Al Gore

March 22nd, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

Let’s presume you have not just returned from an interplanetary expedition and have been unable to access any Earth media over the past several years.  Then you know that former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has been leading a very public fight to apprise people of the reality and dangers of global warming.  The documentary featuring him and his extraordinary slide show, “An Inconvenient Truth”, released last May, has reached millions of people and won him and the filmmaker an Academy Award on February 25.  Gore has a website devoted to climate change, AlGore.com, and heads up The Alliance for Climate Protection. 

Now Al Gore is a big boy and can take care of himself and so the inevitable backlash, some might call it swift-boating, that has evidently begun will neither surprise nor intimidate him.  He may perhaps even welcome it as a further and perhaps brighter spotlight is brought to bear on his concerns and activities. 

On March 13, the weekly Science section of the “NY Times” featured this article:  From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype by William J. Broad.  It quoted a number of researchers as saying that Gore’s message was, in a word, overhyped. Other scientists, as prominent and widely respected as James Hansen and Michael Oppenheimer, defended Gore’s message and work.  A storm broke out.

See this from the Center for American Progress the day after the article appeared:  Media — New York Times Baselessly Lambasts Gore, Cites Discredited Skeptics. (You have to scroll down the webpage a bit for this item.)  See also these letters in response in the Times.  For example, the president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote:  “…if you feel obligated to publish what are simply opinions, please use the opinion pages rather than the science section.”  Ouch.  To be entirely fair to the “NY Times,” it must be noted that their coverage of global warming has been broad and generally excellent.  I devoted my entry from March 9 to their terrific special section on the Business of Green.

See also this then from the “Wall Street Journal” from March 19:  Whose Ox Is Gored?  This is starting to get real personal and is coming perilously close to hitting below the belt.

Gore appeared on Capitol Hill yesterday before both Senate and House committees.  He delivered cogent testimony.  He took both praise and some lumps. But he’s a big boy, as I said.  (I know, very big.  So he’s put on a few pounds.)

Returning to the Center for American Progress, see also this from them from yesterday:  Global Warming - A Hero And A Target.  This is, to be sure, a partisan organization, but I think, from my perspective, that they have landed a good number of punches, and all according to the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

Smorgasbord

March 20th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

I’ve been looking at energy and environmental issues for nearly 40 years and I’ve never before seen the proliferation of big news stories that I’ve been seeing for the past year or so, particularly, of course, on climate change.  Maybe it was “An Inconvenient Truth,” released on May 24 last year; maybe it was the 72° temperature on January 6 in New York City this year (and no snow in the Alps); and maybe it was the sinking in of just how catastrophic Katrina was.  The war in Iraq is likely a factor.  It’s probably for these reasons and more that energy and environment have become such critical concerns.

We’ll look at some of the flak that Al Gore’s been taking recently in a post tomorrow or the next day.  This is a compelling story.  For your viewing pleasure, you might want to watch Al Gore and Bjorn Lomborg, one of the more prominent climate change skeptics, testifying on their “Perspectives on Climate Change” at a joint House hearing tomorrow.  Or see also Gore’s testimony before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee:  Vice President Al Gore’s Perspective on Global Warming.”

In the meantime, I’m going to just quickly hit a number of important stories that have come up in the past week or so.  I may do this from time to time, just because there’s so much out there to cover!  (That there’s so much to report, as I’ve said before, is a pretty good thing.)

First, let’s look at New Hampshire.  Town meetings throughout the state this month have declared war on global warming.  The Carbon Coalition in New Hampshire sponsored a campaign for the annual town meetings.  This initiative received enormous support.  Presidential candidates better have their climate change ducks in a row when they come a calling for the next year.  See also this from the “New Hampshire Union Leader.”

Following on the heels last month of the enormous breakthrough involving the shelving of eight coal-fired power plants in Texas in a deal negotiated by Environmental Defense, a deal was announced today that will substantially reduce the carbon loading from Kansas City Power & Light. The Sierra Club was the driving force in bringing this agreement to conclusion.  Wind farms and energy efficiency will be a cornerstone of KCP&L’s ongoing operations.  Adding 400 megawatts of wind power and reducing load by 300 MW are big numbers. 

Here’s an eye-catching headline: “Funds with $4 trillion under management want Washington to put mandatory limits on carbon emissions.”  Not, as one might say in New York, chopped liver.  See also this from Ceres and the Investor Network on Climate Risk.

In Washington yesterday, Henry Waxman, held a second hearing on the subject of “Political Interference with Climate Science” in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he now chairs.  Waxman, from Los Angeles, is an old hero of mine from the Acid Rain Wars of the 1980’s when he was chairman of the House Health and Environment Subcommittee (of the Energy and Commerce Committee).  Waxman’s formal statement said this:  “It would be a serious abuse if senior White House officials deliberately tried to defuse calls for action by ensuring that the public heard a distorted message about the risks of climate change.”  James Hansen, one of the most respected climate scientists in the world and one of the first to indicate the sources and the dangers of global warming, testified as to the considerable pressure that has been brought on him under the Bush Administration.  One must understand Hansen’s position and stature.  He heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which “…emphasizes a broad study of global climate change.”  Bill McKibben characterized him, in a recent piece in the “NY Review of Books,” as the scientist whose testimony before Congress in 1988 really set off the global gold rush to sharpen and deepen scientific inquiry on the matter.   Hansen appeared with Philip A. Cooney, George C. Deutsch, III, and James Connaughton, all Bush administration appointees, all of whom said that undue pressure had not been focused on scientists and that editorial liberties had not been taken with scientific reports.  See this summary from the L.A. Times.

Finally, even for someone brought up in the age of color television and space flights to the moon, I have to marvel at technology sometimes.  Technology can be, certainly, the source of environmental ills, but it can also provide some wonderful flights of fancy that prove, often, to provide solutions for some of humankind’s enduring problems.  Here’s a new trip on gossamer wings:  “Flying electric generators (FEGs) are proposed to harness kinetic energy in the powerful, persistent high-altitude winds.”  See this from the special issue on wind power from the technical journal “IEEE Transactions on Energy Conversion.”

The Ayes Have It

March 19th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

As I said in my inaugural post on March 5, the good news on climate change is that “… the recognition of the terrible problem we’ve created is deepening and solutions are being actively sought.”  People everywhere are tuned in to the issue.  Recent polls indicate that this is very much the case.  Poll Finds Worldwide Agreement That Climate Change is a Threat” reads the release from WorldPublicOpinion.org, an arm of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.  The survey, released on March 14, was done with the venerable Chicago Council on Global Affairs and looked at attitudes on climate change in 17 countries, representing 55% of the world’s population.  From Australia, where the support for the reality and the danger of global climate change was the strongest, to India, where it was the weakest, the heavy betting is that we have a “serious and pressing problem” on our hands.  I thought that one of the more compelling opinions expressed was on international trade:  a large preponderance of those polled said that environmental standards should be written into trade agreements. Some of those expressing this feeling were in countries where their governments have been resisting precisely this sort of approach.

A previous poll from these folks, from October 11, 2006, was headlined “World Publics Willing to Bear Costs of Combating Climate Change.”  One of the interesting subtexts here was that consciousness of global warming as a threat has risen dramatically among Americans in the past couple of years.  The pollsters speculate that this may be largely due to the impact of Katrina and the other catastrophic storms that devastated Florida and the Gulf Coast in 2004 and 2005.  Another salient finding:  “Seventy percent of Americans say that the U.S. government should take part in the Kyoto efforts, despite the Bush administration’s opposition to the treaty.”  The Chinese and the Indian publics are also noted to be at odds with their official government line.  They want to see the problem addressed.  (By the way, there are links here to other fascinating polls on the subject of climate change, energy, and the environment.)

One of these, done last summer for the BBC by WorldPublicOpinion.org, has the provocative title, “Current Energy Use Seen to Threaten Environment, Economy, Peace.  The survey registers overwhelming support for renewable energy development and higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks.  Another significant item:  “There is relatively lukewarm support for more nuclear energy with just one-half favoring nuclear energy to reduce reliance on oil and coal.” Disappointingly, only 37% strongly or somewhat favor increasing energy taxes.  Aussies, Brits, Kenyans and Indians show the strongest support for higher energy taxes and the Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Brazilians show the least.

Another poll, by YouGov for the “Daily Telegraph” from last fall, found considerable awareness and concern among Britons regarding climate change.  Public opinion seems to be substantially driving the political debate there.  Climate change has become a hugely prominent issue among the U.K. parties.  They are fighting each other to be greener. This is fascinating and encouraging.  This article and this column from “The Economist” talk about it.  Would that our American political parties had a different dynamic.            

EU Summit Agreement

March 14th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

The big news last week was from Brussels.  The European Union Summit meeting produced a truly historic agreement on greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, among other things.  We’ll get to some of the specifics in a moment.  First, consider what we’re talking about when we talk about the European Union.  It is 490 million people in 27 countries.  It has an annual gross domestic product of about 13 trillion dollars, roughly equivalent to the United States, and just about 20% of the world total.  It receives over 40% of the world’s total foreign direct investment.  Europe is a powerhouse.  So momentous agreements like this have some juice.

The Europeans fully intend to help bring the rest of the world fully on board. The Europeans actually challenge the world by saying that they will up their goal of a 20% reduction by 2020 (from 1990 levels of greenhouse gases) to 30% if others will as well.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel chaired the summit and substantially guided the negotiations.  She said:  “At international negotiations, we will offer to reduce emissions by 30% if international partners come on board.”  World headlines used terms like “Europe sets benchmark,” “EU Raises Bar,” “EU challenges world,” and “Leaders hope polluting nations will follow suit.”  Will the U.S., India, East Asia and others get on board?   Good question.

So what are the terms of the agreement?

*20% cut in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels.

*20% boost in energy efficiency.

*20% total renewable energy use by 2020.

*10% target for biofuels use by 2020.

*A large-scale carbon capture and sequestration pilot, involving at least 12 projects.

*An “unbundling” of power generation and distribution activities. (This, obviously, has a lot of implications for distributed generation which we will explore here in the blog over time.)

*A “cross-border perspective” in regulating markets.

These are all admirable goals.  Merkel said she felt “… no little satisfaction that today we are able to go for such ambitious and credible targets.”  It is no small thing it seems to me that the EU is characterizing these targets as “credible.”  I have been following this stuff for a good number of years and have long thought these sorts of initiatives could be “credible.”  However, I have been chastened by the nearly utter lack of vision and will by governments.  This sort of leadership by the EU itself seems incredible to me.  But I love it. 

So, to make matters even better, the UK unveiled their climate change bill this week with 60% carbon reductions by 2050.  Tony Blair, to his credit, has been heralding the call for action for a number of years.  He championed the issue through his presidency of the G-8 in 2005 and forged an agreement then at the summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.  The UK draft legislation tracks at least one of the EU’s targets in setting a 26-32% reduction by 2020.  The Environment Minister, David Miliband, even made a YouTube video to explain the bill.  The Brits have been exemplary and I will reference other of their initiatives in the near future.  Let me just here mention - and applaud - the announcement on February 27 by London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, creating a “Climate Change Action Plan.”  “Action today” read the press release, in Churchillian tones. 

“The importance of the Montreal Protocol in protecting climate”

March 12th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

A stunning report came out in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):  “The importance of the Montreal Protocol in protecting climate.” The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 by virtually every nation on the planet, including the U.S., sought curbs on the production of stratospheric ozone-destroying chemicals such as the chlorofluorocarbons that were ubiquitous in air conditioners until that time. The new report says the ozone-layer protecting agreement was responsible for a 50% cut in the amount of greenhouse warming that would have occurred by 2010 had these substances continued to build unabated in Earth’s atmosphere. The amount of warming that was avoided is equivalent to 7 to 12 years of an increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

The critical action was taken because of the pioneering work of Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland.  They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995.  The work of these scientists catalyzed a worldwide popular environmental movement to ban CFC-containing aerosol containers and then the CFC’s in air conditioners.  One of the several interesting and amazing things about this landmark agreement is that it was driven by science and a very potent grassroots call for change.  The parallels to the growing movement to address and fight climate change are there for us to see and appreciate.

It seems clear to me that when people are armed with enough good information, they will act in good faith and for positive change.  This was how the modern American civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental movements all progressed.  We’ve come a long way, baby, in these movements.  It looks as if the cause of defeating the global warming that threatens Gaia is rapidly building a good head of steam too.  But thank heavens for the inadvertent boon to controlling warming engendered by the movement to protect the stratospheric ozone.

P.S.  An article by Keith Bradsher in the “NY Times” on February 23, 2007, reported on serious backsliding on curtailing the use of ozone-destroying chemicals.  See “The Price of Keeping Cool in Asia; Use of Air-Conditioning Refrigerant Is Widening the Hole in the Ozone Layer.”

Update:  Bradsher further reports on March 15 that a coalition of developed and developing countries, including the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, are calling for an accelerated phaseout of the ozone-destroying refrigerant, HCFC-22.  The article says:  “An accelerated phaseout of the refrigerant could speed up by five years the healing of the ozone layer of the atmosphere. It could also cut emissions of global-warming gases by the equivalent of at least one-sixth of the reductions called for under the Kyoto Protocol.”

“The Business of Green”

March 9th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

I will touch on the economics of climate change a lot in the coming months, and also how businesses, large and small, are driving so much of the action.  For openers, I want to refer to a really terrific special section of the “NY Times” that came out on March 7:  Business of Green.  What follows are some thumbnail sketches of the dozen articles and some thoughts.  You should, though, definitely go to the articles themselves.  Very readable, very informative.

Matt Wald, a terrific and knowledgeable writer who’s been on the environmental technology and transportation beat for years, has an interesting piece about the economies of scale that can make renewable energy all that more efficient.  He talks about, among other things, the Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound, and some big solar projects out west.

In an article about individuals buying carbon offsets, questions are raised about whether this is all about assuaging guilt and, if so, if that is counterproductive to the lifestyle changes that many folks think are necessary at this point for Post-Industrial Man and Woman.  “USA Today” also did a great piece recently on travel and offsets that focused on the question of who was doing the offsetting, a for-profit or a non-profit organization.  In the spring of 2007, PG&E will launch ClimateSmart to help its costumers make choices about offsets.  In the NYT article, Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, speaks eloquently to the question of personal responsibility:  “These programs get the idea across that individuals are neither blameless nor helpless, and can really make a difference.”

A fascinating profile of James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest emitters of CO2 in the U.S., looks at the tension between big industrial interests and the need to have clearly defined laws and regulations.  Rogers appears to have a long track record of being the exceedingly rare utility industry executive who cares about the environment and wants to have everybody playing on a level playing field.  He wants a cap-and-trade system in place in the U.S. and he wants it sooner rather than later.  In noting the need for an array of programs to address climate change, Rogers says: “There is no silver bullet here.  What we need is more like silver buckshot, a lot of things working together.”

In an article on jobs with an environmental focus, we learn that “Businesses as businesses are becoming actors of environmental sustainability …” and that concerned students of environmentalism are these days steeped in “sustainable ecosystems.” Instead of just studying law, policy and science, they are now getting degrees in finance, business and economics, and going out for work not just to government or to advocacy groups, but to financial concerns, small businesses and corporations.

Keeping restaurants clean and green is another article’s subject.  The Green Restaurant Association gives certification for energy efficiency and other aspects of good environmental stewardship.

Large retailers such as Tesco, the British supermarket megachain, and Timberland, are looking at their “carbon footprints.”  Tesco is trying to create industry standards through its new Sustainable Consumption Institute.  Third-party issuers of environmental certification are the main way to go on this.  Climate Counts is a new group in this just getting underway.  There is an umbrella group for these:  the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN).

Another piece, focused primarily on Denmark, looks at Europe’s triumphs and challenges with renewable energy.  (There will be much more here about Europe’s efforts throughout the year, and about the just-completed EU agreement in a few days.  Stay tuned.)

Venture capitalists who’ve done well in Silicon Valley and in biotech are turning their attention to energy.  Robert M. Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, a pretty big I.T. infrastructure maker, and now a venture capitalist, says (modestly):   “We’re going to solve the energy problem in 30 years, just like we solved the Internet problem in 30 years.”  I have to stop here to note that 20 years ago, I was temping at a venture capital shop run by James Wolfensohn, later head of the World Bank, and I wrote a proposal to him suggesting that they create a research initiative, piloted by me of course, on renewable energy and environmental technologies.  Oh well, he missed the boat.  Good guy though.

An article on how the interest in climate change among law firms is growing says that “emissions-management tools” such as carbon credits and the markets that trade them are a principal focus.  Another is the opportunity for lobbying on new laws and regs that will be forthcoming, hopefully, from the Congress. 

Vermont it appears, not surprisingly, is courting green business, particularly environmental engineering and sustainable technology firms.  And bioplastics, we learn in another article, are a growing industry.  Two leaders in this are NatureWorks and Metabolix.

Finally, there’s a really interesting piece here on the idling of long-haul trucks.  It turns out that the DOE estimates that up to one billion gallons of diesel fuel is spent in idling each year in the U.S., and the EPA calculates about 11 million tons of carbon dioxide are spewed from this activity.  One result is that the banning of unnecessary idling is gaining ground among local jurisdictions, to cut down on their ambient air pollution.  Another outcome is that curbs on idling are being put into place by companies, among them Walmart, and that fixes like small battery packs and generators, as well as hookups at truck stops are burgeoning.

Great articles.  Read them if you can.

Welcome to the FPA on Climate Change

March 5th, 2007 by Bill Hewitt

I’ve got bad news and I’ve got good news.  The bad news is that we have managed over the past 250 years or so to begin to dangerously overheat our planet, primarily by the burning of fossil fuels:  coal, oil, and natural gas. What’s worse is that we have accelerated this process as industrial civilization has grown exponentially and proliferated across the globe from Europe to North America to South America and to East Asia and India. There are other critical influences on climate change, such as forest loss and the production of methane and other gases from agriculture, that we will discuss over the course of the next year as this blog progresses through the many important subjects and themes that pertain.

In a report from the U.K.’s Hadley Centre for Climate Change, we are told that 2007 is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, beating the current record set in 1998.  The Fourth Assessment Report of the UN-mandated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says unequivocally, again, that what we are experiencing is real, it’s dangerous, and it’s manmade.  One particularly disturbing conclusion from the IPCC is that “Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized.”

But you probably already know all this.  You’ve probably seen “An Inconvenient Truth” aka the “Al Gore movie.”  If you haven’t seen it, you pretty certainly know that it just won the Oscar for best documentary.  You’ve also probably seen the now-ubiquitous media coverage of the subject of climate change.  You’ve perhaps read some of the excellent books that have come out in the past several years.

But then that’s the good news.  People, everywhere, in government, the environmental movement, in the media, in the science community, and in the general public now know what time it is.  The parlous state of our planet’s health is being addressed, albeit in fits and starts, but the recognition of the terrible problem we’ve created is deepening and solutions are being actively sought.

We will here look at an array of things, among them the politics of climate change.  In another excellent contribution from Bill McKibben in the “NY Review of Books,” he notes:  “After twenty years of inactivity— a remarkably successful bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing—the first few weeks of the new Congress have witnessed a flurry of activity.”  There is going to be a lot of news from Washington. 

There have been many important insights and developments from environmentalists and energy experts, business analysts, architects and engineers.  Hopefully, we are in what Thomas Kuhn would call a “paradigm shift” and there are going to be more and more positive developments in renewable energy and energy conservation, land use, and transportation.  We will be looking at high tech and low tech, lifestyle changes, and one important theme will be activism.  What can you learn?  What can you do?  Who can you reach out to influence?  “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” said Mother Jones.

Another theme will be that efforts to reverse the global warming trend will at the same time produce other felicitous effects.  Renewable energy, for instance, equals clean energy – for the most part.  (We’ll get into nuclear power, but not here and now.)

So, welcome to the Foreign Policy Association’s ongoing discussion of climate change.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and do some good work together.