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!

 

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Good News!

It may be a small step, but Syracuse University announced today that they will divest over $1 billion in fossil fuels and invest only in clean energy in the future. This announcement came after two years of protest by students at the university. This is great news for two reasons: (1) It gives a boost to the clean energy movement. And (2) it shows that not all college students are wasting their time drinking and attending sporting events; young people who pull together for a higher purpose can have an effect.  I am delighted by both (all three?) of these facts.

Oh, yes. More good news: France has announced that all new construction must have solar collectors or gardens on the roofs!! You see, all news is not bad news. It’s just the news the entertainment industry chooses to provide us with!

Bifurcation

There is a host of informal fallacies, so-called, that most of us commit unknowingly every day. The most common of them is the ad hominem fallacy in which a person’s claim is dismissed because of the type of person putting forth the claim. Thus, we might reject the claim made by Jones because Jones is a narrow-minded cretin. The fallacy arises because even though Jones may, in fact, be a narrow-minded cretin, his claim int this case might be well founded. Attention is drawn away from the claim to the person making the claim, Hence it is fallacious reasoning.

But there is another fallacy that is also quite common and perhaps even more insidious in its way. It’s called the fallacy of bifurcation. It rests on the fact that an argument relies on a false dichotomy to draw its conclusion. Most disjunctions are loose, non-exclusive disjunctions, as in “I will have either soup or a sandwich for lunch. ” (I might have both.) Lose disjunctions allow for the middle ground. Some disjunctions do not allow of any middle ground, as in “either you live in New York or you don’t.” You can’t have it both ways. These are called “exclusive disjunctions” and they are very rare (even in this case one could both live in New York and not live in New York if he or she had homes in both New York and Minnesota). There is seldom a situation that does not allow of a middle ground: most disjunctions are non-exclusive, as in the case with the soup or the sandwich.

What all this is leading to is the observation that we have all (or most of us) fallen for the notion put forward by the dirty energy companies that we must either have dirty energy or we must have a weak economy. It’s usually in the form “either jobs or the economy.” This is a classic example of the fallacy of bifurcation. Experience has shown — as though common sense would not — that we can have it both ways. We can have clean energy and boost the economy at the same time. This has been proven in the solar industry where thousands of jobs have been created and, as I recently argued, it has been shown in places like Chicago where 139,800 jobs have been created in the clean energy industry. And yet we will continue to hear from Big Oil, for example, that we simply must continue to destroy the earth by constructing monstrosities like the Keystone Pipeline because it creates jobs — the implication, again, is that the only industry that can provide jobs is the dirty energy industry. The argument is clearly self-serving. But it is also persuasive because, like all fallacies, it rests on an emotional appeal. People fear the loss of jobs and it is that fear (coupled with a weak critical faculty) that results in their acceptance of what is at heart a weak argument.

In addition to the appeal to emotion that rests at the heart of what amount to dozens of common fallacies which results in their being so persuasive there is the fact that we don’t teach logic to many people any more. We don’t teach many things that would help them gain control of their minds so that smiling, glad-handed thugs would not take possession of them. We don’t teach Latin much any more, despite the fact that knowing  Latin helps us gain a better grasp of our own language and since language is essential to thought, it is thought that suffers in the end. If one wonders why old-timers like myself keep going on about the demise of contemporary education it might be worth a moment to consider the fact that by focusing on what the children in the classrooms want and tossing out essential subjects like logic and Latin (and history, mathematics, economics, literature, and even English) we deprive the young today of the ability tomorrow to see the fallacies that lie at the heart of so many appeals by unconscionable agents whose only desire is to gain a profit or otherwise make life easy for themselves at our expense.

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!

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.

Alternative Energies

Germany is one of the countries leading the world in the switch to renewable energies. And like other countries that have seen large-scale switches to clean energy, the utilities are taking it in the shorts and crying “uncle.” This includes not only private homes but also the industries in Germany, 16% of which are now off the grid — double the percentage of the previous year. This is cutting into the profits of the utilities, Germany’s mega-utility company, RTE, claiming to have lost $3.8 billion lat year alone. The Swedish utility company Vattenfall, which has large investments in Germany, claims to have lost $2.3 billion last year.

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Needless to say, this doesn’t disturb the clean-energy advocates one bit but, more to the point, it should have been seen coming by the energy companies. Germany has been shifting its energy priorities for some time now and it is inevitable that the utility companies would see their profits fall. As a recent story tells us:

When unveiling today’s dismal earnings, RWE’s Terium admitted the utility had invested too heavily in fossil fuel plants at a time when it should have been thinking about renewables: “I grant we have made mistakes. We were late entering into the renewables market — possibly too late.”

To which I simply add: Duhhhhh! One can only ask when Big Oil and Big Coal in this country will climb aboard the clean energy train. In its small way, alternative energies like wind and solar are already making inroads into the profits of the utility companies — in places like Hawaii, for example, as reported recently. And this despite the absence in this country of a clean energy policy and very little Federal support.  In fits and starts the switch to clean energy will continue to happen, despite the unwillingness of the Congress to get behind alternative energies and the necessity for private investors like T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffet, and a few of the states, to lead the way. It will happen. This country will eventually follow Germany’s and China’s lead into the 21st century and if the corporations that blindly push for fossil fuels continue to ignore the handwriting on the wall, their overpaid CEOs will echo the cries of “foul” we now hear from Germany. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good business. One would think that American businessmen who are supposed to be among the best and brightest in the world would realize where their own long-term best interest lies. But, then, business doesn’t teach us much about the long term; it’s almost always about short-term profits. Brace yourself for the coming outcry! Relish it when it comes.

The High Costs of Ignorance

It is hard to believe that in this day and age there are still people who deny the fact of climate change brought on by global warming, despite virtual unanimity among scientists regarding not only the fact of global warming but also the fact that humans are at least partly responsible.  But a recent study revealed that there is an alarming number of high school teachers of biology (that’s right, teachers) who believe that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time and, of course, deny evolution. And 60% of Americans do not know that DNA  has anything to do with heredity. And, of course, the majority of Republicans in Congress are climate-deniers as well. So the claims of scientists apparently don’t register with those who don’t have the least idea just what science is, including a disturbing number of high school science teachers. Or, perhaps, people just believe what they want to believe, or are paid to believe. Perhaps that’s closer to the truth.

In any event, it now appears that insurance companies, led by the international reinsurance corporation in Munich, are researching the projected costs of climate change as it increases the risk of record-breaking extreme weather events — such as extreme heat, heavy precipitation, and higher winds in storms. It is sobering to realize that there have been at least 2,941 monthly records broken by extreme events in the past year in the United States alone. Climate scientists are saying that this is “a troubling trend,” which is a masterpiece of understatement.

In spite of the evidence, there are many who live among us who still drive their gas guzzlers, keep the heat at or above 72 degrees in the Winter and the air conditioner at the same setting in the Summer, and want to see any Federal agency that attempts to monitor industry run out-of-town. One suspects that when the cost in dollars finally comes home to roost and individuals have to pay more for fuel oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, and insurance  — not to mention the food on their tables — they might begin to get the idea. One hopes. The question is, of course, whether it will be too little too late.

The response of politicians, even “liberal” politicians like our sitting President, is to call for more nuclear plants. And while it is certainly the case that such plants do not contribute much to global warming, they none the less have serious environmental problems of their own that are a threat to the planet. To begin with we have no idea whatever where to bury the toxic waste, which, as of four years ago, amounted to 62,683 metric tons. Furthermore, there is always the possibility of a nuclear accident, as we were recently reminded when a tsunami devastated the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan causing radiation leakage that still threatens human and animal life and has wreaked havoc in the Pacific Ocean. But the talk about “safe” nuclear power will resume as people forget what happened “over there somewhere,” ignore the fact of accumulating nuclear waste, and start to clamor for ways to maintain their current standard of living. And when it does, those who argue for clean fuel sources, such as wind and solar, will continue to go unheard, or dismissed as nut cases.

I chaired a conference some years back where a spokesman for the Texas Power and Light company argued against alternative energies on the grounds — stated as axiomatic — that nuclear power is the “clear choice for our future needs, since we don’t want to have to alter our lifestyle.”  There are a number of things wrong with this statement, of course, beginning with the fact that our current lifestyle is indefensible, given the genuine needs of others around the globe and the damage we are doing to the planet. In any event, we are not really talking about our “needs” anyway.” We simply want to maintain that lifestyle, and we try to justify that by calling it a “need.” In fact, we don’t need to continue to live as we do; we could live smarter — and be better off. We are very good at disguising our wants as needs in order to make ourselves think we are better people than we are.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the climate scientists are all wrong and that human activity has nothing to do with climate change, as some still insist. And let us further assume that in spite of this we do alter our lifestyles and move in the direction of more environmentally responsible living — we use public transportation; walk, or cycle; drive cars only when necessary (and only fuel-efficient cars); turn the thermostats down in the winter and grab a sweater when cold; support alternate energies; and insist upon stringent standards of compliance from industry which at present is slow to endorse the waste-to-energy technologies that would be of immense benefit to us all. If we do all or even some of these things, and the scientific predictions turn out to have been overly pessimistic, we will have inconvenienced ourselves somewhat while still saving money in the long run —  as well as some of the planet’s finite resources. We will have erred on the side of caution. On the other hand, if the scientists are correct, as the insurance companies are now beginning to believe, and we insist on maintaining our current lifestyle, the results will be a series of catastrophes that will prove to be very costly to us all. Any bets as to which option we will choose?

Half-Truths About Fracking

I will quote a recent story from Yahoo News (culled from the AP) in its entirety:

AP Wirephoto  (Thanks to Yahoo News)

AP Wirephoto
(Thanks to Yahoo News)

RIFLE, Colo. (AP) — Three hours west of Denver, across the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains begin the long transition into high desert plateaus.

This sparsely-populated land is dotted with ranches and small towns that were once local hubs for mining the rich minerals found under the earth.

But over the past few years, this town and others have become increasingly a local center for the natural gas industry. Off the highway outside town in all directions, one can see evidence, large and small, of the latest local energy boom, from natural gas extraction all the way up the chain to refining.

Hydraulic fracturing — “fracking,” for short — pumps millions of gallons of water mixed with fine sand and chemicals deep into oil and gas wells.

The water splits open oil- and gas-bearing rock. Specially formulated fracking fluids help carry the sand into the newly formed fissures and keep the cracks propped open.

The rapid growth of the oil industry in the region has brought opposition from those who warn of environmental costs. In some places the practice has been blamed for air pollution and gas leaks that have ruined well water. But federal and many state regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.

To begin with, note the brevity of this article, given the immense complexity of the subject! Have we really become so stupid in the minds of the media that they think we can’t handle a lengthy article giving full details of a story that has major implications for all of us? In one brief sentence, almost in passing, the article notes the “opposition from those who warn of environmental costs” and assure us that “regulators say the practice is safe when done properly.” This is supposed to inform us about the millions of gallons of water that are used in this process that are rendered too contaminated for human or animal use thereafter — at a time when continued drought threatens the farming industry and farmers in Kansas are already importing water from Florida. Further, the snippet ignores the growing concern about the health of those who live in the region of the fracking operations who are beginning to experience a number of alarming symptoms — not to mention the carbon dioxide that is being expunged into the atmosphere, in North Dakota in particular, from fires triggered by the process. As we learn from Robert Krulwich, who reports for N.P.R., “When oil comes to the surface, it often brings natural gas with it, and according to North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, 29 percent of the natural gas now extracted in North Dakota is flared off. Gas isn’t as profitable as oil, and the energy companies don’t always build the pipes or systems to carry it away. For a year (with extensions), North Dakota allows drillers to burn gas, just let it flare. There are now so many gas wells burning fires in the North Dakota night, the fracking fields can be seen from deep space.”

North Dakota Aflame From Space

North Dakota Aflame From Space

(As you can plainly see, it makes for quite a spectacle when viewed from outer space: much of North Dakota seemingly on fire!)

In a word, the photograph showing the hard-working oil man set against the snowy mountains says more than the article below it: it’s man against nature with no thought for the morrow. We destroy the land, water, and air in the name of creature comforts — ignoring the reasonable alternatives of conservation and clean energy. And we sum it all up in a few words with a photograph that will suggest to many (who will miss the metaphorical implications) the jobs the oil industry has promised in order to help our economy get back on its feet. I don’t buy it. A half-truth is worse than a blatant falsehood, and this story and photograph tell a half-truth. What they ignore, or what is merely implied, is of major importance and will go right over the heads of most readers — if they bother to read it at all.

Money Talks Loudest

Those of us who have been beating the drum relentlessly about alternative energy wonder if there’s any likelihood that Americans will finally wake up and realize that we simply must tear ourselves away from fossil fuels — which are, after all, finite. We can, however, take some hope from a recent article about the rising costs of oil that makes the following point almost in passing:

With oil potentially getting that [expensive], we need to seriously consider the potential of seeing another energy source replace oil demand. In the past 23 years, gasoline prices and the price for a barrel of West Texas intermediate [oil] in the U.S. have traded at a multiple of roughly 33.1. Based on the OECD’s projections, this could mean that gasoline in the U.S. would cost somewhere in the range of $6.05 to $10.85. With current prices already causing a consideration of alternative fuels, $10 a gallon certainly would tip the scales in the favor of alternative sources.

What this means is that the factor which might finally wake people up to the folly of depending so much on oil at the risk of catastrophic damage to the environment is not the damage to the environment, per se. It’s the damage to the pocketbook. Americans are apparently willing to have their children breathe dirty air and choke on toxic water resulting from techniques such as fracking to get at the oil and gas and burning such make-believe substances as “clean coal.”  But they won’t stand for increasing prices at the gas pump. The major impetus for the development of alternative fuels in the end will almost assuredly be anger at rising oil and gas prices. These rising prices will lead Americans finally to electric or hybrid cars that burn less fuel and might even propel these folks to solar and wind energy in their homes when the price of heating and cooling fuels goes through the roof.

While one would like to think that people will do the right thing for the right reasons, in the end what matters is that they do the right thing — even for the wrong reasons. But given a self-absorbed population that refuses to modify its “life-style” in order to conserve precious resources and protect the earth one can find solace in the fact that at some point, before much longer, people will demand alternative fuels simply because they can’t afford to put gasoline in their cars or pay their heating bills. And I predict that at that point Big Oil and Coal companies will invest heavily in clean energy and claim it was what they wanted all along!

A Third Alternative

In a recent blog I spoke of the delicate balance we must strike between the possible harm to wildlife and the environment and our development of alternative forms of energy. I suggested that despite the possible harm that might result from the development of solar and wind power, it is preferable to the continued reliance on oil and coal. I also suggested that the development of clean energy seems to be the “lesser of evils.” But, as Hannah Arendt reminds me, the lesser of evils is still evil. The problem with this type of reasoning is that it gives the appearance of providing moral support for a position that may not in fact be morally justifiable. It goes like this: A is preferable to B since A has the more acceptable consequences. But if A is still a bad thing, then we may say A is preferable only if there is not a third option, C which might be better than either A or B. In this case we simply assume that humans will continue to demand more and more energy and thus we will require more energy sources. But let’s check out that assumption.

Some years ago I led a conference at my university on the ethics of nuclear power usage, examining the pros and cons of the continued development of a “clean” source of energy that has built-in dangers — as we recently found out in Japan. A spokesman for the Texas Power and Light Company spoke while a nuclear chemist (who was also a medical doctor) spoke against nuclear power. At one point in the discussion the spokesman from Texas said that Americans shouldn’t have to alter their life style. And that’s the key. It’s not only a key to the nuclear power debate, but it is also the key to the delicate balance I am speaking about in this blog. The question is: why shouldn’t Americans alter their life-style?  We waste nearly 40% of the energy we burn, according to recent studies. Power plants waste an estimated 75% of the energy they use and all of us waste as much as 12% of the energy we use as “stand-by” energy because we don’t turn off appliances. And we keep our houses much warmer than we need to. With climate change continuing to raise the temperatures in this part of the world, we will use more and more energy to keep our houses cool in the Summer months as well.

But let’s just take the matter of the hot houses in the Winter. I recall a television commercial in which the actor left his home and with his telephone he reduced his thermostat in his empty home from 72 degrees to 68 degrees. And this was supposed to be exemplary behavior! But think about that: he is heating his house to 68 degrees while there is no one inside that house! It’s bad enough that he keeps the house at 72 degrees while he is inside, but leaving it at that setting while it is empty is irresponsible if not downright stupid. I live in Minnesota where it does get cold in the Winter and we set our thermostat at 62 degrees in the daytime and at 59 degrees at night. That’s why God invented sweaters (and blankets), my wife tells me. It took a bit of getting used to, but I wouldn’t want it any other way now. And I have seen films of Inuit people inside their igloos with naked babies where we are told the temperatures are in the low 50’s. It is really a question of getting used to a new “life-style.” And if our current life-style is wasteful, why shouldn’t we alter it?

We can do so if we choose to do so. With a serious attempt at conservation we could use less energy and we could also do a better job of protecting wildlife and the environment. I wonder how many of those folks in Martha’s Vineyard who want to protect Nantucket Sound set their thermostats down at night and when they are not at home? (I’m just sayin’). As long as there is a viable alternative, the lesser of evils is still evil, as Arendt says, and we could be doing better.