Bi-monthly Report

As is usually the case with this blog, I am going to summarize the Sierra Club’s bi-monthly report as included in the Sierra Magazine. It contains some bad news along with some very good news as far as human life on our planet is concerned. First the bad news:

BAD NEWS

The Baird’s sparrow is being pushed out of North Dakota and Montana and into Canada by climate change.

Rising temperatures and hybridization with non-native rainbow trout threaten Montana’s famed cutthroat trout with extinction.

May was the hottest month on record.

The West Antarctic ice sheet is in irreversible collapse according to a joint University of California, Irvine/NASA study. The ice sheet contains enough water top raise sea levels worldwide by four feet.

That last one is most disturbing, but it is countered by some good news.

GOOD NEWS
One-fifth of the world electric energy production now comes from renewables.

The EPA proposes a rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, including existing coal-fired power plants, by 30 percent by 2030. (You may recall that the EPA is one of the main targets of the Koch brothers!) Meanwhile, Finland (whose school system is the best in the world) aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the middle of the century.

Tesla motors (makers of the world’s most efficient electric cars) has surpassed Toyota as the largest auto industry employer in California. Further, their CEO, Elon Musk, has opened his company’s patents to other automakers for free in order to help widespread adoption of electric cars.

America now has more solar workers than coal miners — (for those who think the pursuit of renewable energy will cost the country jobs).

And finally, Pope Francis says that destroying the earth is a sin. (Not to mention suicidal).

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Just The Facts, Ma’am

Old timers will remember the days of “Dragnet” when TV screens were small and the pictures black and white. Jack Webb, the expressionless lead in that show always asked for “just the facts.” In those days folks could distinguish between the facts and opinions. Nowadays, not so much. Corporations seem to have the greatest difficulty as they seek to manipulate or ignore altogether relevant facts in an attempt to persuade the public and the Congress that they wish only to help further the public good. Profits are secondary. Right!

One such example pops up every now and again in the ONEARTH magazine published by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group I support which does, in fact, seek to help protect the planet from greedy and duplicitous corporations. They are spitting into the wind at best, as evidenced by a recent example in this month’s magazine. The NRDC published a portion of a letter written by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity that seeks to respond to a negative report by the NRDC to the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. The NRDC printed the response by ACCCE with its comments in bright yellow, footnoted more or less as follows (“Just the facts, Ma’am”). They begin by insisting that the notion of “clean coal” is an oxymoron, which is a fact. They then to proceed point by point:

Claim by ACCCE: The clean air act “is not designed to regulate greenhouse gases and any efforts by the EPA to do so will cause unnecessary economic harm.”

Rejoinder (by the NRDC): “The Supreme Court disagrees. In 2007 it ruled that greenhouse gases meet the definition of an air pollutant in the Clean Air Act, and in 2011 it ruled that the EPA has the authority to set standards for carbon pollution from power plants.”

Claim: “Our conclusion is that the NRDC proposal would cause substantial economic harm and any such harm is impossible to justify.”

Rejoinder: “ACCCE uses an inflated estimate of energy efficiency costs, which makes the overall costs of reducing emissions seem higher. It also uses a shoddy apples-and-oranges comparison in weighing the costs and benefits of carbon emission reductions.” Further, “ACCCE kooks at only one side of the ledger, ignoring the economic benefits of limiting pollution in terms of improving human and environmental health and reducing climate change. [In logic this is called the “fallacy of ignored aspect” and it is an example of flawed reasoning.] If you factor in these savings, ACCCE’s own numbers show that the cumulative benefits would exceed costs by more than two to one.

Claim: “According to the analysis conducted by NERA, the CO2 reductions that would result from the NRDC proposal represent, at most, 1 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rejoinder: “Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, and no other single policy would reduce emissions more effectively than setting limits on these emissions.”

Of considerable interest in this debate, of course, is the appeal by the Clean-Coal [sic] industry to the “economic benefits” of reducing restrictions on coal-burning plants. In a word: you are taking our profits away from us. (No wonder the industry hates the EPA and the government that supports it. People like the Koch brothers have their sights set on the EPA and are determined t bring it down.) But there is considerable evidence, suggested here, that the economic and health benefits to the public at large greatly outweigh the losses to the coal industry, thus giving the lie to the corporate claim to be concerned with the public good. So, what else is new?

In general, when it comes to claims and counter-claims, since the issues are often technical and beyond my ken, I tend to ask which side has a hidden agenda. If there is an axe to grind then the “facts” are likely to be skewed in favor of the one wielding the axe. As a general rule, the corporations don’t much care about the common good: they are almost exclusively interested in profits for their shareholders and huge salaries for their CEOs — 475 times the size of the salary of their average employee at last count. It’s not likely, therefore, that data, or “studies,” supplied by corporations to serve their own purposes will be reliable, whereas data provided by disinterested third parties are more likely to be reliable.  It pays to be suspicious. It should surprise no one to see how those who have something to sell will play games with facts or ignore them altogether. So it goes.

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.