Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Leave a comment

News Pieces 1/30/09: Cassini, GDP, Exxon and Winter Storms

NASA’s Cassini mission managers want to extend the mission another 7 years.  Doing so would allow them to investigate the Saturnian system for 1/2 of a Saturn year.  I hope they get the go-ahead.

The economy shrank at a 3.8% annual rate in the last quarter.  That’s a preliminary reading – one which is expected to get worse as the numbers are looked at in more depth.  That number won’t get better any time soon.  Millions are losing their jobs and their houses.  Millions more have lost access to credit, which was the economy’s driving force for the past twenty years.  Americans are going to realize they aren’t being paid enough when their credit lines are shut down as the recession deepens and lasts longer than most people are estimating right now.  All these things are the direct results of Con-servative policies being implemented (exactly as Cons wanted them to be, by the way) in the U.S.  It’s happened to every other country in the world where America tried to export “capitalistic democracy”.  The Cons finally got their chance to implement their policies to their fullest extenet here in America.  We’re living with the consequences now.  What are Cons doing in Congress? Pushing the same failed policies that got us here.  Thankfully, voters made better choices in this last election.

Did you hear that even poor ol’ Exxon Mobil is huring – just like the rest of us – in the recent economic downturn?  Okay, maybe not just like the rest of us.  After all, their 2008 profits were only $45,200,000,000.  Only $45.2 Billion.  Does anybody remember $4.50 gas last summer?  Guess where it went.  Autocratic regimes in the Middle East and mega-corporations like Exxon Mobil.  That’s correct – that disgusting number is only the profits of one corporation.  Keep those numbers in mind when you see their advertising claiming they’re doing all  kinds of critical research, developing better things for tomorrow.  In the face of the worst economic downturn since the last Republican Great Depression, in the face of record energy prices, the mega-fossil fuel corporations are making billions in profits and distributing millions more to executive bonuses.  When will their new technologies and “cleaner” fuels be available?  Eh, just keep buying gas for a few more decades.  Maybe after another $500 Billion or so in profits, they’ll actually come up with something.  Or Americans can continue to play the sucker in the relationship and continue buying their fossil fuels and never expect more out of them.

I heard about this last night on the radio.  Plenty of people in the eastern half of the U.S. are without power from … an average January winter storm.  The excellent questions raised were the following.  How many billions of dollars is the Dept. of “Homeland Security” sucking down every year?  The purpose of DHS is to protect the “homeland”, correct?  What kind of target do you think terrorists would like to strike?  Maybe power plants or power infrastructure more generically?  Our economy would certainly suffer even more if extensive power outages occurred.  Do you think DHS is doing its job protecting the homeland if a common, well-forecasted winter storm puts millions of people into the dark and cold?  I certainly don’t.  Given these circumstances, I have no faith in DHS to protect any American from a terrorist attack.  There are plenty of problems with our current infrastructure.  This kind of problem should receive some attention in the recovery package making its way through Congress now.


Leave a comment

Alice Madden Named As Colorado’s Climate Change Coordinator

Gov. Bill Ritter named former state legislator Alice Madden as Colorado’s Climate Change Coordinator.  I think this is a smart thing to do because of the complexity of plans to address climate change at the state level here in Colorado.  What exactly will Madden do?  The job description didn’t show up in the Daily Camera article, but I think there is enough information there to get an idea.  In a very general sense, she will work to achieve the goals in Colorado’s Climate Action Plan (more on that below).  Madden’s comments on the appointment fill out some details for us:

Madden, who was term limited last year, said in the release that climate change is, “taking its toll in every corner of Colorado.”

“Farmers, ranchers and the ski industry are concerned about winter snowpack,” she said in the release. “Citizens are worried about rising energy costs. Commuters are concerned about efficient and affordable transportation choices, and we all are worried about the future of our forests, air and water.”

As I’ve written about, climate change is a very big, very complex problem.  It touches every other policy area I can think of, so efforts to address it introduce the need to address how those efforts impact other policy topics.  So it’s not very surprising that the job description at the time of announcement is a little fuzzy.  I’m sure they’re going to further define her role as they move forward.  Much like President Obama, I don’t necessarily envy Madden – both for the reason listed above (complexity) but also because the problem will be seen to grow in scope in the public’s eye as additional scientific evidence of climate change comes forward.  Additional, unforseen consequences of climate change will come to the fore as well.  Madden and others are going to need to be nimble yet aggressive as they craft climate change policies.  I’m not sure how you write that into a description for any job.  But I’m glad Madden is doing it.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Good & Bad Employment News

I’ll start with the bad news: a record number of Americans are drawing unemployment benefits.  4.8 million Americans are currently on the rolls.  With this month’s slew of announced layoffs, that number is sure to rise.  This is one of the results of Cons running the country for eight years.  The number of Americans getting unemployment insurance as a ratio of total Americans is the highest since 1983.  That number will likly get higher.  Weekly jobless claims are double what they were just one year ago.  As big as the Reinvestment Act is, is it big enough?  I don’t think so.

Now for the good employment news: President Obama has signed his first piece of legislation – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  The measure is designed to make it easier for workers to sue for decades-old discrimination. It nullifies one of 2008’s most shameful Supreme Court decisions that stated workers only had 180 days after the initial decision by employers to discriminate to file a pay-discrimination lawsuit.  It was one of many pro-corporate rulings the Supreme Court handed down last year – the very thing I and other progressives were trying to prevent by pressuring Senators to not allow Roberts and Alito to ascend to the court.  Their anti-worker, anti-citizen ruling history was well established.  Instead of localized effects, they now have the power to harm American workers for the next generation.  Thankfully, citizens do have some measure of recourse: electing pro-worker and pro-citizen legislators to establish moral laws protecting their interests.  While the LLFPA has been passed, which will help women achieve more pay equity in the future, Ledbetter will never see the money she was owed by Goodyear.

1 Comment

Climate Change Likely Irreversible For 1,000 Years

Unless immediate action is taken, human-forced climate change is likely to be irreversible for at least the next 1,000 years, according to a new NOAA study.  A multitude of blog posts could be written about this news, as indeed has already happened.  This is a very significant piece of news as America and the world take stock of the current state of the climate and discuss what needs to be done about it.

The way MSNBC discussed the topic didn’t work for me (although it might work for others).  Their lede was: “Time for drastic action against warming?”  Their article led with:

Why bother reducing my carbon footprint? That’s probably what many people asked after reading about a new study that predicts that even if carbon emissions were drastically reduced, droughts and other severe climate changes tied to the emissions would persist for 1,000 years.

So why drive less? Why buy a hybrid? Why promote renewable energy? Because doing nothing, or doing less, would mean even more dire consequences, the study’s authors and other scientists argue.

They then list a series of effects, but provide very little context in which to view them.  Water wars, food shortages and rising oceans made the list.  What exactly would that mean for the globe’s populations?  What kind of pressure would millions of climate refugees create on governments?  How long would a currently-functioning society last in the face of such pressures?  Perhaps the most critical problem with this topic is the gargantuan size of it; its interconnectedness isn’t well served by a two-page article online.  Be that as it may, I think the article does miss the big point the study made: without immediate and dramatic action, many portions of today’s inhabited world will likely slide into drought conditions more severe than those experienced in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s in the U.S.

The U.S. Southwest, Southeast Asia, Eastern South America, Western Australia, Southern Europe, Southern Africa, and northern Africa are all facing the threat of multi-decadal drought conditions with CO2 concentrations only slightly higher than those measured today (400 instead of 387ppm).  At 500ppm, Southern Europe and Northern Africa could experience drought conditions worse than those during the Dust Bowl.  At 550ppm, drought conditions not experienced by todays’ societies would impact these same areas (Southern Europe and Northern Africa).  Some human societies have experienced this level of drought before.  Those droughts are suspected of destroying those societies.  That is the kind of pressure today’s societies could face.  That is what must be avoided.  Even if the specter of multi-feet sea level rise doesn’t shock people into action, however unbelievable that might be, the pressure of millions of climate refugees moving away from those flooded coasts and into areas soon to be impacted by multi-decadal droughts has to be seriously considered.  What does multi-decadal drought mean?  It means a permanent drying – beginning within our lifetimes.  No return to today’s “normal” conditions.  No, a permanent drying.

That’s why we should drive less.  That’s why we should buy electric vehicles.  That’s why we should invest in and develop nothing but renewable energy.  That’s why no new coal or natural gas power plants should be constructed anywhere in the world without 100% effective carbon collectors.  Coal power plants that came online last year will operate for 30-50 years.  That’s 30-50 years of more emissions being polluted into the atmosphere.  Over half of that carbon will still be around, warming the planet, hundreds of years from now, working against whatever solutions we manage to come up with by then.  Every ton of carbon emitted this year brings us that much closer to a mostly dead, highly acidic ocean.  That’s why action is needed today.

We’re well on the way toward 1000ppm CO2 concentration.  If nothing is done, as climate change denyers want, the majority of this planet will be uninhabitable by any complex lifeform in the next few hundred years.  Continue with business as usual?  I think not.

A Siegel, ScienceDaily and Joe Romm have more.

1 Comment

Energy: Nuclear, Transmission, Efficiency

New nuclear electricity can cost as much as 3X as much as current electricity sources, according to a recent study.  Can nuclear power advocates provide an up-to-date, public cost study of their own?

To harness renewable energy, the American transmission grid needs to be updated and expanded.  Wind and solar farms will be placed further from urban centers than their coal, natural gas and nuclear counterparts.  A company have put together an idea for a national “transmission superhighway”.

One potential transmission build-out scenario that would allow the U.S. to obtain 20% of its electricity from the wind would include 19,000 miles of new 765-kilovolt (kV) transmission lines, for an estimated price tag of US $60 billion. (A 765-kV line is a high-voltage power line that can carry larger amounts of electricity — and with significantly higher efficiency — than most older transmission lines in use today.) These high-voltage lines would serve as the backbone of an interstate transmission superhighway.

While the size and cost of the transmission superhighway may sound large at first glance, it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. Given that electricity transmission infrastructure typically remains in service for 50 years or more, the cost of the investment for the average household would be equivalent to about US $0.35 per month, less than the cost of a postage stamp.

Those costs would be more than made up by the economic savings from replacing natural gas use with wind power generation, not to mention the benefits of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. In fact, the DOE report estimated that obtaining 20% of U.S. electricity from wind would reduce electricity sector natural gas use by 50%. In addition, the DOE study found that the 20% wind energy scenario would reduce CO2 by 7.6 billion tons between now and 2030. Electric sector CO2 emissions would be reduced by 825 million tons in the year 2030 alone, an amount equal to 25% of all electric sector carbon dioxide emissions in that year or the equivalent of taking 140 million cars off the road.

I don’t expect the natural gas industry to be thrilled with this plan (or anything that comes close to it).  Remember, they’re interested in their profits, not how habitable the planet will be in 100 years.  Kudos to the people that work on these kinds of studies.  They should have a prominent place in our national discussions of energy policy.

Efficiency Portfolio Standards should be as important as Renewable Energy Standards, as Joe Romm argues.  The latter has been much easier to popularize and enact.  The former are probably just as (if not more) important but haven’t received nearly the widespread acceptance they deserve.  Energy efficiency programs are among the cheapest solutions to our energy problems.  If enacted, they would easily reduce our energy usage significantly and immediately.

1 Comment

Obama, Emissions & The Auto Industry

President Barack Obama made his first series of important moves on energy policy yesterday.  He directed regulators to quickly determine whether California and 18 other states can impose stricter car emissions and fuel efficiency than the EPA mandates nationally.  He also ordered the Transportation Department to enact short-term rules on how automakers can improve fuel efficiency of their new models based on a 2007 law. The law requires that by 2020, new cars and trucks meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase over the previous standard.

The auto companies have nashed their teeth very forcefully throughout the 2007 law passage and now its enactment.  They have done so while driving themselves into near-obsoletion.  Their sales have plummeted in the past couple of years, but especially in 2008.  Why?  Because they bet the market would do one thing and it did the other.  What has their main complaint been with these potential regulations?  That they would force the corporations to sell one kind of car in California and another in the rest of the country.  How ridiculous is this claim?  Very, when you realize that these same corporations are already selling vehicles that produce fewer emissions and get much better gas mileage in other countries.

GM, until last month, had been the world’s number one autoseller for decades.  Were all those cars sold exclusively in America?  Of course not.  They sold cars in Europe and Asia; in countries who have mandated much higher fuel efficiency standards than did the U.S.  GM and Ford built plants overseas that manufactured cars that met those standards.  They did so and they remained profitable.  What has destroyed their bottom line was spending millions of dollars to lobby the U.S. government to not impose those same standards here.  So the car corporations forced themselves to make one kind of car to sell in the U.S. and another in the rest of the world.  That led to their current financial struggles.

Cons and pro-corproate Democrats often cite the virtues of the mythological “free-market”.  Here is an opportunity for them to do so again.  If GM, Ford and Chrysler can’t read the market’s signals, don’t they deserve to go under?  Won’t some other entrepreneurial entity come forward to fill the needs of the market?  Darn right, it will.  So what President Obama is doing is allowing our government to help out our mature industries.  GM, Ford and Chrysler are on the brink of collapse.  Obama is extending a helping hand to them, allowing them to continue their existence when they did everything in their power to end it by their own hands.

As usual, corporate media types misread the middle America realities before their eyes.  A “senior editor” (isn’t that impressive?) at CNN writes that

There is an idea afoot in the land that automakers are holding back on small cars because they would rather sell high-margin pickups and SUVs.

It isn’t true. They hold back on small cars because nobody wants to buy them. And since they are hard to sell, automakers can’t make any money on them. If there was steady, predictable demand, you would see waves of good, small cars.

The history of auto sales in 2008 provides a case in point. When gas prices spiked, sales of small and hybrid cars shot through the roof. After prices came back down, dealers couldn’t give them away.

How badly can one person misread the market?  Auto corporations definitely held back on small cars in their pursuit of the more profitable SUBs and pickups.  How many small car advertisements do you see?  Now think of how many truck & SUV ads you see.  Millions of dollars of marketing spent every year by every automaker is the cost of all that advertising.  Small car profits can’t justify themselves in the face of large vehicle profits.  It is a pretty simple business decision.  The problem is not every potential cost is adequately accounted for by the auto corporations.  Well over 1 million Toyota Priuses have been sold in America.  The technology in the Prius?  GM and Ford said Americans wouldn’t want it.  Why then do people remain on waiting lists for the car?  The manufacturing hasn’t caught up to the demand, just the opposite of what the CNN editor wrote.

The last sentence I quoted?  An even worse misread of the economy, if that’s possible.  When did gas prices start coming down in 2008?  In September, when the economy started to collapse.  Dealers can’t give any vehicle away right now.  There are thousands upon thousands of vehicles sitting around in port cities like Los Angeles.  That has never happened until last year.  American’s credit has been cut, and that was the only thing that allowed for our recent economic activity to occur.  Without that credit, people are starting to realize their post-inflation wages haven’t increased in years.  They have no money to buy cars.  Or appliances.  Or houses.  That’s why 500,000 people are losing their jobs every month.  It’s not because gas prices are $1.75 instead of $4.25, despite what the CNN editor wants you to believe.

I haven’t even touched on the environmental benefit of regulating emissions standards.  That has to be done, and done today.  Our climate forcing is making itself felt in an increasing number of ways.  We have the opportunity to try to alleviate the worst of climate change.  The American people spoke in November: they want to make the best of that opportunity.  Dinosaurs like the CNN editor just haven’t caught up to that reality yet.

Leave a comment

Total CO2-equivalence of Electricity Sources – Renewables Are Best

An in-depth study conducted by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson found that wind and concentrated solar power (CSP) generated electricity have the lowest lifecycle CO2-equivalent emissions of various energy sources.  The highest?  Coal-Carbon Capture and Sequestration (Coal-CCS) and nuclear.  Also included in the study were estimates of  “opportunity cost CO2e emissions”.  The opportunity cost arises by developing less-efficient energy sources (nuclear, coal-ccs).

The time necessary between planning and operation of different energy plants unsurprisingly skewed toward renewables: wind, tidal, wave, solar-photovoltaic, CSP and ethanol plants typically come on-line within 2-5 years.  That makes their inclusion into the country’s energy portfolio very appealing.  Coal takes 6-11 years (no large-scale CCS project has come on-line yet) and nuclear takes 10-19 years.

So aside from a shorter time between planning a plant and having the plant become operational for renewables, is there another good reason to develop those sources rather than non-renewables?  Absolutely.  Wind over land can provide more than 3 times the amount of energy globally than what is used today globally.  Solar over land can provide more than 24 times the amount of energy globally than what is used today globally.  Combined, 29 times as much wind and solar power is available than is currently used.  That completely debunks a major talking-point used by the fossil-fuel industry: there isn’t enough renewable energy to power our current way of life, so fossil fuels have to be used.  Wrong.  The only choice for out future are renewable energy sources.  There is no other reasonable message from this study.

The study does a very good job of pitting every energy source against each other through multiple evaluations.  By some standards, wind is the best.  Others indicate CSP, or wind and tidal energy.  When every evalution is combined into a final analysis though, wind and CSP come out on top.  More importantly, renewables are clearly shown to be the preferential energy sources in our future.  They are less costly in many respects than any of the competing fossil fuels.  No more public tax dollars should be spent on coal, natural gas, oil or nuclear.  Those industries are mature and their true costs to society are not factored into their usage.

We can no longer promote burning fossil fuels over developing renewable energy resources.  The climate system is changing rapidly before our eyes – in many cases heading towards abrupt changes that are irreversible in any time-frame humans deal with.  We must change our habits and our approaches today.