Sunday odds and ends

So, I notice that the print version of my current Flagpole column that’s been out for a few days has not been made available online; maybe they’ve got some kind of blockage in their intertubes. Can’t say for sure. Look for further erratic behavior on this front. Newspapers are in trouble if you haven’t heard.

So is the South, with regard to new targets for renewable energy, apparently. Why the congressman won’t include the rest of the statement, that the South doesn’t have enough renewable energy sources if demand continues to spiral upward and onward is anybody’s guess. Thanks Ben, for the heads up.

There’s more on this and other issues on Georgia Public Broadcasting this afternoon. I tend to have a way of saying things people don’t like, so I’m sure there will be a little something for everybody.

Update. The internets are nothing if not self-correcting – and at lightning speed. New Flagpole column is here.

Living in the City

Ah… the immortal words of Lee Ving, via a lot of good research presented in this article by Ed Glaeser.

The five metropolitan areas with the lowest levels of carbon emissions are all in California: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. These areas have remarkably low levels of both home heating and electricity use. There are cold places, like Rochester, that don’t air-condition much and thus use comparably little electricity. There are warm places, like Houston, that don’t heat much and thus have comparably low heating emissions. But coastal California has little of both sorts of emissions, because of its extremely temperate climate and because California’s environmentalists have battled for rules that require energy-efficient appliances, like air conditioners and water heaters, and for green sources of electricity, such as natural gas and hydropower. (Some analysts argue that this greenness is partly illusory—see “California’s Potemkin Environmentalism,” Spring 2008—but certainly, by our measures, California homes use less energy.) Also, despite the stereotypes about California highways and urban sprawl, some of these five cities, like San Francisco, have only moderate levels of transportation emissions, since their residents actually live at relatively high densities, which cuts down on driving.

In one of the charts, they measured overall carbon emissions for cities, then differentiated emissions of central city residences from the suburbs. Surprises abound.

Boston and Philadelphia are the third and fifth cities on the list. Though hotter summers and more coal make Philadelphia browner than Boston, the city-suburb differences in both areas reflect the high density and abundant public transportation in their central cities. Nashville and Atlanta, on the other hand, rank second and fourth not because their central cities are particularly green but because extensive driving makes their far-flung suburbs particularly brown.

However, even these are not without their caveats, exceptions and reasons why. So you should read the whole thing. Land use patterns and incentives that shift us toward high energy-use locales instead of green ones – those are the issues.

Plus, it beats getting fat and dying your hair.

The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

New Hustle

New Flagpole column is up, which focuses on our status quo energy use and the element of efficiency that is largely missing. A lot of this deserves greater unpacking than can occur in one 850-word column, so I’ll probably revisit. For instance, efficiency itself. The term is a technical one used to signify a ratio of input divided by output, which means we might lower the inputs but keep output the same when, really, we need to find ways – today, right now – to function and thrive with lower outputs. This gets lost in efficiency discussions, mine included. But you gotta start somewhere.


NYT reports that Obama is paving the way for a major change for vehicle emissions.

President Obama will direct federal regulators on Monday to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday.

Mr. Obama’s presidential memorandum will order the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration’s past rejection of the California application. While it stops short of flatly ordering the Bush decision reversed, the agency’s regulators are now widely expected to do so after completing a formal review process.

Once they act, automobile manufacturers will quickly have to retool to begin producing and selling cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies have lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court.

Anyone can correct me on this but, I’ve been in the market for a new car, trying to make the right decision based on a few variables discussed here at length. The trail is leading us to a very short list of extremely expensive vehicles, especially as I’m trying to buy a diesel for a family of four + dog. My understanding of the paucity of available models is that these particular kinds of cars must be 50-state compliant in a couple of environmental categories, to which most car makers simply say, “no thanks.”

This sort of opt-out posture had the effect of making California standards the de facto standards anyway, though it allowed car makers not to bother with any adjustment to their SOP. Again, the article

But the centerpiece of Monday’s anticipated announcement is Mr. Obama’s directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin work immediately on granting California a waiver, under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state, a longtime leader in air quality matters, to set standards for automobile emissions stricter than the national rules.

The Bush administration denied the waiver in late 2007, saying that recently enacted federal mileage rules made the action unnecessary and that allowing California and the 13 other states the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law.

The auto companies had advocated a denial, saying a waiver would require them to produce two sets of vehicles, one to meet the strict California standard and another that could be sold in the remaining states.

Those last eight words are/were what the car makers (such as they still exist) were aiming for; producing that other set of cars is their last ditch effort to play hard ball with the environment (!), I’m sure. The tactic, as in trying to isolate California and its inordinately stringent regulations, is typical yet nonsensical when you think about anything being at stake other than profits and business-as-usual, though one would think that what this strategy has done to both would cause the car makers (such as they still exist) to reconsider their position.

Anyway, serious news that the new administration should and will trumpet.

Expensive-r gas

I saw this article in the Guardian UK over the weekend, which features Dr. James Hansen of Goddard Institute of Space Studies waxing darkly about green:

Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.

Only the US now had the political muscle to lead the world and halt the rise, Hansen said. Having refused to recognise that global warming posed any risk at all over the past eight years, the US now had to take a lead as the world’s greatest carbon emitter and the planet’s largest economy. Cap-and-trade schemes, in which emission permits are bought and sold, have failed, he said, and must now be replaced by a carbon tax that will imposed on all producers of fossil fuels. At the same time, there must be a moratorium on new power plants that burn coal – the world’s worst carbon emitter.

It’s a cheeky lede and all, but the point is taken. All you Nether-philes out there, get serious about getting serious. But then the chorus about a global economic slowdown and its effects on measures to counteract rapidly-advancing climate change pipes in.

Governments are putting plans aimed at mitigating carbon dioxide emissions on hold at a time when concerns are focused on finance rather than ecology and when the collapsing price of oil and gas is undermining incentives to invest in renewable energy.

Another blow to the sector is the tumbling price of permits for emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In countries where emitters must buy these permits, like those in the European Union, low prices mean emitters have fewer incentives to make their production process more efficient or move to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels.

So… let’s say we have identified a dependable correlation between the price of gas (natural or petrol) and the value of carbon-emitting permits, such that as the price of gas falls, efforts to raise efficiency AND demand for carbon permits also flag. What to do? Call the psychic hotline? Follow your heart?

How about we look into this conundrum and… wait for it: raise the price of gas ON PURPOSE!

Brilliant. villainous. sneaky. shrewd. under-handed. UnAmerican. Exactly.

Green Stimulus

Jokes about the size of Obama’s package notwithstanding, discussion on once-and-future efforts to get the country going again but in a different direction are a re-run of the initial green wave. As a correspondent at Marshall’s puts it

My practice group works exclusively in the public sector. Obama’s only constituency in Congress and the nation for bold initiatives, such as Green infrastructure, will come from states (a small handful) that are ahead of the curve on green initiatives. The biggest candidate is CA, where the Governor has already signed legislation that is more aggressive than the federal government, or likely, any other state in the Union. How much congressional representatives from CA are in line with these initiatives is not clear. Other constituencies will be politicians from states with companies heavily invested in green technologies and industries, such as wind farms, solar, and solar thermal (big energy, small footprint so far). Ironically, many of the bigger companies are based overseas.
My conclusion is that the constituency is not ideological, nor is it very deep. Politicians love Green the way they love “tough on crime.” It’s a great ad, and you don’t have to do too much, other than build a few prisons in the latter case, and show pretty pictures of wind turbines in the former. Green initiatives have been seen as a potential boom catalyst. In a global economy that has driven down the price of oil, the national security imperatives that were the strongest political selling points, are lessened. Obama will need to make a case directly to the people and drag a disinterested Congress with him. Does he care enough? Time will tell.

What this financial collapse on so many levels boils down to is an open opportunity to pivot. We already know that we cannot go back to doing/living/driving/buying/building/traveling/growing/powering the way we used to. So this gargantuan effort to stimulate the economy must be informed by that reasoning. It was going to take a gigantic re-investment in public-oriented (mass transit, updated electrical grid) infrastructure all along. Now we are going to get one under the not very different pretext of saving the economy and creating jobs.

Our energy problems and the depressed economy are related, we must let them be one.

Steven Chu

At the presidential level, it means choosing as your nominee for energy secretary someone who knows the difference between their colorectal orifice and a hole in the ground. A Nobel-laureate instead of a lobbyist?

In a presentation at this summer’s National Clean Energy Summit convened by the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Dr. Chu described why he has moved from his background in experimental quantum physics to tackling global warming:

Consider this. There’s about a 50 percent chance, the climate experts tell us, that in this century we will go up in temperature by three degrees Centigrade. Now, three degrees Centigrade doesn’t seem a lot to you, that’s 11° F. Chicago changes by 30° F in half a day. But 5° C means that … it’s the difference between where we are today and where we were in the last ice age. What did that mean? Canada, the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania, was covered in ice year round.

Five degrees Centigrade.

So think about what 5° C will mean going the other way. A very different world. So if you’d want that for your kids and grandkids, we can continue what we’re doing. Climate change of that scale will cause enormous resource wars, over water, arable land, and massive population displacements. We’re not talking about ten thousand people. We’re not talking about ten million people, we’re talking about hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out, permanently.

As a friend noted upon Obama’s election last month, it feels like rain.