Sunday, September 24, 2017

The solar panel imports case and the future of self-sufficiency

Last week the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that the American solar panel industry had been harmed by cheap imports though it did not specifically find that the competition was unfair.

The decision has stunned the solar industry which has relied on cheap panel imports to spur the growth of solar power in the United States. It's not clear what remedies the commission will recommend to President Trump who will have final say about how to respond. But the president's often articulated antipathy toward America's existing trade arrangements suggests a punitive response such as a tariff or quota.

Such a response could slow the spread of solar power in the United States by raising the cost of deployment. This would happen just at the point when Mother Nature herself has underlined the need for low-carbon energy sources through the devastating effects of climate-change enhanced hurricanes on American territory in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. In fact, in Puerto Rico, hit by two major hurricanes in a row, the damage was so severe that according to The New York Times the island may be facing months without electricity.

The irony, of course, is that had Puerto Rico invested in distributed solar power, a source perfect for a sunny Caribbean island, it might still have had major problems, but not the kind that a devastated centralized power system has visited upon the island's residents.

The case just decided by the ITC may or may not result in large consequences for U.S. solar deployment. But it highlights another issue which the rise of anti-free trade sentiment has exposed. How self-sufficient should the United States or any other country, for that matter, strive to be?

In a globalized world this seems like a retrograde question. After all, the smooth operation of the global logistics system has served consumers and businesses well for decades. Yes, there have been a few disruptions, but nothing so long-term as to seriously call into question the wisdom of dependence on foreign sources for critical goods.

And yet, the increasingly bellicose exchanges between Washington and Beijing even prior to the Trump presidency suggest possible difficulties ahead. China has a near monopoly on the world's rare earth metals supply, critical for modern electronic devices, hybrid engines and certain military technology. And, back in 2010 the country reduced its rare earth metals export quota by 40 percent, possibly in reaction to an incident in the East China Sea.

China, of course, is also a major supplier of low-cost solar panels to the world. In addition, it has become a favored manufacturing hub for countless international companies which make everything from simple household items to sophisticated electronic equipment.

China, of course, is only one country of many which have become manufacturing centers for international companies. Mexico, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan come to mind.

The argument against self-sufficiency is that it costs more. If every country does what it does best, everyone will benefit from lower costs and higher quality. But do those low costs embody risks not accounted for such as environmental and security risks?

If something is cheap but you cannot get it because of a trade or diplomatic dispute or possibly even a war between two nations, its low price doesn't matter. And if the expertise to produce this now unavailable product is no longer found elsewhere or in one's own country, then the price will no longer be cheap and the disruption will be proportionate to the importance of the product in the functioning of one's society.

For this reason many countries protect their agricultural sector. Lack of food would be a catastrophic disruption. But does America want to revive its own solar panel industry? Won't the solar and other renewable energy industries become critical to the well-being and security of every nation? And, isn't the distributed nature of renewable energy generation a model to be heeded for the manufacture of devices that produce it?

The difficulty in such deliberations may be trying to separate critical industries from ones which are less important to maintaining the functioning of one's society. And, we must also now admit that humans might not be the cause of the next big disruption in world logistics. Extreme weather could knock out the ability of industries concentrated in particular countries or areas to supply world markets.

Absolutes are dangerous. Even the most ardent advocate for expanding domestic and even regional and local production may crave a cup of coffee or a piece chocolate, something which may be impractical to produce domestically in most places. But the case of America's solar panel imports raises the question of dependence for critical products on faraway producers who could at any time stop shipping their wares both for reasons we can imagine and ones we cannot yet discern.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The high cost of an easy-care, low-maintenance world

I may be a member of an endangered species. I prefer a perfect crease in a pair of pants resulting from the use of an actual iron rather than a crease maintained by a toxic brew of chemicals that can make cotton-fiber pants not only "wrinkle-free," but also "stain resistant."

Once you finally get such chemically-enhanced britches dirty, you can put them through a wash augmented by artificial perfumes and other noxious chemicals found in liquid softeners and dryer sheets.

The maintenance of clothing isn't thereby eliminated. It is simply transferred to chemical companies, clothing manufacturers, and purveyors of household products who concoct and apply formulas which require considerable energy to manufacture and deploy. One can adduce many other examples of our obsession with a low-maintenance life. (I will include a few below.) But, I write to contest the whole idea that a low-maintenance existence is in itself a good thing.

In general, entropy obliges us to maintain those objects which serve us. In doing so we must give them attention; we must give them a sort of love. We must become involved with their needs and not only our own.

By abandoning the duty of maintenance we owe to the objects in our lives, we are distancing ourselves from the physical world and essentially sending the entropy elsewhere for someone else to deal with, whether human or non-human.

I used to have an electric razor, the cutting block of which could be sharpened. A jeweler in the building where I worked had the equipment to do it. Later, it was cheaper just to replace the cutting block, and so, equipment that would sharpen it was scarce. Now, a new shaver that I just purchased—after many good years of service from my previous one ended with the motor shutting down—this new one is clearly designed simply as a throwaway.

Yes, there is nothing particularly new about planned obsolescence. But once again the maintenance task has simply been transferred to the landfill operator who must care for the objects we discard. This also shows that we should not conflate low-maintenance with durable.

I am not opposed to durable objects which require little maintenance. But we have created a world of low-maintenance objects which are low-maintenance merely because they are disposable. Sneakers that aren't resoleable are low-maintenance, but not long-lived. On the other hand, well-made wool clothing can last a lifetime with only an occasional cleaning.

In our gardens and on our farms we have transferred the care and maintenance associated with weeding to the world's chemical industry. The consequences of that are not only embedded in our soil, but also in our health care system—and in the degraded ecosystems upon which are lives depend.

Easy care and low maintenance are merely local phenomena. Once we pull back and see the bigger picture, the entropy produced by them creates a maintenance burden on others, on society and on other living organisms and natural systems.

As it turns out, maintenance has gotten a bad wrap. Maintenance is really a form of caring. Modern philosophers bemoan our love of material things. But I believe that we modern, industrialized people do not actually love material things. We wouldn't treat material things the way we do if we truly loved and cared for them.

Instead, the material world has become merely a substrate for our dreams of mastery. We do not want involvement with the material world and all the limitations which that implies. Rather, we want liberation—liberation from its constraints.

We think easy care and low maintenance are steps toward that liberation. But as we have seen, those characteristics only impose maintenance tasks on others and sometimes even rebound to sicken our bodies. More important, they separate us from a material world that should naturally summon our powers of care and concern.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The storms are only going to get worse

We are now used to hearing about once-in-a-1,000-year floods. The fact that we are used to hearing about them tells us that they will no longer be rare. In fact, since climate change is at the heart of these events and continues unabated, we can expect that storms practically everywhere will get worse.

That's because as average atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, the atmosphere will hold more and more water vapor. And, as more and more heat gets stored in the oceans, they will provide more and more energy to the storms which pass over them.

Of course, "once in a 1,000 years" only means that the chances are one in a thousand that such a storm will occur this year or the next. In fact, this phrase doesn't actually reflect weather records. As Vox points out, we don't have reliable records going back that far. We have only about 100 years of such records for the United States, and then not for every locale. Beyond 100 years we are guessing about flood severity based on indirect evidence.

Instead of planning based on such long intervals, we will be faced with a moving target—actually a moving target of probabilities—probabilities which are rising in unknown ways at unknown speeds. Even with all of our instruments, models and scientists we cannot keep up with the changing dynamics of an atmosphere continually perturbed by climate change.

But we know the general direction; and what should terrify us is that we cannot really calculate just how bad things will get.

There is a notion afoot that we will simply adapt to climate change. How does one "adapt" to hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma if they become frequent events? If large parts of the industrial plant are shut down for weeks at a time after such a storm—as refineries producing ethylene, the basis for most plastics will likely be after Harvey—how well will the industrial infrastructure function?

We could harden our industrial, commercial and public infrastructure against such storms, but a move like this would be tricky to execute: What exactly should each installation do? And, such a move would be tremendously costly. Besides, as climate change continues to worsen, to what set of conditions are we supposed to adapt our infrastructure assuming we would be willing to spend the money?

Even if we were to decide to spend the money, if the homes of those working in the industrial, commercial and public infrastructure are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, who is going to show up to work to run those installations after destructive storms?

Adaptation is going to be much harder than simply using more air-conditioning during the increasingly hot weather. (And, of course, in most locations using more air-conditioning will simply lead to more fossil-fuel use at electric generating plants; that will only exacerbate the problem.)

What Harvey and Irma are making clear is that the infrastructure we have built was built for a different climate and is surprisingly fragile in the face of climate change. When some scientists say that our civilization is at risk, this is what they mean. The things we expect to work and work reliably won't. This will include agriculture as climate change turns increasingly negative for food production worldwide.

Without a coherent plan to address climate change, the world will simply lurch from one climate-induced crisis to another. A focus on the immediate disaster will only make things worse as we do little or nothing to adapt to or to mitigate the warming of the globe.

That's the trajectory that the do-nothing crowd has now put us on. Are we so politically hamstrung and propagandized that we will simply allow this? The aftermath of two of the worst hurricanes ever will provide some clues.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

In media res: Houston, Harvey and the catastrophe of climate change

"In media res" is Latin for "in the middle of things." Frequently, it refers to the literary device of plunging readers into some central action of a story (often an epic) and then filling in the details and background later.

The residents of Houston must have felt that they were plunged into the middle of some epic story as Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain on them and flooded much of the city. Early estimates suggest that this hurricane could end up being the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Hurricane Harvey is almost certainly an epic story unfolding before our eyes. That means the significance of events and outcomes surrounding the hurricane will only be filled in later--creating analysis, folklore and perhaps even a cultural output on par with that which followed Hurricane Katrina (think: the television series "Tremé").

There will be stories about the failure or success of the emergency response effort. There will be denunciations of those officials who recommended staying put and recriminations of those doing the denouncing. There will be riveting accounts of suffering and also of heroic rescues and exceptional kindness. And, there will be stories of lawlessness and cruelty.

Harvey will almost certainly be styled as a tragedy. The storm is undoubtedly a colossal misfortune, and we should have compassion for those affected. But from a literary standpoint, it is not a tragedy at all. A genuine tragedy requires that the main players be unaware of how their own flawed character is leading them to self-destruction. A genuine tragedy depicts an ineluctable course of events. Nothing and no one could have prevented them. Greek tragedians relied on Ananke, the goddess of fate, to drive the action of their plays.

But humans do know that their actions are leading to climate change--which many climate scientists foretold would result in increasingly destructive storms. Denial of such a link is not the same as ignorance. Denial means the message has been received and recorded, just not accepted.

It is, of course, an irony that the city most associated with the oil and natural gas industry should be struck so fiercely by a climate-change enhanced hurricane. But this should NOT be read as some kind of divine retribution either in the literary or the religious sense. The discovery and use of fossil fuels has long been hailed as the basis for modern prosperity and advances in human well-being the world over. Those involved in such discoveries and the refining and distribution of the output have until relatively recently often been cast as heroes in history, in literature and in film.

More energy--to those who have access to its benefits--has meant longer, healthier lives and rapid development of wondrous technologies which rely on abundant energy supplies for their deployment and operation. The modern technical civilization in which we live relies on continuous high-grade energy inputs in order to function. Without those inputs our society would quickly collapse. If we rail against those who have extracted and refined those fuels for us, we are only railing against ourselves for using them. (On the other hand, if we rail against those who have systematically lied about the climate effects of burning fossil fuels to the public and policymakers, that is another matter.)

It is true that the ravages of climate change have to date fallen disproportionately on those least responsible and least capable of protecting themselves such as island nations now being inundated by rising sea levels and the poor in drought-stricken areas of the world. What Hurricane Harvey is showing us is that climate change will spare no one.

The sadness and destruction inflicted on residents of the Gulf Coast will flicker on television and computer screens for weeks to come. Their misfortune is truly our misfortune--even if we are only capable of feeling it in the price and availability of gasoline.

But we should not mistake misfortune for tragedy--which many of our leaders will almost surely want us to do. They will want to paint Hurricane Harvey as a tragedy. They will use that word again and again, wittingly or unwittingly making Harvey out to be an unforeseen and unforeseeable event for which we humans have no culpability (or at most only a little and therefore hardly worth mentioning).

That takes them and us off the hook for neglecting the causes behind the great misfortune which this storm has become. And, it would encourage us and them to do little to try to mitigate future misfortunes as the catastrophe of climate change descends upon us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.