Sunday, January 30, 2005

Matt Simmons: Oil market will surprise in 2005

While most oil analysts have been predicting lower oil prices this year--they predicted them last year, too--Houston investment banker Matt Simmons keeps beating the drum for higher prices. In a recent slide presentation, he outlines his reasons which include high demand and continuing high depletion rates. The story for gas looks pretty much the same. Simmons still believes world peak oil production may be nearer than anything thinks.

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Water damage

In an earlier post I pointed to studies in Minnesota that uncovered a myriad of previously undetected man-made chemicals in the state's waters. The chemicals were mostly from household products. Now a study of Colorado waters shows pretty much the same thing.

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RealClimate on global dimming

In a previous post I discussed wildly inaccurate reports on a phenomenon called "global dimming" which was being interpreted as a reason, oddly enough, for continuing to pollute the atmosphere in an effort to reduce the effects of global warming. RealClimate says that global dimming is not well understood or documented, certainly not in the way depicted in a recent BBC documentary, and its affects are not likely to be the ones touted in the documentary. The two posts are here and here.

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Only in Iceland?

I pose the question with respect to the much predicted "hydrogen economy." In Iceland it may become a reality because the country has abundant, cheap geothermal power. You can practically drill a hole anywhere on the island and get geothermal energy. That means the the power needed to make hydrogen from water is nonpolluting and inexpensive. The combination will be hard to come by in most places on earth. And, even if Iceland could produce hydrogen for export, it would be difficult and costly to get across the ocean.

The main problem with hydrogen is that it is an energy carrier not an energy source. It currently takes much more energy to get hydrogen out of water, by electrolysis, for example, than the hydrogen yields. That means burning coal or natural gas to create electricity to extract hydrogen from water would be huge energy loser. It would be much better, for example, just to burn the natural gas in vehicles directly.

Naturally, if someone figures out how to get more energy out of hydrogen than it takes to extract it, the problem will be solved. Or if someone invents or discovers an incredibly cheap, nonpolluting energy source that it is possible to use in most places on earth, hydrogen could become a success. Windmills might work in some locales. Solar might work in others. But, the efficiencies are not yet there, and the scale of the new energy infrastructure would require astronomically huge investments using existing energy sources such as oil, coal and gas. If we're going to do it, we better start now.

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Hotter means drier

Rising global temperatures are partly responsible for a doubling of the land on earth subject to dry conditions, according to a report by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. Drying effects appeared across the globe. In at least half the instances studied, the drying effects were due to rising temperatures, not declining rainfall.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Drilling on Wall Street

When predictable behaviors cease (e.g. major oil companies stop concentrating on finding more oil when prices are high), it is worth seeing what's up. What's up is a tacit admission by those oil companies that we are moving into an era of scarce supply that they believe we cannot drill our way out of.

Starting back in the mid-1980s when oil got dirt cheap, major oil companies soon realized that it was much cheaper and easier to drill for oil on Wall Street. No derricks, however, appeared in lower Manhattan; rather, the majors started acquiring other companies with reserves, sometimes for less than those reserves were worth.

That was then, and this is now. Now, it would stand to reason that with oil prices so high, drilling for oil in an actual oilfield would be richly rewarded. But alas, the trouble is that oil has gotten harder to find and, once found, harder to bring out of the ground. Those are increasingly the geological facts, even if people choose not to believe them.

Oil companies know better, and the major ones are bothering less and less with drilling and focusing more and more on acquisitions. In the investment field it can actually pay to embrace the facts, and savvy CEOs know that it pays even more to embrace the facts early.

This rambling piece on an investment website shows that some in the investment community are starting to pick up on the coming realities of peak oil. Whether peak oil is here or coming at later date to be announced, it will have profound implications, not just for investors or oil companies, but for everyone.

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A Grim Future for the Empire of Oil

If America's armed forces really are becoming a global protection force for oil and other resources, this piece posted on the Alternative Press Review predicts a grim future for those involved. In a recent book a Navy War College professor predicts that the U. S. will have to develop a force that crushes opposition to globalization and maintains access to resources and then stays in distant locales all over the earth indefinitely. It is going to cost a lot and mean few homecomings for soldiers abroad.

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Venezuela proves my thesis: Less can be more

In a previous post on resource wars, I said that oil industries that are state-controlled, directly or indirectly, are less likely to be concerned about developing oil reserves any faster than they need to in order to fund government spending for military and social programs. They also have little incentive to find and deliver great new gobs of oil onto the international market since this would only depress the prices they receive. I also discussed this phenomenon in more detail in my post called "Faith-based economics III: Why the market price doesn't tell us the true state of oil reserves."

The International Herald Tribune reports that Venezuela wants to renegotiate the terms of some of its agreements with private oil companies that operate in the country. In some cases the government is acting unilaterally and capriciously. One chief executive of a Houston-based oil company operating in Venezuela said he couldn't understand why the country would want to restrict investment and production. But, the reporters pick up on what's happening. Higher oil prices have more than compensated for declines in production and Venezuela realizes that small decreases in production or even keeping production flat will help keep world oil supplies tight. That will mean even more money for the country's state-owned oil company and from its existing agreements with private oil companies which, of course, translates into more money for government spending.

The logic is hard to see unless you understand just how sensitive the price of oil is to small changes in supply. Since everybody has to have oil, price hikes tend to be disproportionate to declines in supply. Under the right conditions such as those that prevail in the world oil market today, a smaller amount of oil sold can actually bring a higher total price than a larger amount of oil. Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, is no fool. He knows this and he's using it to his and his government's advantage.

He's probably getting help from other state-owned or controlled companies in Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia and elsewhere who realize the same thing and are making little effort to bring more oil to market.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Frankenfruit

Monsanto continues its buying spree with the acquisition of the largest fruit and vegetable seed company in the world. Despite the acquisition Monsanto says that genetically modified fruit and vegetable crops are well down the road. Here's the take from The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods in its most recent email alert:

In a move that opens the door to the aggressive marketing of biotech fruits and vegetables, Monsanto has agreed to purchase Seminis, the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds, for about $1 billion.

Monsanto seems to be downplaying the significance of this move in relation to genetically engineered fruits and vegetables. In a somewhat coy statement, their chief executive officer, Hugh Grant, stated "In the long term, there may be opportunities in biotech."

Many activists feel this is a gross understatement and that Monsanto will push hard to bring genetically engineered vegetables and fruits out sooner rather than later. Some insiders speculate that Monsanto wants to get a significant variety of biotech crops into the marketplace quickly while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations are still incredibly lax.

Until recently, a significant focus of Monsanto was to move forward on the introduction of genetically engineered wheat. However, U.S. and international opposition to biotech wheat caused the company to shelve those plans in the short term.

Some feel this new grandiose move by Monsanto into the fruit and vegetable market is a strategic move to gain broader acceptance of biotech crops. They feel Monsanto will then again try to move forward with genetically engineered wheat.

Monsanto is considered by many to be one of the world's most controversial companies. The company has faced numerous legal charges over the years that continue even in recent days.

In 2001, Monsanto was found guilty of releasing tons of PCBs into the city of Anniston, Alabama and covering up its actions for decades. The jury found Monsanto liable on all six charges it considered: negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage. Under Alabama law, the charge of "outrage" requires conduct "so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society."

Most recently, on January 6, 2005, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed two settled enforcement proceedings charging Monsanto with making illicit payments in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It appears that Monsanto had bribed more than 140 current and former Indonesian government officials and their families by an amount totaling more than $700,000 between 1997 and 2002. The cash was paid to allow the company to develop genetically engineered crops in Indonesia.

The SEC lawsuit charged Monsanto with violating the FCPA and imposed a civil penalty of $500,000. They also issued an administrative order finding that Monsanto violated the anti-bribery, books-and-records, and internal-controls provisions of the FCPA and ordered the company to cease and desist from such violations. Further, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal information charging that Monsanto violated the anti-bribery and books and records provisions of the FCPA. Monsanto agreed to pay a $1 million monetary penalty to defer prosecution charges by the Department of Justice.

Considering the track record of Monsanto, you might think that the FDA would closely scrutinize any new genetically engineered crops the company plans to bring to market. But under current FDA regulations, Monsanto is not even required to notify the agency that they are bringing out a new genetically engineered crop (unless the nutrient value is significantly altered or the product contains a known allergen.) Apparently the FDA trusts Monsanto to do the right thing. Do you?
But surely Monsanto can be trusted to do what's right for us when it comes to our food.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Kunstler's America: Part II

In a previous post I talked about James Howard Kunstler as America's foremost critic of the suburb. In this essay, he takes aim at Florida. Once a hotbed for the New Urbanist movement, the state has now traveled irrevocably down the road of sprawl and become a prisoner of fossil fuels, a predicament that will soon (in Kunstler's view) consign it to second-class status as an almost unlivable state.

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False impressions

In an earlier post I discussed the European Union's implementation of the precautionary principle with regard to chemicals. In essence, the EU is making manufacturers prove the safety of chemicals already in use. Those not tested or found to be unsafe will be banned and phased out. When reporters talk about such issues they need to be careful not to be misled by false analogies and industry-funded propaganda. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey gets misled on both counts in this recent piece entitled "Europe finds you can be too careful."

The article contrasts the EU approach with the American approach as follows: "Americans ascribe to a more science-based approach for regulating food and technologies, more like 'innocent until proven guilty.' One notable exception is pharmaceuticals, where drug makers have to prove safety in extensive trials." The description has two problems. First, it implies that the EU approach is not science-based. Incredibly, this claim is made even though the reporter points out in the very next sentence that the Food and Drug Administration requires prior approval for drugs. Would the reporter claim that the FDA's decisions are not based on science? This is essentially what the EU wants to do with chemicals. It sounds like science to me. Second, the reporter uses a false analogy. She analogizes the American chemical regulatory system to a principle deeply held in American life, namely, "innocent until proven guilty." But, this principle applies to people, not to chemical substances. No one believes that chemicals should have the same rights as people. Chemicals are tools. Like any tool, they need to be used safely. If they aren't safe, they shouldn't be used. In this case the safety of people should trump the rights of chemicals (and chemical companies).

The reporter also quotes an official from the International Policy Network who is skeptical of the precautionary principle. The group sounds impressive, doesn't it? What readers don't learn is that it is heavily financed by ExxonMobil and other oil and chemical companies. In saying this, I'm not saying the organization has no right to speak or be quoted. It may have something valid to tell us. I'm only saying that the organization's funding and bias should be disclosed.

If the reporter committed these errors and omissions without knowing it, she was just plain sloppy. If she knew what she was doing, then she should be drummed out of the reporting profession.

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How close to the tipping point?

I mentioned Rakendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a post yesterday and he's back already, only with help. A task force of heavy hitters from around the globe say in a new report, Meeting the Climate Challenge, that we may have only 10 years before global warming becomes unstoppable and catastrophic. What that means is that the world as a whole has to start doing big things today to reverse global warming.

The irony is that the Bush administration pushed hard to elevate Pachauri to his current position because the previous chairman had been so vocal about the need for quick and dramatic action on greenhouse gasses.

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Is Jesus green?

In response to Grist Magazine's recent piece on the anti-environmental attitudes of fundamentalist Christians entitled "The Godly Must Be Crazy," the online magazine received a torrent of responses from readers, many of them insisting that Christianity and environmentalism are not in opposition. The author retorts that he doesn't necessarily believe that the two are in opposition. In fact, he agrees with one of his letter writers that "Jesus is green."

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Blindsided

When the Bush administration managed the removal of the outspoken previous chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the behest of its friends in the energy industry, it hoped to replace him with somebody more friendly to energy interests. (The IPCC is a creature of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme and thus beyond the direct control of the United States.) The administration thought it had found its man in Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, an economist and engineer with previous ties to energy companies. But Pachauri blindsided the administration recently calling for "very deep" cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in order for humanity to "survive." And, he made it clear that he's not talking about doing something in the distant future, but now, meaning, right away. He said the world is bumping up against the point of no return after which catastrophic outcomes are assured.

The Bush administration might have pushed a different candidate to head the IPCC if administration officials had bothered to read this piece from the News India Times from 2002. But, then the president has said he doesn't read the newspapers. Do any of his advisors bother to read them?

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Never before seen

While a dispute brews over whether the apparent increase in hurricane activity and intensity can be traced to global warming, a never-before-seen hurricane in the South Atlantic last year in March continues to be the focus of intense interest. Conditions in the South Atlantic have long been considered insufficient for the formation of hurricanes, but climate scientists have predicted that global warming could change that. Is this hurricane a one-time freak of nature or is it yet another troubling sign of global warming? That's what scientists are trying to find out.

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James Hanson survives

When James Hanson, the leading government scientist on global warming, criticized the Bush administration just days before the presidential election, many thought he would be fired if Bush won. Hanson remains in his job at NASA and told The Washington Post that he will continue to try to persuade the administration to move ahead on curbing greenhouse gasses.

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Warm-up act

An asteriod which fell on the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago is credited with wiping out the dinosaurs and many other life forms as part of a huge mass extinction. The cause then was the heavy blanket of particles from the impact that blocked out the sunlight. Now, another mass extinction some 250 million years ago has been linked to global warming caused by volcanic eruptions. Marine species declined by 75 percent while animal and plant species on land declined by 90 percent.

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

James Howard Kunstler's America of the Future

James Howard Kunstler is probably America's foremost critic of the suburb. The author of "The Geography of Nowhere" has always contended that the suburb is a civic and architectural disaster, corrosive of American democracy and antithetical to the good life. In recent years he has married that critique with a pessimistic view of the world's energy future. Suburbs aren't just bad; they're unsustainable.

He predicts that 2005 will be the year of world peak oil production (though he says he is sticking his neck out by doing so). Whether the peak comes this year or next or five years from now, he clearly thinks it's coming soon.

What will it mean for America's beloved suburbs? Kunstler provides a vivid and chilling picture in this interview given in 2003. He is so eloquent and clever, it's worth listening to the audio rather than reading the transcript. He has some hopeful ideas about how the American economy will adjust in this essay on his website. The upside: No more Wal-Mart! Transportation will become too expensive to maintain such far-flung operations. Everything will have to be "downscaled" to match the new localized markets that will emerge in the wake of expensive energy. That will mean, for example, a return to local agriculture and a dismantling of megacampuses for high schools and colleges. The downside comes out in the interview mentioned above and in this essay in which he comments on a number of ecological, financial and geopolitical trends. (Don't let Kunstler's use of the "F-word" in his titles distract you from his excellent analysis.)

I expect Kunstler to address these issues in more detail in his upcoming book, "The Long Emergency," to be released in this spring.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

The trouble with nonlinearity

There is no good way to graph our thought processes. But if we did, I think the way in which we perceive and act in the world would look like a series of gently sloping lines. We expect that the future will look pretty much like the recent past. We expect trends to be more or less continuous. The stock market will go up. Gas prices tomorrow will not to be too different from what they are today. Our regular lunch place will have one of the items we always get.

Our modern technical way of life is built to cushion the ebb and flow of food and water and energy that nature might bestow on us and to make them a constant stream. The light switch works. The heat goes on. The car starts. But, when something goes awry, we get peevish and often disoriented. We think it's unfair that the world has sent us a little piece of nonlinearity. But, even as we get hit again and again by breakdowns in our routine, we expect the nice gentle sloping curves of our mind to be restored. And, they often are after a struggle and some anger. And then, we get used to the new state we are in, lulled once more into the linear experience that makes us feel safe and in charge.

This classic graph shows that we zip merrily along a road even as the traffic increases until at some point we end up in a traffic jam. And we wait and we wait, and we fume and we fume. But, we fume because we think this shouldn't happen. And, we seem to forget such things happen regularly almost as soon as they are over.

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Our love for the predictable sloping lines of our minds makes pronouncements that we risk a nonlinear future--runaway global warming or a sudden and enduring energy crisis--seem impossible to accept or even entertain. "That's not how things work," the mind tells us. And, then we get outward reinforcement. "People have predicted terrible things before, and look, we're fine," the skeptic says.

That's the trouble with nonlinearity. The skeptic is right until the precise moment when he or she becomes very, very wrong.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

Toward a master narrative for the environmental movement II: The rationale

In a previous post I offered a starting point for building a master narrative for the environmental movement. That narrative should carry a comprehensive theme that summarizes the aspirations of the movement while speaking to the needs of ordinary citizens who either care about the environment but don't understand its importance in their daily lives or are on the fence and need a good reason to be concerned about environmental issues. Here I'll explain some of the reasoning behind my first stab at a narrative that will fulfill the above objective.

1. I make human life and concerns central. I think there is a very good argument for seeing humans as co-equal with other parts of nature. But, my proposed narrative is primarily a political statement and therefore a recruiting tool. Those whom we are trying to recruit are concerned most immediately with their own lives and the lives of their families. This is their daily experience and struggle. Once they are made to see that environmental concerns are central to the successful outcome of that daily struggle--to making a living, to raising a healthy family with a decent future, and to living in a habitable community--then perhaps they can grasp the finer points of ecology. For now, the one thing they understand is their own immediate needs and the needs of their family. If we can frame environment as the essential ingredient in meeting those needs over time, we can bring people into the movement.

2. I focus on the future. Those who read widely and are attentive to the signs of environmental degradation can already see the effects on their daily lives and the lives of those in their community. The most informed are capable of seeing the effects on wildlife and plants. But, the experience of most people (at least in America and Europe) is that things work. The water tap brings water. The stores are filled with food. The gas stations always have gas. Most people in industrialized nations are not experiencing disruptions in their daily lives related to resources. Nor do they necessarily perceive events elsewhere as related to our need for enormous resources. The war in Iraq comes to mind. For this reason, I focus on the lives of our children and grandchildren. For them it is very likely that reliable supplies of basics such as clean water and plentiful, cheap energy will diminish if we stay on our current trajectory. The idea that the future could bring tremendous hardship to those whom we have worked so hard to rear, whose future we have believed would only become more prosperous, is a troubling one. Several people have told me it is a mistake to believe that Americans, in particular, care about their children, at least, enough to change anything they are doing now. If they are right, then we are truly doomed.

3. I frame the environment as a moral issue. Without the moral imperative there is simply no reason to act. Why not just continue to party until we can't? If everything works out just fine, then great. If not, well, we enjoyed ourselves to the max. The moral dimension gets us away from arguing minutiae and onto another plane. First, it's very hard to argue (in public) that you don't care about our children and grandchildren. Second, if you agree that we have a moral obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a society that gives them the same benefits we had, then you now have to argue about how that will be done. Can we risk our children's future on the hope that everything will just work out? Or do we need to take action? Is it reasonable and prudent to simply count on technological advance to bail us out of our current predicament? Of course, the other side may say there is no predicament. But, then, at least, we are allowed to adduce evidence to the contrary. The subject gets opened up and taken seriously because it is a moral issue, not just a technical one.

4. I use a very simple schematic for explaining resources. I focus on those resources that are critical to the functioning of any civilization: energy, water, soil and climate. While each is complex, most people can comprehend them. The job is to show how they are intertwined, obliging us to think holistically about environmental solutions. We can't just be for clean water without understanding how modern farming pollutes it. The public doesn't need to know every nuance, but it does need to understand that these basic resource categories are bound together tightly and that allowing one to degrade, degrades all the others.

5. I try to explain the basics of risk. Americans, and humans, in general, have a very poor understanding of risk and probability. Many Americans were at one point terrified that they would die from an anthrax attack delivered through the mail. But they give little thought to the huge and controllable dangers which come from their eating habits. They have a hard time judging the true probabilities of events. The other problem is that they have been conditioned to believe that small probability events can be ignored because, by definition, they happen so infrequently. What people fail to understand is that if infrequent or low probability events are severe enough in their effects, they can destroy things we value utterly beyond repair. The earth's climate comes to mind. While those in the environmental movement may assign a relatively high probability to catastrophic environmental outcomes, the public typically does not. It's not their experience (except in places such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, etc), that environmental catastrophes occur. But, the public might be persuaded that even if they believe such catastrophes are a very low probability, the profound severity of those (seemingly unlikely) catastrophes demand our action.

6. I say we have a way forward through collective action. I focus on alternative energy only because I believe it is our most urgent concern. Such a focus supports two pillars of the four on which civilization rests, namely energy and climate. I am certain someone could make a good argument for a different focus. The point is to be able to point to something that citizens can support and that doesn't destroy their livelihoods.

That in a nutshell is my reasoning for the narrative I offered in my previous post. I am anxious to hear reactions.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Beautiful models

Now that I have your attention, I do, in fact, have something to say about models, the scientific kind. We've been hearing from global warming skeptics that climate models aren't really science. Let's see. Some of the skeptics are economists who use models all the time to predict the effects of taxes, spending, interest rates and so on and to make policy at all levels of government. Some of the skeptics are oil companies which use models all the time to tell them where to drill for oil and gas and how to exploit known fields better. The companies also use models to insist that certain public lands onshore and offshore be open to drilling because their models tell them that these areas contain a lot of oil or gas. And, some of the skeptics are nothing more than public relations specialists who use statistical analysis and modeling to predict and analyze the outcome of their work. So, it seems the only place the critics don't want to allow modeling is when it comes to climate. And the only modeling that they don't want to affect government policy is climate modeling. Aren't they being just a wee bit hypocritical?

For a discussion of why modeling is and always has been sound science and even a good example of the essence of science, see this informative post at RealClimate.

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Is ExxonMobil writing copy for Reuters?

Of course not. But you might have gotten that impression by reading this Reuters story which claims that 1) cutting down on fossil fuels will speed up global warming and 2) there is serious disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is in part man-made or whether it exists at all. WorldChanging does a good job of explaining how the reporter completely missed the point of an upcoming BBC documentary on global dimming. The upshot is that it is now more urgent than ever to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Inhofe retains his title

Sen. James Inhofe didn't gain his title as the country's dumbest senator for nothing. In his latest broadside against global warming science he has proven incapable of even deciphering a Washington Post editorial cartoon. He thinks it means that the cartoonist is claiming that global warming causes tsumanis. In fact, all the cartoonist is making reference to is the vulnerability of low-lying areas to rising sea level caused by CO2 emission-induced warming and the attendant exacerbating effects of such a rise during a tsunami. A complex thought, I know, but still not too complex for a senator, is it?

That Inhofe uses cartoons to poke holes in the other side's science speaks volumes. That he can't even interpret the cartoon properly speaks, well, whole libraries? Clearly, while in libraries Inhofe spends his time in the new thriller section since he makes frequent reference to Michael Crichton's discredited "State of Fear," a fictional global warming tale that claims to refute, what else, global warming. When Inhofe does quote actual science, he quotes it wrong, citing some studies that prove the opposite of what he's saying. For a good dissection of the Inhofe speech see Chris Mooney's piece in The American Prospect and see some real climate scientists at, what else, RealClimate.

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Toward a master narrative for the environmental movement

As promised I am following up on my post on a recent paper called "The Death of Environmentalism" put out by two important figures in the environmental movement.

What I include below I wrote before I became aware of the paper. But something must have been in the air because it deals with exactly the authors' primary concern that the environmental movement needs to reframe itself before the public. I complained in my previous post that the authors were subordinating the environment to the progressive agenda whereas I believe it should be the central organizing principle in it. So here's what I wrote:

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Wouldn't it be great if the environmental movement could speak with one powerful, unified voice? Is there a basic story which we could tell again and again that would get people to understand how serious things are and how urgently we need to act? Can we find some master narrative that will make a wide range of audiences nod their heads and think to themselves: "Yes, those are my values. Yes, I can support that!"

Let me offer the following framework--written more or less as an environmental stump speech--as a starting point:

Every morning when you wake up, you begin making decisions about whether you will bequeath to your children and grandchildren the modern technical civilization that has given us so many benefits. When you turn on the tap, when you start the car, when you buy something at the store, when you throw something in the trash, and when you vote, you are making decisions about resources that will affect the future. Each one of us, of course, has only a small effect, but collectively our actions create the world we live in and the world that we will live in.

By saying this, I am not trying to paralyze anyone. I am trying to put our decisions into the following moral context: Is what I am doing today good for my children and grandchildren? Do I have a moral obligation to bequeath to them the same benefits I've received from the modern technical society in which I live?

You can answer "no" to this question. But, keep in mind that you are making a moral decision.

If you answer "yes," then it is useful to understand the four pillars upon which modern technical civilization rests. They are: water, soil, energy, and climate. In fact, all civilizations rest on these pillars. If any one of them is removed, the whole civilization falls.

Why? Because all the pillars are interconnected. We cannot affect one without affecting the others. By using energy sources that lead to global warming, we are causing climate changes that may disrupt our civilization. If our climate gets too hot, we'll likely have more droughts and less water and that will affect our food production and our industrial output. If we lack the energy resources to power our farm machinery, we won't be able to till the soil in a way that currently allows only a small number of us to feed the rest of us. Nor will we have the energy to purify our water, run our factories or heat our homes. If we destroy the fertility of the soil by irrigating or fertilizing it in a way that undermines its productivity, nothing can replace the food and fiber it provides us. All four pillars must be maintained together.

Unfortunately, the four pillars of our civilization are in distressingly bad repair according to environmental research scientists and major environmental organizations around the world. Some pillars undoubtedly need more urgent attention than others. And, I will admit that there are many uncertainties about the risks we face. But, think about how we deal with uncertainties in our everyday life. For example, we take precautions such as bringing along an umbrella if it looks like it might rain. Even if it doesn't rain, we don't ordinarily get mad at ourselves for doing something that turned out to be unnecessary. On the contrary, we congratulate ourselves for thinking ahead.

But, the worst that could happen if we don't bring our umbrella is that we will get wet and possibly get a cold. That's bad, but not catastrophic. For uncertainties that involve catastrophic outcomes, however, we often take out insurance. We insure our homes and belongings against fire. We do this even though home fires are quite rare. Most of us personally know very few people who've had one, and many of us know no one at all. But, we take out the insurance nonetheless because the consequences of that unlikely event are so severe.

The insurance we need to protect the environment and thus our civilization is in the form of substantial investment in alternative energy and environmentally sound water and soil management. We need to do this because our current state of knowledge tells us that not doing so could lead to the toppling of one or more of the pillars of civilization. Fortunately, many of these investments would be wise no matter what happens since they would provide substantial benefits such as cleaner air and water. They would also bring increased employment in vast new environmentally friendly industries.

Anyone who wants to insure the future for our children and grandchildren needs to think carefully about his or her choices at every level--personal, social and political. At a minimum, we have a moral obligation to deliver to them the same level of benefits we have received from our modern technical civilization.

*****
As you think about this framework, keep in mind that it is a political statement not a scientific treatise. The purpose is to persuade those who are on the fence or who believe the environment is an important issue, but don't see exactly how it relates to their daily lives. There is much to explain about why I've chosen this approach, and I'll do so in subsequent posts.

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Monday, January 10, 2005

"The Death of Environmentalism"

A paper distributed by two environmental heavyweights, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, entitled The Death of Environmentalism posits that environmentalists need to move from narrow issue-specific messages such as "save the rainforest" or "clean up the water" to a broader message that is incorporated into a larger progressive framework dealing with social and economic justice. The aim is to move the environment from "out there" to "in here." How does working to help the environment help me and my family?

I agree with the authors that the environment has to move from "out there" to "in here." I disagree that it needs to be subordinated to a progressive platform. That marginalizes it. In fact, it should be the central organizing principle in the progressive movement. In a future post, I'll outline exactly what mean.

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Sunday, January 09, 2005

When 'balance' means telling lies

In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review science writer Chris Mooney shows how unscrupulous industry front groups and right-wing extremists take advantage of the media's penchant for giving "balanced" coverage. He criticizes the now "prevalent, but lazy form of journalism that makes no attempt to dig beneath competing claims." He makes the case for a more engaged journalism profession and a more thorough checking of the ties, industry and otherwise, of sources quoted. This Cox News Service piece shows you in detail how the industry scam works on the global warming issue.

The only thing I'd quibble with in Mooney's piece is that while he believes the notion of "balanced" coverage of both sides of an issue is a flawed concept, especially in science reporting, he doesn't ever explicitly get out of the "two-sides-to-every-argument" box. As a science writer, he ought to know that sometimes there are three and four and five and even 10 sides to some issues. Of course, it's harder to write about a dispute that doesn't simply involve polar opposites. But I know from his writing that he understands this. We just all need to be explicit about it and try to convince the public that nuanced, multi-dimensional arguments are worth following and understanding.

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Missing the point

The recent derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in South Carolina--which killed 9 and injured 58 when chlorine gas escaped from a tank car--shows just how much the media misses the point. The New York Times worries about the safety of some 60,000 tank cars rolling down the tracks in America, certainly an obvious concern. The Virginian-Pilot frets about the lawsuits and costs to the railroad! Deep in the Virginian-Pilot story, however, we find that Norfolk Southern has had the best safety record of any railroad every year for that last 15 years, and that rail appears to be the safest form of transportation of any kind.

There is zero discussion of our chemically-dependent society and the fact that so many of those chemicals are known to be toxic and otherwise very dangerous. Because we choose to live this way, it's inevitable that we will be harmed by these chemicals. The fact that a tank car bursting was the proximate cause of the trouble in no way identifies the underlying problem.

We could make tank cars more secure and that would be a good thing. A better investment would be to build an economy and society that depended less and less on dangerous chemicals. Isn't that a challenge worthy of our best and most talented minds?

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Friday, January 07, 2005

ExxonMobil's dog-bite defense

In a classic joke a man who defends himself in a dog-bite case uses the following arguments: "My dog doesn't bite, it wasn't my dog, and furthermore, I don't have a dog!"

So it is with the global warming's disinformation bad-boy, ExxonMobil. Worldchanging has a post on the official-sounding groups who are nothing but fronts for the company's campaign to discredit the scientific consensus on global warming. The aim appears to be merely to sow confusion. Taken together, the groups seem to be using a modified dog-bite defense, to wit: Global warming will be beneficial, but, at the very least, it won't be that bad. It costs too much to do anything about. It's not caused by humans, so there's nothing we can do about it. And, furthermore, there's no global warming!

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The "greening" of the military?

Joel Makower has an excellent post on what Paul Harvey might have called "the rest of the story" behind the supposed "greening" of the American military. Behind the scenes they're doing just the opposite. But then, all warfare is based on deception, right?

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It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here

Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at UCLA medical school and author of the Pulitzer prize winning, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies," wrote a gloomy New Year's Day piece in The New York Times outlining his concerns about environmental degradation and its role in past collapses of societies. His main concern seems to be the ability of elites to wall themselves off from problems in gated communities, private schools and even through the consumption of bottled water. The ease with which they do this is reminiscent of other elites in the past who have done the same thing. They then fail to respond to environmental challenges because their everyday experience tells them that nothing serious is wrong.

Joseph Tainter, an historian famous for his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies," which I've just finished reading makes some of the same points. Tainter's quest was to provide an overall theory of collapse that could be applied to a great number of known historical collapses. He settles on the notion of the diminishing returns on investment in complexity. It's analogous to diminishing returns on investment as applied to business.

He also points out that complexity in human societies is not the norm, but the exception. Only in the last 5,000 years or so have we as humans embraced complexity as a solution to our problems. History tells us that complex societies are costlier to maintain than simple ones and more easily disrupted. Our tendency has been to overuse complexity as a strategy to the point where the returns that we get in terms of resources, social cohesion and security begin to diminish and then actually go negative. It is this phenomenon that he believes explains vulnerability to collapse. Collapse by his definition means reversion to a lower level of complexity with all its attendant and sometimes unpleasant effects.

Tainter is an icon among the peak oil crowd because he focuses so much on increasing energy inputs as essential to the survival of complex societies. When those inputs in the form of human energy, fuel, financial resources and so on are no longer increasing enough to shore up the increased level of complexity, a society becomes subject to collapse since new challenges can now more easily exceed the society's capacity to respond. Tainter also observes that in the past, collapse has been a localized phenomenon, one which did not affect other societies. Mayan society collapsed without anyone in Europe either knowing or caring. So did Anasazi society in what is now the American Southwest. But today, Tainter says, the world is linked together in one globalized society, and for this reason the next collapse will be worldwide. (Tainter does not predict an imminent collapse although he sees many strains and severely diminishing returns in our complex global society.)

You can read a summary of Tainter's book here. You can also read a more detailed explanation in an essay by Tainter here.

Jared Diamond has just come out with a book on the same topic called "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Weather of mass destruction

When Tony Blair says he scared of something these days, it's a little hard to take him seriously. That is, unless he's scared of the effects of global warming for which there is some actual (as opposed to imaginary) evidence.

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean, of course, had nothing to do with global warming. But, it pointed out the vulnerability of low-lying islands and shorelines to rising sea levels and to extreme weather that can bring large waves and tidal surges.

Weather of mass destruction is only part of the worry as this piece via Common Dreams discusses.

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Obliviously they roll on

This LA Times story about a ban on off-road vehicles in a large swath of California desert will strike future residents of America as a bizarre and disturbing tale of excess. We will seem a people so obsessed with motoring that we choose to motor around in circles to get no place in particular, just to ride. We do this in the desert where we chew up the fragile desert floor with our overgrown tires, heedless of the fact that the oil we are burning will soon become so expensive that no one except a rich person would dare use it for anything but a necessity.

If the desert is so beautiful and you have to see it, why not just take a walk there? But then I guess real men don't walk, do they?

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You say potato...

Organic potatoes got a leg up with a new variety that resists the fungus that so frequently attacks potatoes in the field. Farmers who raise conventional potatoes, of course, rely on chemicals to kill the fungus, but organic producers are forbidden to use such measures.

Once again, regular breeding has shown itself capable of producing traits that are often touted for GMO varieties. My earlier post on a new generation of "super-organics" talks about why GMO crops may be doomed as genetic research is put to use in conventional breeding in ways that make GMOs unnecessary.

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Water, water everywhere...

...but not a drop to drink. That could be the predicament of many Indian Ocean islanders and many near the shore who survived the recent devastating tsunami. The salt water wave splashed into open water wells used throughout the area and also infiltrated porous rock which feeds underground acquifers. Many wells are now unusable and some may take months or even years to recover. In some places, soil may have been damaged by the salt as well.

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Do oil companies really think ANWR isn't worth it?

What does it say when one of America's largest oil companies drops out of a lobbying group trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling? What does it say when that company is one that already operates on Alaska's North Slope which is near the refuge? Could it be that there's just not enough oil there to be worth it?

Geotimes reports that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are between 4.4 and 5.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil there. In a world that consumes close to 30 billion barrels of oil a year, it doesn't amount to much, and it's an amount that could easily be saved by conservation. But, those numbers could still mean real money for Conoco/Phillips and BP (which withdrew from the lobbying consortium earlier), both of whom operate in Alaska already.

Does anybody know the reason for this strange behavior? I would be grateful if anyone can point me to some explanation for this man bites dog story.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Congressional sugar daddy

It's simply not profitable to grow sugar in the United States. That's why the sugar lobby has invested enormous sums to influence Congress to continue a program with no discernable economic benefit and one which is responsible for much of the destruction of the Florida Everglades. The program has the added effect of impoverishing those in other countries who rely on sugar for their livelihoods as well. It's not often you hit a trifecta. But, the U. S. sugar industry has been doing it consistently for years.

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Call me unsustainable

When Frank Sinatra was belting out tunes in Las Vegas, no one imagined it as a retirement city. Yet, that's what Las Vegas is vying to be as demonstrated by its plans for huge new luxury condo complexes. But, James Howard Kunstler thinks the city, which to a wealthy, but younger generation was a playground, will never become a retirement villa for the rich. The problem, or more accurately problems: water and energy prices. Megacities in the desert are doomed, he says. Las Vegas's luck may have just run out.

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More green for green businesses

Take a look at GreenBiz. Especially take a look if you are in business or plan to go into business. It's an intelligent and voluminous resource for making your business environmentally friendly and more profitable as a result. The founder of GreenBiz, Joel Makower, also has his own blog, Two Steps Forward, which business owners and others interested in environmental issues will also find handy. Makower has vast experience as an environmental business consultant, writer and speaker. Why not take advantage of his insights for free?

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

If we could talk to the animals

Perhaps you've noticed the preternatural stories about the animals all along the Indian Ocean who seemed to have a "sixth sense" that forewarned them about the tsunami which has tragically killed and injured so many people. Wildlife officials in the afflicted countries have been unable to find any dead animals among the vast destruction.

If animals have that kind of wisdom, perhaps we could benefit from what they are telling us about our environment. We learned last year that polar bears are showing up dangerously underweight because the hunting season (defined by the amount of ice) has shortened considerably due to global warming. Birds never seen before are showing up in Arctic villages. The dwindling fish populations have long been telling a tale of overfishing and pollution. Some fish are showing up with both sex organs, a phenomenon which has been traced to the hormone-mimicking powers of certain plastics and other artificial compounds. Even the cows are going "mad" with a disease that can only be traced to the way we feed them.

During the tsunami, the animals moved away from the shore quietly without "telling" anyone. But, when it comes to the environment, the animals are practically screaming at us. Are we willing to listen?

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Wind power tradeoffs revisited

I've commented before that with the growing competitiveness of wind power we will be facing tradeoffs worldwide, particularly concerning the siting of wind farms. Rural areas are ideal and yet, large wind farms may seem an unwelcome blight on the landscape. However, the way of living the wind farms are disrupting is bound for the dustbin of history. Rural residents who have moved far from the city to "get away from it all" are paying a price in many ways for wanting all the conveniences of the city without any of the negatives. In the not too distant future, this rural commuting lifestyle will not be sustainable. Then, we'll leave the countryside to the farmers and ranchers whom we will be need more than ever to produce our food locally as the costs to transport food long distances skyrockets.

The fact is wind power may be our best way--perhaps the key--to making an energy transition away from fossil fuels. As much as I lament the aesthetic assault on the countryside that wind power represents and as much as I see a need for better guidelines for siting and design, I simply cannot endorse the idea that we need to slow down on the development of wind power. WE NEED TO SPEED IT UP! Otherwise, I fear it will be lights out on the modern technical civilization from which we draw so many benefits.

For why I believe we need to move full speed ahead on alternative energy, see my "Favorite Posts" concerning peak oil. We don't have any time to lose.

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Recycling computers

After having just junked an old 286 computer that served us well for many years, I felt guilty about putting it in the trash. Computers contain many recyclable parts, and they also contain toxic substances. But, alas, there was no place to recycle it. There are a few places around the country now that will recycle them, but you have to carry the computer to them and then pay a small fee. I certainly would have been willing to do this had there been such a place locally, and I think a lot of other computer users would also be willing.

This Vermont firm decided that it would establish a recycling program because it felt a responsibility to the community and the environment. For more information on the Computer TakeBack Campaign, click here.

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What you can do in 2005 to improve the environment: The Short List

Grist Magazine's "Ask Umbra" column gives you a short list of things that make the most impact on the environment.

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Traders or traitors?

When you look at the Kyoto Protocol system for trading credits for greenhouse gasses (the ones that contribute to global warming), it looks like companies in advanced industrial nations are just buying their way out of problems. But, since global warming is a global problem, what matters is the overall reduction in greenhouse gasses. With incentives like the ones included in Kyoto, companies get to make decisions that best fit their resources and capabilities while the world makes at least some progress toward reductions. It's a method that worked well to reduce acid rain in the United States. If only the United States, the biggest producer of greenhouse gasses, would join the Kyoto Protocol, then the world could really start making some progress.

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