Friday, June 27, 2008

The Most Important Thing to Read on Global Warming

James Hansen, the US’s leading climate scientist, to whom I turn for climate science, spoke to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, and the National Press Club on June 23 2008. His entire talk is only 4 pages. Read it. If you don’t think you'll get to it -- or maybe to inspire you to do the reading -- I’ve excerpted some of the high points.

These are Jim Hansen’s words:

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year…Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years….

Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation…

Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly… If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source….

Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits.

We import food from halfway
around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public. A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend3 is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry.
The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our
products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly…

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and
dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success…

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.”

Robin’s words: We can’t get sidetracked by cap and trade agreements. They may be "politically acceptable" but won’t produce the results in the time frame required or redirect the economy as needed. We need carbon taxes “incentives” as fast as is politically possible. We should all do everything we can to make sure our next president understands this clearly. See for ways to make your voice heard and see what others are doing.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

$4/gallon gas may be a magic number

After years of not caring, Americans are changing their ways, and quickly.

1. Changed driving habits. From the New York Times:

“In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease — the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.”

2. Shopping closer to home. Consumers are beginning to question the "savings" gained from driving long distance to malls.

3.When buying cars, shirking the worst offenders. GM sales of SUV and trucks were down 25% in April, and down 37% in May over the previous year.

3. Buying houses where driving can be reduced. David Stiff, an economist who analyses housing prices nationally found that "even as overall sales volume drops, relatively stronger demand for housing will limit price declines in neighborhoods with shorter work commutes, better schools, and easier access to parks, recreation, and retail centers...Prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover." This effect can be seen in New York, metro Washington, Detroit.

4. And finally, choose jobs that are as close to home as possible, accessible by public transit, or can be walked, biked, or telecommuted to. These trends might be harder to spot in such a short period of time. But quoting from a Wall Street Journal article: "A poll earlier this year by California State University, Sacramento, found that high gasoline prices were the No. 1 concern in the area and that 12% of respondents had changed jobs or moved in the past year to shorten their commute to work."

Employers, retailers, developers, planners, governments take notice. Lifestyles that reduce dependence on costly gas – producing even more costly CO2 emissions – are in demand. Those who have been able to make changes quickly, have done so, and more and more people will make these changes as the opportunities present themselves.

If you think you can't afford to make these changes, do the math. It'll cost more to not be energy efficient when gas prices reach $5, $8 and $10/gallon. We all - individuals, companies, and governments -- have a huge budget to work with: the impending increases in fossil fuel prices that they will have to suck up, if we don't reduce demand for it now.

Thanks to Keith Collins who made this case beautifully clear in his presentation at the MassImpact symposium.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rant about the Urgency of Action

I wrote this for International Design Magazine, where it appeared in the June 2008 issue.

You’re in a deflating raft. You have 4 minutes and 30 seconds until the black storm on the horizon reaches you. Only some of you can swim. Do you: a) organize time-intensive swimming lessons? Or b) ask everyone to fix the leaks nearest them with the repair kits they have in their pockets?

Curiously, when it comes to climate change, where the states are worse than bleak, the answer seems to be swimming lessons: Invest more in alternative energies. Establish higher standards for fuel efficiency in cars. Invent carbon-capture technology. Force big businesses to come up with plans that will change the way they do business. None of these measures is capable of effecting change in the here and now.

Many of us know that we’re currently facing 50 percent species loss this century; five meter sea rise this century; and 10 to 20 percent reductions in corn, wheat, and rice yields – despite a more than doubling of population – this century. But way too few of us have paid attention to the timetable required to avoid this possibility, as laid out by the U.S.’s two leading climate scientists. James Hansen director of NASA’s Space Goddard Institute, released a new paper in March that says we have close to zero percent change of avoiding “catastrophic effects of climate change” if we continue with “business as usual.”
And in his report to the UN last September, John Holdren, director of the Wood’s Hole Institute, projected that we could improve those odds to 50 percent if we begin curbing emissions by 2015. If you ask me, 50-50 odds of facing major worldwide catastrophe are unacceptable.

Regardless, with heads firmly embedded in the sand, we continue to focus on what the scientists tell us needs to be accomplished by 2020 and 2050. And because there is no action at the federal level, cities and states, and companies and universities and institutions, are one by one setting 2020 and 2050 goals for CO2 reduction. Even presidential candidates give us these benchmarks, and talk about capping and trading emissions so that power plants will figure out a plan and make new investments that will start reducing their emissions.

But in fact we have only two to three years to get worldwide CO2 emissions to stop growing and begin their downward crawl if we want to improve our odds of averting disaster. Which means we only have to change our ways enough to avoid the 3 percent annual emissions rise driven by “business as usual,” and then next year we need to reduce our rate by 3 percent again. It isn’t that hard. Just focus on the ways you consume energy.

The difference between long-term strategies and immediate behavioral change can be easily visualized using the example of cars. If everyone in American bought a fuel-efficient car when it was time to replace their current model, 10 years from now (well beyond our critical period for action), demand for fossil fuel would be reduced by 5 percent. But if we shared 1 out of every 20 trips, we would reduce demand by 5 percent this week.

So turn your heat down 2 degrees, turn your air conditioner up 2 degrees. Feeling just a teeny bit uncomfortable? Pick half the species in the world –humans, animals, vegetables, insects – and imagine them gone. Don’t drive for single errands, don’t drive if the place you are going is less than a mile away, ride with a friend once a week. Mildly put out? Imagine the worldwide suffering of even fewer basic food staples than exists today. Use the dishwasher and dryer only for full loads. Hang your laundry on a line! Walk or bike more. Don’t like having to think about energy all the time? Imagine the political and economic unrest that will result from the immigration precipitated by a 5 meter sea rise.

We all have life-raft repair kits in our pockets. Put them to work.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The future of gas stations?

Beautiful photos of abandoned gas stations from a slide show assembled on the New YOrk Times. It does make you think.

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