Happy Christmas!

What with a circus going on in the political arena and so much agony around the world, it seemed to me that at this time of year we should focus for a moment, at least, on some good news. And there is good news, at least on the environmental front — which may be the most vital front of all — starting with the Paris Accords. . I quote here from this month’s Sierra magazine skipping, for obvious reasons, the bleak news they also tend to fill their magazine with.

To begin with, there is this nice tid-bit titled “The Clean Energy Boom”:

“Renewable energy in the United States has taken off faster than a smartphone-app-start-up. In the decade between 2005 and 2014, we increased our wind power by a factor of 10 and generated 33 times more solar electricity. Wind energy — which provides about 10 times more electricity in America than solar thermal and solar photovoltaic sources combined — has been surging steadily since 2010, while growth in solar power has spiked in the last two years. And the best news, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is that the renewable boom is expected to continue at least through this year and next.”

And that’s not all, though I would add that a plan is in the works to build the state’s largest solar collector farm about six miles South of my home in Cottonwood, Minnesota. Good news indeed.  But, wait!

“Shell Oil has abandoned plans to drill for oil in Arctic waters.”

“The Interior Department has cancelled two oil-drilling lease sales in the Arctic Ocean.”

“China has announced a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2017.”

In addition, there is this exciting news item:

San Diego wants to be clean — 100 percent clean energy, to be exact — in just 20 years, under an ambitious plan unanimously passed last week by the city council. This is big news. San Diego is America’s eighth largest city, with a population of more than 1.5 million. It also has a Republican mayor, who, unlike his compatriots railing against climate action at presidential debates across the country, is making a bold plan that puts his city at the forefront of America’s clean energy future.

The plan — which got unanimous, bi-partisan support from the city council — could become a model for other cities around the country to also move to 100 percent renewables.

Already, we’ve seen that cities around the world are far ahead of national governments in taking actions toward sustainability. Whether it is banning plastic bags, setting up municipal composting systems, or shifting away from dirty coals, it is cities that paved the path for countries to make a climate accord in Paris just last week.

San Diego’s plan is ambitious but realistic. It relies on expanding the city’s vehicle fleet to 90 percent electric cars by 2035, expanding bicycles and public transit, creating more walkable neighborhoods, and better managing waste.

Let’s hope the new year brings even more good news. In the meantime, Happy Christmas to all my blogging friends!!

 

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Someone’s Been Peeking

Just when I thought that only a few close friends were reading my blog I picked up a copy of this week’s Sierra Magazine and discovered a review of a book by Andrew Hoffman which restates what I have been saying for years. He must have been peeking at my blog! Right? Hoffman’s book, titled How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, maintains that folks who cling to the illusion that climate change is…..an illusion…. are conditioned by their deepest biases and find it very difficult, if not impossible, to abandon them, even if they are shown that they are dead wrong. As the review notes,

“Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, first lays out the psychological and social biases people bring to the climate discussion and then suggests techniques for making that conversation more productive. (A combination of empathy and clever framing is the key.)”

Leaving aside for the moment the vague aspect of the concept of “framing,” let’s consider the notion that folks cling to their belief systems like a fragile raft in a river of uncertainty and refuse to let go simply because someone points out that they are headed for a waterfall. This is what I have noted in a number of blogs over the years. Lately I have suggested that fear is the basis for those values we hold most dear. Climate change deniers fear letting go of the raft more than they do the coming maelstrom. I still believe this is the case and that Professor Hoffman hasn’t dug deep enough. It is fear that is the glue that holds those values and beliefs together.

In the case of climate change, we are told that in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in June it was determined that

“Americans’ views on whether the planet is heating up have barely changed since 2006 despite growing scientific consensus and an increasing number of climate-related disasters.”

This is alarming, to be sure. But if we accept the fact that beliefs and values are what constitutes the person we can accept the fact that they will not be abandoned readily. In fact, those “climate-related disasters” must come close to home and be repeated, I expect, before most people will accept the fact that they have been living in a dream world. They must actually see and hear the waterfall. As I say, I suspect it will be fear of a greater magnitude than they have experienced thus far, since they can easily regard those climate-related disasters as someone else’s problem. This is the same rationalization folks use when they refuse to use their seat belts or wear helmets when riding their motor cycles —  because they can’t imagine that they themselves would ever have an accident. Some people simply need to be hit over the head. Twice.

This brings us to Professor Hoffman’s notion that it is possible to have a “productive” conversation, that the values and beliefs of climate change doubters can be changed by “empathy and clever framing.” I seriously doubt it: this is where I part company with Professor Hoffman. I’m not sure what he means by “framing,” though I suppose it may be the way we put things to those who deny. But no matter how empathetic we appear or how we state our case, those of us who know that climate change is a serious problem will never persuade those who disagree with us by any sort of rhetorical trickery. As I say, those beliefs and values are grounded in fear and it will take a major emotional shock to dislodge them. What might get the process started, perhaps, is the increasing number of weather disasters close to home coupled with steadily rising cost of food in the stores and a ban on watering accompanied by the rising cost of water to drink and even to flush the toilet — not to mention such things as debilitating diseases in the person’s immediate circle of family and friends coupled with rising health costs. But even these measures may not be enough to dissuade the chronically closed-minded. It’s small wonder that very few have changed their minds since 2006. It’s just very sad.

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.

Blowin’ In The Wind

One of the remarkable success stories in this country is the amazing strides the wind power industry has made despite the lack of a coherent eco-energy program formulated and supported by our Congress. In fact, the success has come in spite of strong opposition from the right-wing of that body. The Republicans have historically resisted any attempts by this country to go green. One can speculate that this results from the political favors owed to Big Oil which spends millions of dollars every year to get their subsidies and help them push through friendly legislation. Clean energy is not on the Republican agenda for the most part.

There are exceptions, of course. A number of key Republicans such as Senator Charles Grassley (R) from Iowa and Representative Mac Thornberry (R) from Texas have a vested interest in seeing at least wind power prosper. They are representing states where thousands of people are employed helping to produce the wind turbines. When jobs for their constituents are at stake the Republicans do know how to dance.

But on the whole, the Republicans in Congress resist the movement toward clean energy and as I write this it appears the wind power industry is about to be dealt a stunning blow. The renewable-energy production tax credits for wind power signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 are about to expire at the end of this year. This would be a severe blow indeed. There are 38 states in this country currently producing wind energy. As the recent issue of the Sierra magazine tells us, “This summer the installed capacity of U.S. wind turbines hit 50 gigawatts — as much as can be generated by 44 coal-fired power plants, or 11 nuclear-powered ones.” The U.S. ranks second  behind China as the world’s largest producers of wind energy.

However, as of this writing Republican opposition in Congress has blocked authorization to continue the present subsidies for wind power. If that opposition is not shaken by key members of the Republican party, like Grassley, Thornberry, and Representative Tom Latham (R-Iowa), it could well cost 37,000 American jobs. In fact, more than 400 jobs have already been lost due to the sporadic nature of the political process that plays keep away with the subsidies, while Big Oil continues to enjoys uninterrupted subsidies of $2.7– $4 billion a year. In addition, Wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas in Colorado is at present preparing to lay off an additional 1,600.

Perhaps the possibility of lost jobs in the states represented by key legislators will win the day. But we can be assured that there will be a battle between the short-term interests of Big Oil (and wealthy men like the Koch brothers who are up to their ears in dirty energy) and the clean energy movement itself which desperately needs the support of the majority of Congress to grow to its full potential. And it all centers around the Republican party whose major candidate for President is currently campaigning on a platform of “jobs.” And yet the man avoids the topic of clean energy like the plague.