Thursday, January 25, 2007

No polar bear left behind

openDemocracy asked me to write something about the President's address to Congress focussing on his energy and environment policy, and it was published yesterday here.

One of the most useful "go read" pieces when assessing Bush's "twenty in ten" initiative (linked in the oD piece) is The Ethanol Illusion by Michael McElroy (and the best image I have seen is this from Steve Bell).

As John Elkington reminded on BBC Radio 4 this morning, already by 2008 around half the US corn crop will go to ethanol (and as Ken Silverstein noted in The Birth of a Washington Machine, Archer Daniels Midland has been a substantial supporter of Barack Obama - whose other enthusiasm is for so-called clean coal).

[The New York Times reporters quote Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, noting that Bush was “completely silent” on energy efficiency and reduction of carbon dioxide from electric power plants, which contribute 40 percent emissions, and Philip Clapp of the National Environmental Trust estimating that the proposals would contribute a 1.5 percent cut in carbon emissions a decade hence, and that “they will still go up by 14 percent over the next decade.”]

It should also be noted that It should also be noted that changing the Renewable Fuel Standard to the Alternative Fuel Standard, opens the door for coal-to-liquid fuels, which are extremely likely to *increase* carbon emissions.

Written quickly, my article leaves open the question of what measures will work to deliver the emissions reductions that are likely to be necessary.

It would of course take a whole other article to begin to address that. In my view, the ideal course would be close to the kinds of actions advocated by Amory Lovins (See Elizabeth Kolbert's 22 Jan New Yorker profile for a reminder of what that involves), obviating the need to increase power energy production from nuclear and coal which even some terming themselves environmentalists have supported.

But Amory Lovins will most likely continue to be largely ignored on the grounds that what he recommends is a bit impractical, actually.

It remains to be seen how much cap-and-trade systems can deliver (see, for example, Matthew Lockwood's A rough guide to carbon trading). The game is not over for other signals and incentives.  Taxes may have a role to play (a radical proposal like Oliver Tickell's Kyoto2 auction is, I think, essentially a tax).  But in the US even a moderate tax on gasoline looks unlikely.

Indeed, climate change may be at least as great a challenge to the foundations of the republic as slavery.  Both slavery and current energy use are based on exploitation and injustice -- in the case of slavery the abuse of people right in front of you, in the case of energy use the abuse of an earth system on which future generations depend.

At its founding, the writers of the US constitution made an uneasy peace with slavery under the three fifths compromise.  It took more than 80 years to work through the problem, and then, of course, at the price of enormous bloodshed with an ambiguous conclusion.  And it took the moral vision of the civil rights generation another hundred years later, including Bobby Kennedy (perhaps one of the greatest presidents the US never had), to develop and understand the links to respect for the earth itself.  It would be nice if we could learn from this history.

Reading back through previous SOUs in preparation for the oD article was an interesting experience.  Leave aside its civil war heroics, Lincoln's 1862 oration also contains a passage that is very cruel to modern ears about the "insurgents" -- that is, those we would now call Native Americans fighting desperately to protect the last vestiges of their way of life.

But it was words from an earlier George W that particularly struck home because of the gap between the political culture they express, or at least aspire to, and the world of Inhofe, Rove, Fox News, Guantanamo and The Decider, which manufactures ignorance, hate and fear.

George Washington (who was no angel: you can make a case (see William Hogeland) that his support for US independence in the first place was as a cover for a vast grab of Indian land West of the Appalachians that he had illegally squated) told members of Congress in the first State of Union:

"there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness...To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways - by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful
authority; [and] between [burdens] proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society."

To tackle climate change we need to distinguish between burdens proceeding from a disregard to our convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of avoiding planetary meltdown.


Douglas Coker said...

Thanks Caspar, lots of useful links/leads in this post. Lovins is intriguing. He comes on like a turbocharged, techno super optimist. And he's got a fascinating track record. I came across a second-hand copy of his 1977 "Soft Energy Paths" the other week. Bit technical in parts, for me at least, but has an interesting foreword by Barbara Ward.

What I'd like someone to do is review the progress Lovin's ideas have made it terms of being widely adopted and going mainstream. I can't find/access Kolbert on Lovins. Does she do this?

While he has fans and has done consultancy with "the powerful" I can't help feeling he is still fairly marginal.

Douglas Coker

Caspar Henderson said...

Kolbert's piece (which I cannot find online) is a nice introduction but doesn't make a systematic assessment of Lovins's impact. Certainly, some serious people have taken him seriously -- including Hans Bethe (the physicist and Nobel Laureate) and John Holdren, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A recent example of 'Lovinsian" principles in action is a scenario outlined for the development of primary energy consumption under the Energy [r]evolution scenario recommended in a report from the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace International. This sees efficiency gains (Lovins's "negawatts") as by far the biggest contributor to a more sustainable energy path. The EREC/Greenpeace report carries an introduction from R K Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC so he for one is paying attention.