well... rules. Thus let the speculation refocus: Was he never in the running? Were smoke-filled rooms populated with Big Farm lobbyists to blame? Is Michael Pollan finally on the shortlist? Who knows. But I do know this: it's time once again to review Tom Philpott's rundown of other leading candidates. And I remind you also of this:
Despite the pixels spilled so far on his presumed nomination, we may yet find ourselves in the unfortunate position of saying, "Gee, wouldn't it have been great if Vilsack really had gotten the nod..."
Let's hope not.

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November 21, 2008

Full Power to the Diesels
I will leave to others the details of the auto bailout. Whether it's extra special super-secret let's-not-call-it-bankruptcy debt refinancing or loans or tax credits, I don't have much to contribute. My only question for the Big Three now is: Where are the diesels?

I know what you're thinking. Dirty diesel? Surely, I must be joking.

It thus bears repeating that diesel fuel was - until the advent of hybrids - the sine qua non of fuel efficiency. A 1990 diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta can go 39 highway miles on a gallon of the sticky stuff. It takes a Prius to get that kind of mileage out of a similarly sized car that burns gasoline.

Of course, diesel engines were also the sine qua non of foul clouds of odoriferous soot, which was a problem. That never bothered Europeans, who have a long history of embracing diesel cars - to this day American car makers introduce diesel models there and not here. It also helps that European fuel taxes don't discriminate against diesel, as they do in the US, which is why diesel is so much more expensive here.

But "clean diesel" has at last arrived. And unlike it's linguistic sibling "clean coal", clean diesel is very clean and very real. It actually refers both to the fuel and the engine. First came Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel thanks to EPA rules initiated during the Clinton Administration. Removing the sulfur, which interferes with various chemical reactions, allows for catalytic converter-like systems that can take out just about everything else: nitrogen oxides, soot, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxides. And to top it all off, clean diesels actually have lower carbon emissions than even hybrids. Popular Mechanics tested a European Prius against a (smaller) VW Polo clean diesel. At 5% fewer greenhouse emissions and over 70mpg on the highway (yes, miles not kilometers), the Polo was impressive to say the least.

And what happens when you throw a clean diesel engine into a hybrid electric motor? You get scads of fuel efficiency goodness. The problem right now is that diesel-electric hybrids are too expensive. Treehugger recounts the tragic tale of the VW Golf diesel hybrid: announced in Febrary 2008 and withdrawn two months later.

Meanwhile European automakers are showing off their clean diesel wares. At the recent Los Angeles auto show, there were diesel press conferences and new model showcases from Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. And as for US carmakers presumably poised to exploit this growing market? Quiet, was the watchword apparently.

In fairness, GM did show a concept version of the Volt built for Opel, its European division. This car, called the Flexstreme, works the same way as the Volt, except a small diesel engine charges the battery instead of the Volt's gas engine. Given the Opel badge, the possibility exists that GM will once again deny American drivers the diesel option, but according to Green Car Congress, GM plans to release a version of the Flexstreme under its Saturn line.

All this to say that if US car companies wanted to immediately improve their fuel efficiency, it wouldn't take years of innovation - just the right kind of incentives. Thanks to the EPA for forcing industry to clean up diesel's act, there's a market for the taking. Sure there are issues to work out, but we're on the verge of trying to save the auto industry. Perhaps the bailout legislation could give things a push. The US car companies, having once dismissed hybrids as a fad, might then want to consider taking advantage of the coming diesel revolution. You know, maybe they could sell some cars.

[Updated 10:45pm Sunday] And if you need more evidence, just check out this rave review from Sunday's NYT of the new clean diesel VW Jetta. Ulrich, the reviewer, managed to get 48mpg during 150 miles of highway driving just by sticking to 60mph (he claims over 50mpg is possible if you hypermile). Either way, that beats the Prius - on the highway at least...

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November 20, 2008

WaxMan Rules
Via Ezra Klein, Harold Meyerson supplies ample evidence for why Henry's ascension just might be as important as we think it is. To save you a click (and because I'm feeling lazy), I'll excerpt the same passage Ezra did.
Waxman is a legislative genius. Most of his legislative accomplishments came before the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, when he chaired the health and environment subcommittee of Energy and Commerce. Progressive legislating has been pretty much off the table since then, which is why he shifted focus to Congress's chief investigative committee. Those who have served in Congress for fewer than 14 years weren't around when Waxman greatly strengthened the Clean Air Act and authored the legislation that expanded Medicaid coverage to the poorest children (enlisting Republican abortion-foe Henry Hyde as his partner in the effort). They didn't see Waxman steer to passage the bills that gave rise to the generic drug industry, required uniform nutrition labels on food, heightened standards of care at nursing homes, created screening programs for breast and cervical cancer, provided health care for people with HIV/AIDS, or expanded Medicaid coverage to the working poor.

In the midst of the Reagan era's cutbacks, Waxman expanded the number of working poor eligible for Medicaid a stunning 24 times. He consistently won key Republican backing for these regulatory and programmatic expansions. In fact, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page ran a series of articles complaining of "the Waxman state," in which, horror of horrors, businesses were compelled to meet environmental and consumer protection standards. Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson once emerged from a marathon conference committee meeting and noted, "Henry Waxman is tougher than a boiled owl."

Some of Waxman's achievements were to keep bad things from happening. For virtually the entire 1980s, Waxman blocked Dingell and the Reagan administration from weakening auto emission standards. At one point, he blocked a key vote on a bill to debilitate the Clean Air Act by introducing 600 amendments, which he had wheeled into the room in shopping carts. Waxman also led the war on secondhand cigarette smoke. He publicized an obscure EPA report that established secondhand smoke as a carcinogen, uncovered the onetime Philip Morris lab director who had determined that nicotine was addictive, and publicly grilled tobacco company CEOs about their failure to share that fact with the public.
Exciting stuff. For anyone into legislative hijinks, that is.

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A Fish Story

Ah, the long-threatened fish post. Let's cut to the chase. Fish stocks, like their financial brethren, are plummeting fast. And of course, in the ocean unlike on Wall Street, rising demand only makes things worse. Mark Bittman had a good piece in the Sunday NYT on the prospects for saving fisheries as well as on the collision course between fishing and farming (both on land and on sea). First, he reminded us of what life was like back when he was young. He relates:
I'm old enough to remember fishermen unloading boxes of flounder at the funky Fulton Fish Market in New York, charging wholesalers a nickel a pound. I remember when local mussels and oysters were practically free, when fresh tuna was an oxymoron, and when monkfish, squid and now-trendy skate were considered "trash."
As Inspector Clouseau would say, "Not... Anymore." Bittman throws in a nifty chart that shows how world fish stocks have gone from abundant to totally exploited in the span of 50 years.

Bittman does offer a way forward in the form of sustainable fishing practices on an international scale plus a willingness of consumers to eat "low-rent" fish like sardines, mackeral and herring. While both have the potential to stabilize the situation, we will likely never be swimming in fish the way we used to.

But what really captured my attention in this article was the fish meal. Bittman reports that:
Nearly one-third of the world's wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world's fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil.
So we deplete the oceans to fill the fish pens and the feedlots. Nice. What is it with factory farming? Devastating farmland and torturing animals isn't enough? They need to destroy the oceans, too? And it's not like it's an efficient use of resources, (efficiency being the last refuge of the economist). Rather:
Approximately three kilograms of forage fish go to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon; the ratio for cod is five to one; and for tuna - the most beef-like of all - the so-called feed-to-flesh ratio is 20 to 1, said John Volpe, an assistant professor of marine systems conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
So color me disappointed to learn that a USDA panel just yesterday approved standards that pave the way for certified "organic" farmed fish. Does Bittman's description sound organic to you?
The industry spends an estimated $1 billion a year on veterinary products; degrades the land (shrimp farming destroys mangroves, for example, a key protector from typhoons); pollutes local waters (according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, a salmon farm with 200,000 fish releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to as many as 600,000 people); and imperils wild populations that come in contact with farmed salmon.
How about we label it "yucky"? "Gross", "outrageous", and "unsustainable" also come to mind. How about "illegal"? Would that work? To think that Wired Magazine included industrial fish-farming as part of the "Future of Food."

Now, not all fish farming is bad. After all, fish ponds (the antecedent of industrial fish farming) are considered a crucial element in subsistence farming for the developing world - Peace Corps volunteers have been digging them for decades. And according to Bittman, aquaculture is (surprisingly) better in China and much of Asia "where it is small in scale, focuses on herbivorous fish and is not only sustainable but environmentally sound." I'm not sure how you square that with some of the contrary evidence in a NYT Magazine article on the "Catfish Wars," but there you have it.

So like the "Paper or Plastic" question, there really is no good answer to the "Farmed or Wild-caught" question. I guess, as Bittman suggests, the best answer to that question is: mackerel.

Photo by Jean-François Chénier used under CC license
Chart by Bill Marsh for The New York Times

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And The WaxMan Wins!
It's a whole new day, folks.

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November 19, 2008

What's up with Tom?
Vilsack, that is. Since his name was floated last week, Obamaland has gone awfully quiet on the subject of agriculture. Unlike the leaks of Hillary for State, Eric Holder for Attorney General, and Tom Daschle for HHS Secretary which quickly developed into confirmed offers, Vilsack's name popped up as "the leading candidate" and then all mention of him or the USDA abruptly stopped. There are all sorts of completely innocent reasons this might be. Maybe because it's a done deal and/or because Ag Sec is a bit un-sexy to most pundits and journalists. But there are other possibilities. Like maybe he won't get it?

Needless the say, the internets are filling the vacuum. For starters, we've got the "Draft Michael Pollan" online movement, which is both gratifying and mystifying to the author, if his recent appearance on NPR's Brian Lehrer show is any indication. It's perfectly understandable to me that disappointed Obama supporters cum foodies would start a petition. It's a bit less so to actually take it seriously.

As for Vilsack, there's been some interesting analysis from food policy folks on exactly how bad or good a pick he is. Bonnie at the Ethicurean gathers some evidence that some in the food and farming reform movement are warming up to him, however tepidly. She points to a post at Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs by John Crabtree, a small farmer and "policy organizer" who's known Vilsack for a decade. The whole post is worth a read, but suffice it to say that Crabtree has deep reservations about Vilsack's positions on GMOs (his worst transgression for most in the reform world). Yet he also notes that Vilsack's stated willingness to enforce existing laws regulating CAFOs would be a first for a sitting Agriculture Secretary. On balance, he gives Vilsack a qualified pass. Bonnie also points to Tom Philpott at Gristmill, who has a rundown on all the candidates. But tellingly, he mentions that rumor has it
Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack's bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate.
All this to say, 1) it ain't over 'till it's over and 2) given the choices and the entrenched powers that be, Vilsack is starting to look pretty okay. Indeed, despite the pixels spilled so far on his presumed nomination, we may yet find ourselves in the unfortunate position of saying, "Gee, wouldn't it have been great if Vilsack really had gotten the nod..."

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Baby, It's Cold Outside

It snowed here in Philly yesterday. A bit. Still, it's only November. And it's, like, cold at the moment - below freezing even. Which got me wondering: was this whole global warming thing just a bad dream? Do I need to re-caption Beyond Green to blogging a chilly world?

Sadly, no.

Furthermore, Joe Romm reminds us that:
While the monthly data doesn't tell us much about the climate, the peer-reviewed scientific literature has a couple of interesting forecasts for the next decade:
  • The "coming decade" (2010 to 2020) is poised to be the warmest on record, globally.
  • The coming decade is poised to see faster temperature rise than any decade since the authors' calculations began in 1960.
  • The fast warming would likely begin early in the next decade -- similar to the 2007 prediction by the Hadley Center in Science (see “Climate Forecast: Hot -- and then Very Hot“).
And it's not just the temperature that rises with climate change - it's volatility and standard deviations and all that nasty statistical stuff, too. Just thought I'd mention it.

Photo by CaptPiper used under a CC license.

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Round 1 to the WaxMan
Reader CR points to a report that Henry Waxman just won a crucial procedural vote in his bid to oust John Dingell as gatekeeper over climate change legislation. Dingell, remember, is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and, in the name of protecting the auto industry, has resisted all sorts of needed environmental legislation. More details here while the AP's report on the latest developments are here. Waxman still needs to win a vote of the full Democratic caucus and, if the past is any indication, the vote he just won is no guarantee of ultimate victory. Still, this is a momentus and exciting development. Stay tuned...

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Wherein Uncle Ted is Shown the Door

Once again we learn that crime doesn't pay. Or rather it does pay. Quite a lot, really. And then you get caught, get convicted, lose your Senate seat on your 85th birthday and prepare to exchange your bespoke suits for striped pajamas. If, that is, you're Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. All of which has resulted in the election of Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the first Democratic Senator from Alaska since Reconstruction. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's been a good long while.

Thus given the tenuous hold any Democrat has on any job in Alaska, Matt Yglesias is right to wonder how reliable a vote newly minted Senator Mark Begich will be for a progressive agenda. And if we throw in the fact that in terms of petrodollars Alaska all but qualifies for membership in OPEC, I thought it worth poking around to see how much environmentalists should fear or cheer Sen. Begich. The results are actually encouraging.

For one thing, he does honestly believe in global warming. In an "op-ed" published on HuffPo, he recounts how three years ago on a trip with his children, the climate-change-denying scales fell from his eyes like water flowing off the melting Alaskan glaciers. He goes on to observe that "Alaska is ground zero for global warming" and he explicitly supports conservation and renewable energy as cornerstones of his climate policy.

While his op-ed (along with his climate change policy page) avoids any mention of phrases like "carbon emissions," "cap-and-trade," or "reducing dependence on hydrocarbons" he does throw in a strong statement at the bottom of his energy policy page:
If we don't act immediately to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions the cost of doing nothing will far outweigh the cost of taking action. Mark Begich will support national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 through a cap and trade system
That's less of a reduction than Obama is ultimately aiming for and Begich further wants Alaskans to be compensated for their support in the form of something called the "Alaska Adaptation Fund" financed by revenues from emissions auctions. But I'm quibbling.

So I think we can safely say that at a minimum Begich would vote for cloture on climate change legislation. Will he actually vote for the legislation itself? That, as Roland Hedley Jr. likes to say, remains to be seen.

On the minus side, along with conservation and renewables, Begich does casually throw in "new development" - known in energy policy circles by the more technical term "drill, baby, drill" - as a central component of his climate and energy policy. And while he wants to cut Alaskan energy use, establish renewable energy targets and develop "cleaner" natural gas reserves, he also wants to open up ANWR to oil development. Before anyone gets too upset about that, I'll point out that the votes aren't there in the Senate for ANWR and never have been, so we'll give the junior Senator his freebie.

And foodies take note: Begich also gives prominence in his policy pages to support for Sustainable Fisheries. I hate tipping my hand (the competition is watching, after all) and a fishy post will be upcoming. Suffice it to say that Begich's support for dwindling fisheries is really really good.

Net net net, I'm surprisingly satisfied with Alaska's latest political product. Lord knows they couldn't do worse than the last one.

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November 18, 2008

Some of My Best Friends Are Locavores
Locavores, watch your backs! There have been a spate of articles recently about the minimal contribution transportation plays in food production, ergo eating locally won't solve the climate crisis.

And not only are conservative bloggers like Andrew Sullivan chiming in, but even environmentalists like Dave Roberts want the world to know that locavorism is not the answer. To climate change, that is. Even Ezra Klein takes a shot.

Right. As loyal readers of The Shuttle are well aware, this little corner of the blogosphere has known about the problematic nature of food miles for a while now. I'm quoting now from the June 2008 issue (pdf only):
Indeed, research detailed by [Michael] Specter [of The New Yorker] on this subject has led to some unexpected discoveries. It's becoming clear, for example, that a common statistic used by many to estimate a product's carbon footprint - food miles - can sometimes be misleading. Food miles are, of course, a shorthand rather than a true measure: we assume that the fewer miles a product must travel to market the smaller the carbon footprint. But it turns out that transportation costs - even taking into account the outsize contribution to global warming by air travel due to burning fuel at high altitudes - are not always the determining factor in calculating a food product's carbon footprint.

Specter revealed that a product's mode of transport is as important, if not more so, than miles traveled. Shipping by sea, for example, involves one-sixtieth the emissions of airfreight and even has a significant carbon advantage over trucking the equivalent distance. As a result, East Coast wine drinkers concerned about wine's carbon footprint may be better off drinking French wine delivered to New York by boat than California wine trucked across the country.

But Specter's prime example of this phenomenon is New Zealand apples. According to Specter, apple production in New Zealand is so efficient (due to factors like its exceptionally high crop yield and the ample supply of renewable power) that New Zealand apples transported to a market on the East Coast of the United States have a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown as little as 50 miles away from that same market. That's counter-intuitive to say the least. It should thus come as no surprise that, though Specter does not reveal the study's source, the research was produced - like the apples themselves - in New Zealand.

But other examples seem more compelling, such as beans and cut flowers sent from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. These African products have a much smaller footprint (on the order of six times smaller in the case of beans) than do the same products grown in Europe for European consumption. It turns out that African export-oriented farms still tend to be small, don't use tractors and fertilize mostly with manure. So it is possible that the right combination of local agricultural practices and land use issues can trump transport costs as a basis for determining carbon "efficiency".

All of which defies the concept that closer is better.
Old news, folks (that means you, Mr. Bailey). Speaking of Reason, it's worth noting that the carbon footprint of the US agricultural sector is more like 19% - or even higher if you include the carbon released by the simple act of tilling the soil. That said, I go back to Michael Pollan's resolarization concept. So yes, focus on food miles = bad. But focus on total hydrocarbon use in the agricultural sector = good.

Frankly, I think this is really about a concern in some corners that talking about things like locavorism will confuse the issues surrounding climate change priorities, as if climate change is a bandwagon upon which every group should not be allowed to jump. And I don't think foodies would disagree with the formulation that any reduction in carbon footprint is a fringe benefit of locavorism, rather than a central motivating factor.

We do have some hard questions to ask about food production and its total carbon footprint. If anything, the local food movement has moved that conversation forward quite a bit. How about a thank you, instead?

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Gale-Force Winds of Change
Holy Toledo. Obama just released this video of a "surprise" speech to be delivered to the bipartisan Governors Global Climate Summit being held today in Los Angeles.

Says Obama, "my presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change." Of course, given the embarrassment of the last eight years, even acknowledging that climate change is a problem represents a whole new volume, much a less a new chapter. He goes on to lay out his climate change strategy. It will include:
  1. a federal cap and trade system to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and then an additional 80% by 2050
  2. investing $15 billion annually in clean energy including solar, wind, and next generation biofuels
  3. "tap" nuclear power safely and develop clean coal technology
He sums up by declaring that, "delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences too serious."

Well, isn't that something.

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Barack Hearts Joe

I wanted to make a brief comment on the Joe Lieberman situation before returning to our regularly scheduled eco-blogging. Everyone is presumably aware that Lieberman is on the verge of getting a mild wrist-slap for his endorsement of McCain and his attacks on Obama during the campaign and won't be stripped of his major committee gavel.

Lieberman's fate is relevant to environmentalists since his name is on the one piece of significant and serious climate legislation actually introduced in the Senate. For those who pooh-pooh it, I say that while Lieberman-Warner may have been weak tea, at least it was tea. That said, I myself am no fan of the junior Senator from Connecticut. In fact I can't stand the self-righteous blowhard: but on this subject I come down, once again, on the side of chess.

Meaning: while the progressive blogosphere is screaming in rage over weak-kneed Senate Democrats letting felonies against the party go virtually unpunished, Barack Obama is counting votes. It's been acknowledged that Lieberman's virtual pardon is the result of Obama's coming out against significant punishment. As TPM's Greg Sargent reports:
Many Democrats believe that effort to oust Lieberman from the Homeland Security chairmanship were dealt a death knell last week, when Barack Obama said he held "no grudges" against Lieberman. Though Obama said he wouldn't "referee" the question over the chairmanship, Obama's statement had the practical effect of allowing Lieberman's allies to claim Obama's support and giving cover to those who want to do nothing about Lieberman's transgressions.
Needless to say, Obama's mercy has nothing to do with new politics or a spirit of bipartisanship - this is about cloture. Lieberman now owes his gavel, really his continued presence in the majority caucus, to the soon-to-be President. Thus, has Barack Obama placed Joe's privates in a lockbox under his new desk in the Oval Office.

When the time comes, the President will call on Joe for a service (or two or three or twenty). Whether he needs him to be the 60th vote on climate change legislation, health care, economic stimulus or any other priority, Obama knows he'll be able to count on Joe. Punishment is for tacticians. Pardons are for strategists.

That's my theory and there it is, too.

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November 17, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare $25 Billion

What is it with this whole "GM MUST DIE!" meme propagating in the progressive/eco blogosphere? From Matt Yglesias still thinking that somehow it's okay if GM liquidates to the eco-bloggers who seem positively gleeful about GM's possible demise, it really is quite shocking. We just elected the most progressive president since LBJ and now we want him to preside over the mass layoffs of up to three million workers at a cost to the government of, according to Bloomberg, up to $200 billion? In the middle of a Depression?! Judas Priest!! WHAT is UP with THAT?! I do know this - somewhere Herbert Hoover is smiling.

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, at least, is having none of it. Nor is Paul Krugman (and he's a Nobel Prizewinner!) Are the Big Three blameless? Far from it. Should some or all of GM senior management be shown the door. Yes: Mr. Lutz, here's your hat. But let them all burn? To say it's an over-reaction is an understatement. Things really are changing in Detriot. The unions have given concession after concession and restructured their labor contracts to reduce the impact of health and pension benefits. And Cohn explains how the improvements are in the showroom and on the factory floor as well:
According to the most recent Harbour Report, the benchmark guide for manufacturing prowess, Chrysler's factories now match Toyota's for the most productive, while both Ford's and GM's are improving. (A Toledo Jeep factory was actually named the nation's most efficient.) Consumer Reports now says Ford's reliability is approaching that of perennial leaders Honda and Toyota, whose ratings actually slipped last year. In late 2010, GM will introduce the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that can go 40 miles without gas, and the Chevrolet Cruze, a compact that relies solely on gas but that gets 45 miles to the gallon. The Volt would represent a rare leap ahead of the Japanese, who never embraced plug-in technology with the same enthusiasm. It's also typical of the better cars that observers say Detroit has in store. "There's a lot of accumulated negativity about these companies out there," says Wharton's John Paul MacDuffie, who directs the International Motor Vehicle Program. "U.S. consumers gave the Big Three the benefit of the doubt for a long time before turning away from them, and now their reputation is worse than their actual performance and progress toward needed reforms."
The Chevy Volt, by the way, is a huge deal. Not only will it be the world's first commercially-produced plug-in hybrid, but it will use a lithium-ion battery. Today's hybrid's use nickel batteries. Nickel mining is highly competitive with coal as the worst, most environmentally devastating, carbon-intensive industry. As a result, every hybrid drives off the lot carrying a "carbon debt" which, according to Wired Magazine, takes over 45,000 of driving to "drive off." Lithium ion is the acknowledged future of battery technology, and GM would be first out of the gate. But better to spite our faces, right?

But wait, there's more! After cheerleading for 3 million pink slips, most bloggers then say, "well, if we HAVE to bail those bastards out, at least attach some "green" strings," as if that's some meaningless little thrown bone. Um, hello? Has anyone been paying attention? Mileage standards have been stuck at around 27mpg for 20 years and will only need to go up another 8mpg over the next 12 years. In one swell foop we could revolutionize those standards, thus breaking a decades long political logjam. As Joe Romm (an eco-expert who supports a bailout) points out, greener cars will play a major role in lowering our carbon footprint. And here comes a once in a lifetime opportunity to show some fortitude and remake an industry. But, no, no. Better to make the "safe" decision and go with the pink slips.

And let's not forget Democrat John Dingell, congressman from Michigan, who has "protected" the auto industry from reform since long before most readers of this blog were born, and would jump on any bailout bandwagon, no matter what the industry was forced to do. Heck, he'd probably eat his Energy and Commerce Committee chairman's gavel if an amendment that so required was attached to bailout legislation, rather than oversee the destruction of the industry.

And I would also suggest that you turn your heads, oh you Big Three killers, and look whose shining face rests on the pillow next to you. It's none other than the GOP, which is honestly and truly gleeful at finally FINALLY destroying one of the last powerful unions left. There are strange bedfellows and there are toxic bedfellows. Just thinking about it makes me want to take a shower.

So, let's stop debating the possibility of bailing on the bailout and start debating the best way to help an industry transform itself for a carbon-neutral future. Can I hear a "Yes, We Can!"

[Updated: 2:30pm] My Blogger Ethics Advisor informed me that in my rush to post this, I neglected to mention that I, like the TNR's Jonathan Cohn, have a family connection to GM. In the wake of an accounting scandal a couple years ago, my father was named to the GM board to help improve financial controls. But you only need to read the above post (especially the bit about Bob Lutz) to see that I am not exactly a mouthpiece for GM. I myself don't own a single share of the company and a GM default would have zero bearing on my finances. The fact that GM itself doesn't want to die and I don't think it's such a hot idea either are about the extent our common ground... That's blogging on an empty stomach for you!

Photo by GM

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November 14, 2008

Coal Takes One For the Team
I hadn't blogged about this yet probably because I'm in the middle of writing an article on coal already and so many folks jumped on it immediately. But still, it's worth a mention.

In a nutshell, we appear to be in an unexpected year-long moratorium on the building of coal-fired power plants. Coal plants account for about 45% of US carbon emissions and most everyone agrees that if that number doesn't soon start on a path to zero, the planet is doomed. But almost out of nowhere, an EPA appeals board has single-handedly stopped new construction. Green, Inc. has more:

The decision — which responded to a Sierra Club petition to review an E.P.A. permit granted to a coal plant in Utah — does not require the E.P.A. to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, something which environmentalists have long sought.

Rather, it requires the agency's regional office to at least consider whether to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, before the agency gives a green light to build the Utah plant. On a broader scale, it will delay the building of coal-fired power plants across the country, long enough for the Obama administration to determine its policy on coal, according to David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club.

Among other things, it appears at best to require the EPA to come up with so-called BACT (Best Available Control Technologies) standards for carbon and at worst it allows the Obama administration to come up with a coal strategy. Now if you want details on what all that might look like, see It's Getting Hot in Here or Joe Romm at Climate Progress. I can tell you that it will NOT involve carbon capture and sequestration, which at $1 billion per plant and essentially unproved, is still on the drawing board. But it's a first step.

In fact, as far as I'm concerned, this is the starter gun going off. How Obama, Congress, the government and industry react to this ruling - what they really DO about this - will tell us whether or not this country can begin to address global warming. Remember, we've got 42 years to cut 14 gigatons of carbon emissions or we're, quite literally, toast.

The race is on.

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Checkers vs. Chess

As long as we're all going to assume Vilsack is our new Ag Sec'y, I may as well keep playing along. Ezra Klein takes issue with my Nixon-to-China analogy as not properly capturing the interest group dynamics involved in farm subsidies. Well, fine. But as he would have it:
The question is not a vulnerability in the realm of political narrative, but a tangible economic cost inflicted on an interest group that's been very effective at hijacking our system of regional representation. That it's an Iowan closing the spigot won't blunt the uproar among farm state senators who see those subsidies as crucial for their state's economies
If that's the case, then the truth is that no Secretary of Agriculture could ever enact meaningful reform. What's that you say? Some fiery reform-minded insurgent is going to storm in and change everything? Like that ever happens. Well, okay, maybe that happens sometimes, but the will of the American electorate, strong as it is, pales in comparison to that of the Farm Lobby. So that leaves the Department of Agriculture as the last place you'd go for subsidy reform.

Meanwhile, Ezra also managed to get Michael Pollan on the record as skeptical of Vilsack's potential. Pollan also again advocated for a "food policy advisor" who would, according to Pollan:
help coordinate policy across the Cabinet departments, so that health impacts are considered when write USDA rules, or food safety when writing trade rules, or climate change impacts when drawing the farm bill, etc etc. You need someone who can connect the dots between agriculture and health and energy and climate-- as Obama himself clearly is inclined to do. That won't happen at any one department.
Now, I've never been a big fan of a "czar" of this or that. Typically, they are more cheerleader than regulator and often lack budgets and true executive power. However, this line of thought got me thinking: What if our President-elect is once again playing chess while the rest of us fiddle around with checkers?

This is pure (hopeful) speculation, of course, but let's connect some dots. It's well established that Obama is a pragmatist. At the same time, in his food policy comment that got the foodies so excited in the first place, Obama is really coming at the problem from the perspective of climate change. And, as Ezra elegantly summarizes, though its power over subsidies remains, the Agriculture Department actually regulates a shrinking portion of the economy. While farming was once the country's main economic activity, it is now a tiny fraction of our overall economic output. In the days of yore, farming was a behemoth. "Today," as Ezra says, "it's an interest group. It begs subsidies and mainly supports massive corporations."

When I chew all that up, here's what I spit out. By putting Vilsack in charge, Obama is signaling that he's NOT attacking subsides frontally. For Obama, it will be all about climate change. I seriously doubt he'll create a food czar. But I would bet good money that Obama will create a Czar of All the Climate, i.e. a Cabinet-level Climate Secretary. If you empower a climate czar with actual power over the country's carbon emissions, you force the issue. Imagine if the Climate Sec'y came up with a carbon budget for different economic sectors, or forced each cabinet department to come up with a carbon reduction plan for each of its regulated industries. In that scenario, the current farm subsidy regime gets transformed into some kind of emissions reduction system. And we know from Pollan that monoculture Big Farming can't survive without the overwhelming use of fossil fuels - from diesel fuel to pesticides. That's how a strategist of Obama's class would operate and that's how he could reform the US agricultural sector.

Am I getting carried away? Sure. But seeing how greatly we've underestimated Obama time and time again in the last 18 months, why are we all so convinced he's about to underdeliver on something (i.e. climate change) that he says is his number one priority after the economy. I bet he goes long.

Image by frankblacknoir used under CC license

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November 13, 2008

Astroturf Alert!!

If the "Clean Coal" lobby's insipid paeans to America's love for cheap coal-fired electricity weren't bad enough, now we may have to sit through ethanol ads. Ethanol producers have announced their own advocacy astroturf group, Growth Energy. Its mission?
Through smart policy reform and a proactive grassroots campaign, Growth Energy promotes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding the use of ethanol in gasoline, decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, and creating American jobs at home.
Not necessarily in that order, I would imagine. Thankfully, they don't have a TV ad. Yet. But the most tantalizing part is their smackdown of the Grocery Manufacturers Association for suggesting, damn them, that ethanol might have had something to do with rising food prices. I smell a lobbyist cage match! Meanwhile, Growth Energy conveniently ignores what those yahoos at the the World Bank are saying about biofuels and food prices. This is AMERICA, dammit!

Now that we have our first Midwestern president since Harry Truman, corn producers are clearly in a tizzy. It certainly doesn't help that Obama has been such a strong supporter of ethanol. There's really only one solution to the threat of an ethanol hegemony: a biofuel grudge match. Bring in Big Algae! Let's go, pond scum producers! Get your game on!

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November 12, 2008

Annals in Conclusion Jumping

There is growing consternation among the food crowd that former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa will get the nod for Agriculture Secretary. Why we should suddenly believe that Team Obama, the tightest run political ship ever, has begun leaking like a sieve, I'm not sure. Let's remember the Meese Rule, "People who know don't talk and people who talk don't know." So let's not make unwarranted assumptions.

But if we grant that Vilsack will get the nod, is outrage and despair really the answer? Ezra thinks so. And while Obama could do far worse than Vilsack, it certainly doesn't look good. Vilsack is a corn state governor from a state that is swimming in subsidies. You'd like to think that subsidy reform could only happen in a Nixon-to-China scenario and Vilsack is certainly trusted by the farm lobby. Indeed, much has been made of his comments regarding his support for corn ethanol subsidies. Though, according to an interview he gave to a Minnesota college newspaper, he is on the record for transitioning away from corn to cellulosic ethanol ASAP and putting climate change concerns front and center for agriculture policy. But many think cellulosic ethanol is no better than its cornish relation and phasing out subsidies can always be done over a nice long slow schedule.

I suppose our best hope is that a guy like Vilsack will be able to sell any reform Obama considers. But an even better hope is that this rumor, like just about every unsourced one that's come out so far, is just plain wrong.

Photo by Markus Schöpke used under CC license

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November 11, 2008

Plastics Are Bad
Here is another entry in a continuing series of hard-hitting Beyond Green exposés. Plastics are bad. And you should stop using them. All of them. 'nuff said.

The above was prompted by the good folks at Enviroblog. They picked up on a story of two Canadian researchers whose biology experiment was contaminated by equipment made with plain old polypropylene plastic - the plastic "interfered with the function of a human brain protein and ruined a drug experiment." It surprised the researchers and caused them to raise alarms that this kind of contamination could be occurring everywhere. Enviroblog tells us where it can be found:
These plastics are marked by recycling code 5. Just now, running to check my refrigerator, I found a pack of cream cheese, a container of spreadable butter, and a yogurt tub, all packaged in number 5 plastic. Polypropylene is also used for manufacturing thermal coffee mugs, bottle tops, kitchen appliances, cutting boards, rugs, mats, bags and even baby bottles.
No, you're not experiencing deja vu. Yes, it's bisphenol-A all over again. In fact, in another clearly unrelated coincidence, the toxicity of BPA was also discovered when BPA-laced equipment interfered with biological research. As for longterm health effects, The Toronto Globe and Mail, which reported on the underlying paper, points out:

Not enough is known about the two substances leaking from the plastic - quaternary ammonium biocides and oleamide - to know what hazard, if any, they might pose through exposure to consumer products made from polypropylene.

"It's very difficult to say whether we should be worried from a health point of view about this," said Andrew Holt, the paper's lead researcher and an assistant professor of pharmacology.

Tell you what. I'm worried.

This all goes back to the fact that, also according to Enviroblog, of the 80,000 industrial chemicals in the wild, approximately 60,000 were grandfathered into the government's chemical toxicity testing legislation enacted in 1976. The good news is that New Jersey's Senator Frank Lautenberg has introduced an updated version that would tighten testing requirements. The bad news is there are and always will be at least 80,000 chemicals in the environment (and likely in our bodies) that no one really understands. Did I mention that plastics are bad?

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November 10, 2008

dubya dubya too

In case you were wondering, that's the kind of effort we'll need to stave off catastrophic climate change - the same effort we put in to fighting and winning World War II. So says NASA and scientist/climate prophet James Hansen.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress breaks down Hansen's latest research. In this paper, Hansen and his team try to nail down the target for atmospheric carbon that will lead to a stable climate. Alarmingly, it's 350ppm. We're already at 385ppm and rising right now. Romm, meanwhile, disputes Hansen's claim that 350ppm is even possible this century. Romm thinks 450ppm is at least conceivable though it will take superhuman effort to get there by 2100. I discussed some of these issues in my post on stabilization wedges, but with this latest paper, Hansen incorporates the latest data and models to confirm that stabilizing much above 450ppm of atmospheric carbon will indeed end the world as we know it (large-scale desertification and significant sea-level rises). And where would our carbon emissions need to go to stop this? The answer is down. Down, down, down. To zero. Forever.

Because of feedback loops, carbon levels can keep rising even after we've massively cut emissions (that's how 500ppm can turn into 1000ppm and the end of the world very quickly). So the target for carbon EMISSIONS, i.e. the stuff we put into the atmosphere, is zero by 2100. And it would need to stay at zero for at least a century. [Insert expletive of choice here]!!

Now that we really are two months away from a President Obama (I sure am glad I don't need to go back and revise my earlier posts), we can have some confidence that we as a nation will begin to attack climate change. But are we prepared for the scale? A favorite metaphor of the climate change activists for this or that effort has been the Manhattan Project that built two atomic bombs during WWII. But Hansen and his team (along with Romm) prefer the metaphor of World War II itself as the model upon which we must build. As he puts it:
Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.

The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.
For the record, in current dollars, World War II cost the United States $5 trillion in cash and the worldwide cost was something like $11 trillion (putting aside the human cost, if that's possible). And of course, the entire nation turned nearly 100% of its attention and output to fighting and winning that war. While there are some hopeful poll numbers now out there regarding support for alternative energy investment and combating climate change, I don't see an appetite for doing anything close to what we did back in 1941. Are we remotely prepared for what's ahead? Let's hope so. Or we're [insert favorite expletive again]!

Image from the Northwestern University Library Collection

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November 7, 2008

There Go the Lemmings

No, I'm not talking about crazed right-wingers following their nutjob leaders off a cliff. Those types prefer circular firing squads (you get to use guns for that, after all). I'm honestly talking about lemmings. The rodents.

The lemmings are indeed in trouble. It turns out that lemmings need snow to create their burrows - no snow, no lemming houses. In fact, at least in Norway, there haven't been cliff-diving lemmings (which only happens when the lemming population peaks every 3-5 years) since 1994. Their numbers are now cratering, according to a new study in Nature. And if the lemmings go, so do the sub-Arctic foxes and snowy owls.

So now we can add all of them to the growing list of charismatic megafauna doomed by climate change. For those keeping score at home, that includes some of my personal faves: polar bears, penguins and kangaroos.


Photo by Kristoffer Gleditsch used under CC license.

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November 5, 2008

And Now for Some Real Excitement

Forget the presidential election. Let's talk House committee leadership battles. The latest word from the Hill has it that California's Rep. Henry Waxman is going to challenge Michigan's John Dingell for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Just reading that should be enough to get your pulse racing. If not, read on.

As I've discussed before, House and Senate committees (and their chairpeople) can and do exert virtual control over the legislative process. Simply put, if a committee chair doesn't want it to happen, it doesn't happen. The House Energy and Commerce Committee handles pretty much everything having to do with climate change legislation - from things like appliance efficiency standards and mileage standards to renewables and - wait for it - cap-and-trade systems. Dingell, one of the most powerful members of the House, is from Michigan. Detroit is in Michigan. GM, Ford and Chrysler are in Detroit. You get my drift?

Dingell is notorious for holding up anything that he perceives to be harmful to the auto industry - that's why the Democrats have made only modest improvements to vehicle mileage and emissions standards (aka CAFE standards). Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Dingell have a history. In 2002, before she was Speaker, she endorsed a primary challenger to Dingell - a definite no-no for an incumbent. As Speaker, she tried to bypass Dingell by creating a "special select committee" to "advocate" for climate issues. But House committee reform being pretty much impossible, the new committee had no teeth - it couldn't pass legislation so it was irrelevant.

Waxman, on the other hand, represents Santa Monica and Malibu, California (i.e. the area north of Los Angeles). Putting him in charge of Energy and Commerce would be like putting a representative from New York City in charge of the Agriculture Committee. Plus, Waxman is an absolute bulldog. Currently chairing the House Oversight Committee, he's been hauling Bush cronies and incompetents in for under-oath thrashings since 2006. If C-Span had an equivalent to ESPN's Sportscenter - highlights from Waxman hearings would be featured nightly.

Waxman's attempt to wrest control does violate the informal but ironclad rules of House committee operations. However, if Pelosi backs him and the committee members vote for him, then Waxman will succeed. But Dingell won't go quietly so this is, as Roll Call put it, a brewing battle royal. If Waxman does pull it off, it completely changes the calculation of what's possible for climate change legislation in the country. THAT would be change we can believe in.

Photo by Public Citizen used under CC license

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The Sweet Smell of Victory
There's nothing like it. And out in California, we also saw some green referenda doing well. High speed rail passed (that is, funding for a line from SF to LA). And so did Prop 2, the referendum on the humane treatment of livestock. I didn't cover this, but Ezra did as did Carol Ness at Grist in great detail.

For the record, Prop 2 "requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens, and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." And just to be clear that we're not rushing into anything, farmers have 7 YEARS to prepare - it won't go into effect until 2015. Still, here's hoping this becomes a model for the country and spells the beginning of the end of the worst kind of factory farm.

Other than that, it was sort of a mixed bag nationwide for green-tinged ballot initiatives. Grist has a great results page, but the highlights are as follows:
  • other than high speed rail, a spate of green referenda failed in CA
  • MN is raising its sales tax to add funds for natural resource protection
  • OH passed an environmental funding bond as well as a constitutional amendment strengthening private property water rights (although no one really seems to understand its implications)
  • WA passed a bond to the expand mass transit in the Seattle area
  • MO passed a modest clean energy requirement
The fact is changing agricultural and energy policy will take national leadership so it's no surprise that trying to do this stuff via initiatives at the state level isn't successful.

It will of course ultimately come down to where this all fits on President Obama's (boy, do I like typing that) priority list. My guess is that cap-and-trade, energy and transit infrastructure will be pretty high up - the Democrats have a two-year window to do the heavy-lifting before the 2010 midterm elections when, if history is any guide, they are likely to lose seats in the House and Senate (though not their majorities). Health care and a stimulus package will be first for sure (not to mention ending the war in Iraq), but I think global warming-related reform will happen in that window as well.

So now, we wait.

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November 4, 2008

Just Do It StumbleUpon Reddit newsvine newsvine


November 3, 2008

Are you There, Sal?

Thanks to Atrios, we get a nice coda to my proximity post. It turns out that the Erie Canal is alive and well (and getting better). And not because of some nostalgic effort to turn the canal into some kind of frozen-in-time theme park. Hard nosed economics plus low-carbon goodness make for a beautiful friendship:
The canal still remains the most fuel-efficient way to ship goods between the East Coast and the upper Midwest. One gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by canal barge, Ms. Mantello said. A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks.
And because I love it when a plan comes together, we get this bit of grand unity:
When a company called Auburn Biodiesel decided to convert an old factory in Montezuma into a biodiesel plant, the building's location beside the canal "was merely an incidental consideration," said David J. Colegrove, the company's president. But after watching the number of cargo shipments along the canal grow, Mr. Colegrove said he hoped to bring soybeans in by barge and use the canal to ship finished product to New York City.
And the money quotes come fast and furious:
"I've worked the East Coast, the West Coast and the Panama Canal, but up here is some of the most beautiful country you can ever see," said John Schwind, 62, the captain of the Margot, who first learned to pilot tugs here in the 1970s.
It's enough to bring tears to the eye of this New York native. But the kicker comes from Colegrove:
"The amount of money you can save is really eye-popping," he said. "I'm fascinated by the history of the canal, and I'm intrigued by how well it still works."
Audacious hope, anyone?

Chart by The New York Times

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Speaking of Hope

I don't usually expect to find hope in the NYT Business section, but this weekend was an exception. An article on green jobs in the Midwest drew what looked to me like a fairly convincing virtuous circle. Let me say that I've been to this point skeptical about green jobs - not that they won't exist, but whether they will represent an engine of job growth that can replace the disappearing manufacturing and low-level white collar jobs, especially in the industrial Midwest. For proof, I just look at Silicon Valley which, for all its success, doesn't actually employ all that many people and never truly replaced the jobs lost in the 90s' collapse of California defense contractors.

That said, this article made me think there could be something to this whole green jobs thing. What's interesting about it is that, as the NYT describes it, proximity has become important again.

The article focuses on the growing wind turbine assembly industry in Iowa. Why Iowa? Well, Iowa is "[p]erched on the edge of the Great Plains -- the so-called Saudi Arabia of wind." These turbines are so enormous that you want to make them as close as possible to the location you want to use them. Off-shoring simply isn't an option. TPI, an Arizona turbine blade company, was looking for a location to site their new plant and ended up in Iowa. The reason - and when was the last time you heard that this mattered for manufacturers:
Although TPI was considering a site in Mexico with low labor costs, Newton had a better location. Rail lines and Interstate 80 connect it to the Great Plains, where the turbines are needed.
Rail lines?! Interstates!? Holy 20th century, Batman! No wonder the Rust Belt is taking notice.

While the proximity issue isn't paramount for every green industry, certainly wind - which may be used to generate one-fifth of US electricity by 2030 according to the DOE - and perhaps even solar (panels are, after all, made of GLASS!) will find that proximity to the customer will matter. If that's the case, we get to our virtuous circle. Like the auto industry of old, which was a web of manufacturers and suppliers based near one another, the clean tech industries may spin something similar, trapping some significant numbers of jobs currently flying overseas. Now that's a hopeful thought for the dawn of a new era, isn't it?

Photo by hddod used under CC license

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