What Exxon Knew

Consider the names we’ve had for it already: the greenhouse effect. Global warming, and it’s corollary, AGW. Climate change. Treating a planet warming from CO2 like a parlor game, and especially by using the tobacco industry, to see how long we can maintain our ignorance up to and even about whether anything can be done about it takes special effort. And Exxon has had their best people on it since the 70’s:

There’s a sense, of course, in which one already assumed that this was the case. Everyone who’s been paying attention has known about climate change for decades now. But it turns out Exxon didn’t just “know” about climate change: it conducted some of the original research. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the company employed top scientists who worked side by side with university researchers and the Department of Energy, even outfitting one of the company’s tankers with special sensors and sending it on a cruise to gather CO2 readings over the ocean. By 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black was, according to his own notes, able to tell the company’s management committee that there was “general scientific agreement” that what was then called the greenhouse effect was most likely caused by man-made CO2; a year later, speaking to an even wider audience inside the company, he said that research indicated that if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, we would increase temperatures two to three degrees Celsius. That’s just about where the scientific consensus lies to this day. “Present thinking,” Black wrote in summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Those numbers were about right, too. It was precisely ten years later—after a decade in which Exxon scientists continued to do systematic climate research that showed, as one internal report put it, that stopping “global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion”—that NASA scientist James Hansen took climate change to the broader public, telling a congressional hearing, in June of 1988, that the planet was already warming. And how did Exxon respond? By saying that its own independent research supported Hansen’s findings? By changing the company’s focus to renewable technology?

That didn’t happen. Exxon responded, instead, by helping to set up or fund extreme climate-denial campaigns.

It’s not enough to know this, nor to merely compare it to the efforts of Big Tobacco. It will require a systematic dismantling of Big Oil because as presently organized, only it will decide when or if anything is to be done. Listen to the presidential candidates on the right. Big Oil’s work has been done and done well. The best tactic – accuse your opponents of what you yourself have been doing – remains operable. The charge that scientists support climate science because it brings in big grant money is not only laughable in terms of the profits realized by research scientists in the energy companies employ, not to mention by candidates for higher office.coalcan2

As much as they blame other forces, it is rapacious capitalists that threaten capitalism, though the misery is amplified by the fact that so many canaries will have to be tried and executed before we understand how dangerous the mine is.

Via Erik at LGM.

Earth Overshoot Day

Let’s keep track of these things, shall we?foot_print_hr

On this day in August 2015, humans have used an entire year’s worth of the Earth’s natural resources, according to the Global Footprint Network.

Calling it Earth Overshoot Day, the group celebrates — or, rather, notes — the day by which people have used more natural resources, such as fish stocks, timber, and even carbon emissions, than the Earth can regenerate in a single year. It’s basically a balance sheet for global accounting.

“We can overuse nature quite easily,” Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network, told ThinkProgress. “When you start to spend more than you earn, it does not become immediately apparent. But, eventually, you go bankrupt.”

How many Earths would it take… it seems as though the personal responsibility zealots among us would key into this logic, except for the great climate change hoax, which of course has nothing to do whatsoever, nosiree, with our  collective and per capita energy consumption. It is an interesting proposition: Four months left to go in the year, two of them likely pretty frosty for most people, and we’re out of gas everything?

Natural racehorses, indeed.

Two Invisible Hands Clapping

Even scienticians agree: the modest new goals of the new EPA plan for clean power are only making official what the invisible has been waving through like a naked [invisible] traffic cop:

_CLAPOur best hope for carbon reduction is steep price drops in the cost of generating electricity by wind and solar; in the cost of installing wind turbines and solar panels; and in the cost of storing energy in batteries. If those price drops are achieved, we’ll head toward vast reductions in emissions regardless of what the EPA does. No one is going to pay 12 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity (our current national average) if it can be had for 2 cents a kilowatt hour, all other things being equal.

Coal-use as the source of electricity has been trending downward for a while, for many reasons, and as long a modest rule-making [see Cole’s discussion above] keeps sending signals to the invisible hand, it will continue to do so. But, crappy analogy aside, the bigger news in the in the new rules is the commitments to clean energy R & D. That, coupled with reductions for carbon emissions from power plants will leverage even more research and new businesses to sprout. Even silicon itself will be replaced with cheaper alternatives that bring the price down for solar panels. I remarked to my passengers on a recent road trip down a super bright hot interstate highway that I couldn’t believe we weren’t using all of that glarea [get it?] to generate electricity and connect every city along the way with the power it soaks up on a daily basis. The same goes for the waves that pushed us around along the shore over a clear, windy weekend. Whatever the technological difficulties in doing either of these, let you remind me that we just saw pictures from a space probe we sent to Pluto ten years ago.

That was a year before the first iPhone.

Teaser image: The Beach, Sunset, Gustave Courbet, 1867

Pope Francis and the Golden Calf

golden_calfNow listen to a story ’bout a man named Jeb! No, that’s not right. Exodus 32? Closer. He wanted to be a knight, and was a great lover of France. When the Jesuit who became Pope took his name, he also knew battle was the best place to win glory and also to protect all of God’s creation:

Pope Francis has clearly embraced what he calls a “very solid scientific consensus” that humans are causing cataclysmic climate change that is endangering the planet. The pope has also lambasted global political leaders for their “weak responses” and lack of will over decades to address the issue.

In what has already been the most debated papal encyclical letter in recent memory, Francis urgently calls on the entire world’s population to act, lest we leave to coming generations a planet of “debris, desolation and filth.”

“An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at [our] behavior, which at times appears self-destructive,” the pope writes at one point in the letter, titled: “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

Addressing world leaders directly, Francis asks: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

We’ll see how they respond.

Risk Denial

I know: EmPHAsis strikes again. But this is actually about the evolutionary arc of how climate change has been considered, the cost-benefit analysis it began with, and what’s left of that once the waters begin to rise:

“In the era before the Stern Review,” say Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton, “economic models of climate change were typically framed as cost-benefit analyses.” This framing has been preeminently exemplified by Nordhaus. Although he called global warming “the major environmental challenge of the modern age,” he did not express a sense of urgency about it. In his 2008 book, he said: “Neither extreme – either do nothing or stop global warming in its tracks – is a sensible course of action.” The central question, Nordhaus said, was: “How to balance costs and benefits.”

One especially startling statement came in a discussion about the sea-level rise that would be caused by the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets: “Although it is difficult to envision the ecological and societal consequences of the melting of these ice sheets,” Nordhaus said, “this situation is clearly highly undesirable and should be avoided unless prevention is ruinously expensive.” It is startling to suggest that, if we find avoiding the melting of these ice sheets “ruinously expensive,” we should just let them melt.

Although Nordhaus has not been guilty of science denial – indeed, he has publically debated with deniers – his analysis, Stanton, Ackerman, and Ramón Bueno, have written, “could be called risk denial – accepting a (very optimistic) picture of the most likely climate outcomes, but paying little or no attention to worst-case risks.” This risk denial is dangerous, they said, because “[w]hen climate economists – and the policy makers they advise – fail to understand the well-established findings of climate science, the result is likely to be too little emission reduction, too late.”

Stern’s 2013 writings expressed a very different picture of what climate economists should be doing. Although the Review had already said that the “economics of risk” should be made central, his new writings put even more focus on it, saying that economists must present climate change as “a problem of risk management on an immense scale,” which most economists had not done.

What that becomes once it is done will be a further contortion into nuance, most likely. But insurance – the practice of risk management – will bring an important economic force to bear on the consequences of climate change, which will have at least as much power on the concept of denial as the fossil fuel industry. Will it be decisive?

Turning CO2 into Rock

No, not that kind. Rock cylinders, and burying it. Dateline: Iceland:

10CARBONIn a test that began in 2012, scientists had injected hundreds of tons of water and carbon dioxide gas 1,500 feet down into layers of porous basaltic rock, the product of ancient lava flows from the nea

rby Hengill volcano. Now the researcher, Sandra Snaebjornsdottir, a doctoral student at the University of Iceland, was looking for signs that the CO2 had combined with elements in the basalt and become calcite, a solid crystalline mineral.

In short, she wanted to see if the gas had turned to stone.

“We have some calcites here,” she said, pointing to a smattering of white particles in the otherwise dark gray rock samples. “We might want to take a better look at them later.”

Ms. Snaebjornsdottir and her colleagues are certain that the process works, but the cores — eventually hundreds of feet of them — will undergo detailed analysis at a laboratory in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to confirm that the calcites resulted from the CO2 injection.

Let it be. Shine on you crazy… cylinder. CO2 me like a Hurricane. Living in the City. First, we take CO@ and put in the ground, then we take Berlin. Fiction Romance, with CO2 rock cylinders.

See. Easy.

Conservative government cuts coal

berlinGermany is looking to do to coal what it is also doing to nuclear energy – use less of it. And it’s all the work of its conservative government listening to its citizens and what they say they want. And responding:

“The conservative government of Chancellor Angela Merkel last week issued a discussion paper proposing to implement the strictest controls on coal fired generation yet to be seen in Europe, and to redesign its energy system around renewables, which will account for around two thirds of supply within two decades,” Giles Parkinson reports.

Currently about 45% of Germany’s electricity comes from burning coal. However, it was reported recently that new coal plants will not be financed there. About 24% came from solar and wind last year, but that amount could expand to 45% by 2025, if targets are met.

Leading utility Vattenfall is examining the possibility of dropping its lignite-powered plants in Eastern Germany. About 10% of Germany’s electricity is generated by this handful of coal plants, which also produce an estimated 60 million tons of CO2 annually.

They’re not alone, but Germany’s is a curious case to consider in light of our own political experience. Whatever it is American conservatives value and cherish, it does not seem to relate to the majority will of its fellow citizens, much less the ‘good of the country’ much less the benefit of the planet. No, it’s something else,  and they’ve well-learned how to denigrate these other considerations. But note that they are plainly out of step with conservatives in other developed countries.

Money and How You Spend It

There was a weird point about ‘political capital’ George W. Bush kept making after he won the 2004 election: he had it (via beating Kerry) and he was going to spend it. A non-sensical notion outright, talking about political capital this way always seemed like one of those things he didn’t understand – to which we can now add painting – whose utilization in this case was not only inappropriate but ultimately futile. Recall that he was going to used his to privatize Social Security. Amazing.

For some reason this comes to mind with the news that the half-billion dollars spent in anti-Obamacare advertising has actually led to increased enrollments in the program.

Divestment is almost political capital in reverse; you have little or no political momentum whatsoever, and so you resort to your next best, perfectly legitimate weapon in a capitalist system  becomes making a moral distinctions about how you spend your money. It might be one of the only uses of morality relevant in a capitalist system, but we’ll leave that to Adorno. The Unitarian Universalist Association, however, have decided to exercise their full rights:

An overwhelming number of the 2,000 delegates present at the meeting voted to approve the resolution. But some did raise concerns about the influence the divestment movement actually has on companies. “Some people said that disinvestment is ineffective because it doesn’t actually affect companies,” Tim Brennan, Chief Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer, told us. “But it’s not about affecting the companies as much as it is about making a strong moral statement.

This a very political use of capital. Identifying Carbon Tracker 200 companies is an aggressive attempt to inform and speed the divestment movement. Just like physicians and insurance companies were within their rights to spend in the service of protecting the status quo, so to are groups seeking to upend the fossil fuel economy. Will it work? Can the moral case be made? Past attempts can be instructive.


Quitting the Gang

kool_and_the_gangsomethin__specialYou may wonder, as I do, why and how conservatives (Republicans… however you choose to respectfully refer to them) can continue to fuel climate change denial. Evidence suggests that the house-of-cards policy package ( low taxes, drill everywhere, no regulations) they support cannot admit one such reality without a torrent of others coming into the discussion and justification for their political existence vanishing overnight. A pathetic justification, it also makes the most sense.

However, there are conservative pockets drawing pretty ‘reform conservative’ stick figures in the wet cement. As the concrete dries, so do their creaky explanations evaporate. Especially when it comes to climate change, one extraordinarily sawn limb gets walked out on, and it’s really something. A crazy metaphor involving an insurance salesman at your door is proffered to explain why now is still not the time to do anything about carbon emissions… caveat lector. But a rejoinder is offered in the comments that is quite instructive:

I generally think you show a good appreciation for the explanatory power of metaphor and incentives, but this piece is a disappointment. Your insurance policy description is fundamentally flawed: insurance exists to refund some of the losses that will indisputably occur if a low-probability event takes place. Changing our energy consumption and production habits is an action designed to reduce the probability of the catastrophic events occurring. Let’s think about a high-pollution lifestyle as similar to gang membership in the inner city, a popular conservative issue. It may cost a gang member real present resources and satisfaction to quit the gang. It may not even improve the gang member’s chance of not being shot, unless others also stop the violence. But the gang member has no moral claim on others to cease their violence unless he quits as well. And if he continues his present lifestyle he is unlikely to live a healthy or successful life. Based on your recommendation, if fewer of his friends than he expected were killed last year even though he didn’t quit the gang, and he could really use some drug money now, he should stick with it- after all, it’s uncertain future benefit versus known present costs.

People around the world are losing their homes and dying while we argue about whether or not the causality is strong enough, or what magnitude of impact we’re trying to avert.

Lying or stupid was a 2004-vintage take on why Republicans said or supported certain things. Perception certainly evolves and as they get closer and closer to honesty, the trend horizon  collapses on available policy prescriptions. That is intentional, and candidates with (R) should rewarded for learning how to run out the clock for the sake of propping up their ideology. One prize we might suggest is election losses, constant and everywhere.

Image: One of my very favorite bands and records of 1981. Never quit this gang.

Paying energy companies to arrest climate change

Tar Pit #3In a piece about a new essay by MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large Chris Hayes, an interesting view on the climate crisis and a new notion (to me) about what might be required:

Drawing off of an earlier essay written by climate activist and expert Bill McKibben — as well as the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative — Hayes notes that the total amount of carbon in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy corporations and fossil fuel-producing countries (2,795 gigatons) vastly exceeds the amount scientists say we can release into our atmosphere by the middle of this century before risking catastrophic climate change (565 gigatons). And what makes this disparity even more alarming is the fact that these carbon reserves are worth an estimated $20 trillion. If we’re going to save the planet, in other words, then a lot of powerful interests in the energy sector will have to leave a lot of money on the table.

Taking into consideration the enormous amount of wealth that will have to be nullified if climate activists are to achieve their goal, Hayes draws an intriguing parallel between the modern divestment movement and the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. While he makes pains to emphasize that he doesn’t see people in the energy industry as morally equivalent to slaveholders, Hayes argues that the only precedent in American history of a political group relinquishing so much wealth is the emancipation of the South’s slaves in the 1860s — an achievement that was reached in part through a hideous Civil War.

So… are we going to have to compensate energy companies not to take more carbon out of the ground? While not as crazy as you might think (it’s in some way crazier), this gambit has some historical analogs in the immediate pre-Civil war that were also seen as desperate, last gasp efforts. And abandoned. What the suggestions say about us and craven lack of ability to deal with our own planetary suicidal tendencies, they say rather loudly. This type of self-extortion should be reserved for dystopian sci-fi adventures. And the [horrible] thing is, I’m not at all certain that we shouldn’t do it!

Paying companies for not making money from poisoning us all. Do not attempt to think about this for extended periods, or depression may occur.

Image: Alberta Tar Sands, via Occupy.com