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Posts Tagged ‘environmental policy’

I had the privilege to attend the last Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment Energy Seminar, featuring Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, for Google.org, the philanthropist arm of Google.

The folks at Google have a plan and it makes lots of sense. They have two major initiatives currently at work:

To develop Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE<C): Create utility-scale electricity from clean renewable energy sources that is cheaper than electricity produced from coal. For RE<C to work, Google is betting on four arms: R&D, Investment, Policy, and Information Tools.

To accelerate the Commercialization of Plug-In Vehicles (RechargeIT): Seed innovation, demonstrate technology, inform the debate, and stimulate market demand to foster mass commercialization of plug-in vehicles.

Most striking in the Google plan, is its exclusive reliance on technology and policy, not unlike the recent McKinsey recommendations. At the end of his talk, I asked Dan Reicher if Google was considering any people driven initiatives? According to him, Google has just started looking into consumers’ behaviors and their impact on climate change.

In a way, Google‘s emphasis should be of no surprise. Google is a technology company, and they cannot tackle every possible angle of the problem. Instead they are focusing on their core competencies, engineering and technology. Google‘s top-down approach should be considered alongside bottom-up strategies such as David Holmgren‘s Permaculture Project, for instance.

For more on the Google approach to climate change, here is a video of Google.org‘s introductory course for Google employees. The session tackles global development, global health, and climate change, and explores how the three domain areas relate to each other. Well worth sitting for an hour. The bulk of the climate change lecture is towards the end:

Of course, I was particularly interested in the Information Tools aspect of the Google plan. Here is the list of all the Google tools that can be used to further the climate fight, as presented by Dan Reicher during his talk:

If you are not familiar with some of these tools, I urge you to play with them.

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In one of his articles in the WorldChanging blog, Alex Steffen raises the question: ‘Who Will Tell the People? And How?

There’s enormous pressure here in the U.S. on environmental groups, scientists and public officials; pressure to play ball, to support targets that are politically safe, to be moderate. But this is not a situation where such gamesmanship will help our cause. Incremental and limited gains in this situation are in fact disastrous losses.

At the same time, we need to talk with people where they’re at on the issue, not where we wish they were. Somehow we need, in the next couple years, to guide millions of Americans through the progress of emotions — awareness, horror, despair, resignation, engagement, chosen optimism — that most of the people reading this site have gone through… and we have to do it in the next few years.

People are not really ready for this, but we’re not in a position to let that stop us. I’m not sure it’s too much of an overstatement to say that what’s needed is not just some issue education but a national mind-blowing.

I share Alex Steffen‘s frustration and his sense of urgency also. The media and the powers in charge have been tiptoeing around the reality at hand. I keep reading reports about 20 or 30% reduction goals for greenhouse gases in the next decades. Theses reports lead us to believe that things are not so bad after all, and smart technology alone should be able to get us out of our mess. Whose responsibility is it then to deliver the bitter pill of 90% reduction? And what are the strategies to make sure it has the desired effect on Americans’ behaviors?

To the question of who?, one obvious answer involves the media. Andrew Revkin‘s post on DotEarth yesterday, ‘Do the Media Fail to Give Climate its Due?‘, generated quite a lively discussion with the usual cast of characters: naysayers still, moderates, and radicals also. The reason the media have such an important role to play is as educators, and influencers of the crowds, so that the people will be ready to support the drastic emissions reduction policies that are to become an inevitable part of the political future. The objective is for the Most Inconvenient Truth I brought up earlier, to no longer hold.

Alex Steffen alludes to the time element of the process involved in bringing the public around. From personal experience, I can attest to the time lag, between initial exposure to the facts, and actual conversion. From the time when I attended Al Gore‘s presentation of An Inconvenient Truth, back in December 2005 – the first schock to my oblivious brain -, to the time when I finally became willing to make changes in my lifestyle, a good two years passed. Steven Running‘s Climate Grief model is most useful in that respect.

We then need to look at what is meant by the media. Sure, the New York Times, and other national publications, and TV stations have to play their part, but the advertising media should be considered as well. I have been pushing for a large scale, climate fight awareness advertising campaign. Al Gore, of all people should be the one spearheading such an effort. I hear his new book, ‘The Path to Survival‘ will be released next month. That’s good, and it’s not enough. Any good marketer will tell you that PR and the press can only generate so much awareness and persuasion. At some point, one needs to consider taking out the big guns, in this case, advertising. Ask all the presidential candidates!

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Gary Peters was first introduced to me by Jeff Huggins. Since then, I have had the opportunity to read Gary’s comments on DotEarth, and to appreciate his perspective as a geography expert, and someone with informed views about the complex issues facing our planet, including climate change and an exploding world population. For many years, Gary taught geography in the California State University system, first at Long Beach, and then at Chico. He has authored or co-authored ten books, including textbooks on population geography and the geography of California. I asked Gary to share some of his thoughts with us:

Testifying at a meeting of the U. S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works on March 21, 2007, Vice President Al Gore described global warming as “A true planetary emergency”. Neither I nor a majority of Americans agree with that, though I do not for a minute deny that Earth has been warming up.

I do agree, however, with Richard Heinberg, who wrote recently that “It’s not just climate change that threatens us, but depletion of resources including oil, natural gas, coal, fresh water, fish, topsoil, and minerals (ranging from antimony to zinc, and including, significantly, uranium; as well as destruction of habitat and accelerating biodiversity loss–which is exacerbated by climate change, but is also happening for other anthropogenic reasons. In essence, there are just too many of us using too much too fast.

“I would like to offer some perspective on how we have gotten to this point and what it might mean for our future, though I agree with Nassim Taleb that we are incapable of actually predicting the future. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that modern humans, Homo sapiens, can be traced back to an African origin around 160,000 years ago.

For most of those 160,000 years our ancestors lived in small groups as hunters and gatherers. Life expectancies were short and populations grew only very slowly. About 10,000 years ago humans started to practice rudimentary agriculture, mainly because global warming was already occurring as the most recent Ice Age was ending. As Jack Weatherford noted, “Around the world, humans seem to have switched from foraging to farming because of the whole set of changes produced by global warming.” Agriculture increased Earth’s carrying capacity for humans, and as crops and domesticated animals were improved and diffused around the world, population growth accelerated somewhat, but it was still, by modern standards, slow, and it was also sporadic. Populations grew when times were good, then declined when times were bad. Famines, diseases, and wars would take heavy tolls from time to time.By about one thousand years ago the human population had only grown to around 300 million, give or take perhaps 50 million. That is about the current population of the United States, but it represented the end result of 159,000 years of human population growth. Slow growth continued until the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, raised Earth’s carrying capacity again and set in motion a period of modern population growth that continues today, though at a rate that has slowed considerably from that in the late 1960s.

Around 1830, after 159,830 years, the human population reached its first billion. Since then, however, our growth has been unprecedented. During the 20th century the world’s population nearly quadrupled, from 1.6 to 6.1 billion, and since 2000 we’ve added another half billion or so to planet Earth, bringing our numbers to around 6.63 billion. Currently, we add close to another 80 million people each year.

We might describe this sudden and vast increase in human numbers as “irrational exuberance.” After tens of thousands of years, we suddenly, in less than two centuries, have increased our numbers more than six-fold. As Russell Hopfenberg (among others) has noted, “Increases in the population of the human species, like increases in all other species, is a function of increases in food availability.” As Descartes could have noted, “I eat, therefore I am.”

This rapid growth in our population could only have occurred with a vast and rapid improvement in productivity in agriculture. In turn those productivity increases have come almost entirely from our use of fossil fuels, primarily petroleum. If you looked at graphs of population growth and crude oil production side by side over the last 200 years, you would see enough similarity to convince you that it is not coincidence.

Our rapidly expanding numbers and use of fossil fuels have brought us to where we are today, and leave us wondering about the future. Even as we’ve substantially increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including CO2 and CH4, we seem to have reached a broader threshold. Global warming; acidification of the oceans; overfishing; fresh water scarcity; accelerated species extinctions; disappearing wetlands, tropical forests, and other habitats; the growing possibility that we are at or close to a peak in world crude oil production–these may all be signs that humans have now reached or exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity for our species. As eminent ecologist Garrett Hardin warned us, “The universe may or may not be infinite, but prudence demands that we assume that the portion practically available to humankind is finite.” Iconoclastic economist Kenneth Boulding put it this way, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” It may be time to see that our numbers, combined with our expanding affluence and constant need to consume more of everything, have become Earth’s real problem.

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From AFP:

The world could solve many of the major environmental problems it faces at an “affordable” price, the OECD said Wednesday, warning that the cost of doing nothing would be far higher.

In a report presented in Oslo, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggested a range of measures to address what it said were the greatest global environmental challenges through 2030: climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and the impact on human health of pollution and toxic chemicals.

“It’s not cheap. It is affordable, but also it is considerably less onerous for mankind and for the economy than the alternative of inaction,” OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria told reporters.

Angel Gurria

The suggested measures would cost just over 1.0 percent of the predicted global gross domestic product in 2030, meaning world wealth would grow on average 0.03 percentage points less per year over the next 22 years, the organisation said.

If nothing is done however, global greenhouse gas emissions could rise by over 50 percent by 2050, while “one billion more people will be living in areas of severe water stress by 2030 than today, and premature deaths caused by ground-level ozone worldwide would quadruple by 2030,” the OECD report said.

“It has a positive cost-benefit result. Regardless of the ethical, of the moral, of the social, of the political consequences, simply looking at it from the business and the economic point of view, it is a better idea to start right away focusing on the environment,” Gurria insisted.

The OECD said its proposed investment would allow the world to slash “key air pollutants by about a third,” and significantly limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The group placed a special emphasis on the need to rein in carbon dioxide emissions through special taxes and increased emission trading.

“We know the enemy. It is called carbon. We have to fight the enemy and we have to put a high price on the carbon,” Gurria said.

The OECD also suggested measures like increasing waste charges and implementing “more stringent regulations and standards” in the most environmentally harmful industries, like energy, transport, agriculture and fishery.

The organisation also insisted on the importance of international coordination and cooperation.

“If we do not have everybody, and that includes every single developed country but also Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Indonesia etc, it will obviously not work,” Gurria said.

By 2030, Brazil, Russia, India and China’s combined annual emissions “will exceed those of the 30 OECD countries combined,” the group said.

I purposely underlined those two words: ‘We could. As we gather more information about global warming, it is becoming more and more evident that the missing ingredient for a successful resolution, has to do with the lack of political will at the international level. The main responsibility lays on the United Sates as the world’s biggest polluter and its leadership role on the international scene. Given that the US leadership draws its authority from its people, the challenge then becomes, how to transform the US from a car addicted – mall obsessed – energy entitled culture to a planet conscious society? Back to yesterday’s discussion on ‘A Most Inconvenient Truth‘, and Kyle‘s point about the cultural dimension of climate change.


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Yesterday, in response to my article on ‘Taking the Global Warming Paradox With a Grain of Salt‘, Mary, one of the readers of this blog suggested that I take a look at a 2007 joint survey on global warming, from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute. While discouraging, the results have the benefit of sounding more realistic than other studies, and of providing clear insights into the kind of communication and policy strategies most likely to succeed.

To the question, “Compared to other problems facing our country, tell me if that issue is one of the most important?”, here is where global warming came out:

  1. War in Iraq 57%
  2. Rising cost of health care 51%
  3. Education 51%
  4. Terrorism 50%
  5. Covering people who don’t have health insurance 44%
  6. Moral values 44%
  7. Social security and Medicare 44%
  8. American dependence on foreign oil 37%
  9. Illegal immigration 34%
  10. Cost of gasoline and electricity 33%
  11. Job creation and economic growth 31%
  12. Federal budget deficit 31%
  13. Quality of the environment 30%
  14. Crime and violence 30%
  15. Global warming 28%
  16. Taxes 25%

To be contrasted with the fact that 70% agree that there is solid evidence of global warming, that it is a big problem, and that government should take immediate action. However they are only willing to support governmental action that does not create any discomfort whatsoever their lives, particularly in regards to their pocket book:

Policies that would gather highest support:

  1. Making clean energy sources cost less 68%
  2. Funding massive federal research and development to develop cleantech 56%
  3. Requiring American industries to reduce their carbon emissions 51%

Policies that would gather lowest support:

  1. Auctioning off the right to emit carbon pay for the right to pollute 9%
  2. Abolishing payroll tax and replacing it with a tax on carbon emissions 11%
  3. Establishing a carbon tax on electricity, gasoline and other products 13%
  4. Making energy sources that pollute – gasoline, home heating oil, coal – cost more 18%
  5. Requiring American consumers to reduce their carbon emissions 37%
  6. Making businesses that emit pay for the right to pollute 38%

More findings from the Nathan Cummings research:

The poll also divided the sample to observe the effects of various psychological primes on global warming public opinion, including using specific consequences of global warming expressed by the environmental community such as the movie An Inconvenient Truth. Telling voters about these consequences did not increase their desire to take action on global warming . . . scaring people is not the way to get them to act.

Finally, the poll tested public support for a variety of global warming policy prescriptions. Voters expressed initial support for a variety of potential government actions, with support for an Apollo-type investment strategy scoring highest. However, when told of the potential costs of those programs, support dropped precipitously, with only the Apollo-type investment proposal retaining support from a majority of voters.

The investment-centered New Apollo program received more support than either Cap-and-Trade or Sky Trust proposals. Additionally, when voters were told of the negative consequences of each program (cost of energy for Cap-and-Trade and Sky Trust; tax and deficit implications of Apollo type investments), Apollo was the only program to maintain majority support of the electorate (54%). Support for a Cap-and-Trade program fell from 62% to 46% when voters were told of the potential impact on energy prices.

Global warming proposals that can be framed as increasing the cost of gasoline and electricity will likely trigger tremendous backlash from an anxious electorate. The key to passing substantive limits on carbon emissions is to couple those limits with specific policies to make clean energy cheaper.

This research leads to some rather chilling conclusions:

People know about global warming and what it means in terms of global consequences. Still they do not consider it as a personal or policy priority. They see it as a problem to be dealt with by government, and only in policies that will not result in them having to make any personal sacrifices, particularly of a financial nature. They seem to think that the problem will take care of itself, in the form of technology, and smart, no pain – all gain, energy policies.

I look at these conclusions, and I ponder other world’s grim facts such as India’s Tata Nano future, China’s threat of ‘no longer just one child policy‘, and China’s support of always more coal plants. And I get depressed, and very, very concerned about the future of our species. Mostly, I am mad at my fellow Americans for being so short-sighted. Don’t they realize that the world is looking up to them to lead the way. How can we keep going with our oil and gas orgy, and expect other countries to show self-restraint. As mean as that may seem, I do hope for a recession, and peak oil to slap my fellow Americans at the gas tank and in their wallets. If not by morality and reason, maybe they will be led by necessity?

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The Swiss are proving that a few hundred thousand citizens, is all it takes to get authorities moving on the climate fight:

A people’s initiative calling for the government to slash greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2020 is set to come to a nationwide vote.

Pressure is mounting on the authorities to do more to fight global warming in Switzerland, especially after the government’s latest package of measures met with a mixed response.

Green groups and centre-left parties handed in their initiative to the Federal Chancellery in the capital, Bern, on Friday.

They managed to collect more than 150,000 signatures in just a year. To force a vote, 100,000 signatures have to be collected in 18 months under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

For Thomas Vellacott, president of the initiative, the popularity of the proposal – people were reported to have queued up to sign it – showed how important the environment was to the Swiss.

People Power Prepares to Fight Global Warming

“We know that people are getting fed up with a situation where everyone’s talking about doing something about climate change but no one’s actually doing anything,” he told swissinfo. “People are ready to see some action.”

The initiative calls for carbon dioxide emissions to be cut 30 per cent below 1990 levels.

“We’re saying that we want it to be achieved in Switzerland, so we don’t want it to be achieved by buying cheap credits abroad when we know that four out of ten are actually insufficient or nothing happens,” explained Vellacott.

The committee, which includes the non-governmental organisations WWF Switzerland and Greenpeace, as well as the Social Democratic and Green parties, also want to push for action concerning energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Now, all we need, is to change the laws to turn the United States into a direct democracy. In the mean time, we can always sign petitions and take the matter to the streets.

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Green is out, blue is in. Move out treehuggers, make room for the sky watchers, and the sea divers.

Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t heard trees mentioned in a long long time anywhere in the press. That, folks is just plain unfortunate. While we are busy chasing after carbon sequestration technologies, trying to build artificial trees even, right there, next to us is the simplest, cheapest, and most effective solution. Trees are amazing CO2 eating factories. And while initiatives such as the United Nations Environment Program ‘Let’s plant one billion more trees in 2008 are commendable, in my opinion, they are not enough, and have not made it down to the mainstream public.

I started thinking what would happen if there were no longer trees? What would the world be like? I imagined it to look like this:

A nightmarish universe, populated with rows and rows of manufactured things, and no sign of nature to be seen. Aseptic, lifeless, colorless, with the smell of death lurking. This could become our world, if we are not careful. According to popular lore, Thom Yorke recorded the vocals for ‘Fake Plastic Trees‘ in two takes, and broke down in tears after doing so.

Just as I was about to give hope, Prad drops this morning’s paper at my side, with, what do you know?, an article on ‘PG&E picks forests for green funds‘ . . .

San Francisco’s PG&E will use cash from its ClimateSmart program to fund the restoration and management of two California forests, one in Santa Cruz County, the other on the state’s North Coast. The trees – mostly coastal redwoods – will soak up carbon dioxide from the air, offsetting some of the gases produced by the power plants that provide PG&E customers with electricity.

The amount of money changing hands is small by the standards of the utility industry – only about $2 million. That cash, however, should help remove 214,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from the air. That’s roughly equivalent to taking almost 40,000 cars off the road for a year.

It also means that the 17,500 PG&E customers who have signed up for the ClimateSmart program will have offset all the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the electricity and natural gas they consume. Participating customers pay an average of $5 per month over and above their regular bill. They receive nothing in return, except the satisfaction of helping the environment.

Still, not quite what I had in mind. Trees need a PR makeover, with Hollywood celebrities stepping in and speaking on their behalf. Or maybe, just someone to start a tree movement that makes it clear what can be accomplished with just a shovel and a few seeds. Cost: just plain goodwill from citizens.

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