US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas
A Response to CO2 Scorecard
Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.
The Romance of Ecomodernism
Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014
People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.
“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”
Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings
Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings
Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline
A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa –– one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.
Dot Earth, Vox, and the Upshot?
Dot Earth, Vox and The Upshot?
Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism
Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has informed our understanding of why political leaders, activists, and the expert community disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental controversies, providing insight on strategies that might broker greater political cooperation.
As I detailed in a recent series of essays, this research on what the U.S. National Academies calls the “science of science communication,” has focused on topics including the communication strategies of the expert community; the impact of worldviews on acceptance of expert advice; and the relevance of the media to public opinion.
Yet largely overlooked by this growing body of research are the specific journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive public debate relative to climate change and other issues.
In a co-authored paper that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, my colleague Declan Fahy and I detail the role that journalists and their news organization can play as influential knowledge professionals in the climate change debate and other environmental controversies.
Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print
Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print
Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs
Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.
That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.
A Wilder Bay Area
Alex Trembath is a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. His research has been covered by the New York Times, Foreign Policy, CNN, Resources for the Future, the American Energy Innovation Council, and the National Bureau of Economic Research, among other media and academic outlets. He is a rising young thought leader on energy transitions and innovation policy, and for the last three years has co-directed Breakthrough’s annual Generation fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @atrembath.
A Wilder Bay Area
Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect
Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.
Electrify to Adapt
Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty
Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.
The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.
How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise
Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector
When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers.
A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet
Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century
Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife.
“Let It Go”
Japan's Fukushima Ice Wall is Unnecessary and Fuels Irrational Fears
What if Iceman from the X-Men could put a frozen ice wall around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant so that no radiation could get out? I’d be all for it.
Actually, that’s more likely than you might imagine.
For the past three years, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has faced an uphill battle of restoring public trust in their ability to manage the ongoing cleanup of the crippled Fukushima Daichi plant.
Are Bike Sharing Programs Truly Green?
In London, Bike Sharing Adds Cars to the Road
Bike share programs might seem like the ultimate environmentally-friendly mode of urban transportation. As more people hop on bikes, the thinking goes, the use of cars will drop.
But researchers have found that the math isn’t quite so simple. According to a new study, London’s bike share program actually increases the number of automobile miles driven per year, partly because trucks are needed to ferry bikes between stations.
The Education of an Ecomodernist
From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism
Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.
But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress
How Cars Saved the Urban Environment
In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s ﬁrst international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.
The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode of transportation: urine, ﬂies, congestion, carcasses, and trafﬁc accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.
Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa
Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.
Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels.
There’s No Way Around the Need for Innovation
How Jonathan Chait Misunderstands the “Technology-First” Approach
Usually the best response to the name-calling that so often passes for public discourse over climate policy is to ignore it, but Jonathan Chait’s June 17 piece in New York Magazine deserves discussion because it unintentionally illustrates the most underappreciated source of climate gridlock today: the partisan groupthink that often prevents liberals from engaging in any kind of conversation about creative ways to finesse the barriers to progress.
Can California Desalinate Its Way Out of a Drought?
New Technologies Promise Lower Costs and Fewer Environmental Impacts
This article was first published at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.
A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed.
The Need for Speed
Four Basic Instincts Have Determined Human Mobility
The following essay was first delivered as the William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization at the California Institute of Technology on April 30, 2014, and was revised on May 18, 2014.
Thanks to the Harris Family and the Cal Tech community, especially Jed Buchwald and Diana Kormos Buchwald, for the honor to speak with you about cars and civilization. The first speaker, my long-time research partner Nebojsa Nakicenovic, concluded his remarks with the transition from sail to rail about 1830. My title page shows both a horse-drawn coach, the Brewster Park Drag, custom made in 1892 for the Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune in shipping and railroads, and the 1964 Chevrolet research vehicle CERV II with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph), and the power of 500 horses. In November 2013 Sotheby’s auctioned the horse-drawn coach for $253,000 and the Chevy for $1,100,000.
Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?
When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result.
“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”
The Power of Nationalism
The Romantic Roots of the Antinuclear Energiewende in Germany
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.
The Cooperative Advantage
The Cooperative Advantage
How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy
If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1
In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.
How the US Can Light Up the Futures of the 1.4 Billion People Living Without Electricity
What is “energy poverty”?
Energy poverty simply means a lack of affordable, reliable electricity needed to support a comfortable, prosperous standard of living. Billions of the world’s energy poor aren’t connected to any power source. And for those who are connected to the grid, the actual flow of electricity is sporadic and blackouts frequent.
Because of outdated and insufficient infrastructure, many countries do not generate enough electricity to meet growing demand, leaving actual consumption at extremely low levels. The average American uses about 13,200 kWh/year. By comparison, here are the averages for citizens in a few African countries (and Todd’s fridge):
Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?
Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last
Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.
When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).
Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn
International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections
World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.
“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”
The Low-Energy Club
Sierra Club Report Calls for Universal Electricity Access at 0.15 Percent California Levels
In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources.
The Green Urbanization Myth
Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts
Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.
Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award
Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature
Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.
But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment.
The Energy Innovation Imperative
If Carbon Pricing Is Primary Solution, Climate Change Won’t Be Solved
The following article first appeared in Christian Science Monitor and is reproduced with the authors’ permission.
Carbon pricing has been the go-to solution for economists and environmentalists alike since climate change was identified as one of the foremost social and environmental challenges of our time.
Want a climate rescue plan? Carbon pricing. Want to raise revenue for clean energy deployment? Carbon pricing. It's the "silver bullet" for other things, too. Want to reduce reliance on foreign oil? Or raise revenue to correct other tax inefficiencies? Carbon pricing.
Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech
Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.
Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.
Embracing Creative Destruction
Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World
Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.
Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones
The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids
“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”
This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”
Proposed EPA Rules Are Kryptonite to New Nuclear
Why Regulating a Harmless Emission Could Make Nuclear More Expensive
I like the proposed carbon emissions rules from Environmental Protection Agency. They address the real issue of balancing our energy mix and may be the only way to move forward in the absence of congressional leadership.
But the EPA has gone a little wild with their latest proposal. This new proposed emissions rule (actually a re-do of parts of 40CFR190 that may result in a rulemaking) is for nuclear power plants (Federal Register). An operating nuclear power plant has very low emissions of any kind except water vapor. No carbon emissions and almost no radioactivity emissions.
Nuclear Is Cheaper Than Solar Thermal
New Vogtle Plant Costs Half As Much as Crescent Dunes Solar Facility
I’m a big fan of TIME reporter Mike Grunwald and often think that he and Breakthrough are among the only people who really understand that Obama’s signature climate policies are not fuel economy standards or power plant regulations, but the tens of billions invested in clean energy technology and innovation.
How Romantic Elites Became the Eco-Puritan Left
For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it — farmers and other rural residents — have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment;” highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.
How Environmentalists and Skeptics Misrepresent the Science on Polar Bears
Last month an alphabet soup scientific working group you’ve never heard of — the IUCN/SSC PBSG — added a brief footnote to a forthcoming report you didn’t know they were preparing. Just another day in the annals of the worldwide research community. Except, of course, when that body is the Polar Bear Specialist Group, and the item in question involves just how many polar bears currently exist on Earth.
2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive
Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research
An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.
Making Fossil Fuels Irrelevant
Why Raising the Price of Fossil Fuels Is A “Waste of Effort”
On Monday, under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, President Obama proposed regulations requiring significant reductions in greenhouse gases produced by each American state. Using 2005 as a baseline, states, on average, will be required to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. If the courts allow it, a year from now, those regulations would go into effect and about two years from today, on June 1, 2016, the states would be required to tell EPA how they will achieve those reductions. The president's move is long overdue, but remains a significant step. It says that global warming is an established scientific fact and American public policy and law will now turn to the long-term goal of mitigating climate change.
Fracking’s War on Coal
Why Tech Innovation Matters Far More to the Environment than Pollution Regulations
In 1981, an independent Texas natural gas producer named George Mitchell realized that his shallow gas wells in the Barnett gas fields of Texas were running dry. He had sunk millions into his operation and was looking for a way to generate more return. Mitchell was then a relatively small player in an industry that by its own reckoning was in decline. Conventional gas reserves were limited and were getting increasingly played out.
Natural Gas Revolution Behind Obama EPA Carbon Proposal
8 Graphs Reveal Role of Shale Gas in EPA’s Proposed Climate Rule
Natural gas from shale grew more than fivefold in five years.
How Ambitious Are the EPA’s Proposed Carbon Dioxide Reductions?
Everything Depends on Your Assumptions About the Future
The Obama administration’s proposed carbon dioxide reductions are larger than what the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts would happen without regulations, and similar to reductions that would be achieved if the carbon intensity of the power sector declines at the same pace it did between 2005 and 2013, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds.
EPA Points to Nuclear as Climate Solution
Advanced Nuclear and Preventing Retirement of Plants Key to Carbon Reductions
The Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging states to consider building new nuclear power plants, and keeping older ones open, to meet federal carbon dioxide targets. State incentives could "discourage premature retirement" and “encourage deployment of nuclear unit designs that reflect advances over earlier designs,” wrote the EPA in its proposed carbon dioxide rule, issued by the Obama administration on Monday.
A Marriage of Two Agricultures
Pamela Ronald on the Need for GMOs and Organic Farming
Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. "Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, 'Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what's in our food,'” Shumlin declared.
Godzilla, the 350-Foot Metaphor We Can’t Kill
Why the Radioactive Reptile Continues to Embody Our Nuclear Fears
From the opening moments of the new Godzilla movie, it’s eminently clear that the nuclear fears that animated the first incarnation of the monster in Japan 1954 are still very much with us. In just the film’s first ten minutes, director Gareth Edwards treats us to images of nuclear bomb tests from Bikini Atoll, featuring voluminous apocalyptic mushroom clouds and a full-blown Fukushima-like nuclear power meltdown.
Beyond Food and Evil
Jeremy Rifkin’s Techno-Nirvana Fantasy
A World of Abundance Where Humans Consume Less?
Techno-utopianism seems to be a particularly American phenomena. As I argued in The Past and Future of America’s Economy it seems like about every half century – usually as it turns out right before a big structural slowdown of technological innovation – pundits and scholars start to go overboard on how great the techno-enabled future will be. Case in point was the 1967 book Year 2000 written by Herman Kahn, noted futurist and founder of the Hudson Institute. Kahn relied on the new “science” of forecasting and ended up with a book that had the tone of “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” He wrote:
To Carol Browner, Nuclear More Than Just Matters – It’s Essential
Former EPA Administrator on Why We Must Preserve Existing Nuclear Plants
In late April, Carol Browner, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, announced she was joining Nuclear Matters, an alliance of individuals, organizations, and businesses seeking to preserve America’s existing nuclear plants because of the benefits they provide. Browner has a long history with environmental policy. Not only was she the longest serving Administrator of the EPA, Browner also served as director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under President Obama. Although Browner never felt strongly opposed to nuclear energy, she came to the realization that, without it, we will likely fall short of our clean energy and carbon pollution goals. Breakthrough spoke with Browner about her new role with Nuclear Matters and the challenges facing the industry today.
The Triumph of Climate Pragmatism
Wirth and Daschle Argue Against Binding Global Caps on Emissions
For the better part of two decades, a small group of policy scholars and climate policy advocates have argued that the United Nations' climate treaty efforts were doomed. Caps on emissions, and other efforts that make fossil fuels more expensive, would fail in world where competitive alternative fuels don't exist, and where billions of people need to consume more, not less, energy. As such, the recent call by former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle to abandon binding emissions limits, and instead to embrace technology innovation to make clean energy cheap, can be fairly described as the triumph of climate pragmatism.
Advocates Urge US Leaders to Act Soon on Energy Access Legislation
One bright spot in the dark night of our partisan political divide was the House passage of the Electrify Africa Act earlier this month. Though the legislation would not spend any US taxpayer dollars on energy projects, it requires the United States and another other agencies to agree on a strategic framework to greatly increase electrification in Africa.
If the Senate votes to pass the legislation, President Obama says he will sign it. Anti-poverty advocates are hoping Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, will make the legislation a priority for passage this year. Advocates urge passage of the bill through the Senate by early summer to ensure conference and ultimate passage by the end of the 2014 legislative session.
The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil
Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation
Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.
The Climate and Environmental Impacts of Renewables
The Current Data and Historical Perspectives on Energy in 34 Charts
There have been major investments, cost declines, and deployment increases with solar and wind...
Why Innovation Should Be at the Heart of Climate Policy
An Interview With Matthew Stepp of CCEI
As a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Matthew Stepp was frustrated by the fact that the major climate change policies under debate – carbon pricing, electric vehicle subsidies, feebates – weren’t enough to deeply cut carbon. He was also skeptical that the climate advocacy’s vague call for movement building could change the political economy calculus.
At the Breakthrough Institute, where Stepp was a Generation Fellow, he found others who shared his frustration and were attempting to outline new policies that could effect technological change. Four years later, and Stepp is now the leader of the first think tank in Washington, DC, that is dedicated to spurring clean energy innovation, much like what was accomplished with the shale gas revolution.
Beyond Food and Evil
Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution
“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it.
Reducing Our Hoofprint
How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity
Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts.
After the Culture Wars
Growth of Biomass Far Outstrips Growth of Solar and Wind
Absolute Growth of Biomass in US 2X Higher than Wind and Solar
If I asked you to think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs, or massive hydroelectric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bioenergy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.
After the Culture Wars
The Decline of Social Conservatism and the Rise of a New Political Order
April was a tough month for supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Hailed by Conservatives for refusing to pay the government to graze his cattle on federal land, Bundy went from right-wing folk hero to widely-denounced villain when he suggested that black people were better off under slavery. Right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were forced to condemn the sentiment, walking back their previously enthusiastic support for Bundy and his cause. “Those comments are downright racist”, emphasized Hannitty. “They are repugnant. They are bigoted.”
In the wake of Obama’s decisive 2008 and 2012 victories, Republicans have been grappling with the fact that they increasingly appear to be a party of people like Cliven Bundy and his erstwhile supporters. The GOP has managed to hang onto political relevance thanks to gerrymandered congressional districts and lower turnout among youth and minority voters, but with Hispanics and multiracial Americans among the fastest growing demographic groups, the endgame looks clear: a predominantly white, socially conservative Republican Party is unlikely to be competitive in national elections.
What’s the Best Way to Transport Oil for People and the Environment?
Surprising Differences Between Pipelines, Trains, Trucks, and Ships
Crude oil is moving around the world, around our country, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving, and will undoubtedly increase during our new energy boom, so what is the safest way to move it?
The short answer is: truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.
Marine Biodiversity is the New Frontier of Conservation
‘By-catch’ Reduction Shows Promise of Industry Working With Conservationists
The debate raging within the conservation community over “new conservation” appears to be essentially a religious war, with doctrinal beliefs well defined and the rancor and defamation appearing to grow each month. In essence, the “new conservation” argues that the major gains in biodiversity protection will be made in human-used environments and by working with communities and industries that use these environments rather than by the use of protected areas (Kareiva and Marvier 2012).
Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 4
Diversifying Policy Options and Promoting Public Debate
This week's release of the U.S. National Climate Assessment report has sparked headlines at news outlets across the country. Much of that coverage has highlighted what specific states, cities and communities can do to defend against climate change-related risks and impacts.
This past month has also brought increased attention to nuclear energy, natural gas fracking, and carbon capture and storage as important technological options for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, points strongly emphasized in the latest UN IPCC report.
Yet in contrast to the recent focus, these two policy paths -- investing in climate adaptation and promoting innovation in "hard" energy technologies -- were virtually ignored as part of national debate during the period 2007 to 2010.
Instead, environmentalists and their allies pushed to pass cap and trade legislation and a binding international treaty; strategies designed to put a price on carbon and promote solar, wind, and energy efficiency as solutions.
The recent shift to include a broader menu of policy actions and technologies is representative of the necessary role that the expert community must play in balancing the well intentioned efforts of environmentalists, who historically as advocates have restricted debate on climate change to just a few politically favored policy actions and technologies.
As Roger Pielke Jr. argues in his 2007 book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Politics and Policy, in the face of intense lobbying and political mobilization on climate change, experts and their organizations can act independently as “honest brokers” to expand the range of policy options and technological choices under consideration by elected officials and the public.
As I review in this essay, we will also need experts and their organizations to take the lead in convening debate about the actions best suited to protecting local communities against climate impacts and the technologies that can enable a cleaner, more abundant energy future for specific regions of the country.
Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear
The Incremental, Pragmatic, and Prudent Shift in Green Attitudes
Last year, many scoffed at the suggestion that support was growing for nuclear power. Before the release of pro-nuclear documentary Pandora's Promise, green magazine Grist wrote, "Of the 10 leading enviro groups in the US, zero support new nuclear power plants." In response to an open letter sent by climate scientists to environmental leaders last fall, Ralph Cavanaugh told CNN, "I've been in the NRDC since 1979. I have a pretty good idea of where the mainstream environmental groups are and have been. I have seen no movement.”
The Conservative Case for Climate Policy
And Why Adaptive Resiliency Is One Way Forward
It is not news to say that climate change has become the most protracted science and policy controversy of all time. If one dates the beginning of climate change as a top tier public issue from the Congressional hearings and media attention during the summer of 1988, shortly after which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was set in motion with virtually unanimous international participation, it is hard to think of another policy issue that has gone on for a generation with the arguments—and the policy strategy—essentially unchanged as if stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, and with so little progress being made relative to the goals and scale of the problem as set out. Even other areas of persistent scientific and policy controversy—such as chemical risk and genetically modified organisms—generally show some movement toward consensus or policy equilibrium out of which progress is made.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus to speak at Aquarium of the Pacific
The Coming Realignment
Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?
Why Only Sustainable Intensification Can Save Indonesia's Forests
There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.
Can Any Tech Stop Asia’s Coal Future?
Solar, CCS, Nuclear, and Natural Gas Not Scaling Fast Enough
Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.
Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 3
Telling Stores about Human Security and Ingenuity
Frustrated by the political paralysis on climate change, in recent years, many environmentalists have focused their efforts on building a more powerful movement in support of action. Among the most notable efforts, in a 2012 cover article at Rolling Stone magazine, writer and 350.org activist Bill McKibben called for a new sense of moral outrage directed at the fossil fuel industry, a plea that helped launch the divestment movement on college campuses.
Given the urgency of climate change, “we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light,” he argued. “It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization."
A year earlier, in a cover article at The Nation magazine, fellow 350.org activist Naomi Klein urged progressives to copy the strategies of the U.S. conservative movement: “Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.”
Though in the short term, these calls to action from voices admired by progressives might bring much needed pressure to bear on targeted decision-makers and elected officials, in the long term such strategies if not also balanced by alternative investments in civic engagement by the expert community may only intensify polarization and gridlock.
Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award
The Coming Realignment
Cities, Class, and Ideology After Social Conservatism
Following Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, pundits posited that a new Democratic majority would dominate American politics for generations to come. But according to Michael Lind, no such majority will hold: political conflict is with us to stay, though traditional terms like 'left', 'right', and 'center' will take on new meanings. Thanks to a shift in generational values among Millennials, social conservatism is experiencing a rapid, terminal decline. As issues like “God, gays, and guns” become less and less relevant to Americans' worldviews and political preferences, the Left/Right axis will experience a radical realignment. Economic attitudes will become the central battleground of politics, leading to the emergence of two new groups, the populiberals and liberaltarians, each clustering in its own unique geographical niche. Forget “red states” and “blue states": the rural and peri-urban Posturbia and the urban Densitaria will be the key new constituencies on tomorrow's political map. The implications for American politics and policy couldn't be greater.
Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 2
Wicked Psychology and Ideological Message Machines
Few issues in the United States reflect as deeply polarized divisions as climate change. Most explanations for the intense political conflict tend to blame the conservative movement. These arguments are understandable given the longstanding efforts by many conservative groups and leaders to dispute the urgency of climate change, to attack and ridicule advocates for action on the issue, and to even outrageously assert that climate change is a "hoax."
Yet, as I review in a series of essays this week, for scientists and the expert community to successfully navigate this polarization requires a broader understanding of the factors that have seeded political dysfunction and the strategies available for restoring cooperation in support of effective policy actions.
Today, I examine the special attributes of climate change that make the issue so politically divisive and analyze how early definitions of the problem may have helped inadvertently set in motion the polarization that exists today.
I also take a look at the psychological roots of our disagreement on the issue and the many ways in which our contemporary media system feeds on and amplifies our diverging opinions.
Pathways to Progress on Climate Change, pt 1
Research on the Politics of Technical Decisions
In recent years, advocates arguing for action on climate change have invested in ever more aggressive confrontation of their longstanding opponents among conservatives and the fossil fuel industry. These activists argue that such strategies are the only way to achieve progress in the face of dire stakes and some have called on the expert community to join them in the fight.
Recently, Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about the science as reviewed and synthesized in the IPCC reports. “At this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions,” he wrote.
Yet even though such efforts may be an essential feature of social change, for scientists and their organizations, other strategies are needed if some semblance of political cooperation is to be achieved.
In this regard, for experts to successfully navigate the terrain of the political debate over climate change requires a careful understanding of the factors that seed polarization; and the strategies available for restoring cooperation, for decreasing the perception of entrenched group differences, and for building support for a portfolio of policies and energy technologies.
Shifting the Health Care Debate
Insights from Science Policy Controversies to Inform Public Engagement
Along with climate change and social inequality, the struggle in the United States to contain rising health care costs stands out as among our most "wicked" and polarized problems. Not surprisingly then, many experts and organizations working within the health care services field are currently searching for new strategies that engage the public and policymakes in a manner that helps diffuse, rather than strengthen political disagreement.
UC Berkeley's Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies
What is the best design to make next generation nuclear reactors safer and cheaper? That’s the question everyone from Bill Gates to the Chinese government is asking. The US Department of Energy has recently bet that smaller will be cheaper, funding small modular reactors with passive safety features. But much of the action is on molten salt reactors, which are being pursued by Gates-backed Terrapower, Transatomic, and UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Professor Per Peterson.
Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation
Recent years have seen growing recognition of the critical role the US government has played in creating world-changing technologies. In several State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama made mention of the role of government in creating the information-communications revolutions. And various scholars including Richard Nelson, Vernon Ruttan, Fred Block, Rob Atkinson, Michael Lind, William Janeway, and Mariana Mazzucato have described how the federal government financed the invention of manufacturing through interchangeable parts (for rifles), canals and railroads, dams and highways, jets and microchips, pharmaceutical drugs, and much more.
Fossil Free Movement as Learning Process
Respectful Dialogue and Negotiation at American University Sparks Opportunities for Constructive Debate
To mark Earth Day and pegged to a meeting of the Board of Trustees at American University, students involved in the Fossil Free AU movement are sponsoring today (April 22) a class walk out and rally on the campus quad. Several students involved in the movement have been active participants in my course this semester on "Communication, Culture and the Environment." As my class has debated and discussed paths forward on climate change, their perspective has been a very important one for others in the course to consider (the professor included).
USS Reagan Sailors’ Lawsuit Found ‘Lacking’
Nuclear Expert Questions Link Between Radiation Exposure and Health Woes
A group of Sailors and former Sailors who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during the US relief efforts following the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami have been periodically making the news for their belief that their ailments are caused by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima reactor accidents.
Mixing Diet Advice and Climate Advocacy?
Projecting Personal Values Can Backfire
I very much enjoyed the first episode of the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously and I have been rooting for the series' success. In part, the cable network production directly speaks to my own outlook as someone who is deeply concerned by climate change and who leans more liberal than centrist. But as a social scientist studying the climate debate for the past decade, I also believe that Ted Nordhaus' and Michael Shellenberger's recent New York Times op-ed and subsequent essays have raised a number of questions that are well worth considering, especially by fans of the series.
Five Energy Challenges Confronting India
Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty
On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.
It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.
Preaching to the Climate Converted
Why Showtime's "Years" Is Unlikely to Reach Non-Believers
In the first episode of the $20 million Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired last Sunday, we meet a 46-year-old evangelical Christian named Nelly Montez. Montez was laid off from a local meatpacking plant that closed due to a drought. Every week she and other women march around the plant, praying for rain. The actor Don Cheadle, one of the show’s celebrity correspondents, asks Montez if she attributes the drought to anything. She says, “I think it’s biblical.”
Our High-Energy Planet
Off on the Wrong Foot
Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet
On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?
How “An Inconvenient Truth” Contributed to Partisan Polarization on Climate
Joe Romm of Center for American Progress Misrepresents Polling Data
Scroll down to read an update from the authors, written on April 14, 2014
Joe Romm of Climate Progress misrepresented polling data in his critique of our recent New York Times op-ed when he claimed Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth did not contribute to partisan polarization of public attitudes toward global warming.
Jesse H. Ausubel
Welcome New York Times Readers
An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute
Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute Ted Nordhaus gives the lead quote for the New York Times's analysis of President Obama's new rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels. The emissions cuts are less than some environmentalists were pushing for, but signals the administration's hope to reclaim climate leadership:
The Psychology of Climate Change
The Science and Scholarship of How Humans Think and Feel about Global Warming
A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public.
This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change.
Our High-Energy Planet
A Climate Pragmatism Project
More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor.
According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.
What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa
The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.
The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.