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 www.hillaryclinton.com 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 Grist.org.

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.