Tag Archives: Climate Change

Climate Change outlook update, June 2018

In the past few days, two different stories suggested that it’s worth posting a check-in on how doomed we are to disastrous climate change.

By way of some context, I have concluded for some time that the outlook is pretty bleak; I acknowledged a very limited possibility in the Paris Accord; then America got a president who withdrew from that and generally promotes policies about as climate-damaging as is possible while still having negligible real understanding of actual policy.

So, Thursday, Vox‘s David Roberts informed us that the cost of drawing carbon out of the air has fallen considerably in the past several years, to the point where “DAC starts to look viable.” (DAC is “direct air-capture,” i.e. sucking carbon out of the air.)

This comes with a lot of caveats, and the tl;dr conclusion is that DAC is not a “get-out-of-carbon-emissions-reductions free” card. (As can also be said for geoengineering.)

Meanwhile, the very next day, Mr. Roberts had this to report:

In 1998, coal represented 38 percent of global power generation. In 2017, it represented … 38 percent of global power generation.

In electricity, a sector that absorbs 40 percent of the world’s primary energy and produces more than a third of its emissions, the past 20 years have been running to stay still. No net decarbonization progress has been made.

So, basically, as of June 2018 I think the climate prognosis update is this:

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First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

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Paris Climate Deal: a real start?

I have, as I’ve pointed out, spent most of my life watching arguments about climate change and various, mostly failed, confabs intended to work out a positive response. Cancun, Copenhagen, Kyoto… the whole sorry trail of broken promises and crushed hopes. All through the months and weeks of build-up to Paris-2015, I have kept this in mind as I read suggestions that “this is going to be different” and that “there’s a new optimism this time.” I was fully prepared for another travesty of resentment, finger-pointing and inaction. I was fully prepared to feel disgust and resignation.

That isn’t quite my reaction, strangely. Having now digested the initial reports and analyses of the outcome for about a day, I’m still not entirely sure what my reaction ought to be. Which is new; uncertainty is new, and I just don’t know if it is or should be interpreted as any more than that.

This much I know: the perils, expenses and injustices of anthropogenic climate change are not solved, and are far from being solved.

Yet, as frustrating and absurd as I found advance forecasts that “Paris will not be the end of the road but merely a beginning,” the fact that this appears indeed to be the best one can say may not, after all, entirely preclude the possibility that humanity has made useful progress.

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00s flashback: peak oil

I know that the previous decade wasn’t that long ago, obviously. But it’s starting to feel that way now and then. Consider, for example, “peak oil.”

I can’t be the only one who recalls this meme, but again, it sure can feel that way. I swear that it has been years since I’ve seen any reference to peak oil. Which on one hand is not so mysterious; for various reasons, oil prices proved no more a one-way phenomenon than did house prices. But we still reference the housing bubble now and then. Peak oil, for all that I’m sure there are corners of the internet where it remains a hot topic, seems all the same to have vanished down the memory hole about as completely as anything does these days.

This is at the very least curious given that it was such a popular theory, particularly on the internet. I could probably find other looks-back at the issue, if I searched for them, but again it seems odd that I have not come across one. I read quite a bit of online crap, and I don’t recall seeing even one headline.

Therefore, if only for my own benefit, I’m preparing this brief examination, because: as much as I can be certain about anything, and to the extent that these words have any non-wriggly firm core meaning, “peak oil” scenarios were way, way wrong.

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That far shore

I have very possibly lived half my life, now.

I don’t know why birthday #37 has prompted so much reflection on the finite, but it has. In addition to realizing that “young adult” status is now firmly over, it has dawned on me recently that this is probably as close to the midpoint of my life as it’s ever going to be possible to determine, in advance.

Obviously one can’t know with precision, so there’s little point getting into arguments, but the suggestion that I have something like four decades remaining to me does not seem wildly unrealistic either way.

In some ways it’s a relief, too, honestly. When I suggest that the prospect of living through 10 more presidential campaign seasons is horrifying enough that I don’t even want to imagine another 15 or 20, any humor in the remark is incidental rather than fundamental. I’m tired, of many things.

The idea of significantly extended lifespans is usually more a dread than a dream, nowadays… which is why it seems just as well that I won’t see them.

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What next for the Democratic Party?

Let’s indulge hope, just for a moment, and play pretend. Let’s imagine possibilities, precisely because we’re pessimists and expect that even an illusion of encouraging circumstances is usually short lived, and so one might as well daydream when one gets the chance.

Along these lines, then, let’s ask what liberals/Democrats should do next?

The prompting for this bit of whimsy is, obviously, the Affordable Care Act’s most recent Houdini Act. Plus a couple of recent articles that more directly considered the idea that the Democratic Party might be about due for a new project.

This is, on a basic level, not actually all that fanciful. It does seem possible that the years-long effort to implement and defend the Affordable Care Act is, at least, ready to shift from war-of-survival to maintenance-program. I think it isn’t completely delusional to suggest, as Vox has, that Republicans are just running out of ideas to disembowel the ACA with one stroke. More importantly, perhaps, I suspect that they may also just be running out of steam a little bit. At some level. Certainly the fact that, by the time the Supreme Court finally ruled on King v Burwell, many many elected Republicans were actually quietly relieved that they didn’t have to deal with the consequences of a “victory” suggests that they may be ready to redirect resources to some other issue.

So perhaps the Democratic Party ought to be thinking the same thing. Significantly, and strange as it is to suggest, “Obamacare” arguably completes the several-decades-long project of safety net programs. Compared with e.g. a European welfare state, America’s redistributive social programs are still a net, indeed, i.e. full of holes. But as a skeleton, an outline, they do seem basically complete: old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and, finally, a program that at least aspires toward universal health care access (however short it falls at present). There is no longer any obvious, complete void to demand patching over as priority one.

At the same time, I might add, it looks (from my point of admitted privilege) like social equality is making reasonable progress. Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. still certainly exist, but the space in which it’s okay to be noticed practicing these -isms seems to get narrower every year. Maybe, as I will speculate with some other issues as well, progress from the bottom up is now self-sustaining here without top-down pressure. Perhaps.

All of this suggests both an opportunity and a challenge. A once-in-a-generation chance to think big and dream of something more than just building a floor is kind of exciting, in theory. At the same time, however, a description I read a few years back of legislative reform in America having “limited bandwidth” has only seemed more and more apt with time. It seems likely that Democrats will mark eight years in the White House with precisely one major legislative achievement to show for them (health care reform). It seems just about as likely that accomplishing even that much in the next decade will be a tall order. Yet that’s all the more reason to prioritize. Chance is always a factor, but for the most part this generation shouldn’t expect much further in the way of big, national progressive reform without a sustained, focused campaign for it. Plus, a party ought to have some national agenda to run on in a national election, however dim that agenda’s prospects, right?

So: what to place first in that low-bandwidth download queue? (Note: as this is primarily a look at what should be done, even if there is limited support, it won’t be constrained by present congressional malapportionment, etc., because what do several more years of locked-in gerrymandering matter when it may take 10, 15 or more years to build your case for action anyway? That said, I am going to “score” each issue and will examine political prospects therein, briefly.) Read More →

Keystone XL

Let’s be clear on something. The KeystoneXL pipeline project is a pipeline to bigger climate risks.

This is a basic fact, regardless of any official report stating otherwise. As a friend of mine with an MBA has confirmed, the main thing he learned in earning it is that for any analysis of this scale, 2 + 2 = “whatever you want it to.”

The suggestion that “building this pipeline will not contribute substantially to carbon pollution” does not stand up to simpler, less “flexible” tests. The client for this project is an industry that enables the combustion of very, very dirty carbon fuels. That’s how they make money, that’s their agenda, that’s the purpose of this pipeline. If the assertion that “the pipeline won’t make a difference to climate change because the tar sands will be burned either way” were true, why would TransCanada (and its subsidiary, the Canadian Parliament) be so obsessed with their desire for the pipeline?

If it “won’t make a difference,” why waste good resources on a years-long lobbying effort?

Ultimately, any proposal for how pursuit of KXL advances a profit motive, but does not exacerbate carbon pollution, ignores the core problem of climate change politics. If profits from exploitation of fossil fuels were really something separable from increasing carbon pollution, there would not be a controversy. There is one, however, because these phenomena are joined at the hip.

Suggestions to the contrary = making shit up.

The 36-year-old ostrich

The prospect of unchecked climate change has been around most of my adult life. Without any convincing prospect of pre-empting it, to date.

Out of two decades and more of written and spoken comment on this great #fail, the single most profound statement was probably that of Christina Ora. A Solomon Islander, and therefore more vulnerable than most of us to a warming world and consequently rising seas, Ora stood up before climate treaty negotiators in 2009 to say: “I was born in 1992. You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell us that you need more time.”

Obviously, “we’re working on it but need more time” remains the official status five years later.

Still, an unforgettable remark. The disconnect between the pace of activity in treaty negotiation conferences and in the real world is so appalling it’s the kind of thing that’s laughable in other circumstances. A couple of years ago I learned that a college acquaintance who had enrolled one year before me had, after multiple expulsions and fresh starts, finally earned a degree. Almost an inspiring story of redemption, in its way. Yet I couldn’t help observing that many people had, by then, started first grade the same year as this fellow enrolled as a college freshman (1995) and since completed elementary school, middle school, high school and a college degree. I suppose in some ways that’s part of adulthood, and how things can seem to slow down and the years slip away so much more easily than in youth, but still:

When you reach a point where children have been born, learned to walk, learned to ride a bike, completed an education and joined you in the grown-up world, in the time that you’ve been theoretically working on your project… maybe you should at least consider whether you oughtn’t just step out of the way and let them have a crack at it?

That seems plausible, to me. It’s difficult to think of any more stark illustration of the ridiculous failure of so-called world leaders… or at least it was, until I read this, today:

Congress actually recognized global warming way back in 1978 with passage of the National Climate Program Act. The law aimed to “assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications.”

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Toledo’s water crisis & climate change

Recently The Plain Dealer* published a letter that I sent them. It’s online, here; I’m not sure whether it was in the print edition or not. Meanwhile, in continuing the long-term project of making this site my personal archive, I’m posting the text of the letter below:

This past weekend delivered a valuable climate change lesson, for anyone willing to notice it.

Aside from being fed by climate change, the infection of Toledo’s water offers a microcosm of the entire problem. Our waters are treated like a sewer; so is our atmosphere. It’s nonetheless easy to ignore the problem for a long time; sure, that algae bloom looks nasty on satellite imagery but nothing suddenly appeared different the day that people started getting sick. Meanwhile, the sky still looks the same as we vent ever more heat-trapping gasses into it, and the option of listening to “skeptics” seems entirely valid.

Yet as we’ve just had a reminder, a day can arrive when the rubber meets the road, and even Kevin O’Brien** (probably) would have turned down the Kool-Aid if it were made with Toledo water. Now we have Senator Portman, e.g., suddenly declaring “I think this is a wake-up call.” Perhaps it would be better to pay attention to environmental safety ahead of time, though, rather than always sleeping in until the alarms are going off?

Footnotes, not included in the original letter:

* Or cleveland.com, or Northeast Ohio Media Group, or whatever they’re calling themselves today.

** AKA “Hell no I’m not going to subscribe, not even if it were a year for a penny; are you crazy?”