March 20, 2010

CO2 clock

Check this out: Deutche Bank, in a riff on the old national debt clock at Madison Square Garden, has installed a CO2 counter in about the same location.  More info can be found on their website.
(Note the difference in the value between my picture (here) and the picture on their website.)

March 19, 2010

World Energy Technologies Summit

Yesterday, thanks to the organizer's (Jim Clark) generosity, I attended the World Energy Technologies Summit at the Time Life Building in New York City.  It was a fascinating day full of very smart people talking about the current state of energy technologies and the challenges we face going forward.  In the following I will summarize some of the main ideas that seemed to recur over the course of the day.

Portfolio of Solutions
There was broad agreement that there is no silver bullet.  The full menu of renewables was represented as were ideas relating to improved handling of fossil fuels.  CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) was present only in the context that it is a long way off and very unlikely to be a significant part of our near-term management portfolio.  Combined Heat and Power (CHP) on the other hand was presented as an immediate and easily implemented improvement to a broad spectrum of our energy production facilities.  Clearly there will be other views on the details, but there was a strong sense that we need to be working very hard across a very broad spectrum of technologies.

Clean Energy Standard
The focus of all of the participants was on producing energy with low carbon impacts.  There was very little distinction made between renewables and low C fossil.  There was a strong case made that there is a lot of natural gas coming on line and that, properly managed, that resource could put a big dent in our (US) current CO2 emissions (to the extent that CCS was considered feasible, it was in the context of natural gas).  Hence there was a strong sense that Clean Energy Standards should replace Renewable Energy Standards.  (The case was made that by eliminating all fossil fuels from a standard, the perverse case of maintaining coal plants often results.)  Our attention needs to be on driving down the amount of carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere in the face of the very real demands for energy that will develop in the coming decades.

Information Technologies
It is clear that information technologies will play a big role in managing (reducing) our energy usage as we go forward.  Google is putting a lot of effort here and there was at least 1 other startup present focused on sub-household / sub-building level energy management.

The regulatory framework in the US is broadly perceived to be very badly broken.  In the context of arguing for Feed In Tariffs, Kevin Parker from Deutsche Bank argued that countries that will compete well for investment funds will have regulatory frameworks that have transparency, longevity  and certainty (TLC).  In the US we currently have none of these, while Europe and some countries and Asia do.  While not explicitly stated, it seemed implied that the floundering about wrt a cohesive energy policy in the US could be worse than not trying at all.  While there was broad agreement that we need a "good", systematic energy policy framework and there were many examples of policies that were counterproductive, beyond the need for TLC, there was no discussion of how we would go about designing a "good" policy landscape (not entirely true, see the links to the Breakthrough Institute below).

Finance and Investment
This issue is closely related to the previous point.  Many speakers encouraged vastly increased government investment in energy technologies, both on the R&D side and on the market side (e.g. in the form of loan guarantees).  It was also clear that the government cannot fill the demand for investment.  The notion of a "trillion $ market" came up often and it is clear that private investment will be needed.  The absence of TLC in the US policy landscape strongly discourages domestic investment because regulatory risk cannot be quantified; hence investment dollars go elsewhere (e.g. Europe and Asia).

A sense of urgency
Things are happening very fast in this arena.  Companies that did not exist 5 years ago are now global leaders in some sectors (e.g. photovoltaics).  While the US continues to have strength, Germany and China are rapidly emerging as leaders in energy technology, not only in manufacturing, but also in innovation.  While the state of play is not rosy, a presentation by the Breakthrough Institute made the case that with decisive action, the US can maintain its historical leadership role.

Many more bits and pieces, but I will leave it at that.

March 16, 2010

A thought experiment on the future

Let us imagine for a moment that the 3 largest sovereign CO2 emitters on Earth are not really all that serious about mitigating their impacts on the planetary climate system.  Leave aside the reasons; simply consider the possibility.

Now, taking that as a starting point, what are the things we would want to know in the world that will result?  And how should we determine the priority of finding these things out?

Remember we know many of the first order effects of increase atmospheric CO2 already:

  • We know that sea level will rise.
  • We know that the surface ocean will become more acidic.
  • We know that the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere will rise (and with it over a very long time the heat structure of the oceans will change).
  • We know that climate variability will increase.
It is tempting to say that what we need to know is more detail on the above; it is tempting because it is what we know how to do.  We have a very sophisticated climate science infrastructure that can run models and dig deeper and deeper into the natural science minutia.  It is safe and it is a little bit like looking for our keys under the streetlight because the light is better.

But will doing more of the climate science we have been doing for a couple of decades really help us evolve more robust and resilient societal structures?  Will it help us design storm water systems or point to entrepreneurial opportunities?  Will it help natural resource planners design forests and fisheries for the middle of the coming century?  Will it help us design healthly cities for the 3 billion residents we will add to our planet in the coming decades?  Remember we already know the things in the list above, but we have very little sense of what societies will do in the face of those changes.  And we have done very little thinking about how we would adapt to those changes on any scale.

I think that it is time to focus more on the human side of the equation.  Off the top of my head, some of my own answers to the questions I posed in the opening are the following:
  • What is the variance in human decision making processes?; and the corollary, What do human decision making processes have in common?
  • How do societal adaptive strategies vary with culture and geography?
  • How can economies evolve to be more robust in the face of increasingly rapid change in both the natural and human landscape?
  • How do human perceptions and sensitivity to risk vary over Earth?  What is the relationship between that geography and our expectations regarding global weirding?
Apologies to those who already work on these questions; my naiveté merely exposes the distance these questions currently stand from our discussions about how to cope with a changing climate.  I don't think that we should completely abandon climate modeling, but I do think we should be investing many more resources into thinking how humans will react to the coming changes.  And I think we should *carefully* think about how we spend our climate modeling resources.  And finally note that, beyond implying they should have higher priority than they do now, I have not prioritized my list of questions...

March 10, 2010

Science can only do so much...

In his column in Nature this month, Dan Sarewitz gives a very clear assessment of the current foundering of climate scientists.  He points out that in the case of climate, we have asked Science to carry out a task that is best left to Politics.

Climate science has made it clear that Earth's atmosphere is warming due to increasing accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is becoming increasingly clear that that same CO2 is changing the pH of the surface waters of the global ocean in ways that will make it harder for the bottom of the ocean's food chain to function.  A number of consequences of the increasing heat content of our planet's atmosphere are also beginning to become evident, in particular increases in the variability of weather and climate.  Climate science has also established with reasonable certainty that humans have a discernible influence on the atmospheric changes that are currently underway.

Climate science does NOT tell us that these things are bad.  The scariness of glacial retreat, sea level rise and other effects in the climate litany is a human response to those things.  There is no external reference frame that we can call on that will impose mitigating or adapting actions on the part of humans.  We must CHOOSE to do those things ourselves.

Choosing what to do next has at least two components.  The first, and most argued about, is the resource component.  Should we reallocate resources currently allocated to X over to Y?  The second element has to do with norms and values.  Is switching from X to Y the right thing to do independent of the associated risks and benefits.  Science can help us place boundaries on some of the benefits and risks of switching from X to Y; but it cannot tell us which choice is better.

The choice of better is political and, as we have seen over recent decades, it has time and space varying components.  I will reiterate - there is no external framework that can unambiguously impose a choice on how we should re/allocate our resources in the face of human impacts on our planet.

Humans can, and I would say very likely will (albeit through passive rather than active means) , choose to continue to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for CO2.  This choice makes me quite sad, and I think it will prove to be a costly folly with respect to human well being.

But the sooner that we start talking about this choice in the context of political tradeoffs rather than scientific uncertainty and foibles, the better off we will be and the better the decisions we actively make are likely to be.

March 01, 2010

Environmentalists as Tea Partiers

Yesterday Frank Rich painted a very sobering picture of the current political populism in the US.  He called attention to what I will call the growing instability of a growing segment of our population, a segment which is pretty thoroughly disaffected right now.  (Even more sobering was Dave's (who has a lot more patience with idiots that I do) comment that it is going to get worse before it gets better.)  Central to the Tea Party movement is a distrust of any government and the idea that all government should be eliminated.  In particular Rich calls attention to the invection of violence that can be heard in the rhetoric of people like Glen Beck and Sarah Palin.

The really scary bit of the Tea Party is the following:  The very angry people who identify with the Tea Party do not seem to be for anything.  But they are very much against many (most?) things.  Anger works best against rather than for.  Most of the things this populist movement is against are quite complex and I suspect only distantly connected to the real disaffection of the Tea Partiers.

Building the fear for me is the corollary of not being for something.  That is, the Tea Party does not have ideas for replacing the Fed or the IRS.  They want the government to go away, but there is no discussion of what would replace it.  (and note my rhetoric here assumes there is a thing called the Tea Party which of course is not the case).  And if Beck and Palin are successful in stirring this angry mob to violence or other sorts of destruction, what will we have left?  And will those people's lives actually improve?

It is the absence of being for something that leads me to link environmentalists with the tea partiers.  My recent post on the reading of the litany bemoaned the absence of vision regarding a positive environmental (or otherwise) future.  We need to replace the nihilism of being against everything and seeing only the bleak aspects of humanity with a positive vision of the future.