Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg gets confused about global warming

Bjorn Lomborg styles himself as the "skeptical environmentalist." The one thing that he seems most skeptical about is that environmental problems such as global warming are of paramount importance. He recently laid out his thinking in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Lomborg's main point was that global warming is just one among many problems that we face in the 21st century. Since we can't address all of those problems with equal attention, we should prioritize. So far, so good. But instead of putting global warming near the top of his list, Lomborg places it far below other problems such as the spread of AIDS and malaria, malnutrition, agricultural research and strangely, free trade. (Lomborg, incidently, doesn't see free trade as causing some of the problems we face, but rather as a solution to those problems.)

Now, most doctors know that to cure an illness, one should treat the cause of the disease rather than merely addressing the symptoms. But even though Lomborg acknowledges that global warming will be a leading cause of the problems he seeks to address--problems such as reduced harvests and the spread of disease--he opts for focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause.

His reasoning is that it is far too expensive with current technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that further research may help reduce the costs of doing so. His solution is to invest some money in research and see what happens. He also tosses out the disingenuous red herring that the Kyoto Protocol will do little to affect the trajectory of global warming even if everyone--including those currently opting out such as the United States--meets its targets. In this he is correct. But someone in his position certainly knows that the protocol will be renegotiated in 2012 and that all serious proposals now on the table call for far deeper cuts--as much at 80 percent--in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Lomborg, who is a political scientist by training and fond of using statistics to make his point, seems to know just enough math to make him dangerous. What he assumes is that the gently sloping temperature curves implied by some models of global warming mean that world society will be able to adapt over time and that this adaptation will be less costly than addressing the problem directly. (Even if these curves are accepted as correct, the idea that it will be cheaper to address symptoms only is strenuously in dispute.) But what Lomborg doesn't seem to know is that natural systems such as climate are not as well-behaved as we'd like to believe. To use the mathemetician's term, such systems are nonlinear.

That means that climate could change abruptly. Even if abrupt climate change is considered a low probability, it would likely be a high-severity event. And, the most severe nonlinear outcome would be runaway global warming which could not be stopped by human action once it begins. Lomborg's proposed priorities simply don't take such possibilities into account. Keep in mind that many scientists who discuss such possibilities believe that if they come to pass, they will severely disrupt and possibly even destroy modern civilization over a period of just a few decades. Lomborg's priorities seem all the more confused given this context.

A third confusion seems almost laughable. Lomborg assumes that even as global warming proceeds, there will be far more wealth in places such as Bangladesh--an impoverished, low-lying country that could suffer greatly from rising oceans and reduced food harvest. Lomborg assumes that other great natural systems such as fisheries and water will not decline greatly even though they are declining precipitously in the present. He also assumes ample energy supplies to power economic growth worldwide over the next century despite the necessity to reduce fossil fuel usage and despite the peaking of oil and natural gas that even the most optimistic experts expect no later than mid-century. It short, he assumes that the disruptions caused by global warming and resource depletion will not greatly affect global economic growth. These are hardly surefire assumptions even if they reflect the wisdom of some unnamed economists at the United Nations which he cites.

Lomborg has organized a group called the Copenhagen Consensus to push his priorities. Perhaps, you may say, the people who participate in the group's various analyses know something we don't about the Earth's natural systems. Alas, no. They are all economists who seem to know little or nothing about natural systems and their dynamics. Beyond this, something seems awry when such economists simultaneously insist that the world economy will experience rapid economic growth in the coming decades, but also act as if we are living in a zero-sum economy that will severely limit resources available to address critical environmental and public health problems.

So what makes Lomborg's ideas so compelling? First, few people would disagree that we need to address AIDS, malaria and malnutrition. And, few people would disagree that we are currently not doing enough about each. In addition, Lomborg is a compelling messenger. He's articulate (in English as well as his native Danish), personable and good-looking.

For all of this Lomborg seems like a captain who, as his ship is being tossed in dangerously unstable seas, focuses on addressing the widespread problem of sea-sickness among the passengers rather than charting a course away from a storm that threatens to capsize his vessel. The reasoning he gives is that the medication for sea-sickness is readily available and cheap, while charting an uncertain detour away from the storm might result in costly delays for the shipping line.

Such logic on its face ought to make us exceedingly skeptical of the skeptical environmentalist and his methods.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mind meld: Social entrepreneur meets business entrepreneur

It is rarely the intention of an entrepreneur to shake up the social fabric of the society in which he or she works. But, many do anyway. We have only to think of two virtual unknowns starting from scratch in the computer industry, Steven Jobs and Bill Gates, who helped to make the personal computer a ubiquitous tool throughout the world. Add to that the internet, and the power of the individual to obtain, manipulate and transmit information has increased exponentially.

While the advent of the personal computer and the introduction of the internet revolutionized every aspect of life, it did not change the basic trajectory of human civilization, namely, toward ever greater consumption of resources without regard to ecological limits.

Today, many entrepreneurs are thinking about how they can cash in on so-called "green" trends in consumption and lifestyles. Much of this entrepreneurial activity is focused on maintaining our current lifestyles while consuming fewer resources and producing less waste--or at least pretending to do so. But, some entrepreneurs are focused on changing how we live in ways both big and small. One such entrepreneur is Mat (sic) DeGraaf who with his partner runs Door-to-Door Organics. The concept behind Door-To-Door Organics sounds similar to that of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. The differences, however, are making it a fast-growing enterprise in the three states--Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania--where it currently operates.

Door-To-Door works with a wide variety of local organic farmers and essentially matches what they have to offer through the season with what customers want. Customers must choose a "basket" of goods from several available sizes. But, communicating by internet or phone, they can substitute within that basket by adding more of their favorite items and subtracting what they don't want. The basket is then delivered to the customer's door. Customers also are not obliged to make long-term commitments and can cancel anytime. As a result new customers are more willing to try out the service to see if it works for them.

To be sure Door-To-Door is not a perfect solution for distributing locally grown organic food. But since only a few delivery vehicles are used, the company probably consumes less petroleum than other distribution methods in which each customer picks up his or her food at a dropoff point, a farmers' market or a food co-op .

Is the service a competitor for CSAs? DeGraaf says yes and no. Certainly, the company does provide a service similar to that of CSAs. On the other hand, many CSAs sell their excess produce through Door-To-Door.

Door-To-Door has also been selling at farmers' markets, both as a way to bring produce to market and as a way to attract customers to its service. But at a few markets where organic farmers complained that their sales slumped as a result, the company withdrew. It's simply not part of the mission of the company to undermine organic farmers, DeGraaf explains. In fact, the company is including produce from some farms that are in transition--clearly marked, of course--as a way to insure expanded availability of future local organic supplies. (The transition to organic farming typically takes three years during which the farmer incurs the costs associated with organic methods without being able to charge the premium price usually garnered by organic produce.)

In the off season, the company uses local wholesalers to keep the organic produce coming. Again, it's not a perfect solution; but it keeps the relationships with customers intact while continuing to provide an outlet for organic wholesalers and farmers.

The growth of the organic "industry," as it is now called, has reached 20 percent per year, 10 times the growth in the overall food industry. But much of that growth is premised on the same petroleum-drenched, transportation-intensive infrastructure that the conventional food system depends on.

By contrast, the business model adopted by Door-To-Door has the potential to increase greatly the number of people who source their organic food locally and thereby reduce the energy inputs into their food. But perhaps most important of all, the Door-To-Door business model is both profitable under current conditions and seemingly adaptable to the lower energy, resource-challenged society we are moving toward. And, that combination is the holy grail for businesses that truly want to be part of the transition to a sustainable world.

In the past those who have combined business and social entrepreneurship have often experienced long waits before their ideas caught on or even failed waiting. But the sudden success of Door-To-Door Organics signals that a tipping point may be at hand, both in the caliber of entrepreneurial thinking about sustainability and in the success of companies that have sustainability at the core of their missions.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Is sustainability a drag?

I have been peppered in recent weeks with email asking me how to get people to take peak oil seriously and make the necessary preparations for themselves, their families and their communities. The emphasis has been on what to tell them. But I think the emphasis should be on what to show them.

The way most people talk about sustainability, it sounds like a drag. After all, people are called upon to give up their cars and ride the bus, to stop watching the stupid television, and to go to more places by walking and bicycling (and that means going uphill at least part of the time!). It means avoiding packaged food, eating less meat, and eating more fruits and vegetables, local and organic if you can find it. It means traveling less, at least by plane or car. It means giving up the consumer life of endless new gadgets and clothes that so many have become used to. It means remembering to shut off the lights and turn down the heat. And, it means (gasp!) no air conditioning in the summer. In short, it sounds like a regimen of self-abnegation that is likely to entice only those wanting to become monks.

I do not think that people should stop talking about sustainability. We need all the dialogue we can get about what works and what doesn't and about why moving closer to a sustainable life is not only worth it, but can have many advantages over the current terminal, power dive that we call global industrial capitalism. But to restate an old and well-worn phrase: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Only when others see with their own eyes that those seeking sustainability are having enjoyable lives will the switch seem worth making. Just one shot of genuine cheerfulness, humor and even exuberance goes much further than a year's worth of pious sermons. Again, it doesn't mean that people should not talk about sustainability. They should talk about it and focus on making it happen in their own lives--not in order to be a good example for others, but rather because it is a good thing in itself for each individual. After all, if moving toward sustainability is miserable (and I don't think it is), who's going to want to do it?

Moving toward sustainability is a daunting task. And, it seems as if the best any of us can do is simply to become less unsustainable. But, we must start somewhere. Some people may even admire our less unsustainable lifestyle, but say that they could never live that way. I think that's because they believe such changes have been made all at once. Certainly, some people achieve sudden, thoroughgoing changes in their lives. But most of us who are trying to live more sustainably add saner, more sustainable practices gradually over time as we become more comfortable with the steps we've already taken and as we understand more deeply what is truly sustainable.

What's the first move? For Americans it could easily be this. If you have three cars, try going down to two. If you have two cars, try going down to one. For those who understand the stakes, this doesn't seem like much. But the first move begins a process that focuses the mind on the next step even as the first one proceeds. This step-by-step approach--which is the one I've followed--makes it possible to adapt to each change and then move on to the next change. Success breeds success.

Some may complain that time grows too short for a gradualist approach. I fear that this may be true. But I am trying to work with human beings as they are. They don't like change. If they must change, they prefer it in digestible increments. But, each success increases a person's confidence that next change will work.

The key is to reach a tipping point where millions and then billions are moving in the right direction. It starts with you, and then your neighbor and then your friends who live nearby. It may seem like we'll never make it in time to head off serious problems. But if we're lucky, we'll reach the tipping point and the move toward sustainability all around our cities, our countries and even the world will gain unstoppable momentum. Can we afford not to try?

Monday, April 09, 2007

A peak by any other name is still a peak

Those who criticize peak oil theory or at least the conclusion that peak oil is nearby find themselves faced with a naming problem. If they believe that oil supplies are for all practical purposes infinite (an idea usually associated with the abiotic theory of oil), they are consigned to the category of people who are incapable of accepting the overwhelming evidence that no matter what oil's origins, it is, in any time frame that matters to humans, finite. They are not exactly cornucopians. Genuine cornucopians don't deny that hydrocarbons are limited in supply. Rather, they believe that humans will find ingenious new ways to power their economies through innovation and marketplace incentives and that they will do this in plenty of time. At the very least, the infinite supply theorists should not be classed among the reality-based community.

Of those who accept that oil is a finite resource, many believe a decline in supply won't occur for three decades or more. They use such words as "undulating plateau" or "no visible peak" (Michael Lynch) to describe their views. Perhaps the most ingenious formulation is that put forth by Daniel Yergin, long-time head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, that the risks to oil supply lie above ground rather than below it. This implies a desire for a certain kind of unspecified foreign and domestic policy to solve the "above ground" problems. (These problems, of course, are problems primarily for oil importers, not oil exporters.) The problems include the following:
  1. The most promising areas for oil exploration are under the control of national oil companies that refuse to open them to large-scale prospecting and development by foreign-based firms.

  2. The chaos in oil-rich areas such as Nigeria and Iraq is preventing oil production from reaching its full capacity.

  3. Unreasonable restrictions on drilling in such areas as the water surrounding the United States and public lands owned by the government are delaying much needed discoveries.

  4. Industry is not investing enough in exploration, infrastructure and alternative energy.

Just how much violence, war or state coercion Yergin might be willing to accept to solve these problems is unclear, especially since Yergin styles himself as a free market advocate. But he may not qualify for inclusion in the reality-based community if he believes that rational problem-solving will somehow allow us to overcome all of the hurdles he enumerates.

The point is that Yergin is actually expanding the case for his opponents in the peak oil debate. Peak oil isn't just a product of geology. It will be the result of the interaction of geological reality, infrastructure, political and military decisions, economic cycles, and consumer behavior. Peak is about flows, and flows of oil may end up peaking for any number of reasons even if the underlying resource remains quite large. Yes, geology is not the only consideration. But, is a peak any less of a peak if it occurs for a multitude of reasons rather than one? Won't we will still have to deal with the resulting fallout?

From a larger perspective, the debate over the exact timing of peak oil really comes down to this: How much running room do we have before we go off a cliff? Given the damage that a cliff implies and given the uncertainty over how much running room we have, wouldn't it be wise to make serious efforts to prepare now instead of waiting to see just how close to the cliff we really are?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Mexico and the first peak oil mass migration

More than 30 years ago French writer Jean Raspail warned in his anti-immigration novel The Camp of the Saints of a coming deluge of the world's poor onto European soil. His ghoulish vision of an immigrant invasion frightened some and angered many others who called it racist when the book appeared in 1973.

Today, climate scientists are warning of mass migrations related to the effects of global warming. In addition, the possibility of the first peak oil driven mass migration--in this case out of Mexico and into the United States--is starting to get some attention as well.

More than a third of Mexico's government revenues comes from the state petroleum monopoly, PetrĂ³leos Mexicanos, often referred to as PEMEX. Fast declining output from the company's giant Cantarell field is frustrating efforts to maintain overall production. Some believe that Mexico may now have passed peak oil. If this is so, it is difficult to see how Mexico will be able to maintain its current level of public services or continue on a path of unevenly distributed, but moderately rising prosperity.

Meanwhile, on the U. S. side of the border, conspiracy theories abound about a contract given to Halliburton last year to build, if called upon, emergency temporary immigration detention facilities for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security. One acquaintance of mine informed me the facilities will actually be used to detain American dissidents during a period of martial law. The more likely explanation is that homeland security officials have been reading the reports in the media (and perhaps their own internal ones) about Mexico's oil future and want to be ready for any sudden surge in Mexican immigration. Without mentioning Mexico specifically, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement which is part of the Homeland Security Department told The New York Times last year, "It's the type of contract that could be used in some kind of mass migration."

Not surprisingly, sudden mass migrations due to ecological catastrophe or resource depletion remain largely an abstraction, even in the minds of those who are aware of such possibilities. But the ongoing slow-motion mass migration across the southern border of the United States has once again begun to stoke the anti-immigrant forces who like Raspail 30 years ago are putting a face--and not a flattering one--on that migration. The Republicans already have one avowed anti-immigrant presidential candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has made immigration his central issue. I predict that he will do far better than anyone now expects even if an oil depletion induced migration does not occur before the primaries.

As long as the real reason behind such a migration remains obscure, the domestic discussion in the United States will be about jobs and the "threat" to American culture. The issue of immigration and border security is already a thorny one, but it will likely become even more confused as oil depletion proceeds in Mexico. All of this may develop against the backdrop of a plateau or even decline in worldwide production, something that could spark a global recession and further exacerbate concern over the perceived threat of job competition from immigrants as their numbers and their desperation rise.

It is an unhappy development that even as the need for concerted public action increases on such issues as global warming and peak oil, the American appetite for collective action is waning. The general feeling across the land is that public action somehow disproportionately benefits those who are different from America's largely white middle-class tax base, according to Peter Schrag writing in The Nation recently (subscription required).

But, the problems of global warming and oil depletion go beyond borders and will require Americans to do things collectively with other countries whose people aren't like them. And, most assuredly, the problems associated with the world's first peak oil migration aren't going to be solved if Americans bury their heads in the sand and pretend that it's somebody else's problem, one completely unconnected to our own fate.

But what might cooperation with Mexico look like? If it's intelligent cooperation, it would include conservation measures on both sides of the border and perhaps joint development of wind and solar power. It will be in our interest to help Mexico because the better things are there, the more likely it will be that Mexico's citizens will prosper in their own country rather than seek livelihoods in the United States.

But joint action such as this won't even be remotely possible if those who take their inspiration from Jean Raspail or from America's own Tom Tancredo come to dominate the immigration debate in the United States.