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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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What’s Fiscally Conservative

A thought experiment today.

In recent years, Republicans in the US Congress, and in state legislatures as well, refused to approve budgets unless they cut programs.  Which programs?  Well, the ones that benefit the low and middle classes at the expense of the wealthy, of course.  There are a number of kinds of hypocrisy here, to be sure.  Two occupations and private defense corporation operations to the tune of $2,000 billion and counting?  Republicans didn’t bat an eyelash to approve all of that.  Tax cuts for the wealthy that weren’t balanced in the budget?  No eyelash there either.  A prescription drug program that cost additional billions of dollars?  Yup, still no eyelash.  Those are only a few examples of real costs that Republicans forced American taxpayers to pay for.  Cost that grew the national deficit and debt – issues that Republicans cared about only when a Democrat (and a black one at that) became President.  The Teabaggers didn’t get organized until the Kochs told them to get organized after Obama took office.  I don’t want to go through with this experiment, but if a Republican in 2016 is elected President, I’m willing to bet the Teabaggers wouldn’t object to continued deficit spending – so long as it’s their ideological causes that receive the largesse.

Given all this, I play “what if” when I read news stories.  Earlier this week, there was news that the Obama administration wanted to spend $236.3 million to eight states to improve electricity infrastructure in rural areas.  Which got me to think, “Where would Republicans demand spending cuts for “fiscal conservatism” to remain true to their debt fetish?”  Of course, Republicans will not demand spending cuts.  But maybe Democrats should.  In order to remain deficit neutral, what should we cut to spend $236.3 million taxpayer dollars – dollars that primarily came from urban areas by the way?  Should we cut agriculture subsidies?  Should we cut rural road spending?  How about drought and flood insurance subsidies?  See, this is where the rubber meets the road, Republicans.  What are you willing to give up to spend money to ensure rural areas have power in the face of weather losses?

Or how about the problem of forest fires?  By and large, this is a wilderness and rural problem.  Fires are burning in Washington and Oregon right now.  Where does the money come from?  Again, primarily urban taxpayers.  If Republicans want to cut SNAP money to veterans and children, why won’t they also propose cutting rural firefighting dollars as well?  Because they know the former affects more urban Democrats and the latter affects more rural Republicans.  Why don’t the mountain folks pull themselves up by the bootstraps and fight their own fires?  Why must they continue their federal welfare addiction?  Why do they like the nanny state so much?  Wouldn’t fighting their own fires instill a little confidence in themselves so we could reduce the federal debt?

How much do Republicans really care about the debt?  Only so much that it hurts their political opposition.  Republicans are considered serious thinkers when they propose cuts to programs that keep people out of poverty, that keep American children educated, that keep our food and water safer than they otherwise would be – programs that by and large impact more urban people.  The corporate media would make a clown out of any Democrat that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, proposed cutting programs that benefited rural populations.  I for one would sure like to know when Republicans are ready to get serious about debt reduction.


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On False Equivalence

The Guardian recently ran a couple of really bad climate pieces.  The first has a headline guaranteed to draw eyes, “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away“.  Who would possibly allow a “great world city” drown?  The monsters!  Know that the author is billed as a “science editor”, which I take to mean he understands basic scientific concepts such as uncertainty, time scale, and accuracy.  What does Robin McKie have to say?

The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. [...] Only those on higher floors can hope to protect their cars from surging sea waters that corrode and rot the innards of their vehicles. [...] Miami and its surroundings are facing a calamity worthy of the Old Testament.

Really?  Old Testament calamity? Inundated. Paralysed. Ruined. Corrode and rot.

That’s fairly flowery language for a science editor.  How much of it is based in reality?  There are definitely localized effects of sea level rise in Miami.  Seawater is corrosive.  But I missed the news reports of Miami calamities, inundations, being a paralyzed city.  Those are serious effects he describes that aren’t quite as extensive or horrific as his article portrays.

Or, as Time writer Michael Grunwald writes, “I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn, but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.”

I agree with Michael on this one.  This type of journalism works against taking the very action that Miami actually is doing right now to adapt to a changing reality.  This quote says it perfectly:

What’s happening in the Middle East right now is calamitous. A blocked entrance is inconvenient.

Thank you, Michael, for some overdue perspective.  He adds,

But let’s get real. The Pacific island of Kiribati is drowning; Miami Beach is not yet drowning, and the Guardian’s persistent adjective inflation (“calamitous,” “astonishing,” “devastating”) can’t change that.

This encouraged a number of climate porn addicts to take to the Twitter and denounce Grunwald’s lack of enthusiasm for not wanting to be a part of their tribe.  Tweets displayed peoples’ camps:

Here is what folks were trying to say: person A has a gun held to their head right now; person B will die sometime in the future, but we don’t know exactly when.  And since the same characteristic will eventually apply to both persons, they both share existential threats.  Ask Kiribatians how much of their daily life is affected by sea level rise and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts you’ll get a very different answer than a Miamians’.  And contrary to most climate activists, that’s not because Miamians are climate uneducated.  It’s because their daily lives aren’t affected by climate change today to the same degree than a Kiribatian is.  Saying they are doesn’t make it so.

I also agree with Mike that this fact doesn’t alter the need to mitigate and adapt.  I agree with TheCostofEnergy that Miami and island nations face different timing and resource issues.  That is precisely why island nations face an existential threat today and Miami doesn’t.  Island nation people have nowhere to move to.  Their islands will disappear and they will be forced to move.  That presents an enormous culture disruption.  Miami has much more adaptive capacity than do island nations.  Miami will have to adapt, there is no doubt about that.  But that’s not an existential threat except in some absurdly narrow use of the term.

Disaster porn language usage has to stop.  It’s not accurate.  It dissuades instead of incentivizes action.  It breaks down instead of builds trust.


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What will 2040 US GHG emissions be

if this graph is anywhere close to accurate?

 photo Electricgeneratingcapacityadditions2000-2040-EIA_zpsa9ed57ae.png

That projection of electric generating capacity additions does not get us to stated emissions goals (e.g., 80% or 90% of 2005 levels by 2050.)  We can easily observe that out-year EIA projections probably are not very accurate and that’s a fair point.  I doubt, for instance, that this graph takes the EPA’s recent proposed rule into account.  The next 5-10 years is probably close to what will happen, however – close enough that any difference will not significantly impact say 2030 or 2040 emissions.

Note the vast difference between natural gas/oil additions for any single year between 2000-2005 and total renewables during any other year.  The only year that comes close to the same size for renewables will be 2015, but that still only amounts to 1/3 to 1/2 the natural gas additions ten years ago.  In order to achieve stated emissions goals, renewable additions will have to double every year between now and 2040.  That’s because new additions have to replace the oldest coal plants first, followed by oldest natural gas plants, and also meet increasing future demand, and generate enough energy during peak production periods to exceed peak consumption periods (not the same times of day).

Additionally, if we want to keep global mean annual temperature increases <2C, the projected natural gas additions have to tail off to zero (not stay constant) because they still emit GHGs.  And if all of that weren’t challenging enough, we must remove carbon from the atmosphere that is due to historical combustion and leakage.  But the basic story of this graph remains: this projection will not enable us to achieve stated emission reduction goals.  This graph is therefore useful in helping us understand what policies are working and what needs to be done in order to approach our emission goal.  For instance, renewables appear to enter a period of no growth in the 2020s.  That is probably unrealistic, but what policies should we consider to boost their deployment above 2005-2010 levels during the 2020s and on into the 2030s and beyond?  How about finance policies for starters?  How about long-term federal and state guarantees?  If we enact the EPA’s proposed power plant rule in most any way close to how it is currently structured, the 2020s and 2030s will likely look very different from this.  That rule could be a good start toward meeting future goals (just not 90% reduction by 2050 or <2C warming; more like 30% reduction by 2050).


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Deep Decarbonization Pathways Interim Report Released

An international group of folks put together an interim report analyzing “Deep Decarbonization Pathways”.  Decarbonization refers to the process of using less carbon within an economy.  The intent of the report was to show ways forward to keep global mean temperatures below 2C.  Readers of this blog know that I no longer think such a goal is achievable given the scope and scale of decarbonization.  We have not moved from a “business-as-usual” approach and have run out of time to reduce GHG emissions prior to relevant limits to meet this goal.  I argue the exact opposite of what the authors describe in their summary:

We do not subscribe to the view held by some that the 2°C limit is impossible to achieve and that it should be weakened or dropped altogether.

Thus the main problem with this report.  They’re using a threshold that was determined without robustly analyzing necessary actions to achieve it.  In other words, they a priori constrain themselves by adopting the 2C threshold.  Specifically, a more useful result would be to ascertain what real-world requirements exist to support different warming values in terms real people can intuitively understand.  The report is not newsworthy in that it reaches the same results that other reports reached by making similar assumptions.  Those assumptions are necessary and sufficient in order to meet the 2C threshold.  But examination unveils something few people want to recognize: they are unrealistic.  I will say that this report goes into more detail than any report I’ve read to date about the assumptions.  The detail is only slightly deeper than the assumptions themselves, but are illuminating nonetheless.

An important point here: the authors make widespread use of “catastrophe” in the report.  Good job there – it continues the bad habit of forcing the public to tune out anything the report has to say.  Why do people insist on using physical science, but not social science to advance policy?

On a related note, the report’s graphics are terrible.  They’re cool-color only, which makes copy/paste results look junky and interpretation harder than it should be.  So they put up multiple barriers to the report’s results.  I’m not sure why if the intent is to persuade policy makers toward action, but …

Continue reading


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Distopias are not Preferable to Distopias

Grist’s Nathanael Johnson has a good article up discussing the Anthropocene – a term that describes Earth influenced by mankind.  I highly recommend reading it, then thinking through what Andy Revkin and Clive Hamilton discussed.

I for one disagree with Clive Hamilton’s language.  Some examples:

I don’t accept this idea that we consumers in the West are irrevocably attached to cheap energy.

This from a person in Australia (dominant energy source: cheap coal) using 1st world technology to talk with Johnson and Revkin across the planet using Skype.  Those technologies are also powered, by and large, by cheap energy.  He continues with:

It’s easy for us in the US and Australia to forget that some countries in Europe have less than half — a third — of our emissions per person. And with strong public support, I’m thinking of Germany here, for policies that cut emissions. I think Western consumers can quite easily be weaned off high-polluting energy sources.

This ignores easily verified objective data that shows if the developing world used German-level energy, global energy consumption would triple or quadruple.  The developing world, like the developed, will expand energy production as cheaply as possible – and that means fossil fuels.  How will we meet stated climate goals with 3x more dirty energy?   Moreover, the West has not weaned itself from high-polluting energy sources.  If it was easy, we would have done it by now.  If we want to achieve the deepest emissions cuts pathway modeled by the IPCC, we need one 1GW carbon-free energy plant to come online every day between now and 2050.  That simply isn’t happening.

Or we can look at it with open eyes, and allow it to blast away all our utopian imaginings, and say, well, we are in really deep trouble, and it’s extremely unlikely that we are going to get out of it unscathed. So what do we do in that situation? And what does it mean for how we act? Does it mean we go for the muddle-through approach even though we know the consequences are likely to be catastrophic? Or do we fundamentally try to rethink and change strategies?

The “utopian imaginings” Hamilton refers to are solidly based in reality.  They are projections that new technologies will allow people in the future access to low-polluting energy at prices lower than today.  These technologies include renewables, carbon capture and sequestration, and things we can’t envision today because they haven’t been invented.  That’s not utopian.  By analogy, Hamilton would have said in the 1880s that mechanized transport will never exist and so stop imagining utopia.  But I also have problems with his characterization that we “are in really deep trouble”.  This is based on the concept of “civilization collapsing” and “catastrophe”.  I have written at length against this language since I read social science peer-reviewed literature that using it immediately makes people shut down anything else you have to say.  Thus, Hamilton and others continue to accomplish exactly the opposite of what they want.

Thankfully, Johnson immediately followed up with what Hamilton’s suggestion might look like.  You know, suggest something practical and not purely philosophical.  Hamilton’s response:

I don’t have an answer to that, Nate, except to say the first thing we must do is face up to the facts.

This is the fundamental problem for climate activists in my opinion.  They don’t have practical suggestions for solutions.  But they want everyone else in the same disaster-based landscape that the activists are in.  Only after everyone is miserable and paralyzed can we talk about ways forward.  This is not the solution.  Or it’s not my solution, anyway.  I just wrote a post about what happens when you present facts to people without the appropriate context.  In that example, N.C. residents directly challenged “the facts”.  And instead of long-term sea-level policy, N.C. now has short-term sea-level policy because a Commission did what Hamilton suggests without offering practical ways forward.  There isn’t evidence that Hamilton can be persuaded on this, as he ends with this:

It’s a question of a bad or less bad Anthropocene.

Good luck getting people to react to that in ways that advance a clean energy future.  Because history quite clearly tells us it won’t happen any time soon.  Hamilton in this instance advocates for a distopia while disdaining others’ viewpoints because he thinks they are distopian.  We should not replace one for the other.


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N.C.’s Sea Level Rise Reaction

Many people involved in climate activism have probably heard of North Carolina’s reaction to sea level projections.  The reaction has been exaggerated by some of those same activists.  I read this article and had the following thoughts.

By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher.

There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Willo Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Up to this point, readers probably have one of two reactions.  They either agree with quoted environmentalists and think N.C. tried to “legislate away sea level rise.”  Or they agree with Kelly’s reactions and the legislature’s boundaries on projection scope.

I think the reactions were entirely justified from a personal standpoint and easy to predict if anyone had stopped to think things through.  Nearly everybody would have the same reaction if your property was under threat to be considered worthless – regardless of the underlying reason.  Why?  Because you have an emotional attachment to your property that far exceeds the attachment to a 90-year sea level projection.  You’re going to react to the former more strongly than the latter.  The article identifies the underlying process:

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

This is the problem with the vast majority of climate activists’ language: they coldly announce that civilization will collapse and won’t offer actions people can take to avoid such a collapse.  Well, people will respond to that language, just not the way activists want them to.  People will fight activists and identify with climate skeptics’ arguments since they view the announcements as a threat to their way of life.

Where I differ with Kelly and others is this: she and other coastal residents had better look for viable long-term solutions before that 30-year period is over.  If they prevent long-term planning beyond 2040, inland residents of N.C. will be unfairly burdened with the cost of subsidizing Kelly and others for their lifestyle choices.

Kelly’s view is not without merit, to be sure:

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

That’s 8,500 structures in just one county – worth $1.4 billion – an average of $165,000 per structure.  I would absolutely fight to keep my $165,000 worth as long as I could.  Nationwide, the estimate is $700 billion; not a trivial sum is it?  The article has this choice quote:

“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away?”   “Preaching abandonment is absurd. People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”

The Coastal Resources Commission bungled their attempt to evaluate the science and establish policy.  By the time they announced results with no action plans, rumors fed by misunderstanding and bias confirmation ran rampant.  The result was Kelly’s actions to change the time horizon that planners could use.

So what are the solutions?  The Commission should establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.  Get to know the mayors and planners and scientists and property owners.  Find out what their interests are and what motivates them to do what they do.  Identify actions they can take in the next 30 years that sets them up for success afterward.  But don’t release information without context.  Because sea level rise is likely to accelerate in the 2nd half of the 21st century.  But most people will focus on potential direct threats to themselves and their livelihoods, not global concerns.  So get into the weeds with folks.


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REMI’s Carbon Tax Report

I came across former NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s email last week supporting a carbon tax.  At the outset, I fully support this policy because it is the most economically effective way to achieve CO2 emission reductions.  An important point is this: it matters a lot how we apply the tax and what happens to the money raised because of it.  Many policy analysts think that the only way a carbon tax will ever pass is for the government to distribute the revenue via dividends to all households.  This obviously has appealing aspects, not least of which is Americans love free stuff.  That is, we love to reap the benefits of policies so long as they cost us nothing.  That attitude is obviously unsustainable – you have simply to look at the state of American infrastructure today to see the effects.

All that said, the specific carbon tax plan Hansen supported came from a Regional Economic Models, Inc. report, which the Citizens Climate Lobby commissioned.  The report found what CCL wanted it to find: deep emission cuts can result from a carbon tax.  There isn’t anything surprising with this – many other studies found the exact same result.  What matters is how we the emission cuts are achieved.  I think this study is another academic dead-end because I see little evidence how the proposed tax actually achieves the cuts.  It looks like REMI does what the IPCC does – they assume large-scale low-carbon energy technologies.  The steps of developing and deploying those technologies are not clearly demonstrated.  Does a carbon tax simply equate to low-carbon technology deployment?  I don’t think so.

First, here is an updated graphic showing REMI’s carbon emission cuts compared to other sources:

 photo EPA2014vsEIA2012vsKyotovsREMI2014_zps961bb7c7.png

The blue line with diamonds shows historical CO2 emissions.  The dark red line with squares shows EIA’s 2013 projected CO2 emissions through 2030.  EIA historically showed emissions higher than those observed.  This newest projection is much more realistic.  Next, the green triangles show the intended effect of EPA’s 2014 power plant rule.  I compare these projections against Kyoto `Low` and `High` emission cut scenarios.  An earlier post showed and discussed these comparisons.  I added the modeled result from REMI 2014 as orange dots.

Let me start by noting I have written for years now that we will not achieve even the Kyoto `Low` scenario, which called for a 20% reduction of 1990 baseline emissions.  The report did not clearly specify what baseline year they considered, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt in this analysis and chose 2015 as the baseline year.  That makes their cuts easier to achieve since 2015 emissions were 20% higher than 1990 levels.  Thus, their “33% decrease from baseline” by 2025 results in emissions between Kyoto’s `Low` and `High` scenarios.

REMI starts with a $10 carbon tax in 2015 and increases that tax by $10/year.  In 10 years, carbon costs $100/ton.  That is an incredibly aggressive taxing scheme.  This increase would have significant economic effects.  The report describes massive economic benefits.  I will note that I am not an economist and don’t have the expertise to judge the economic model they used.  I will go on to note that as a climate scientist, all models have fundamental assumptions which affect the results they generate.  The assumptions they made likely have some effect on their results.

Why won’t we achieve these cuts?  As I stated above, technologies are critical to projecting emission cuts.  What does the REMI report show for technology?

 photo REMI2014ElectricalPowerGeneration-2scenarios_zpse41c17d9.png

The left graph shows US electrical power generation without any policy intervention (baseline case).  The right graph shows generation resulting from the $10/year carbon tax policy.  Here is their models’ results: old unscrubbed coal plants go offline in 2022 while old scrubbed coal plants go offline in 2025.  Think about this: there are about 600 coal plants in the US generating the largest single share of electricity of any power source.  The carbon tax model results assumes that other sources will replace ~30% of US electricity in 10 years.  How will that be achieved?  This is the critical missing piece of their report.

Look again at the right graph.  Carbon captured natural gas replaces natural gas generation by 2040.  Is carbon capture technology ready for national-level deployment?  No, it isn’t.  How does the report handle this?  That is, who pays for the research and development first, followed by scaled deployment?  The report is silent on this issue.  Simply put, we don’t know when carbon capture technology will be ready for scaled deployment.  Given historical performance of other technologies, it is safe to assume this development would take a couple of decades once the technology is actually ready.

Nuclear power generation also grows a little bit, as does geothermal and biopower.  This latter technology is interesting to note since it represents the majority of the percentage increase of US renewable power generation in the past 15 years (based on EIA data) – something not captured by their model.

The increase in wind generation is astounding.  It grows from a few hundred Terawatt hours to over 1500 TWh in 20 years time.  This source is the obvious beneficiary to a carbon tax.  But I eschew hard to understand units.  What does it mean to replace the majority of coal plants with wind plants?  Let’s step back from academic exercises that replace power generation wholesale and get into practical considerations.  It means deploying more than 34,000 2.5MW wind turbines operating at 30% efficiency per year every year.  (There are other metrics by which to convey the scale, but they deal with numbers few people intuitively understand.)  According to the AWEA, there were 46,100 utility-scale wind turbines installed in the US at the end of 2012.  How many years have utilities installed wind turbines?  Think of the resources required to install almost as many wind turbines in just one year as already exist in the US.  Just to point out one problem with this installation plan: where do the required rare earth metals come from?  Another: are wind turbine supply chains up to the task of manufacturing 34,000 wind turbines per year?  Another: are wind turbine manufacturing plants equipped to handle this level of work?  Another: are there enough trained workers to supply, make, transport, install, and maintain this many wind turbines?  Another: how is wind energy stored and transmitted from source to use regions (thousands of miles in many cases).

Practical questions abound.  This report is valuable as an academic exercise, but  I don’t see how wind replaces coal in 20 years time.  I want it to, but putting in a revenue-neutral carbon tax probably won’t get it done.  I don’t see carbon capture and sequestration ready for scale deployment in 10 years time.  I would love to be surprised by such a development but does a revenue-neutral carbon tax generate enough demand for low-risk seeking private industry to perform the requisite R&D?  At best, I’m unconvinced it will.

After doing a little checking, a check reminded me that British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008; currently it is $40 (Canadian).  Given that, you might think it serves as a good example of what the US could do with a similar tax.  If you dig a little deeper, you find British Columbia gets 86% of its electricity from hydropower and only 6% from natural gas, making it a poor test-bed to evaluate how a carbon tax effects electricity generation in a large, modern economy.

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