Monday, November 22, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce talks the talk, almost

For certain the Chamber of Commerce has earned the scorn directed toward it for trying to dispute climate science and reflexively opposing action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions with complaints that doing so would cripple business and destroy the economy.

Imagine then my reaction when I read a statement from the Chamber in a McClatchy Newspapers story in the Herald today.
The U.S. Chamber is encouraging the entire business community not just to calculate the cost of specific ... reduction proposals to their individual companies, but to weigh the long-term costs to our country, our economy, and future generations if we fail to act. All solutions will require shared sacrifices and we must be prepared to make them.


Except you may have noticed the ellipsis in the quote above. As much as I might like it to have been "greenhouse gas emissions", what has been removed is the word "deficit", as in the difference between budget expenditures and collections. The quote is in reaction to the deficit reduction commission chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, which in many quarters is being viewed as mostly a sop to business interests and supply-side economics supporters.

The Chamber is still not showing any genuine signs of interest in weighing long-term costs nor shared sacrifices. The Bowles-Simpson plan talks about lowering corporate tax rates, so the Chamber is interested since that may mean a relatively quick buck. There are initial costs to transitioning away from dirty energy, and the Chamber fears losing a buck. If the Chamber cared about investing in the long-term they would support efforts to build a sustainable, green energy economy. So how about it, Chamber?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The spectre of the rising seas in our own backyard

(I actually had this largely written before it came out, but the recent New York Times front page treatment of this science motivated me to wrap it up and deserves mention. Though it is not perfect, for a media article it is very good.)

One problem trying to explain the threat of climate change to residents of an area like the Red River Valley is that some may simplistically think something like, 'hey, a little warmer here sounds pretty good.' There are a wide range of counter-responses to that ranging from how that warming will adversely affect agriculture, how that is not considering changes to precipitation, that without action against it most assuredly it will not stop with merely 'a little warming', etc.

Some people may grasp the negative local effects but not appreciate impacts they would not see or feel in their backyards yet nonetheless would matter. Though there is familiarity with seasonal rises of rivers, one thing North Dakotans certainly do not have to worry about directly is rising sea levels. So one can worry that by the out-of-sight/out-of-mind principle folks around here may not give much consideration to rising sea level among the threats of climate change. The experience fighting river flooding here may even make people dismissive of that threat, thinking that the problem can be easily overcome by putting up some levees, dykes, and walls.

The rising of Devils Lake over the last couple decades gives a local illustration of what rising sea level will look like. That costly picture may help motivate people to try to avoid making the problem much worse that to what we are already committed. To be clear, I am only comparing the effects of the rising levels of the oceans and of Devils Lake. I am not comparing their causes nor saying that Devils Lake is rising because of global warming. But I am also not saying that climate change is not a factor - I am simply ignoring here the causes for the rise of Devils Lake.

A factor in dealing with any mess is having the things done in response be effective and minimizing their negative repercussions. With rising seas pumps are not going to be effective for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of somewhere you could pump ocean water to "get rid" of it. Pumping water away is a response that has been used at Devils Lake, but that has issues with effectiveness (to say nothing of cost-effectiveness) and resulting water quality concerns due to the discharged water. That is just an example of how a seemingly simple answer may not actually be of much good.

The seemingly simple answer for many people on rising sea level again may be levees, dykes, and walls. After all, the Dutch are doing it. There are plenty of problems with the physical practicality of attempting that. Protecting New Orleans or the Netherlands is one thing, but doing that all across the world is another thing, or rather, like the same thing times a thousand. Though efforts may be made to protect many urban areas, not everywhere could be protected and maintained. Maybe you do not care much about Maldives, Bangladesh, or coastal wetlands like southern Louisiana. Yet the combination of what we do and what we do not do will have an extremely high monetary cost, not even mentioning other social and environmental costs.

Over the past 17 years about $700 million dollars have gone toward dealing with the rise of Devils Lake, and that problem is hardly resolved. Now imagine having to spend like that across just the US where people live near the coast. Hardly seems like what a country currently paranoid about too much spending and expensive future obligations would want to deal with.

The costs of inaction are exceedingly high. If we do not simply let Devils Lake overrun whatever in order to save money, obviously we are not going to give up on wide swaths of oceanfront property. Here is a good summary of the situation facing one area in particular, Florida. Conceding ground costs real estate and other pistons of the economic engine such as tourism and recreation in Florida. Also it makes the threat of storms much more severe. At Devils Lake it is when the wind whips up that damaging water is even more sloshed around. Yet spending on walls, sand pumping, moving infrastructure, etc is not cheap. The $7 million for a new Minnewauken school is a drop in the bucket compared to protecting and moving much of, say, Miami.

It cannot be forgotten that protection against rising seas will surely not be 100% successful all of the time, especially in the face of storms which may be packing increasing punches in our warming world. One needs only look as far as New Orleans during Katrina to see an example and the price of failure.

It is also exceedingly important to remember now long of a view we need to take. Even if the lower estimates (from which there has been much retreat) of sea level rise come to pass over the next century - like a foot or two rather than three feet - that is hardly the end of the story. Because of ocean dynamics major cities in the northeast like New York City, Washington DC, and Boston will actually face even larger rises than the global average sea level increase.

And especially critically do not be confused by all the talk of sea level rise by 2100 into thinking that the rise will not be continuing long beyond that. The year 2100 is an arbitrary point widely used to facilitate comparisons in research. Hardly stopping in 2100, this episode of sea level will very likely be going faster than ever at that time. Is being lucking and having "only" 2 feet of rise by 2100 much good if it will be 5 or 6 or ??? feet by 2200 with more to come after that? Do we close our eyes and pretend that is none of our concern?

Friday, November 12, 2010


There is nothing at all inherently political about climate science. For instance, the infrared energy absorption and emission characteristics of carbon dioxide are not affected by the political affiliation of whomever emits it. Unforunately though we seem to be entering a frightening period where one of the major political parties in this country, the Republicans, are making a litmus test out of the refusal to address the threat wrought by human activities that are altering the climate.

The Wonk Room reported during the election season on the detachment from reality of GOP candidates for the US House of Representatives, the US Senate, and governorships.

The only big tent these days in the GOP is in the variety of denial and excuses to do nothing about climate change. One can claim that there is no warming, that there is warming but it is due to some unexplained natural cycle, that there is warming but it is due to some cause that scientists have already conclusively ruled out, that climate change is simply not understood, that climate science is some sort of conspiracy to push a political agenda, etc. So there are a lot of accepted ways to get there, but the end result must be to parrot the accepted rhetoric like "cap-and-tax" and "job-killing regulations" and to oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A prominent example of the devolution of the Republican party into anti-science ideology when it comes to climate is Senator John McCain. Despite claims to the contrary, the science has steadily solidified and confirmed our understanding of how human activities are altering climate. Yet in the last several years McCain has gone from "unequivocally" holding that global warming is real and pushing for cap-and-trade legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to questioning the science and dismissing serious action to maintain a livable climate.

To reiterate, climate science is not a political issue. Being a Democrat does not make one right on the issue. One need look no further than do-nothing local outgoing Representative Earl Pomeroy and West Virginia Governor and Senator-elect Joe Manchin. But the Democratic party has at least not systematically bought into and become a mouthpiece for the misinformation and contrived controversy driven by polluting industries, political thinktanks, and simply ignorant individuals and groups.

Why has the Republican party abandoned not only the environmental legacy of Theodore Roosevelt but also the more recent accomplishments on environmental issues of Richard Nixon? There is no one simple answer. But important factors from the last few decades are a growing canonization of free market ideology and demonization of government action to address societal problems. An inflection point within the last few years is likely An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that centers on the climate science slideshow of Al Gore, a figure widely loathed by the political right.

On a general and more visceral level, there seems to be a paranoia about a 'taking away what is mine.' This permeates many other issues from taxes ("spread the wealth") to immigration (fear of illegal aliens taking jobs and benefits). When it comes to addressing climate change the protests include things like that environmentalists want to make everyone live in caves and that shifting away from fossil fuel use or putting a price on carbon pollution is only a reach into people's pocketbooks.

I plan to explore the psychology of it further in the future, but to close out for now I will restate the main point. A major political party is disregarding an entire field of science. What if various food industries challenged long-established science and refuted connection between diet and health, then politicians across the board in a major party started pushing the same misinformation? Eat, baby, eat! Gorging yourself mean more demand and thus more jobs! There may be short-term political gain in divorcing from physical reality like that, but the negative impacts will cost everyone as time goes by.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Modest Proposal - The Not-Quite-Fossil Fuel Industry

Earlier I noted how digging carbon out of the ground to sell to be burned is beloved in this region. Well, maybe we are not doing enough of it. I have an idea to produce more energy, create more jobs, and generate more wealth. We will call it the Not-Quite-Fossil Fuel industry.

The most powerful thing in the universe is, of course, the human spirit. I want to start to harvest that power to provide for our energy needs. Of course, human life is sacred so living persons are off limits (at least for now, as we can figure out later who deserves to die to supply our energy needs). But dead bodies are like an untapped gold mine. Even though they are dead, surely there is something that can still be extracted. So, of course, we should dig up the bodies and start turning them into energy rather than letting that resource sit in the ground untapped.

Some people may criticize this and question whether dead bodies can provide energy. We cannot listen to those haters of the free market. There just needs to be serious effort to make it work. Do not listen to anyone who puts down America by saying we cannot figure out how to do it.

In fact, that there are still details to work out to bring this to fruition just means more jobs. There needs to be research and a lot of high-tech work, and that means high-paying jobs. Then once the operations get up and running, of course there will be a whole lot more jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs!

This is a domestic energy source that would make us less dependent on foreign oil and thus improve national security. Quite obviously, if we do not pursue this plan then the terrorists win.

There is something that could stop this plan besides bleeding hearts who throw up road blocks to take us off track from the added jobs and prosperity as well as increased energy security. That would be high taxes and regulation. If taxes are too high this opportunity will never materialize. This new industry itself cannot be taxed at all because that would be a job-destroying energy tax. With right now no tax on using dead bodies to generate energy, putting any on there would be a tax increase, and that should be illegal with this bad economy.

Likewise we cannot allow for any job-killing regulations on this industry. There are rules that "traditional" energy sources are flogged by, like coal burning having to have limited sulfur emissions to try to avoid acid rain and oil and gas exploration having to not ruin water supplies. I am going to assume those will not be issues with turning dead bodies into energy, so the free pass on pollution like the "traditional" energy sources get to dump unlimited greenhouse gases into the atmosphere should extend to anything for this new not-quite-fossil fuel industry.

Whatever waste that might get produced must be allowed to be discarded wherever whenever. Anyone ingrate who complains can come and clean up anything they do not like. If the smell is too bad, move somewhere else - it is still a free country, at least for now.

Government better keep its hands off the not-quite-fossil-fuel industry by not taxing or regulating it, but government does need to provide handouts. After all, we never know when some fascist socialists may start taxing or regulating, and with that uncertainty about the future the industry is not going to move forward and create jobs. Thus the least government could do is provide funding and subsidies to get the ball rolling and the dead bodies burning. (By the way - burning the dead bodies may not be the ultimate best method, but it is a good place to start.) Money could be given for building facilities and the digging up and moving of dead bodies. If they really wanted to do good, government would provide any and all seed money for the industry since the faster the jobs can be started the better.

I fully expect widespread support for this plan from nearly everyone around these parts - politicians, business, media, grassroots... And why would I not? The beloved and constantly touted energy industry would gain another pillar. Jobs, jobs, jobs! Even agriculture could get a boost since more dirt would be left unoccupied and, if reached soon enough, essentially newly tilled.

It would be exceedingly hypocritical for those groups to not fully support this. They squeal about jobs in order to support "traditional" fossil fuels and on the shakiest of ground claim unsettled science to ignore negative side effects them. So they cannot possibly dismiss the new jobs the not-quite-fossil fuel industry would produce or assert that science says it cannot provide a significant new energy source.