Category Archives: Energy

What the government shutdown can tell us about the politics of climate legislation

This past Friday, the Diane Rehm show had a discussion about the recent shutdown of the Federal Government as Republicans tried to defund the Affordable Care Act.

There was a brief exchange that illustrates a dynamic I have been harping on for years, with respect to the idea of getting Republicans to vote for climate legislation. The panel is talking about the shutdown and the goal to defund the American Care Act, but the dynamic discussed would apply equally to voting for some sort of cap and trade, carbon tax, or fee and dividend program to cut domestic emissions.

Lori Montgomery:  We’ve reported, you know, endlessly, ad nauseam that Boehner himself, you know, told his rank and file not to try to fight Obamacare on the government funding bill. That was his preference. But you had this campaign led largely by outside groups, like the Jim DeMint-run Heritage Foundation and Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, who are Tea Party-backed guys. All summer, they were beating the drum against Obamacare. And they turned the heads of enough Republicans that Boehner could not proceed with a clean CR.

Ari Shapiro:  Lori… referenced outside groups which are a huge factor on this, which has gone under-remarked upon. Any Republican who acknowledges reality, that Obamacare is not going to be repealed, that at some point government funding is going to have to go into effect, that they probably will not get their fullest of demands. Any Republican who comes out and says that right now has a target painted on their back by some of these conservative groups that are very intent on funding primary challengers to force Republicans to adhere to this ideology that says we won’t budge.

[S]o many of these Republicans represent these blood-red districts where the demographic trends are going in the opposite direction from the rest of the country. The rest of the country is getting more diverse. It’s getting younger. These districts are getting more white. They’re getting older.

They represent districts where Romney beat Obama by a huge margin. And so the American people that they are representing do not necessarily look like the rest of the American people, and they have no incentive to negotiate with Democrats because that just means they’ll get primaried and kicked out in the next election.

Jeff Mason:  Well, and exactly. It also means that they won’t get punished for what some people think is really irresponsible behavior. It’s quite the contrary. What they’re seeing is that their political base is quite happy with the government shutdown and quite happy with the stand they’re taking on the Affordable Care Act.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Fibonacci Blue”, used under Creative Commons

So we’re left with this. Even though there are Republicans who were amenable to funding the government rather than shutting it down as a last ditch attempt to sabotage health care legislation, they are constrained by outside interest groups who will primary them at the first sign of ‘appeasement’, and they’re also seated in districts with an increasingly fringe constituency, who are scared, angry and feel like they have lost control of the country.

The same seems to be true for the time being on climate legislation. Polling shows that while people don’t like what they imagine “ObamaCare” to be, they actually quite like the specific provisions of the actual Affordable Care Act. Similarly, polling shows that climate change isn’t perceived as a terribly immediate problem for the average voter, but specific actions relating to mitigating climate change are quite popular. But any Republican that shows a willingness to work on climate legislation is risking ideologically/industry-backed outside groups funding a primary challenge from their right, and their constituents are increasingly out of touch with the country on support for common sense actions on climate.

There are some people who would have you believe that this opposition to the Affordable Care Act, as well as climate legislation, is an organic, bottom up, ‘will of the people’ type thing. The irony of course is that the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act was a conservative/Republican idea created as a market-based alternative to feared universal health care. Similarly, cap and trade was a conservative, market-based alternative to command and control options for pollution regulation, and until relatively recently, embrace of cap and trade (or a carbon tax) was a standard Republican position. The opposition to the Affordable Care Act and climate legislation does not stem from some organic, principled, groundswell of belief about what is best for the country, but rather is a form of tribal identity politics, which is fueled by special interests and think tank astroturfing and discourse policing.

Natural Gas Doesn’t Mean the End of Global Warming

Recently, a number of articles have been published gushing about the drop in US carbon emissions due to cheap natural gas. The recent glut of US natural gas has largely come from fracking. You can see an example at The Atlantic here, or in Foreign Policy here.

These articles appeal to people who might vaguely understand there’s something to this whole climate change problem after all, but really don’t care for hippies at Greenpeace and the EPA telling coal companies to reign in their emissions, and can’t be arsed to get out and support market-based solutions to the GHG externality problem like a carbon tax or cap and trade. They’re not anti-science, really. They’re just anti-proactively doing anything meaningful about the problem.

So you can imagine how news that US emissions have declined has been a godsend. Their inner monologue probably goes something like, “Look! No pesky regulations, no inconvenient carbon pricing. The magic of the market at work!” And of course, “Suck it, commies Europe!

Such articles fail to recognize two fundamental problems with the “Fracking Will Save Us All” meme.

1. Burning natural gas domestically doesn’t keep coal in the ground. As US coal consumption decreased, coal exports increased.

It’s great that US emissions dropped. But the atmosphere and ocean don’t care where the coal gets burned.

2. These low natural gas prices are unsustainable. The US Energy Administration forecasts:

Because of the projected increase in natural gas prices relative to coal, EIA expects the recent trend of substituting coal-fired electricity generation with natural gas generation to slow and likely reverse over the next year. From April through August 2012, average monthly natural gas prices to electric generators increased by 34 percent, while coal prices fell slightly. EIA expects that coal-fired electricity generation will increase by 9 percent in 2013, while natural gas generation will fall by about 10 percent.

EIA expects carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, which fell by 2.3 percent in 2011, to further decline by 2.4 percent in 2012. However, projected emissions increase by 2.8 percent in 2013, as coal regains some of its electric-power-generation market share.

If the authors of such nonsense find the EIA analyses too difficult to read, perhaps webcomics might be less intimidating:

No one could have predicted

Remember how a few years back, supporters of aggressive climate mitigation legislation were castigated for being shrill, tribal, hippies? And how if only we tried a “third way” of making incremental progress with opponents of greenhouse gas limits, a bipartisan tide would lift us all to new clean energy heights?

Good times.


Videobreak: Preview for “EARTH: The Operators’ Manual”

Earth: The Operators’ Manual is a three part mini-series from PBS, airing beginning April 10, 2011. It’s hosted by climate communicator extraordinaire Richard Alley.

Hey, look! It’s “Earth Hour”.

Still unforgivably stupid.

An upper limit to growth? Population vs. consumption

Image courtesy of Flickr user Digital Dreams

I have an online acquaintance who has sort of abruptly switched tacks several times on the issue of climate.

Previously, he had professed a deep hostility to the field, and was one of those people who believed that climate science as a whole was little more than toying around with computer models of dubious skill. I did my best to break through these misconceptions from any and all angles- illustrating that there was far more going on than modeling, pointing at paleoclimatic and observational evidence, and how these dovetailed nicely with a lot of that “suspect” modeling he so distrusted. There was a bit of a breakthrough when we were able to civilly discuss the possible drivers of the Americas’ medieval megadroughts. I think he finally began to understand that climate science was “real science” at that point, and although he occasionally would sneer at imagined inconsistencies in media reports of potential impacts, he seemed to largely accept that there was good evidence underlying the attribution of current warming and the general shape of what could come absent some sort of limit on GHG emissions.

Predictably, his attitude shifted from “we can’t say we’re causing it or that it might be bad” to “we can’t change our energy infrastructure, so we’re hosed and might as well not rock the fossil energy boat with carbon pricing”. I introduced him to the conceptual framework of stabilization wedges, demonstrating that we indeed possessed the technological capability to address the issue in time to minimize the magnitude of the change we’ll have to ride out. After initially dismissing it out of hand, he eventually seemed to accept this as well.

He then seemed to grow fixated on the issue of population growth as the main problem and thus potential solution to climatic change, as well as other environmental problems like overfishing, habitat destruction, etc. He demanded to know why the IPCC and other organizations weren’t aggressively pushing population control as the silver bullet fix for climate change.

Needless to say, I was more than a little shocked at this turn of events. This acquaintance’s politics had always seemed more of the libertarian bent than anything else, probably the last sort of person I could imagine pushing for sweeping, UN-led population control. I explained that while my own personal interests in social justice led me to advocate for increased female education and autonomy in reproductive health, which demonstrably reduces the childbirth rate in developing and lower income areas, I didn’t see population growth as quite the overwhelming threat that he seemed to.

I explained that most credible projections showed global population levels peaking around mid-century even without a massive international effort to reduce its growth. I explained that while an additional 2-4 billion people would no doubt significantly increase the environmental problems we’re facing, I was more  concerned with existing billions of people becoming increasingly American in their waste and consumption habits.

We went back and forth on this issue for some time, and during the course of many conversations, it became clear that his anti-population growth position was just a fig leaf for anti-immigration sentiments that had little to do with climatic concerns and a great deal more to do with a set of prejudices that are commonly found among American males of European descent residing in the American southwest.

I appreciated the debate with him (up to that point) however, because it really divested me of the last residual concerns I had about a ticking “population bomb”, as opposed to an “over-consumption bomb.” Discussions about the delusion of neoclassical economics on a finite planet tend to conflate these two issues as a single problem, perhaps in seriousness or because it works to good rhetorical effect. Humans as an exponentially growing plague of ravaging locusts destroying the fruits of the biosphere is undeniably evocative imagery regardless of whether one finds it to be  an accurate depiction of our actions on this planet.

Unchecked economic growth, at least as the term is used in current politico-economic discussions, seems self-evidently impossible to people such as myself. The idea that we can- let alone should- pretend that it represents a viable forward plan seems to be incredibly reckless, even dangerous. The “limitless growth as suicide pact” notion has been addressed at this blog previously here and here, as well as at MT’s blog.

In previous discussions here and elsewhere, I’ve never really attempted to articulate why this should be so, as it hardly seems necessary to explain. Fortunately, a recent paper has been published that illustrates the problem in rough strokes. Brown et al. in BioScience attempt to demonstrate through macroecological tools that energetic constraints apply to human economies, just as organisms’ energy usage constrains their body size.

Their “money” graphic is Figure 4:

This seems to bear out my concerns as argued to my crypto-anti-immigration acquaintance. We can, in theory, sustain a growing and peak population under current global trends in consumption. This is obviously not an ideal outcome, as it would mean billions living in destitute poverty.  But even if we freeze population at 2006 levels, we cannot support a human population consuming like Americans. This is why the consumption part of the equation seems to deserve the lion’s share of attention, even if one does not accept that population growth will peak around mid-century of its own accord.

From a social justice standpoint, I would like to see everyone pulled out of poverty and able to enjoy the health and safety enjoyed by those living in developed nations. But in order to do that and not run up against the biogeophysical limits of the planet (of which climate change seems to be but one incarnation), we have to ensure that we don’t all become (or remain as the case may be) wasteful Americans.

Reference: Brown, J.H., et al. (2011): Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. BioScience, 61, 1, 19-26, doi:10.1525/bio.2011.61.1.7.

The human cost of coal continues to mount

Grieving family members leave after a Sunday briefing from Pike River Coal management on the 29 miners and contractors trapped underground at the Pike River mine, Greymouth, New Zealand. (Ross Setford, NZPA/Associated Press; CBC)

Last Friday an explosion trapped 29 men in New Zealand’s Pike River coal mine, including a 17-year-old.

At 01:37 GMT Wednesday, a second explosion ripped through the collapsed mine, leaving all 29 presumed dead.

This terrible news will likely overshadow the successful rescue of 29 other coal workers from a flooded mine in Sichuan Province, China.

The world remains heavily reliant on coal power, with increases in coal use in developing countries creating higher than expected GHG emissions in 2009. The future role of coal in global energy production remains uncertain due to conflicting estimates of remaining reserves and a lack of carbon pricing and/or subsidized clean energy alternatives.