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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Water efficiency

I saw a tweet last night that I found interesting.

“The only thing that can.”  I hope Peter means water-use efficiency for all users.  The graphic he includes with this tweet suggests he’s focused on household toilet usage in California.  I’ll round the numbers used in the graphic: 1980 usage was 800,000 acre-feet per year; current use (no efficiency) is 1,200,000 acre-feet per year.  Current savings from efficiency improvements: 640,000 acre-feet per year.  Additional potential savings: 290,000 acre-feet per year.

The 640,000 AFY is laudable.  That’s a lot of water that Californians don’t have to use and thankfully aren’t.  That is a real accomplishment.  An additional 290,000 AFY is a good goal to work on – why waste a resource when you don’t have to.

But toilet water usage isn’t the primary usage of California water – and it’s that small point that troubled me when I saw the tweet.  Total water usage in California is 40,00,000 AFY.  That 640,000 efficiency represents just 1.6% of the total usage.  It also represents >50% reduction from what water usage could be without any efficiency measures.  What I want to know is what efficiencies water-thirsty California agriculture implements.  Agriculture is by far the dominant user of water – if we achieved just 1% sector efficiency, how much more water could California save because of the scale of industry usage compared to residential usage?

Agriculture is a sizable part of the California economy – $43 billion industry that generates $100 billion in overall economic activity.  Because of that, agriculture wields political clout in Sacramento.  This means that while physical scientists can inform policymakers on the ongoing drought, we need the social sciences to inform policymakers how to deal with it.  I would also like to see quantitative results of efficiency gains by sector.


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Some Short Notes on the US-China Climate Deal

The US-China climate deal announced in December 2014 generated big news.  It was yet another diplomatic success for the Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department.  Nothing I say below takes away from that success.  In terms of climate action success, the deal ranks pretty low to me.  I’ll quickly summarize what I understand of the deal and then share why I think it isn’t a significant climate deal.

The Deal

Here is a quick summary (emphasis mine):

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged in the far-reaching agreement to cap its rapidly growing carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible. It also set an ambitious goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2030.

Obama announced a target to cut U.S. emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – eight years after he leaves office — the first time the president has set a goal beyond the existing 17 percent target by 2020.

The bolded portions highlight the agreement’s big news.  China agreed to a carbon emissions cap and the U.S. pushed its emissions reduction target out 5 years and increased the target by ~11% below 2005 levels.

Those are good goals.  Are they sufficient goals?  It depends on what you consider sufficient.  I consider goals that will actually achieve the stated climate target of <2C warming by 2100 as sufficient.  These goals won’t achieve that target.  But then, as I’ve written for some time now, I don’t think we can set goals that achieve the <2C by 2100 target.  There are technical and political hurdles that we chose not to surmount during the past 30+ years.  Why won’t this agreement achieve that target?  Let’s take a quick look from the same International Business Times article:

China completes a new coal plant every eight to 10 days, and while its economic growth has slowed, it is still expanding at a brisk rate exceeding 7 percent.

The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generation capacity in the United States.

And to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.

Who out there truly believes that China can deploy 800 GW of zero-emission generation capacity in less than 15 years?  Remember before you answer in the affirmative that China’s deployment of coal-fired plants exceeded anything in history and that coal remains an extremely cheap energy resource.  All the other technologies currently cost more in terms of deployment.  What incentives does China, as a developing nation, have to spend more money for intermittent power sources?  They’re more interested in growing their economy, as the U.S. is.  Speaking of the U.S. – I emphasized part of that quote quite purposefully to highlight the scale of the issue.  China must, in 15 years, deploy as much generation infrastructure as exists in the entire U.S. today.  Our infrastructure took decades and decades to build out.  China needs to do the same thing, with more expensive infrastructure, in 15 short years!?  I will be among the first to congratulate China if they accomplish this daunting task and I don’t think China should shy away from working towards it.  I just don’t think they have a realistic chance of actually accomplishing it.

What about the U.S.?  We need to more than double the decarbonization rate of our economy to achieve our emissions goals.  Remember that most of the decarbonization achieved since 2005 was due first to the Great Recession and second to the natural gas boom.  The Great Recession is finally behind us, though effects linger.  The natural gas boom?  It’s currently experiencing strong headwinds as OPEC pushes the cost of oil down to the $50 range from the $100-110 range last year.  It’s economically unfeasible to frack for natural gas with $50 per barrel of oil.  While the natural gas industry won’t collapse (at least I hope it doesn’t), it won’t support additional decarbonization for the foreseeable future either.

I believe we are well on our way toward 3-4C warming by 2100 and must plan and act accordingly.  This deal, while diplomatically ambitious, is not climate ambitious enough to drive us away from those thresholds.


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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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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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CO Politics: Flooding and Gun Safety

I’ve read numerous “news” articles regarding the political implications of the historic flooding of Sep. 2013 and the votes that elected representatives took in the 2013 legislative session.  As is usually the case, the right-leaning Denver Post “news” staff parrots Republican talking points while they seek to undermine Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and the Democratic-led legislature.  The Post enjoys writing about perceived partisan rancor, but they have to search pretty hard to do it.  How many people would read about the overwhelming majority of legislation that passed with huge bipartisan support in 2013?  Not many.  So in a self-fulfilling prophecy, many people think Democrats and Republicans are constantly at each others’ throats.

Aside from that, I found the most recent Post piece on flood and legislation effects interesting for the language used.  Here is a quote from CO Secretary of State Scott Gessler (who has been part of more than his fair share of conflicts of interest as Sec-State):

“Those [Hickenlooper poll] numbers reflect the fundamental feelings of all Coloradans, whether they live in rural communities or more populated cities,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who is among a field of candidates vying to unseat Hickenlooper in 2014.

“I’m not going to criticize his flood work; he did his job. But what he supported and signed into law — laws that make rural Coloradans pay higher rates for electricity and make them feel like they’re less safe — are fundamentally flawed.”

First, more people support Hickenlooper’s re-election effort than not.  Fundamentally, Coloradoans want Hickenlooper to continue governing the state of Colorado.
Second, when did Scott Gessler last examine how rural electricity co-operative rate changes?  Did the rates ever increase prior to a standardized renewable electricity standard?  You bet they did.  Where was Gessler’s concern back then?  He didn’t have any, did he?  What’s the real issue: higher rates or mandated sources?  If Gessler and rural Coloradoans have an issue with mandated sources, they need to prepare to discuss that, not push a proxy argument that fear mongers.
Third, “make them feel like they’re less safe” is actually the best way I’ve heard the gun safety legislation passed in 2013 framed.  And here is the legislation’s effects: background checks on all buyers (which many people erroneously believe already occurs and receives ~80% support from Democrats, Unaffiliateds, AND Republicans; limits on gun magazines to no more than 15 rounds (which also receives majority support).  Everybody still has their arms, regardless of their current magazine capacity.
Here is something Gessler and the Post never discuss: gun safety legislation helps urbanites actual public safety.  Note my own language: actual safety, not perceived safety – that’s a critical distinction.  Nobody is going to a movie theater in Brush or Cheyenne Wells or Clifton and murdering 12 people and injuring 70 others12 high schoolers and 1 teacher weren’t slaughtered in Rangely or Kremmling or Carr.  Those tragedies occurred in an urban location and Colorado urban elected officials decided enough was enough after 20 1st graders and 6 adults were ruthlessly slaughtered in Sandy Hook.  Why?  Because their constituents demanded action.  Actions taken were common sense, reasonable, and respect the 2nd Amendment.
In a civilized, modern society, public safety is paramount.  My family has a right to life that supersedes anybody’s perceived “right” to an assault rifle with unlimited ammunition.  This is real life, not some video game.  Colorado urban mass murders resulted in real people who are really dead.  Nobody’s safety in the aforementioned unpopulated portions of this state is threatened by mandatory background checks and 15 round magazine limits.  Senseless butchery of urban dwellers needs to stop.  There are ways to accomplish that goal while maintaining Coloradoans’ access to firearms for safety and hunting.
Scott Gessler and other Republicans would obviously rather see more Colorado massacres than implement any regulation on firearms.  I would love to see them defend that position to 2014 voters.


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Government Crisis Viewed Through D.C. Media Bubble

In the postmortem of Republican’s surrender from their extremist hostage taking and ransom demands, people everywhere are analyzing what they think happened.  One article contained glaring ideological framing.  I agree with the foundational analysis of “Short-term debt deal won’t mask big barriers ahead” by Charles Babington of the Associated Press: yesterday’s deal didn’t address the underlying problems in D.C.  But I do disagree with important parts that Charles uses as supporting evidence for his argument.

First:

Republicans still adamantly oppose tax increases. Powerful interest groups and many Democrats still fiercely oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The first sentence is mostly true.  Republicans oppose tax increases on the rich (witness the 2011 deal to lock in lower tax rates for people making $400,000 or more per year), but are more than happy to shift taxation onto the lower and middle class.  But the second sentence is even more painful to read for its vapidity.  What the heck are “powerful interest groups”?  Does Charles know who opposes Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts the most?  People that receive them!  Want to “fix” Social Security?  Lift the taxable income cap and Social Security is solvent for centuries.  But that means “raising taxes” to pay for a social good.  Does Charles seriously believe there are no “powerful interest groups” that oppose tax increases?  No, but he and the AP sure expects readers to.  And Republican supporters demonstrate that effort works.  It’s hip to trash Social Security and Medicare in the D.C. cocktail circuit, but remains wickedly unpopular in the rest of the country.

In fact, most of the “powerful interest groups” on the right – the same ones that pushed for the partial government shutdown and threatened the US’s role as the safest investment on earth –

Also, as usual, there is no mention of the national deficit’s growth under Republican President George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.  But this fact is an obvious part of the Teabagger’s outrage at establishment Republicans.  It also serves another purpose: if Republicans can generate enough outrage over national debt (that they themselves accumulated), they can demand Social Security and Medicare cuts while the obscenely wealthy get their taxes cut, even though Social Security doesn’t contribute one penny to the national debt they’re supposedly so concerned about.

Second:

The Simpson-Bowles plan remains widely praised nationwide, and largely ignored in Congress.

What?!  Most of the nation doesn’t even know what the S-B plan is or what it would do.  S-B remains widely praised in the same D.C. circles where it’s cool to want to take insurance programs away from the disadvantaged, and that’s it.  Does Charles write that it’s Congress’ job to plan for and pass a budget every year?  Because they haven’t done that on time since 1996 – a time when Republicans dominated the legislature.  Instead, folks in D.C. turned to gangs as the answer – gangs of legislators trying to do the work the rest of their colleagues can’t be bothered to do.

Left out of this article, as usual, are the long list of concessions Democrats yielded all to willingly to Republicans in previous “negotiations” without acquiring Republican concessions.  This latest “reset” is no different: sequestration cuts to the budget (which nobody likes but too many voted and signed for) remain in place.  Those cuts reduce our national economic activity: reduced GDP of about 1%.  At a time of historically low interest rates, the government could rebuild our decaying infrastructure for nearly at-cost, while putting millions of people back to work who want to work.  We are squandering an immense opportunity that will not repeat itself.  That infrastructure will be rebuilt, but today’s politicians want to make sure we pay more than we have to.

Charles and the AP mention none of this.  Instead, it is “powerful interest groups” and crackpot plans.  The framing by the D.C. crowd belittles the American people.  It’s no wonder the media and Congress aren’t liked or trusted by a majority of Americans.


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Incrementalism Advocacy

I haven’t written on this topic in a long time, but read something today that inspired me to do so. From a DailyKos article written yesterday (emphasis mine):

In that light, while Obamacare is not the best option, it is the best option that was attainable given a corrupt Congress and a corrupt political process. It is imperative that Americans enroll in the exchanges. It is imperative that Obamacare as a first step in our health care reform is marginally successful.

While it is not spoken about much, Obamacare is the first step on a path toward a single-payer system. Those on the left that are upset that it isn’t a single payer system already must stay in the game. They must continue to fight for single payer. That said, they should not be fighting against this law because it was not their ideal or because in the initial stages of this law private insurance companies will still reap an unearned profit from skimming. Battles are won either incrementally or revolutionarily. The second option is simply not in the current American DNA. As such all must play the long game. HR 676 will be a closer reality if Obamacare is effected.

This is a false choice.  It it not an either or situation.  The situation is whatever we make it.  Reducing health care work to an either/or choice creates an absurdly simple view to a very complex problem.

I characterize people who advocate this position “incrementalists”.  And here is my biggest problem with them: what is the strategy in this amorphous “long game”?  What steps take us from our current position to single payer health care, which every other industrialized nation on earth except the U.S. implements?  There are never any steps, strategies, or tactics that take us from here to there.  I adapt a common argument used on DKos:

1. Obamacare

2. ???

3. Single payer! Yay!

Incrementalists make excuse after excuse after excuse, all the while apologizing for all the people who are immersed in the aforementioned corrupt system, but then lecture folks who oppose Obamacare because it was written by industry and not by other health policy entities.  Futhermore, Obamacare doesn’t ensure health care to all people, just health insurance to some more people.  It took 18 months for the incrementalists to capitulate to industry and the political establishment, after which the Democratic base sat out the 2010 elections.  Historically, we address health care legislation once per generation.  In 25 years, what steps will we take toward single payer, if that is really the goal of the incrementalists?  How many generations need wait until we implement a 20th century health care system?  In the meantime, what improvements to today’s system will the rest of the industrialized world implement?

Going back to that first paragraph, let’s highlight the following.  “It is imperative that Americans enroll in the exchanges.”  If this were true, why didn’t the Obama administration work to make sure Americans were ready to enroll come tomorrow?  They’ve only had three years to figure out an enrollment strategy that is absolutely critical to the entire program’s success and implement it.  What were they doing?  Incremental work, I suppose.  Which is why 60+% of Americas have no idea what tomorrow’s open enrollment consists of.

“It is imperative that Obamacare as a first step in our health care reform is marginally successful.”

Really?  18 months of negotiation, three years of shoddy implementation, and the best the author can come up with is it’s imperative Obamacare is only marginally successful?!  The insurance companies get 30 million new customers (read: profits) and the best we can do is marginal success?  Millions of Americans are shut out from Obamacare because they have the misfortune of Teabagger governorship, but marginal success is incrementally better than no success, right?  It is this blind acceptance of sub-par results that lays the foundation for incrementalists.  I expect more from my country and fellow Americans.  Unfortunately, I am part of a minority.  The majority accepts mediocrity as the best they can achieve.

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