Sunday, February 25, 2007

Richard Branson's curious contest

It is a sign of just how desperate things have become that several of those who know the most about global warming should be parties to a contest offering $25 million to someone who can invent a way to remove existing carbon dioxide from the air. Famed British entrepreneur Richard Branson announced the contest earlier this month with Al Gore at his side. Other luminaries who will act as judges for the contest include the ultra-pessimistic James Lovelock, a world famous scientist and author of The Revenge of Gaia; NASA scientist James Hanson who is perhaps the most knowledgeable and respected climate researcher in the world; scientist Tim Flannery, author of the best-selling account of global warming, The Weather Makers; and Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the first scientists to write a major account of the consequences of climate change back in 1977.

No longer are drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions enough, this contest seems to say. We must also endeavor to undo the damage already done to the climate. To Branson's credit, he says that a practical method for removing CO2 from the air may never be found and that even if it is, we will still need to push ahead with emission reductions.

Now, for the really hard part. It's difficult to imagine how such a technology would not be extremely energy intensive. The current method for extracting useful gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and argon from the air involve what is called cryogenic fractional distillation. As one might glean from the name, the process starts with liquifying atmospheric gases at extremely low temperatures and then--since each gas has a different boiling point--boiling them off in succession.

Obviously, this method is not cost-effective for the large-scale extraction of CO2; otherwise, it would already have been proposed. But that just highlights my point. No one has been able to think of a non-energy intensive way to pull gases out of the air. Perhaps some better, more efficient technology will be found. But given the quantities which we seek to extract from the atmosphere--we added more than 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2002 alone--that technology would probably have to be many orders of magnitude more efficient than current methods.

The second problem will be powering the newfound technology. More than 85 percent of the world's energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Of course, we could try to run such carbon dioxide extracting plants on wind and solar power. But, shouldn't we really be trying to run everything on non-carbon sources of energy? If we keep powering most of the economy using fossil fuels, then building such extraction plants would probably do little good.

Beyond this, the eventual (if not imminent) peaking of world oil production to be followed by the peaking of world natural gas production means that society will be relying more and more on alternative energy sources. Those sources may not be able to supply anything approaching our projected needs, let alone support an energy-intensive project to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Of course, global warming solutions might come in another form. The seeding of the ocean with iron has already been tried. The idea is that some areas of the ocean are so poor in iron that they don't support algae very well. Add iron and the algae thrive. After they die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean. If enough of them are buried before they decay, then the carbon in them gets sequestered. But there are serious questions about how much iron would be required, whether trying to engineer a system as large as the ocean would work or even be safe, and whether the algae would, in fact, fall to the bottom.

One possible problem with offering a highly visible prize to encourage such research is that it will provide false hope that technology alone can solve the global warming problem. Certainly, that is not Branson's aim, but it might be the result.

Perhaps those who are giving their good names to Branson's contest believe that we need a miracle technology to save us from the worst of global warming. But the kind of miracle we need most is one that will change the attitude of people worldwide about what each of them needs to do to prevent global warming from destroying the very civilization that has given us so much faith in technology.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why the precautionary principle doesn't cut both ways

The precautionary principle is usually associated with strident environmentalists who believe that those seeking to introduce a new technology or new chemical should be forced to show that it is safe before doing so. Corporate sponsors of those new technologies and chemicals almost always take the opposite view; until something is proven to be dangerous, it should be allowed. (There is, of course, never any discussion by these corporate sponsors of who should spend money to do the after-the-fact testing. The unspoken assumption is that the entire human population is to be engaged in an uncontrolled experiment to determine the dangers.)

So, it is noteworthy that oil giant Exxon Mobil--so often against any precautions at all when it comes to the oil business and its petrochemical offspring--should embrace its own version of the precautionary principle. (Of course, the company would never call it that.) CEO Rex Tillerson told an oil industry gathering that while global warming is a reality and needs to be addressed, regulation should not be implemented too hastily lest it unduly impinge on economic growth. Naturally, he wasn't concerned about oil company profits or CEO bonuses, but rather "our ability to progress [on] other global priorities such as economic development, poverty eradication and public health."

Tillerson's plea is one that is heard daily in industry circles when any kind of regulation is discussed, especially any that are labelled "environmental." The argument amounts to an economic precautionary principle. We are told that we must not allow any regulation to proceed if it could harm economic activity. After all, what will happen to the poor, corporate leaders say, if we cannot lift them up with economic growth? (There is, of course, no discussion about lifting them up through the redistribution of wealth, say, via public services; naturally, that kind of discussion is considered a breach of etiquette among the world's CEOs.)

But, we should question such arguments not because they come from corporate CEOs though that may give us cause for suspicion. A keen observer might suspect that the problem with the arguments is that apples are indeed being compared to oranges. These arguments assume that two things--the economy and the environment--are contained in some greater whole and that prefering one over the other is a zero-sum game. Only a little more thinking should yield the true situation, namely, that the economy is merely part of a whole called the environment. You might call this the fallacy of confusing the whole for a part. But simple observation will reveal to anyone that the economy is contained within the environment. Disrupting or destabilizing the environment risks crashing the economy altogether since the economy relies utterly on the natural world for its very functioning.

While the captains of industry will find this fact discomfitting, it may be even more perplexing to another group--those proposing that the right technology can give us a bright green future, one in which there is no need to change human behavior except in the direction of using green technology.

It is precisely because we have failed to see the consequences of our technology that we are now ensnared in a perilous ecological predicament. To assume that more technology will solve our problems is to live out Benjamin Franklin's well-known definition of insanity. Environmental education giant, David Orr, is fond of saying that as our knowledge grows, so does our ignorance. His favorite example is our relatively recent knowledge of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which seemed so handy as refrigerants when they were discovered in the 1930s. Over time our ignorance of the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer expanded alongside increasing uses for the substances. The result was a hole in the ozone, a development which, had it not been addressed, would have imperilled all of human civilization and plant and animal life as well.

It should be obvious then that applying the precautionary principle to the economy misses the point. Environmental regulation may indeed retard economic activity. But that damage, if it occurs, is different in kind from the damage our technology and numbers inflict on the biosphere every day. One may lead to a transient loss of wealth; the other may lead to a colossal loss of human life and of the very civilization we have built.

This is not a story about tradeoffs. It is a (pre)cautionary tale about gruesome and unforgivable destruction which we may yet avoid. But a positive outcome depends on casting off the notion that our economy as it currently functions will provide "benefits" that are sustainable with only a few changes here and there. Nothing short of a complete reordering of our priorities will makes us friends with the biosphere again. That is the true meaning of the precautionary principle and the reason why so few have actually embraced it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Coin in the fuse box

It used to be that frustrated homeowners who were sick of frequently blown fuses would sometimes play tricks on their electrical system by shoving a coin into the socket where a fuse goes. Of course, pennies were actually made of copper back then; they conducted electricity just fine while not melting the way that pesky and fragile fuses were designed to.

By doing this coin trick these homeowners were, of course, obliterating a very important feedback mechanism that protected their houses. Feedback systems are found virtually everywhere in modern society and are designed to warn about dangers, help us steer a safer course, and to tell us when to call for help. The weather forecasting system is an obvious example. We can adjust our day or travel plans for safety reasons. The addition of a strong, foul-smelling substance to natural gas which would otherwise be colorless and odorless is another example. The odor allows us to detect a gas leak with nothing more than our noses. The feedback system of every personal computer tells us whether what we are doing is working or whether we have done something in error.

On a larger social scale the media provides a mechanism for people in open societies to judge the policies and practices of governments, corporations, nonprofits and other groups. But it is in the media especially that some special interest groups have succeeded at subverting this important feedback mechanism by putting a coin in the fuse box so to speak.

Perhaps the most famous of all subverters are the tobacco companies which withheld reports on the dangers of smoking and which planted false information in the media to confuse people about the link between smoking and illness. So effective was this campaign that it took decades before the tobacco companies were made to stop lying. In the end, they were even made to pay for some of the damage they caused to smokers as well as some of the expenses they foisted on government which had to pay for the medical treatment of many with smoking-related illnesses.

On the issue of global warming large sums have passed from fossil fuel giants such as Peabody Energy and ExxonMobil into the coffers of groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute which runs the so-called Cooler Heads Project, The National Center for Public Policy Research, the Greening Earth Society and the American Enterprise Institute. The purpose has been to finance a public relations campaign designed to make the public think that there is genuine scientific controversy about global warming.

A similar, but to date more feeble, coin-in-the-fuse-box campaign has begun with regard to world peak oil production. Cambridge Energy Research Associates which has many wealthy patrons in the oil business has launched a few broadsides against the peak oil movement including this recent, but rather weakly argued piece. Part of the reason for the lackluster campaign is the continuing low profile of the peak oil issue. Since peak oil is not yet much in the public mind, there is little need for the oil companies to spend much money or time rebutting it.

In addition, the fossil fuel industry is not unanimous in its views. Most notably Chevron with its Will you join us? campaign has broken with the oil industry to discuss the problem of future oil supplies. And, the coal companies are absolutely giddy about the prospect of taking a larger and larger share of the energy pie.

All of this means that policy makers and the public are not getting the feedback they need in order to make informed judgements about such issues as peak oil and global warming (though the global warming issue finally appears to be close to steamrolling the deniers because the scientific evidence is so ironclad.) The deniers' agenda isn't so much to convince people that their own views are correct; rather, they seek to confuse the public into inaction in the same way that a coin in the fuse box confuses an electrical system into continuing to run higher than advisable amperages.

The trouble is people who put coins in the fuse box tend to get a rather nasty side effect: Their houses eventually burn down. By subverting the feedback we need concerning global warming, peak oil and a host of other environmental problems, those engaged in this public relations game of confusion risk letting the equivalent of a house fire occur in the biosphere. But, unlike a burning house from which one can conceivably escape, there will be no escape from the biosphere if it becomes uninhabitable--not even for the clever people at public relations firms and think tanks who stalled any action until it was too late to prevent the worst.