Despite the millions spent by the Brothers Koch to convince us that climate science is a conspiracy, I often wonder why so many people call themselves skeptics. After all, climate change denialists seem to be playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, where no matter how many times you disprove their critiques, they offer them again and again. Seth Godin talks about the limits of evidence-based marketing in his blog, offering a vision of how the tide may end up turning against the Flat Earth society. Godin infers that at this point, there is nothing that scientists can do to convince a hardened skeptic:
“Here’s the conversation that needs to happen before we invest a lot of time in evidence-based marketing in the face of skepticism: ‘What evidence would you need to see in order to change your mind?’ If the honest answer is, “well, actually, there’s nothing you could show me that would change my mind,” you’ve just saved everyone a lot of time. Please don’t bother having endless fact-based discussions…What would you have to show someone who believes men never walked on the moon? What evidence would you have to proffer in order to change the mind of someone who is certain the Earth is only 5,000 years old? If they’re being truthful with you, there’s nothing they haven’t been exposed to that would do the trick.”
Instead, Godin writes that the best tactic to convince skeptics is a necessarily slow, painful process: eventually enough of the right opinion-makers will be convinced:
“Of course, evidence isn’t the only marketing tactic that is effective. In fact, it’s often not the best tactic. What would change his mind, what would change the mind of many people resistant to evidence is a series of eager testimonials from other tribe members who have changed their minds. When people who are respected in a social or professional circle clearly and loudly proclaim that they’ve changed their minds, a ripple effect starts. First, peer pressure tries to repress these flip-flopping outliers. But if they persist in their new mindset, over time others may come along. Soon, the majority flips. It’s not easy or fast, but it happens.”
Where does that leave us? It means that we should appreciate conservatives that do have sensible views of climate science; it means that birthers and climate science denialists will make a lot of noise, but ultimately will not be swayed by reason; it means that we should continue to use reason, but expect that it will get us nowhere with certain people. It means that for the immediate future, America will continue to have a very complicated presence in climate negotiations.
- Facts only confuse denialists and confirm the existence of massive conspiracies (amanwithaphd.wordpress.com)
A remarkable new documentary is out this month, called Carbon Nation. Director Peter Byck bills this film as a “climate change movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.” All I can say is you’ve got to see this film. Take your conservative friends and family, too. Byck really frames the challenges and opportunities of climate change in an elegant and open-minded way – this film is not preachy, it is straightforward; it drives home the point that people are confronting this problem already, with solutions that can be adopted on a much larger scale. This film is a game-changer.
Every time snow falls, climate disinformation artists claim that climate change is not happening, and that our carbon emissions have no demonstrable effect on the climate. Well, these snowstorms and the record precipitation are actually right on schedule. These storms are influenced by the warming weather, but also by natural variability.
Naomi Klein speaks at TED last month about how “our underlying assumption of limitlessness allows us to take the risk that we do.” She looks at the Alberta Tar Sands, the BP Oil Spill, and our ever falling EROEI, and examines why we continue to see unending growth as the answer to all of our problems.
I have logged five years of sea time underway (between 1998-2008); I have sailed across the Indian Ocean and Northern Pacific Ocean; I spent significant time in the Western Pacific toiling around the typhoon laden waters circa Okinawa and Guam; I know what heavy seas (up to 20ft) feel like, having traversed ships using the bulkheads to step on from time to time. I was always preternaturally calm in heavy seas, and I never took Dramamine. However, after reading Susan Casey’s book The Wave, I am newly aware of the great power that the sea has over man, the dangers that lurk in her, and the fears that rest in the heart of any merchant mariner worth their salt. Incredibly, Casey learns, two large oceangoing ships sink each week globally, but that never makes its way into the media. Like me, Casey is astonished:
“When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished. In the high tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea? And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice? Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again?”
Casey examines extreme waves in all their forms, from rogue waves, to typhoons, to tsunamis. She speaks with wave scientists and big wave tow surfers, reads the Casualty Ledgers going back centuries at Lloyds of London, and discovers that there is still a lot we have to learn about how the ocean behaves, and how it will behave in the future as the planet warms. Already, storm intensity is increasing, and in some areas like the Northern Pacific, wave energy is increasing. Tsunamis, which can be as large as thousands of feet, are much more prevalent historically than we give them credit for. In fact, according to scientists like Bill McGuire, the impending rise in sea level is going to increase the weight load on the Earth’s crust, which will lead to more volcanic and seismic activity, which increases the likelihood of tsunamis and earthquakes.
Aboard a modern Destroyer, I felt confident out at sea with the knowledge that we would know of bad weather before we found ourselves in it. Not only were the warships I sailed on laden with communications technology and protected by constant weather alerts and voyage navigation updates, but the ships were designed to survive in rough weather. However, I wouldn’t feel so confident in a Bulk Carrier, what we used to refer to as a Group II Merchant. A rogue wave can sink those vessels in less than one minute, after water floods into their holds. Our modern, global economy is built to run through merchant ships. The recent increase in piracy near the Horn of Africa shone a spotlight on the critical cog of global trade, but the sea promises to play an even bigger role. But it is not just mariners and global companies who should worry about the power of the great waves; coastal residents, vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges, should also be wary. Casey interviewed Lloyds of London’s senior executive Neil Roberts, a specialist in marine activity, and outlines their expectations:
“[Lloyds of London expects] not only snarlier oceans and elevated sea levels, but more hurricanes, windstorms, storm surges, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts – all affecting more people and more property… ships had it rough out there, and sure, the losses were astonishing, but even these were dwarfed by Lloyd’s nightmare scenario: a disaster impacting the eastern seaboard of the United States, where over eight trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property, 111 million people, and half the U.S. GDP would be exposed.”
One scenario, identified by McGuire, involves the volcanic collapse of the Canary Islands, which could produce a massive tsunami that could hit the east coast of the United States in about nine hours. The Wave is a timely examination of the power of the sea, one that I had trouble putting down at night.
Heidi Cullen, author of the new book The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, has a background rare for any research scientist, let alone a climate scientist: she worked for The Weather Channel, and gained a lot of expertise in communicating complex climate science to the lay person. This work has given Cullen a unique understanding of where misunderstandings of climate science exist:
“This is the only way a lot of people can truly connect to the issue of climate science – via a long-term investment like real estate. The more I thought about this question, the more I realized the scientific community had failed to communicate the threat of climate change in a way that made it real for people right now. We, as scientists, hadn’t given people the proper tools to see that the impacts of climate change are visible right now and that they go far beyond melting ice caps.”
Cullen’s new book aims to provide those tools. She explains some of the big reasons (single-action bias and the ‘finite pool of worry’) why many Americans understand the dangers of climate change, but not urgently enough to change our behavior. More importantly, she explicitly separates the concepts of ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ and shows how the former shapes the latter. Cullen’s writing reminds me of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when she shows how climate science developed and where it stands today: she eloquently and economically conveys the complex science in a way that is pleasurable to read. The groundbreaking part of Cullen’s book what comes next: she picks seven of the most at-risk locations around the world, explains how climate change is already impacting the weather, and uses state-of-the-art models to create climate projections for each of these places into the next half-century. Two of the locations really hit home for me: Cullen examines the Central Valley in California, as well as New York City. She also looks at the Sahel region of Africa, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Arctic, Greenland, and Bangladesh.
Cullen borrows a metaphor from Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who was among the first in Silicon Valley to take Y2K seriously: “Imagine you’ve got a sailboat and you’ve got to sail around an island. You can start to circle when you’re a mile from shore and it will be easy. But if you wait until you’re only 100 meters away, there will be rocks and reefs. There will be a lot more drama.” In her analysis of these climate hot spots around the world, Cullen makes clear the economic impact of waiting until the proverbial sailboat is close to the rocks and reefs.
The Weather of the Future lays bare the unequivocal nature of climate change, and the need to take actions, what Cullen calls “a million boring little fixes.” In time, we will all make these fixes; the question for policy makers, skeptics, and citizens in general is, are we going to wait until those fixes become all the more expensive and painful? This book is timely and necessary.
This Monday morning, I have one thing on my mind: coal. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons is ringing through the air:
“I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”
Why am I thinking about coal, you might ask? It is not just Ford’s sweet voice. In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows examines efforts in China and the United States to create “clean coal.” To many environmentalists, that is a dangerous oxymoron. You probably saw this ad, filmed by the Coen Brothers:
That ad was in response to ads like this, from General Electric:
Well, on one hand you have folks that say clean coal is impossible. On the other hand you have General Electric saying that “coal is looking more beautiful every day.” Who is right? Well Fallows’ article gets to the heart of that question. He identifies some of the basic math that makes coal inescapably part of our immediate energy future:
“Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.”
An article today in the New York Times shows that China’s hunger for coal has now resulted in coal imports from Australia, the United States, Indonesia, Canada, Columbia, and South Africa; new mines are even being planned in Washington State. Fallows interviewed Ming Sung, a geologist who worked in the United States for many years for the Department of Energy and Shell Oil, and now works in China for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force:
“People without a technical background think, ‘Coal is dirty! It’s bad, but will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”
Sung’s Clean Air Task Force is working to create partnerships between American and Chinese businesses to develop new technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG). Here is a description of UCG from the CATF:
“UCG processes coal where it lies, eliminating the environmental hazards of mining. In the process, coal is converted into a syngas through partial oxidation, creating the same reactions as surface gasifiers. The syngas generates “feedstocks” for several products, including electric power, chemicals, liquid fuels, hydrogen, and synthetic natural gas. UCG allows for extensive pollution control and costs less to construct and operate than equivalent plants using surface gasifiers. The process has the potential to greatly enhance energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic competitiveness.”
In the United States, only one UCG plant is being constructed, the Texas Clean Energy Project, in Odessa, Texas. However, in China, the development is occurring much faster. In fact, development in all areas of energy research is occurring much faster:
‘In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,” a U.S. government official who works in China said. “Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese. “You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this”—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—“and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”’
So lets go back to the beginning. How do we create a sustainable future, with sustainable energy consumption? There are a lot of perspectives out there; I see them every day. I happen have faith in the potential of nuclear power, whereas some of my colleagues would sooner eradicate nuclear power and rely on solar and wind. The geologists and businessmen in Fallows’ article believe that coal is inescapably part of our future. Who is right?
In part, I suppose, it depends on how you envision energy consumption developing, globally. Coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and oil provide the majority of our energy today. To stop using them, and rely exclusively on wind, solar, geothermal, and other developing clean energy possibilities, will require us to consume energy locally instead of systemically, and it will require us to reduce the scale of our consumption significantly. More importantly, to get there, it will require time, energy, and financial investments on a significant scale. Additionally, it will require a sea change in the way we live. Alternatively, the people in Fallows’ article look for a game changing technology that will create a ‘clean coal.’ Similar to those efforts, Bill Gates and others are looking to the next generation technology of Travelling Wave Reactors (TWR), which promise to produce almost zero waste with lower costs, a significant progression from 1960s nuclear energy technology. The big problem in following either path seriously is that like our political gridlocks, we face ideological inflexibility in developing climate solutions. Fallows identifies the problem we face in America:
“But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct. The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese. The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will. “The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems. “No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.” The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.”
The reality is that we need to look to everything: we need to reduce our energy consumption, become more efficient, increase the development of wind and solar, and pursue new technologies like UCG and TWR. With growing energy consumption globally, with the coming age of electric vehicles, we will need to have all of the solutions we can get our hands on. There is no one Holy Grail here. We need strict environmentalists to work with climate change denialists, and everyone in between, to increase investment in new technology, to increase efficiencies, to guard precious resources like rare earth metals, and to reduce the throughput of energy and resources in our economy. We need to get over our disagreements and find common ground, pronto. Clean coal? I am willing to embrace the possibility.
On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read. McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:
“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”
McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability. I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear. While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet. He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza. McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:
“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the prairies. It will be exciting. But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”
McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust. McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:
“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project. The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”
At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government. The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.
McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food. “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I). McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition. Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.
Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner. Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change). The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face. The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives. One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to. Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future. However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.
Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences. Eaarth is out now. Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.
This Saturday, reasonable Americans will be gathering on the Washington Mall, and In A Future Age will be onhand to document the sanity.
In the midst of all the political vitriol, hypocrisy, and insanity being expressed on the campaign trail, it is important to document the reasonable among us.
After all, no one really bats an eye when reasonable people open their mouth. People pay attention when crazy people bring up crazy solutions.
If we are going to find solutions to entitlement reform, climate change, and other complex, divisive issues, we are going to need all the reasonable people we can get.
Those who give out ideological purity tests are not reasonable.
Those that do not try to understand science, but instead adopt the ‘scientific’ views of their favorite radio jock are not reasonable.
Those who have been unable to compromise, especially when their country needs them to, and then have the audacity to claim that they will do so in the future are unreasonable, until proven otherwise.
Those that would rather sit on their hands then move one inch from their ideological platform, because they hold a minority and believe that is the only way to gain political power are unreasonable.
As a society, we need to elect reasonable people – people who will be friends and make deals with people they disagree with, in order to find solutions. We used to have a lot of reasonable people in Washington. In fact, there are still a few, like Orin Hatch, Barack Obama, and Russ Feingold. However, weight of this political moment is on those who represent the extreme, who will not compromise. Unfortunately, that will not get us anywhere.
In Washington on Saturday, we reasonable people will gather. We will act reasonably. I’ll be back next week with photos and an account of the event. Washington D.C., here I come.