Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Environmental Politics paper: Energy

I recently finished one of the longest things I've ever written. It's a 9,000 word plan for America's energy future, with me role-playing as the newly-elected President of the United States. It includes my inauguration speech, my policy ideas, and how I will get those ideas implemented.

The suggested word count was approximately 5,000 words, but despite my blowing that out of the water I still didn't include everything I wanted to talk about. I don't think I discussed renewable electricity enough. I couldn't find laws about energy efficiency standards (the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act). And there's a ton of other stuff that I can't think of now. What's there, though, I think is solid. Download the PDF below.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Presidential Forum on Global Warming and America's Energy Future

At 5:30 this evening, several environmental groups hosted the Presidential Forum on Global Warming and America's Energy Future. Three candidates -- Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Sen. John Edwards -- showed up to talk about their platform with regards to mitigation of (and to a much lesser extent, adaptation to) global warming. Each candidate had 10 minutes to speak and then had a Q&A sessions with several panelists. It was available on a live webcast, and I'm sure that video will be posted somewhere at some point if you care to watch it.

This post will summarize the key points of each candidate's discussion. It will unfortunately be somewhat brief, as I have a paper to be writing (about America's energy future, funnily enough).

Representative Kucinich took the stage first. After touting his green credentials in terms of his lifestyle (he's a vegan with a Ford Focus and a 1600-square-foot home), he proposed a "Works Green Administration" as a way to get the various parts of the federal government to work together on this and other issues of sustainability. He emphasized that pro-environment and pro-economic policies need not be mutually exclusive; that new jobs would be created by the low-carbon economy; that the costs of global warming hitting us full force would be greater than the costs of its mitigation; that Americans would not have to sacrifice to move to a low-carbon economy. To that end, he proposed a nationwide minimum guaranteed income (along with healthcare), so that (among other things) workers who lose their jobs due to the transition would maintain their standards of living. He also emphasized that we must stand up to the fossil fuels lobbyists. Most interestingly to me, he suggested that he would go over Congress to empower the American people should Congress fail to take action that's strong enough. I liked that he called clean coal, something that other candidate's plans encourage research into, an "oxymoron." Unfortunately, he didn't detail any specifics of his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country; his speech was mostly rhetoric and little substance.

Senator Clinton spoke next. She came on strong, detailing her plan. This includes a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, with emissions reduced 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and with all allowances auctioned off. She plans to reduce imports of foreign oil 2/3 by 2030. She will set a goal of having 25% of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2025. She plans to push energy efficiency as one of the best ways to lower the carbon intensity of our economy (indeed, she would sign an Executive Order on her first day in office demanding all new federal buildings to be carbon-neutral), and wants to create 5 million "green collar jobs." And finally, she proposed the creation of a Strategic Energy Fund, with $50 billion over the next 10 years raised from taxation of fossil fuel industry profits. This money would go towards renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean coal (frowny face from Sam), biofuels, cleaner automotive technology, and other research and deployment programs. Money for this fund would also come from the sale of "Energy Independence Bonds." She also emphasized the importance of international talks for post-Kyoto agreements. Her plan is quite comprehensive, and she encouraged the audience to visit for more details.

Senator Edwards spoke last. He, too, detailed his plan, which despite its relative early stage of complexity (compared to Sen. Clinton's plan), was the first proposed by any presidential candidate in this campaign. He proposes the implementation of a cap-and-trade system beginning in 2010, with carbon emissions reduction targets of 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. He would create a "New Energy Economy Fund," underwritten with $3 billion from oil subsidy reductions and $10 billion from the sale of emissions allowances. More generally, he emphasized the importance of energy efficiency over the creation of new generating capacity. He also proposed modernizing the electricity grid to make net metering easier and to improve stability, offering low-interest loans for individuals and families who wish to implement renewable energy technologies and/or energy efficiency into their homes, and restructuring utility regulation to detach utility profits from electricity sales in order to encourage utilities to invest in the energy efficiency of their customers, as California has done. Interestingly, he emphasized that the transition to a low-carbon economy isn't going to be easy -- sacrifices will have to be made. He proposed that some of the money from his Fund would go to people who are hurt (for example, by loss of their jobs) by the transition, but unlike Rep. Kucinich, he would not guarantee that such people's standards of living could be maintained.

For more information on the candidates' platforms, visit

A critique of an article in The Reporter, Stetson's newspaper

I wrote this letter in response to an article about climate change in Stetson's student-published newspaper. Dr. Abbott (my adviser) and Dr. Hallum (my Environmental Politics professor) contributed ideas.

UPDATE: My critique was accepted and published in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the Nov. 30 Reporter -- find it here.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

First, let me say that coverage of climate change is a good thing. It's an issue that must be discussed, so that awareness can be raised about it and action can be taken. That said, I found several errors in this piece that need correction.

1.) The first, most glaring error is the author's attempt to explain global warming. She confuses two different human-caused atmospheric phenomena, the depletion of the ozone layer and the increased concentration of greenhouse gases. If this was an opinion piece, it's understandable -- this is a common mistake. However, if this was a Reporter-commissioned article, more rigorous fact-checking needs to be undertaken.

The ozone layer provides protection from the Sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. This is a very good thing for life on this planet; UV radiation causes genetic mutation and can lead to skin cancer. The depletion of the ozone layer is caused by human emissions of gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Great strides are being made in reducing CFC emissions.

Global warming is a completely different problem. "Greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide prevent heat from escaping the Earth's atmosphere into space. (CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which can be a source of confusion between the separate problems of ozone depletion and global warming.) Some concentration of these gases is natural in the atmosphere; indeed, without them, our planet's average temperature would be some 61ºF colder. However, human activities are contributing huge amounts of these gases to the atmosphere, which is causing the average surface temperature of the Earth to rise. This is turn will cause a host of changes to the climate, mostly for the worse as far as human societies are concerned. These changes include droughts, floods, and more intense storms, including hurricanes. It will also cause drastic changes in species and ecosystem distribution, the melting of the polar ice caps and land-based ice, and sea level rise (which Sophia's article discussed).

Unfortunately, Sophia seems to have confused these two human-caused atmospheric phenomena. Even more unfortunately, that's only the first (although the most egregious) error in this article.

2.) More alarming is Sophia's attitude towards the effects of global warming. She makes the mistake of considering increased current ice melt to be a natural phenomenon. Sure, the amount of ice at the Poles has varied considerably over the billions of years that make up Earth's history. This has been caused by slight variations in the Earth's orientation and orbit, meteor impacts and volcanic eruptions, and other phenomena. However, what is causing the melting of the ice NOW is increased temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, especially the release of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the release of methane from agricultural activities. This is NOT, as Sophia says, "just nature."

3.) Later, Sophia says that "there isn't anything we can really do about the ice melting and the ocean rising over the next decades." Wrong again. If we sharply curtail our emissions of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), we CAN avoid much of the sea level rise that would happen if we continued with a carbon-intensive economy. We can also avoid the worst effects many of the other problems global warming will cause. In fact, according to the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, the costs of implementing technological and institutional strategies to mitigate the impacts of global warming will be significantly lower than the costs to society if global warming were to hit us with its full force.

4.) Finally, Sophia's last point is that "we may not see the effects of melting ice, but our children definitely will." While this may (MAY) be true for sea level rise, it will certainly not be true for the other predicted effects of global warming. This process is ALREADY affecting us, and its effects will intensify in the years to come. For example, observations of ice melt in the past year have revealed that this process is happening faster than many scientists had predicted. Although I believe that Sophia had the right idea in at least asking readers to consider the next generation -- we have to leave the Earth in good condition for them -- she should also realize that our choices will affect us as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Greenpeace vs. Apple

The confluence of some unexpected free time and an especially-interesting piece of news lead to me writing here again. The topic of this piece is, of course, the controversy stirred up by Greenpeace's targeting of Apple Inc. for the latter's use of what Greenpeace and probably many scientists deign dangerous chemicals.

I pride myself on being well-informed about many environmental issues. Unfortunately, there are so many happening all at once that I find it impossible to stay abreast of all of them while also focusing on school. Maybe someday, God willing, I will get paid to inform myself about these things. (This blog will then undoubtedly be published on a subscription model.) The issue of dangerous chemicals in electronic products is not one that I am familiar with on an objective level -- that is, I have not gone out of my way to understand the issues with these chemicals on a biological or ecological, scientific basis.

That said, I can concisely summarize Greenpeace's and Apple's positions, as well as the history of the feud.

In September 2006, Greenpeace put up a site called "Green My Apple." It was designed after the Apple Inc. website in terms of layout, but the content was focused on how Apple is sorely lacking in the environmentally-friendliness department. (For example: "I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green," or, "I love my iPod, but can we lose the iWaste?") The immediate result of this campaign was a letter posted on the Apple Website called "A Greener Apple". In the letter, Steve Jobs himself described Apple's current greenliness and outlined the company's plan to do more. Greenpeace considered this a victory, hoping that Apple's actions would spur other tech companies to take similar actions.

Greenpeace is now targeting Apple again, claiming that the iPhone is replete with dangerous chemicals. This accusation has evoked, as did the one before it, a sense of defensiveness from Apple and Apple fans (or as they are derogatively labeled, "fanboys"). Why are they targeting Apple, they say. Other companies are just as bad if not worse, they say. If you want to effect the greatest change in terms of mass of these chemicals removed from the market, look at other companies that sell vastly more devices, they say. Greenpeace is just targeting Apple because Apple's a high-profile target and they want to stir the pot, they say. These questions are understandable, but they lack a perspective on the nature of the process of change.

(Warning: college content ahead!)

In my Environmental Politics class, we learned about the political process; that is, the process by which things get changed. The first step is agenda-setting. When an issue isn't even on the radar, nothing's going to change. That's what Greenpeace is doing now. Apple has some of the most recognized devices on the planet at this point. (Would anyone you know not recognize an iPod if they saw one? It's getting to be that way with the iPhone too; when was the last time news networks covered the launch of any electronic device like they did that of the iPhone?) By targeting a high-profile target (i.e., Apple), Greenpeace does "stir the pot." The cynical way to look at this would be to think that Greenpeace is just doing this to get more members, to get more contributions. The way I look at it is its role in the policy cycle. Greenpeace is raising awareness of the issue. If it feels like Apple is the sacrificial lamb, then so be it -- it's all in the name of ridding our products of these dangerous chemicals. This fits with Greenpeace's response to Apple's letter -- they were excited and hoped for the rest of the tech industry to follow suit.

It's late now; I hope that made sense.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A critique of some amateur anti-environmentalists

So, I was perusing Gizmodo as I often do (it's my favorite technology-oriented site, with MacRumors coming in a close second), and I read a story featured there about how Australia may ban plasma TVs, owing to their massive power consumption. Interesting, I thought, I'll tag this in and move on. I then decided to look at the comments, hoping for some "Simpsons" references ("I see you've played knifey-spooney before"). I found a seething pool of anti-environmentalist rage.

Since I am out of class for the week (love Fall Break) and am devoting myself to doing nothing related to school for at least the rest of the night, I decided to take this time and thoroughly critique every single comment on that thread that I possibly could. I will not cite (screen) names, but you can find them if you really want to. Be warned; this is a giant post!

this is probably the stupidest way to save energy yet. how much money did they waste coming up with that legislation?
I don't see how any serious attempt to reduce our carbon footprints can be considered "stupid." This seems like a good way to bring about innovation in the marketplace -- TVs aren't going to become more energy-efficient on their own.

are they to ban hair driers as well? there are TONS of things in a house that use more electricity than a LCD or plasma
A few things wrong here. First, along with this energy efficiency policy they are probably mandating minimum efficiencies for a host of household appliances. I would not be surprised if hair driers were included. Second, there are things that use more energy. I would guess that refrigerators and clothes dryers are among them; however, I also assume that these appliances have minimum efficiency requirements as well. I don't see why TVs should be able to consume power as inefficiently as manufacturers want while other appliances must be designed with efficiency in mind.Third, it's not LCD and plasma TVs that are being banned, it's inefficient LCD and plasma TVs. I assume that they're mandating a maximum level energy consumption in both standby mode and full operation. If manufacturers reach this target, I assume that the Aussies would gladly allow such TVs for sale.

So who does Australia think it is to tell everyone they can't have plasmas and LCDs because they are too power hungry? This is gonna be a boon to the black market just like the temperance years in the US.
First sentence: Australia thinks that it's being a responsible world citizen by mandating minimum energy efficiency requirements so as to reduce the carbon emissions caused by its citizens' lifestyles. (Alternative reply suggested in the comment immediately below the above: "I'm not sure about this, but I think Australia thinks it can tell Australians what they can and can't own because they are the government of Australia. I'm just going out on a limb here, but that's my sense of things.") Second sentence: Maybe for a small subset of the population, but I don't think that average Joe Aussie is going to go anywhere other than a major electronics retailer to get his next TV.

In general, I will say that companies want to produce efficient equipment, as long as it is cheap to them to produce. Remember, dear comrade, companies are in business to increase value to shareholders. Now go wrap yourself in your Marxist blanket and take a nap. Or go buy some carbon offsets to help your conscience. Better yet, look up Chaucer and the Pardoner selling papal pardons. Sounds like Gore, DiCaprio to me. All the carbon from humans probably pales to the output of a volcano.
Well, this comment was totally disjointed. Let's go sentence by sentence.

1. & 2.) That's exactly right! And it explains perfectly why standard-setting (such as exhibited by Australia) is necessary. We must reduce carbon emissions, but performing the necessary innovation is costly. To a company in the absence of regulation, there is essentially no benefit to designing new, more efficient technology; in fact, it costs a lot of money! It doesn't make business sense to do it -- unless their current technology won't sell because it's prohibited by regulation.

4. & 5.) Carbon offsets, if done right, are not like papal indulgences at all. The practice of issuing indulgences (in my Protestant-raised opinion) was corrupt and pointless, because it didn't actually mean anything. However, if a tree is planted, that tree will necessarily absorb CO2 from the air as it grows. Now, there are some issues, such as making sure the tree is planted in the first place and making sure that it doesn't die soon after planting, but if done right carbon offsetting can actually have an effect.

6.) Sort of does. I don't get it.

7.) Thoroughly obliterated elsewhere. Not going to waste my time.

Kum-ba-frickin'-ya. I suspect that 20 years from now we're going to be making a lot of jokes about the global warming wackos. Assuming we don't fully go off the deep end and embrace the socialist aspects of the movement, in which case free speech will have been abolished, so we won't be able to joke about anything except capitalists.

I assume that in 20 years we're going to be kicking ourselves for not having acted sooner. And while some environmentalists are also socialists, the things it stands for do not preclude working with capitalism to find a good solution. I happen to think that capitalism isn't going away, and we'd better work the system to bring about change rather than hoping for some socialist revolution.

This is precisely why the Green Freaks need to be stopped. Today they are telling what kind of TV you may own, tomorrow they will be turning off the power to your house during the hours of 4:00 to 7:00 P.M. because those are prime power usage hours. They'll turn off your sewer during the day so you can't flush the brown trout because it wastes water. Mark my words, you better stop them before it's too late.
Classic "slippery slope" argument, usually logically tenuous. I am also reminded of Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," wherein he points out that the removal of rights can be a good thing. For example, when society removed the rights of people to rob banks, that was a positive. So it is with this issue. While people are less free in the sense that they can no longer buy TVs that contribute to global warming on an unconscionable level, the world can become a better place because of it.

Yeah, let's all jump on compact flourescent bulbs, who cares about the mercury. We will worry about that later. Wait, wait - I know, that will give us another item to attack folks. "Because of our gluttonous need to read at night, our push to use all these CFBs have create mercury." I hear all the eco-babble and reminds me of the eco group in the Clancy novel Rainbow Six novel. I think most of the Green/eco dialog is aimed at slowing the world down to agrarian times. How would I get my gizmos then??
It's been well established that although CFLs do contain some mercury, the total amount of mercury added to the environment per bulb is reduced from incandescents because the higher energy efficiency of CFLs means that less coal is burned powering them. (Coal-fired power plants are some of the largest mercury emitters today.) One source, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, found that the amount of mercury that is prevented from being emitted at coal-fired power plants outweighs the amount of mercury in the bulb by as much as a factor of 10. As for the rest of this comment, I would assume that he's just not very familiar with the moderate, mainstream players in the environmental movement, who suggest that we can have much of our cake and eat it too when it comes to our technologically advanced lifestyle.

With China moving away from Communism I guess AU is trying take top honers.
Regulation does not equal Communism. ("I want to rob banks, dammit!" Absurd.)

Want to save a polar bear? Less than half of a dozen drown, while more than 50 (possibly up to 100) are shot and killed every year. The best solution is to not shoot polar bears. But there's no money in not shooting bears.
The author of this comment makes a salient point in the rest of his/her post, namely that many environmental initiatives are nothing more than a slight improvement furnished in order to win over people who want to "make a statement" with their environmentalist choices or who want to continue what is essentially an unsustainable lifestyle free of guilt. However, the above point is misguided. Polar bears don't drown very often because only rarely is there a situation they can't swim their way out of. However, habitat loss will lead to the inevitable decline of the species, with greater loss than humans cause directly via hunting. (Other than that, omg-ponies, good post. It reminds me of why government regulation is so necessary -- because even though businesses seem to be greening of their own volition, it's very shallow and won't bring about any substantive improvement.

Well, that was a fun exercise. I hope you found it as fun and thought-provoking as I did.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Rep. Dingell introduces carbon tax bill... And I respond

On September 27, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, introduced a bill that would create a "carbon tax." Specifically, it would add a fee of $50 per ton of carbon emissions from fossil fuels -- coal (including lignite and peat), petroleum and petroleum products, and natural gas. In addition to this fee, the bill would add 50 cents to the cost of every gallon of gasoline and other liquid petroleum-based fuels. However, diesel would be exempt from this 50 cent surcharge, because "the fuel economy benefits of diesel surpass even its emissions benefits; it provides about a thirty percent increase in fuel economy and a twenty percent emissions reduction." Note that petroleum-free biofuels would also be exempt from this.

The revenue raised by the gas tax would go to the highway trust fund, with 40% of that going towards mass transit. The Earned Income Tax Credit would be expanded to help poor families cope with increased prices. And finally, the revenue from the carbon fee would go towards several government programs:

  • Medicare and Social Security
  • Universal Healthcare (upon passage)
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • Conservation
  • Renewable Energy Research and Development
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
First, I should mention that Representative Dingell's proposal for a carbon tax is IN ADDITION to a cap-and-trade system for carbon regulation. After some thought, I think that this is a good idea. While the cap-and-trade system would encourage research, development, and deployment, a carbon tax would have immediate effects in terms of purchaser choices. The two systems working concurrently is a good idea.

I am delighted to read about the mortgage interest deduction phase-out for large homes. This is a great idea, because it gets at one of the overarching problems that contributes to our increasing carbon emissions -- the growth of exurbia and its concomitant increase in commute times etc. This original proposal could be an effective way to deal with this serious problem.

The increase in funds for low-income families to help them deal with these price increases is also a great idea, although care must be taken to make sure that this is done wisely.

However, I would like to see the revenue from the tax go more specifically to Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy Research & Development, rather than being split between all the programs listed there.

Rep. Dingell's proposal (summary)


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Using Sewage In Power Plants

The Washington Post reports that, once implemented, an innovative new system will use sewage instead of precious groundwater in the operations of several power plants in Maryland.

The system will pipe in treated sewage from processing plants and use it as the basis of the power generation process, whereby water is heated to steam and used to spin turbines to produce electricity. It will also be used in cooling towers, to return the heated water to a functional temperature.

This design provides several benefits. First, it avoids effluent discharge into bodies of water. A bad thing for obvious reasons, the graphic to the right mentions this. Second, the system avoids the use of groundwater in plant operations, which would otherwise be copious. Third, the "closed-loop" system avoids so-called "thermal pollution," which often occurs when river or lake water is used to cool plant water and then is discharged back into a natural body of water. The subsequent temperature change alters the ecosystem in question.

Florida is in a drought situation right now, with our aquifers extremely low. Something like this could be a huge boon if a traditional power plant were to be built here in the future (although of course alternative sources of energy would be ideal). Or maybe existing plants could be fitted with this system... Very cool stuff!

System Would Use Effluent to Produce Power (Washington via Grist)

[Image from here; "SOURCE: Charles County Governement | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post - August 19, 2007"]