The limits of evidence based marketing and climate science

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.


A climate change movie that doesn’t care if you believe in climate change

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.


Coal, climate change, and our energy future

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.


The military led with integration, now leading on clean energy

When the Defense Department published the Quadrennial Defense Review earlier this year, I was struck that they would take such a leadership position on the issue.  While the political right debates whether climate change is in fact occurring, the Defense Department recognized the threat as it is:

“Crafting a strategic approach to climate and energy: Climate change and energy will play significant roles in the future security environment. The Department is developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment, missions, and facilities. The Department already performs environmental stewardship at hundreds of DoD installations throughout the United States, working to meet resource efficiency and sustainability goals. We must continue incorporating geostrategic and operational energy considerations into force planning, requirements development, and acquisition processes.”

Why would the DoD be taking such a leadership role on climate change?  That’s easy – because the military, unlike the political classes, must actively prepare for the distant future; they must be ready to deal with the consequences:

“Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways. First, climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows… Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”

As a result the DoD committed to “foster efforts to assess, to adapt, and to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”  Well we are starting to see the fruits of that effort already.  Apparently, a Marine company just deployed  to the rugged outback of Helmand Province with portable solar panels that fold up into boxes, energy-conserving lights, solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity, and solar chargers for computers and communications equipment. Way to go Marines!!  On top of that, the Navy just introduced a new hybrid warship, the U.S.S. Makin Island, able to run on electricity at speeds of less than 10 kts, more efficiently than on diesel fuel.  The Air Force committed to outfitting their entire fleet for biofuel by 2011. The military pioneered integration in the United States, and the country eventually followed. Now the DoD is pioneering clean energy.  It is time to follow their lead.


Is there ‘gold’ in them there hills?

When I covered a recent RI gubernatorial debate for Ecori.org, I was amazed at how similar the politicians, across the ideological spectrum from Conservative to Liberal, spoke about the virtues of recycling as much as possible.  Of course, the Republican admitted that he was going to likely cut the budget of the RI Department of Environmental Management, and the more liberal politicians promised to increase or at least maintain the budget.  As a result, it is difficult to imagine the Republican implementing expanded recycling.

However, the trade dispute between China and Japan got me thinking.  We rely on China for many rare earth metals, crucial to modern manufacturing.  Japan responded to its crisis, and the resultant trade disputes with China,  by expanding the recycling of existing electronics to obtain those much needed rare earth metals.  Here in the United States, it seems like new technological innovations come out at an exponential pace – microchips become smaller, capabilities increase.  That means that the electronic items awaiting disposal will only continue to increase.

During a visit to the state dump earlier this year, I noticed a lot of computer equipment awaiting disposal.  The question I have, is are we following Japan’s lead and recycling the materials in these old electronics?  While safely recycling electronic equipment requires a lot of safety procedures, and is expensive, it makes sense that we would start to guard these old phones, printers, computers, etc. like the gold that they are.  In fact, it seems like we are in an age where efficient recycling could be a boom industry.  Last time I checked, we can use all the boom industries we can get here in the United States.  Of course the other benefit to complete recycling would be to prevent dangerous substances from re-entering the environment where we don’t want them to.

On another note, the landfill in Rhode Island has capacity, at current rates, for only another 15-20 years.  Given that people don’t want dumps in their backyard (NIMBY), it only makes sense that we push Rhode Island to recycle and compost as much as possible.  Rhode Island was the first state in the union to mandate recycling.  Now we can take the lead and be the first to mandate expanded recycling – for example, find a way to recycle all types of plastic, including the pervasive plastic drink cups.  Right now, only blown plastic with a narrow lid can be recycled.  Additionally, lets mandate composting, and provide the containers to do it.  If we put enough of a cost on throwing materials away, it will discourage cheaply made goods designed to fail and be replaced. Reducing the throughput of raw materials is key to moving towards a sustainable economy.  If we provide the right incentives, like all the gubernatorial candidates claimed they wanted to do, we can make a positive change.


As Earl heads north, another oil rig explodes in the Gulf

Ladies and gentlemen, this just in.  The Vermillion Oil Rig 380 has just exploded 80 miles of the coast of Louisiana, with 12 people missing.  This is yet another painful reminder of how expensive our energy is becoming.  We will learn a lot more in coming days, but after the Deepwater Horizon, another accident is the last thing we need.

At In A Future Age, we are battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Earl, headed our way in the next 36 hours.  I hope everyone has a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.


Bjorn Lomborg has a change of heart

Apparently, the world’s most prominent climate change skeptic, statistician Bjorn Lomborg, changed his mind, and now believes that Global Warming is a viable threat that deserves an annual investment of tens of billions of dollars.  Apparently, it is “one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront.”

While Lomborg has a new book out, and sales will undoubtedly be helped by this change of heart, this is still a moment to consider.  After all, the Republican strategy to prevent environmental reform, as laid out by strategist Frank Lutz in 2002, is to sow doubt about the scientific consensus about global warming.  In fact, Charles and David Koch, owners (and oil barons) of Koch Industries, collectively known as Kochtopus due to their unmatched spending to help sow that doubt, are the face of that effort.  Americans For Prosperity is their lovechild.

Lomborg’s reversal isn’t a huge game changer itself, but after the recent vindications of Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, the IPCC, and IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri, it appears that the Climate Gate and other Koch-funded efforts to sow doubt about Global Warming, are, to quote Shakespeare, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

However, after speaking with a couple of right-wing lobbyists this weekend, I understand anew that some folks consider attacking climate science a bonafide calling, and in their minds, are convinced of global conspiracy.  Typically these types of people are surfaced whenever they start rambling about Al Gore.  No scientist, or amount of reason, will be able to convince them otherwise.

In related news, Canada just banned bisphenol A (BPA) by declaring it toxic.  Scientific American linked it to cancer, genital defects, obesity, and ADD.  However, The American Chemistry Council continues to defend the use of BPA.  In the United States, the FDA raised concern about BPA, but remains unwilling to regulate its use.  Lets see, what is the common link here?  Oh yes, industry is spending money to prevent limits to their behavior.

Finally, a new study identifies 39 more coal ash dumpsites that are polluting drinking water with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals.  The EPA is holding hearings this week.  However, the electric power industry is fighting national regulations.  I suppose they would rather take their chances with conservative state governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, whose residents will have to deal with the lead and arsenic.  Coal may look cheap, but its externalities are enormous.

Unfortunately, the prospects of a Republican takeover of Congress mean that the obfuscation will only increase.

UPDATE: The Washington Post had an excellent editorial today on the subject of attacks on climate science:

“EARLY THIS YEAR, climate-change skeptics went on the attack, pointing to two molehills of scandal that they claimed were towering peaks of scientific malfeasance. One was “Climategate,” in which skeptics used highly selective excerpts of stolen e-mails in an effort to discredit some well-known scientists. The other was the identification of errors in the last assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the canon of the international consensus on global warming — particularly a dubious prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035.  Investigation after investigation has since shown that neither episode undermined the basic science of climate change or the credibility of climate scientists. On Monday, the scientists were vindicated again, twice… So the overblown critique of climate science that emerged early this year continues to underwhelm.”