Friday, April 29, 2011

On the Royal Wedding, Emergence and Political Discourse in the US and Britain

I had no plan to watch the royal wedding this morning, but it happened to coincide with my morning coffee. And, as I watched, I was struck by a peculiar philosophical difference between American and British political discourse and its relation to the concept of emergence.

While the wedding had lots of pomp and ceremony, I was surprised at the clear, explicit and didactic nature of the statements made by the Cardinal. He literally provided numbered reasons for the benefits of marriage ... one, to have children; two ...; etc. It was not just a ceremony for those involved, it was also a message to the British about the intended role of the Royals. And, looking at the larger structure of the discourse, here is what was articulated:

1) The wedding ceremony involved a 'fusion' of William, Kate and God. Significantly, the point was made explicitly and repeatedly that the result of this process -- making God an operative element in their lives -- should not be seen as forcing them to 'conform' to a particular moral or ethical code. Rather, fusing themselves with God was meant to be transformative -- to provide them with access to the Holy in a way that allows them to navigate novel situations with a moral compass informed by God about what is good and what is not.

2) Later in the ceremony, there was some explicit discussion of the future and, in particular, the obligations of the Royals in facilitating it. This was, as one would expect in a nation where formal political decisions rest with the elected officials in Parliament, a bit more subtly phrased -- but the intended meaning was still clear. The Royals, using their moral compass informed by God, have an important role to play in defining the direction of British society and, interestingly, its relation to nature.

I don't know squat about Anglican doctrine, previous royal weddings or any particular role that Charles (and his well known green bent) might have had in crafting the reference to preserving nature. But the general philosophical tone of the ceremony was clear: rather than leading through adherence to a rigid code, the Royals are expected to channel God and provided enlightened and emergent leadership that addresses novel problems in novel ways.

This view is, interestingly, in stark contrast with American political discourse where the dominant theme has to do with the infinite wisdom of the founding fathers and the merit in finding solutions that conform to their ideas. This orientation is most explicitly present in the legal philosophy of 'strict constructionism' but the invocation of the founding fathers is a standard trope in Congress as well.

So this is where the English speaking world currently finds itself. On one side of the pond, moral leadership is invested in an in-bred group of Royals who are expected to channel God in order to help Britain find its way. But they have no formal political power. On the other side of the pond, God has been replaced by a group of long dead men -- the founding fathers -- as the source of enlightened governance. Moreover, rather than adaptively addressing new problems, solutions are found though conformity to the ideas of the founders. Personally, I don't find either of those options -- adaptive leadership based on the Divine right of Kings and the spiritual connection of the Royals to God or rigid doctrinal adherence to a civil authority constrained to the ideas of a group long dead men -- particularly attractive. Can't we some how find a way to get adaptive governance integrated into a civil authority structure?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

And now for a REAL Sociologist, Max Weber

"This order [i.e. capitalism] is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with the economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”
—Max Weber, 1905

(from The Oil Drum, April 2011)

Major shifts in fuel are possible

In light of all the latent pessimism present in the previous posts about the Nisbet Report -- that the current strategy of climate change advocacy in the US is unlikely to succeed -- it is useful to revisit a case where significant change in fossil fuel usage did occur.

Most electricity is generated by boiling water in order to create steam that is used to power turbines. The major difference among power plants is the fuel used to boil the water -- whether it be coal, oil, nuclear power, natural gas or whatever. As shown in the graph below (taken from chapter 3 of the IMF's 2011 World Economic Outlook report), the use of oil as a fuel to generate electricity in the OECD countries grew rapidly during the 1960's, accounting for over 25% of electrical power generated in the early 1970's. The proportion of electricity generated from oil has progressively declined to the present level of 2.5%, a 90% decrease over 40 years.

Here is how the report explains the shift:
Most OECD countries saw a big switch away from oil in electric power generation in the early 1980s. After oil prices rose sharply compared with the prices of other fossil fuels in the 1970s, the power sector switched from oil to other inputs (Figure 3.6): some countries went back to coal (for example, the United States); others increased their nuclear capacity (for example, France) or turned to alternative energy sources. .... Today, however, the power sector is no longer an important oil consumer in OECD or emerging market economies. In fact, the transportation sector currently accounts for about 50 percent of total oil consumption. A substantial part of the remainder goes to the petrochemical industry and for other miscellaneous uses outside the power sector. Given current technologies, it is harder to substitute other factors for oil in these sectors, explaining the break in the estimated elasticities.

Back in the 1970's as oil prices rose there was a big debate: was oil a price elastic or an inelastic commodity. In other words, as the price rose, would shifts occur to other fuels or would the higher costs be absorbed and passed on because no suitable substitutes were available. The answer, it turns out, depends. Thus, in the power sector where there were cost effective alternatives, substitution occurred. In the transportation sector, where cost effective substitutes were not available, people adjusted by purchasing more fuel efficient cars rather than adopting a technology powered by another fuel.

In short,
1. Significant energy shifts do occur.
2. Under the right conditions, the shift can occur fairly quickly (the bulk of the decline came in a period of about 10 years), though the entirety of a transition can take decades.
3. Rapid shifts are driven by economics (in this case, substituting a cheaper fuel source) rather than regulatory policy.
4. Shifts are dependent on the availability of substitutes.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Nisbet Report: Climate Shift (Take II)

Here's an update on the earlier discussion of Nisbet's ClimateShift report.

Bradford Plummer over at the New Republic has a thoughtful review of the Nisbet Report, Blame Game: Has the green movement been a miserable flop? The article does a good job of both describing the niche controversies surrounding the report while at the same time maintaining focus on the larger issues that the report raises; specifically whether or not the emphasis on public education is a sensible strategy for getting the US to adopt climate change legislation. Unfortunately, in an attempt to end on an up note, the article goes seriously off track in the last paragraph.
Last month, I asked David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council whether the green movement needed to rethink its broader strategy. .... Hawkins, who has worked on air-pollution issues for four decades now, preferred to take the long view. “I’m a political optimist,” he said. “Over the last forty years, we really have seen significant environmental progress. There are always setbacks—we’ve weathered unfriendly political climates during the Reagan and Bush years, and we’ve protected the EPA’s authority. But, eventually, we'd win. The air would get cleaner, lives would be saved, and things continue to get better.” It's not the sort of conclusion that's going to grab headlines. But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Hawkins is arguably right --- as long as you focus on environmental matters that can be addressed at the level of the nation-state or below. But climate change is of a different scale, requiring coordinated effort among all the countries of the world. This is where the navel-gazing fetish of America gets them in trouble. There are two big behemoths that have to be placated in any feasible solution to climate change: the US and China. The notion that internal political pressure will, at this point, get the US to move without some sort of tandem move by China is pure fantasy. I've addressed this issue in greater depth here and here.

Unfortunately, the track record of international cooperation on such a scale is not something that generates a lot of optimism. The only structure remotely similar to what will be needed -- that is an essentially global agreement with a legally binding enforcement mechanism -- are the trade agreements of the World Trade Organization. But ever since about 2000, when the developing world woke up to the fact that they were having the wool pulled over their eyes by the wealthy economies, further development of such agreements has ground to a halt. Stated another way, the WTO experience has seriously lessened the likelihood of getting international cooperation on a similar scale for another issue like climate change.

Yes, some will point to the Montreal Protocol and its success in taming the ozone problem and argue, as they have done for years, that it's cap-and-trade model provides a viable way to address the climate issue. While superficially attractive, this suggestion fails to account for three major differences. First, the ozone problem was, comparatively, a simple matter. Climate change is a wicked problem with many more complexities and uncertainties. Second, once they discovered an alternative for CFC's, the chemical industry was full scale in favor of the Montreal Protocol because they saw a clear path to increased profits. This is not the case with climate change where much of the fossil fuel industry remains resolutely opposed to effective climate change policy. Third, CFC's were a comparatively minor economic product and, hence, no one perceived a ban on CFC's as a fundamental attack on capitalism. In contrast, fossil fuels are a key source of the energy which drives the modern economy and which cannot easily and cheaply be replaced with another source. As such, the argument that weaning an economy off fossil fuels will necessitate a fundamental restructuring of the economy is not at all far fetched. Thus, climate change legislation is easily tied to concerns about the future of capitalism or the American way of life, a political burden that the Montreal Protocol never had to carry.

I'm all for optimism. But I prefer to take mine with a dash of realism thrown in.

P.S. A couple days after I posted this Robert Pielke Jr's posted on the ozone issue, fleshing out several of the above points with additional details.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The ClimateShift Controversy

It is the end of term and I'm weighted down by a pile of papers. So, not much time for the blog. That said, the world has thrown a pitch right down the middle of the plate and I can't just stand there looking. I have to swing .....

A couple days ago, Climate Progress released a pre-publication draft of a report authored by Matthew Nisbet ClimateShift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Debate along with a scathing attack on the report by Joe Romm. According to Romm:
The 99-page report’s two central, but ridiculous, claims are:

  1. The environmental movement outspent opponents during the climate bill debate.
  2. Media coverage of climate change has become balanced and was not a factor in the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill.
There are two basic problems with this representation. First, from my quick reading of the report, these supposed "central claims" are minor subthemes rather than major pillars of the report's argument. The report is basically an argument for what it terms a "deeper reconsideration" of the strategy for climate change advocacy. Simply put, the report argues that climate change advocates need a new strategy because the current one isn't working. The counting up of dollars spent by both sides is meant to buttress this argument by showing that the current message has been widely distributed. Thus, advocates can't claim they have failed because they haven't been heard.

Romm's piece gleefully notes that several reviewers have issues with the way the advocacy dollars have been counted in the report and have refused to have any further involvement with it. At heart, this appears to be a theoretical debate about how media affect opinion dressed up in the guise of an argument over facts. The simple rendition treats the public as dupes -- the more something is repeated, the more likely the public is to believe it. If you take this view, then volume matters. The guy with the big megaphone -- read the Koch brothers -- wins. Thus, the amount of money spent is important. The more complex rendition treats the public as interpreters rather than passive recipients or media content. People have predispositions and cognitive tendencies that result in selective perception. Thus, for example, liberals read Stephen Colbert as sarcastic while conservatives tend to take his proclamations more literally. The same phenomena was famously documented in relation to people's interpretation of Archie Bunker in the 1970's -- conservatives thought Archie won the arguments while liberals viewed Mike and Gloria as the sensible ones (See Archie Bunker’s Bigotry: A Study in Selective Perception and Exposure by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach). But, as the report notes in Chapter 4, the distribution of such predispositions is not stable within the population. Attitudes are embedded in context and affected by things like the state of the economy. I'm not saying that the volume with which a message is repeated is irrelevant, but just because someone is shouting something doesn't make me accept it.

This brings me to my second, and more fundamental, objection to Romm's piece: it stirs up a controversy that takes away from a discussion of the real issues raised by the report. Keith Kloor has hit this nail directly on the head. It is tidy and simplistic to feel that there are powerful forces out there that are corrupting the public's view. The reality is much more complex. Unfortunately, Romm has drug the discussion down to a focus on simplistic and, if not irrelevant at least secondary, concerns. If the climate change advocacy community dwells exclusively on these matters and fails to address the need for serious attention to the content of their message and the way it is framed, Romm will have won the battle while helping lose the war.

Now ... back to marking.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dualing Renewables

Washington state has a history of bold energy initiatives. Beginning with the construction of the massive Grand Coulee Dam during the Depression, the next 20 years turned the Columbia River into a series of lakes as dams were build to control runoff, provide irrigation and generate electricity. As a result of this investment, the state gets a large proportion of its power from hydroelectricity and has some of the lowest electricity rates in the US.

During WWII, Hanford served as one of the three original sites for the Manhattan project to build the atomic bomb, creating a local economy in the Tri-City region favorable to nuclear. Thus during the 1970's, as construction of nuclear power plants became progressively more problematic in much of the country, the state commenced construction on a set of six nuclear plants near the Tri-Cities. In contrast to the investment in hydroelectricity, this project ended poorly; in the early 1980's the project collapsed in debt and all but one of the plants were mothballed.

More recently, the state passed the Washington Energy Independence Act of 2006. As a result, electric utilities in Washington that serve more than 25,000 customers are required to obtain the following percentages of their electricity from "new" renewable resources:

o At least 3% by January 1, 2012

o At least 9% by January 1, 2015

o At least 15% by January 1, 2020

Significantly, the Act does not count hydroelectric power as renewable and, as a result, the last few years have seen the construction of several large wind farms. With 3500 megawatts installed capacity, the state gets three times more power from wind than from its one operating nuclear plant. As the graph below shows, the needs of the region at some periods, typically 5-8000 megawatts, are substantially less than generated by hydro alone (11-14000 megawatts). As a result, the bulk of the wind power is exported to California and other states outside the Northwest.

The massive growth in energy supply, however, has not been met by a similar increase in transmission capacity and the Bonneville Power Administration is considering shutting down the wind farms at certain times of the year. As described in the Seattle Times:
As the wind industry expands, the BPA has found it more difficult to transmit all that power and still meet other responsibilities, which include selling hydro power outside the region and spilling water over dams to aid the passage of migrating salmon.

Last June, the BPA balancing effort turned into a high-wire act as a late snow melt unleashed a gusher of water down the Columbia River at the same time that winds whipped up the power turbines.

BPA officials said that they couldn't divert all the water around the hydroelectric turbines without putting too much dissolved gas into the river and placing salmon at risk. So they ended up running more water through the dam turbines and giving away their surplus power to utilities all over the West.

That spurred the agency to develop a new proposal to periodically shut down wind-power farms to help balance loads. The plan was embraced by public utilities across the region.

The proposal to occasionally shut down wind production has met with a storm or criticism from the wind industry, which sees the initiative as an unfair burden on their industrial sector. For many wind-power producers, a big part of the payback is collecting tax credits for power production. Thus, not only revenues but also the tax credits would be lost during shutdowns.

Over the longer term, as described here, BPA is looking to improve the information infrastructure in ways that will allow them to more effectively integrate wind power into the existing distribution network.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More Fracking News

A few days ago I noted the glee attending shale gas in the exploration community -- it's not just in North America, it's all over the world!!! To date, most of the controversy surrounding fracking -- the process used to release gas from shale formations -- has centered on water quality issues. No more.

A recent report by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, concludes that the carbon footprint of unconventional gas production from shale is worse for the climate than burning coal. His analysis, to be published later this week in Climatic Change Letters, found that somewhere from 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of methane, the chief component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas (72 times as potent as carbon dioxide according to IPCC), is leaking into the atmosphere at various points along the shale gas production life cycle. As the graph below shows, this makes natural gas from shale the least desirable fuel of the bunch, at least in terms of its impact on the climate.

Not surprisingly, given the stampede to shale gas in the industry, Howarth's report is being refuted in detail before it is even public. See, in particular, this discussion at Energy in Depth.

Additional information on the debate is available here.

Keith Kloor has also weighed in on the debate over at his Frontier Earth blog.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Over the last decade, production of natural gas from shale has exploded from .39 Tcf in 2000 to 4.87 Tcf (or 23 percent of total U.S. natural gas production) in 2010. This 12.5 fold increase in production shows both the rapid growth and absolute importance of the shale gas resource to the United States. As is often the case with resource development, shale gas production also has raised local environmental concerns, largely centering on the amount of water used in the fracturing process and the need to handle, recycle, and treat fracturing fluids in a manner that addresses the risk of spills that can potentially affect water quality.

These developments led the US Energy Information Agency to commission a report, World Shale Gas Resources: An Initial Assessment of 14 Regions Outside the United States. Of the countries covered in the EIA-sponsored study, two groups may find shale gas development most attractive. The first is those countries that currently depend heavily on natural gas imports but that also have significant shale gas resources. These include France, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, South Africa, Morocco, and Chile. The second group is those countries that already produce substantial amounts of natural gas and also have large shale resources. In addition to the United States, this group includes Canada, Mexico, China, Australia, Libya, Algeria, Argentina, and Brazil.

So .... all indications are that interest in New Brunswick shale gas will only intensify.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Frontier Earth on Climate Central

Keith Kloor (from Collide-a-Scape) has a new blog, Frontier Earth over at Climate Central, that discusses topics of relevance to resilience science and sustainability. He reads widely and does an excellent job of keeping abreast of emerging discursive trends that affect the policy debate. See, for example, the entry Security Concerns get Top Billing in Climate and Energy Debates or the one dealing with momentum shifts on climate adaptation.

He also has the wisdom to list us in his Blogroll! Thanks, Keith!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Caution: Koch Brothers at Work

About a year ago, Greenpeace released a report, Koch Industries Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine. The main point of the report was to draw attention to the role of the secretive brothers in funding climate denial and, in particular, to highlight the scale of their activity relative to the much better known activities of Exxon Mobile.
Although Koch intentionally stays out of the public eye, it is now playing a quiet but dominant role in a high-profile national policy debate on global warming. Koch Industries has become a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition. This private, out-of-sight corporation is now a partner to Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and other donors that support organizations and front-groups opposing progressive clean energy and climate policy. In fact, Koch has out-spent Exxon Mobil in funding these groups in recent years. From 2005 to 2008, Exxon Mobil spent $8.9 million while the Koch Industries-controlled foundations contributed $24.9 million in funding to organizations of the climate denial machine.

While the Greenpeace report focuses entirely on the Koch Brothers activities as they relate to climate change, this is only the tip of the iceberg. A couple days ago, The Center for American Progress released The Koch Brothers: What You Need to Know About the Financiers of the Radical Right. This report documents, in considerable detail, the role of the brothers in a wide range of national policy debates. Here are some of the highlights from the report:

The Koch brothers, whose wealth, when combined, is the fourth highest in the nation, run one of the largest private companies in the country. Koch Industries is involved in industries ranging from oil and gas, refining and chemicals, minerals, fertilizers, forestry, consumer products, polymers and fibers, and ranching. They have operations in 45 states.

The Koch brothers use their considerable wealth to bankroll the right wing, including the Tea Party. This serves the purpose of furthering not only their right-wing ideology but also their bottom line. Koch Industries has a lot to gain from gutting government oversight and electing candidates who oppose government regulation, especially in the oil-and-gas industry.

Chances are the Koch brothers are part of any recent right-wing attack as of late as they have fought health reform, Wall Street reform, collective bargaining rights, and efforts to curb climate change, to name just a few.

We have identified at least $85 million the Koch brothers have given to at least 85 right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups over the past decade and a half.

Their main advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, has chapters in 32 states and spent $45 million in the last election, predominantly to help elect Republicans.

The Kochs donated directly to 62 of the 87 members of the House GOP freshman class.

The Koch brothers are active at the state level, spending $5.2 million on candidates and ballot measures in 34 states since 2003. They donated directly to 13 governors that won election last year.

The Kochs are not going away. In fact, they have already pledged to raise $88 million for the 2012 election and have started scheduling events for potential Republican presidential candidates.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Post-Disaster Resilience

By coincidence, I arrived for a month long stay in Thailand just two days after the 2004 tsunami. Within days there were discussions of rebuilding -- most interestingly of rebuilding large scale tourist infrastructure in locations where previous development had been held in check by local opposition. It was clear that the plans had long been in place and the developers recognized that the disaster provided a window of opportunity for them to advance their agenda. I was observing one small example of the larger phenomena that Naomi Klein described in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

In light of all the emphasis on top-down reorganization brought about by such events, it is interesting to see examples like Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras which examine more emergent, bottom-up responses to disaster. Here is the abstract:

Two distinct views are evident in research on how rural communities in developing countries cope with extreme weather events brought by climate change: (i) that the resource-reliant poor are acutely vulnerable and need external assistance to prepare for such events, and (ii) that climate-related shocks can offer windows of opportunity in which latent local adaptive capacities are triggered, leading to systemic improvement. Results from a longitudinal study in a Tawahka community in Honduras before and after Hurricane Mitch (1994–2002) indicate that residents were highly vulnerable to the hurricane—due in part to previous development assistance—and that the poorest households were the hardest hit. Surprisingly, however, the disaster enabled the poor to initiate an institutional change that led to more equitable land distribution, slowed primary forest conversion, and positioned the community well to cope with comparable flooding occurring 10 y later. The study provides compelling evidence that communities can seize on the window of opportunity created by climate-induced shocks to generate sustained social-ecological improvement, and suggests that future interventions should foster local capacities for endogenous institutional change to enhance community resilience to climate shocks.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Greenhouse gas emissions: You say tomayto, I say tomaato

There are a variety of different ways of talking about greenhouse gas emissions. Each makes sense within its own context, but unlike different pronunciations, you need to take them all into account to make sense of the situation. It isn't a simple matter of choice.

One way, as in the chart to the left looks at total emissions by country. Given the current political arrangements of the planet -- where policy implementation is made at the level of the nation-state, this view gives a sense of the overall 'contribution' of each country to the problem. This view has the practical benefit of pointing out that the two countries most responsible for the increasing level of emissions (the US and China) are also the main players currently outside the Kyoto process. And, as discussed in some earlier posts, the ones most at odds with each other over the next step; the development of a policy framework to replace Kyoto.

To view this graph, please install Adobe Flash Player.

Another way of viewing emissions, as shown above, is on a per capita (per person) basis. Viewed in this light, we see that China's contribution remains comparatively small -- the total contribution is large because of the massive population of the country, the average contribution per person remains substantially less than in the developed world. While a bit dated (the information only goes up to 2004) the above chart is dynamically connected to a data set that allows you to play around and look at it in different ways. Try it out!

For more on carbon emissions by person, see this article.