The Gamble

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming, (both of which are extremely unlikely) we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which he recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the delights of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional.  . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.

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Setting An Example

I thought this blurb from a “green” investment company (Green Century Capital Investment, Inc.) would be of interest to readers. It suggests that there are companies — and individuals — that are serious about saving the planet despite the fact that they cannot count on huge subsidies from the government as does Big Oil.

Deep in California’s Santa Clara Valley lies one of the most influential companies of the 21st century — Google. It has revolutionized how we find information, transformed advertising, and radically altered the way we work.

And today, recognizing the catastrophic threat posed by climate change, Google is using its influence to change how and where we get our energy.

The company has been carbon neutral since 2007, and is committed to getting 100% of its energy from clean, renewable sources.
Already Google gets more than a third of its energy from renewable sources, thanks in part to the 1.9 megawatts of solar panels on its Mountain View campus, and to its status as the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy. Plus, Google’s data centers get 3.5 times more computing power out of the same amount of electricity than they did five years ago.

To that end, the company is using its resources to support the growth of the renewable energy industry. Google has invested $2 billion in renewable energy projects around the world. In addition, it recently announced “Project Sunroof,” an ambitious effort taking advantage of the company’s mapping software to make it easier for consumers to see their own solar potential.

Good news, indeed, at a time when we desperately need some!

 

Happy News

My buddy, the “old fart,” insists upon looking at the glass half full. When I question him about it, he insists that I look again. As he likes to remind us all, there are good people out there who never make the news and there are good things that happen that don’t make the headlines. This is certainly true, and in the spirit of the old fart’s pointing finger I have culled the Sierra Club magazine this month and pulled out the bits and pieces of good news about the things that are happening to protect our environment and help our planet to survive. I have skipped the bleak news as that only muddies the waters (no pun intended).

• Solar power is hot on the heels of fossil fuels. In 2013, residential, non-residential, and utility-scale solar installations in the United States added 4,863 megawatts of electricity to the nation’s generating capacity, second only to natural gas, at 6,861 megawatts. (Left in the dust, appropriately, was coal power at 1,507 megawatts.) Through the first half of 2014, 53 percent of all new electric capacity installed came from solar power.” [And this despite the fact that Big Oil gets the major subsidies from the U.S. government and solar and wind power get very little and must beg for what they get.]
•California banned single-use plastic bags. It is the first state to do so. [Taking the lead again, as usual.]
• Statoil, Norway’s national energy company, shelved its plans for a multibilion-dollar investment in Canada’s tar sands.
• President Barack Obama designated 350,000 acres of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains as a new National Monument.
• The Massachusetts District Attorney dropped charges against climate activists who used a lobster boat to block a load of coal bound for the Brayton Point Power Plant because he said he agrees with the protesters.
• More than 400,000 people in New York City joined the People’s Climate March, the largest such demonstration ever.
• Another major investment company has emerged, the New Alternatives Fund, that encourages people to invest in solar and wind power exclusively, investments that have been extremely profitable for folks like T. Boone Pickens, Warren Buffet, and Al Gore. [One wonders if and when Big Oil will climb on board. The train is picking up speed.]
• Denmark supplies three out of four of the world’s offshore wind turbines and is on track to be free of fossil fuels by 2050.
Happy New Year to all and to all a good night!! (And thanks, BTG, for being so positive in a world that drags so many of us down.)

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Greening America

I was aware that California and Hawaii were on the cutting edge of the inevitable conversion to clean energy in this country. I say “inevitable” because, in spite of Big Oil and a recalcitrant Congress, growing numbers of people are aware of the problem and demanding clean energy — and, more to the point, there is money to be made in clean energy. Eventually even the dirty energy companies will realize that. But what I was not aware of, though pleasantly surprised to find out, is that three of America’s dirtiest cities are committed to cleaning up their act and have taken major steps to convert to clean energy.

In the Summer issue of World Wildlife the cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are featured. The steps they have taken are impressive. Let’s hope other cities will soon follow.

In CHICAGO, for example, the number of hybrid vehicles in the municipal fleet has grown to 240, including 200 hybrid utility vehicles and 40 hybrid cars. The city has committed 100 miles of separated bike lanes over the next four years to encourage increased bike travel, which will increase the number of miles of bike trails in the city to 645. The city has also committed to 280 electric vehicle charging stations to encourage the use of electric cars.  Further, the city has committed $1.3 billion to create a smart electricity grid between 2011 and 2021. They are in third place in the country in green jobs — its clean economy employed an estimated 139,800 people in 2012. By the year 2050 Chicago is committed to reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels.

In CINCINNATI in the meantime,  more than 50 traditional trash receptacles throughout the city have been replaced by solar-powered compactors — at a cost of $4500 each. The cans require less frequent pickups, thereby saving fuel otherwise expended by trucks.The Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance has helped retrofit over 1700 homes in greater Cincinnati. The average amount of waste recycled by Cincinnati households has grown to 241 pounds, for a total of 17,815 tons in 2012 alone. Cincinnati is the largest city in the nation to buy 100% green electricity for its citizens. The city, like Chicago, has committed itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 84% within four years.

And finally, in CLEVELAND, 50% of the citizens have received 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, solar and wind. For two years beginning in May 2013 city-owned Cleveland Public Power will test four varieties of LED street lights on both sides of the city and downtown to gauge efficiency. The street lights have a lifespan of 25 years and use roughly 50 percent less energy than traditional counterparts.The city has partnered with “Energy Efficiency Retrofit” to implement the program. These programs will mainly be focused on building and lighting retrofits and new green buildings. The city has committed itself to reducing emissions by 80%  below 2010 levels by the year 2050.

What is most interesting about these incentives is that business leaders and citizens alike support them and the cities are finding ways to combine economic growth and sustainability — which undermines the false claims of Big Oil that so many in this country have bought into, to wit, that clean energy will cripple the economy. It just isn’t so!

Greed, Thy Heart Is Black

A recent story about the production of oil in North Dakota caught my eye. It begins:

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Dr. Lyle Best traveled nearly 200 miles from the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch Tuesday to tell state regulators one thing: “Slow down.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a proposal that would cut back on the state’s booming oil production as a means of controlling the amount of natural gas that’s being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of the more valuable substance, oil.

But oil companies are fighting the idea of slowing production, and want regulators to consider self-imposed steps to curb natural gas flaring, such as submitting plans for natural gas gathering before applying for a drilling permit.

North Dakota drillers currently burn off, or flare, a record 36 percent of the gas because development of pipelines and processing facilities to capture it hasn’t kept pace with oil drilling. The U.S. Energy Department says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.

Best, a Watford City physician, was among more than two dozen people who testified on the new proposal. Best said he lives within 200 yards of two oil wells that emit flares at least 20 feet high and produce a sound “similar to a jetliner passing nearby.”

The biggest issues with burning the gas, he said, is wasting it and the potentially harmful emissions that may be released from flaring.

Indeed, those flares can be seen from outer space: the central and western parts of the state of North Dakota appear to be on fire. But, hey! It’s all about huge profits. The serious risks from widespread fracking are totally ignored, as is the waste and danger to the planet from those natural gas burn-offs. And then there are the hundreds of oil cars that the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad haul daily from North Dakota through such environmentally sensitive places as Glacier Park to the West Coast where the oil is shipped to the Pacific rim: a routine practice that ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents, a likelihood that increases daily considering that a derailment occurs with alarming regularity. This is a dangerous game these oil barons are playing, but they have their blinders on and can only see, smell, and hear the profits mounting up in their off-shore bank accounts.

As it happens, I know a couple of people who work on the oil fields in North Dakota and am aware of the huge profits this activity yields to the workers themselves and the small businesses who cater to them on or near the oil fields. It’s a virtual gold rush. The state of North Dakota is one of the very few in this country that operates in the black (pardon the pun) and I get that. It’s nice to see that some of those who actually need money are getting some of the benefits of this gluttony. But the notion that is most disturbing, suggested in this story, is that those in charge can’t get the oil out fast enough and that they simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Our economy encourages folks to get as much as they can while the getting is good. I also get that. But it is an ugly feature of this economy that makes its successful practitioners ugly and one that costs us all a great deal in the long run — the future that those who call the shots are determined to  ignore.

One must ask in the final analysis if it is just possible that humans simply cannot resist the temptations of power and prestige that are promised by great wealth. I do wonder if in promising men wealth and power in this world through tearing from the earth its hidden treasures the genie was released from the bottle. It is just possible that the force of those temptations is too great for men to resist with wills weakened by habitual self-indulgence. The question is,  just how do we go about putting the genie back into the bottle?

Bad News/Good News

It’s time once again to summarize the environmental news from the past couple of months as it appears in this month’s Sierra Magazine. Let’s begin with the bad news:

In the midst of one of the more severe winters we have experienced in the Midwest and Northeast in recent years — which has convinced the no-minds that global warming is a fiction invented by tree-hugging weirdos — it is sobering to realize that 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record. It was so hot during the Australian Open Tennis Tournament (108 degrees) that plastic bottles were melting and several players suffered from sunstroke. Having played tennis in hot temperatures, I can assure you that the temperature on the tennis court was considerably hotter than the air temperature as recorded.

In the face of the drought in California, officials have announced that farmers in California’s Central Valley will receive no state or federal irrigation water this year.  Some California ranchers have been forced to give up on grass-fed beef because of the drought in that state. And while this was happening, it was discovered that eight million acres of farmland in China are too polluted to grow crops — ever again.  As populations continue to grow and the globe continues to warm it seems evident that it will become increasingly difficult to feed the world’s hungry people. And it is not a problem that will go away simply because we ignore it.

In its wisdom, Congress allowed the tax credits for wind power to expire. Those credits were instrumental in getting 60,000 megawatts of clean wind power on-line in the last two decades. Simultaneously, by arguing that solar collectors have “saturated” the grid or that they are increasing costs to those without the collectors, the nation’s investor-owned utilities  have launched a full-scale attack on solar energy, “challenging the laws, rules, and programs that have made solar a formidable clean energy contender.” The attack includes anti-solar ads produced by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers. (Can there be any debate whatever about the question of who are two of the most wicked men in the world today?)  In the meantime, one can expect the $8 billion in annual tax credits to Big Oil to continue.

But, on the other hand, the 377 megawatt Ivanpah solar electric generating station, the largest in the world, went on-line in the desert southwest of Las Vegas.  Shell Oil has cancelled plans to drill in the Arctic in 2014 and the Los Angles City Council banned fracking. The EPA (which has been targeted by the Koch brothers) proposed fuel-efficiency standards for big trucks for the first time ever. And the Obama administration finally got off its duff and blocked the construction of the Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper mine proposed for the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, site of one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. With food shortages looming, this would appear to be a no-brainer. I can imagine the federal government getting more involved as the food crunch gets worse. That may not be a bad thing.

Finite Resource

You may have seen the photo of Congressman Joe Barton (R-Tx), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, staring at the audience with a vapid expression and making the incredibly stupid remark:  the “wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow down the wind which would cause the temperature to go up.” The photo with that caption is making the rounds of the social media, though you probably thought it was on Fox News. It may have been.

It does give one hope when a conservative politician admits that there is such a thing as global warming, that what we do can alter the climate. So perhaps we should be pleased with that aspect of the man’s comment. I leave that to the optimists among us, those who insist on seeing the half-empty glass half full. I, on the other hand, think that this man sits on one of the most important sub-committees in Washington that helps determine our energy policies and it makes me shudder. But Barton is right about this: there is a finite resource in this country these days; but it’s not wind, it’s intelligence.

I had a discussion the other day with a local businessman who was chortling over a political cartoon in the paper that showed people shoveling out from under the some of the tons of snow Minnesota has received this Winter while making snide remarks about global warming. It was inevitable: a very cold Winter with a good deal of snow has many folks in this region of the country convinced that global warming is a fiction. They don’t grasp the concept of “global warming.” It’s not just Minnesota and it’s not just this Winter: it’s a trend and the trend is clearly upwards. Just ask the folks on the South Pacific islands who are seeing their villages disappear under higher ocean levels. Or the folks in Alaska who are having to move entire towns further inland as the ocean encroaches. Or California which is experiencing the worst drought they have seen in years.

When I tried to point out these features of the situation, I could see the man’s eyes glaze over as he responded that a member of his church who “teaches science” had assured his fellow parishioners that present-day concern over global warming is due simply to today’s more precise measuring equipment. Global warming is not for real, it’s merely apparent. I didn’t ask what sort of “science” the man taught, at what level, or what his credentials were to be making pronouncements about world climate conditions. In fact, I let the matter drop. After all in a small town one meets these people on a regular basis and sometimes has to do business with them. You just shake your head and smile.

But I came away with an insight about why there is such widespread denial on the issue of climate change. We all know that in Washington the denial is due to the powerful influence of Big Oil that determines whether a politician’s career comes to an abrupt end or continues on its way with plenty of cash to see the politician through the next election. Big Oil doesn’t want those under their collective thumb to talk about climate change, except to deny it. So people like Barton open their mouths and say incredibly stupid things. Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. This was one of those times!

Outside of the Washington beltway I think it comes down to the fact that folks don’t want to accept the possibility that their own behavior contributes to global warming because that might mean they would have to alter their behavior. They don’t want to turn down their thermostats in the Winter or up in the Summer. They don’t want to drive more efficient cars or, better yet, walk or bike. In a word: they don’t want to be inconvenienced. Or, as we like to say, they don’t want to alter their “life-style.” So their arguments are accompanied by a closed mind and rest comfortably on the feelings of assurance they get from what they hear from Fox News, like-minded friends, and the science teachers in their church. They are convinced that things are just fine. Weather has always had its ups and downs after all; it has always been cyclical. This is nothing new and its only the liberal tree-huggers who try to tell us otherwise. Those who try to warn us are dismissed with a snort — as is a huge body of scientific evidence.

We humans are very good at dismissing arguments we find discomforting by labeling the speaker: Oh, she’s a liberal, or Oh, he’s one of those right-wingers. Heaven forbid we should actually listen to the things they have to say — even if we don’t agree with them! We are also very good at rationalizing. It takes real courage to accept as true a claim that doesn’t fit nicely into our belief system, especially if it is an uncomfortable truth. It is much easier to reject the claim as false, regardless of the data, and embrace only those beliefs that make us feel comfortable  — which is simply more evidence that intelligence is a finite resource and seems to be diminishing rapidly. Just as the wind would be if we tried to harness it, apparently.

Bad News, Good News

As I have done in the previous blogs, I want to pass along several bits and pieces of environmental news culled from the pages of the monthly Sierra magazine. I will begin with the bad news first, because there is always some of that, and end with the news that provides a glimmer of hope for the planet.

Under the heading of “so what else is new” we find that 55 percent of the Republicans in Congress still deny climate change — and those people are all heavily supported by Big Oil. In the House, there are 128 climate deniers out of the 233 Republicans; in the Senate there are 30 climate deniers out of the 46 Republicans. Those deniers in the House collect $231,000 in contributions from Big Oil (as contrasted with $69,000 for the non-deniers). In the Senate, the deniers collect $699,000 whereas the non-deniers collect $171,000. I suppose we should be grateful that there are some who collect contributions from Big Oil who are willing to admit the truth that stares them in the face. But the correlation between the amount of money from Big Oil and the denial of the truth about our planet is stunning when seen in such detail.

To continue with the bad news for the moment, I shall simply list some of the items Sierra tells us will bring us “Up To Speed” about what’s going on in the world the past couple of months.

Ecuador has abandoned its pledge not to drill for oil in remote Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rain forest.

Fracking is now linked to an increase in U.S. earthquakes — as is geothermal power production.

High fertility rates in Africa have led demographers to revise their estimates of peak world population upwards. They now expect there to be 11 billion people by the end of the century — up from 7.1 billion. (I find this particularly unsettling since, as I have said in the past, I consider the population explosion the fundamental problem facing humankind, and the root of most of our other problems.)

Tons of radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant have leaked into the Pacific Ocean.

And now for some Good News!

The United States has installed 10 gigawatts of solar capacity, though it still trails Germany, Italy, and China.

The White House has re-installed solar panels put in place by Jimmy Carter and removed by Ronald Reagan.

The World Bank has declared that it will sharply restrict funding for the new coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has declined to fund a huge new coal plant in Vietnam on environmental grounds.

The Bureau of Land Management lease sale for 149 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin failed to garner a single bid!

So, just when we are about to tear out what little hair we have left, we see faint signs that all humans have not lost their minds. Just remember what Red Green says: “we’re all in this together.” And “Keep your stick on the ice”!

Poetic Justice?

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a coalition of reluctant countries led by a delusional United States chasing fictional WMD’s, you may recall that there were international sanctions against Iraq that were apparently crippling their economy — especially the export of oil from that oil-rich country. A cynic might suggest that the invasion was the brain child of Big Oil, since they were having difficulties getting their hands on that oil due to the sanctions, but I am not willing to make such an assertion. I say this even though I am aware that the first thing secured by the United States forces were the oil fields — not the museums where millions of dollars in treasures were pilfered and never found again. But, as I say, I am not cynical enough to suggest that Big Oil was behind the invasion — again, in spite of the fact that Bush and Cheney had (and still have) connections with Big Oil. I’m not sayin’ . . . .

In any event, as it happens, now that that abortive war is over and Iraq has been restored to relative calm and the oil fields are up and running America’s Big Oil maggots  magnates are now fuming because they still can’t get their greedy hands on all of that oil. In fact, the Iraqis are selling the bulk of it to China which had nothing whatever to do with the invasion of the country. But the Chinese are willing to pay top dollar for the oil because China is not being run by the oil maggots magnates; it is run by a government that is more concerned about getting hold of the oil than they are about the profits. Chinese oil companies are not privately owned by companies like Exxon/Mobil, which owns the lion’s share in one of the largest oil fields in Iraq; they are state-owned and the country needs the energy.  These companies do not have to answer to their shareholders, pay dividends, or even generate profits. The American oil maggots magnates want to buy the oil cheap and sell it high whereas the Chinese are willing to pay the Iraqis what they demand. Guess where the oil increasingly ends up? In China, of course — not the United States.

Not only are the Chinese buying the Iraqi oil at relatively high prices, they are pouring people and billions of dollars into Iraq to make sure the supply of oil continues for as long as possible and that they get a larger and larger percentage of the oil that is exported. As we are told in an article first published in the New York Times and written by Tim Arango and Clifford Krauss, former Defense Department official Michael Makovsky, who worked for the Bush administration, complains that “We lost out. The Chinese had nothing whatever to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in the ancient notion of cosmic harmony — until you stop to think of all the killed, wounded, and displaced people that war cost.