What Matters for Climate Change

Last year this blog had an overview of the major factors involved in fighting climate change.  Most of that is still current, but it has also become clear that there is a lot of confusion—even in the climate movement—about consequences.  So this piece is not about the basics; it’s about the reality of what it takes to combat climate change.

To start with, Here is a list (off the top of my head) of widely-believed nonsense.  There is probably something to annoy everyone.  You can see if I’ve made a case for it by the end.

– Conservation is a primary issue

– It’s important to get solar cells on rooftops everywhere

– Recycling is important

– Local initiatives are important

– State initiatives are important

– The main game is getting our house in order

– We don’t need to do anything, since technologists will solve it by themselves

– We’re ready for electric cars to take over the transportation sector

– Current solar and wind are ready to take over everything

– Winning is simple, we just have to stop the oil companies and start deploying the good stuff.

– For climate change employment, we need local communities to decide what they really need

– The private sector is doing it all by itself

– Carbon pricing is optional

– Carbon pricing is all it takes

– We need to get a better deal than the Paris Agreement

– We’re in control of our own destiny

– We all need to change our lifestyles

– Fighting climate change will tank the economy

– Economic dislocation means taking care of miners

– Since poor people get hurt worse, climate action is a matter of charity—for social justice

– Same thing for racial justice

– Same thing for regional justice

– Internationally, this is a matter of everyone taking care of their own

– With China and India, the important thing is to stand tough to get what we want

– We have to insist that any new technology developed here gets manufactured here

 

Let’s start this off with item #1—conservation.  From within the US it’s easy to believe the fight against climate change is all about conservation.  After all, we’re up against a hard limit on tolerable levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we’ve just got to cut down on burning in all ways.  And we’ve got to learn to behave differently in the future.

However that logic breaks down quickly.  What about all the people in China and India?  Our conservation is a blip compared with them, but we share the same atmosphere.  Do they just have to get used to the idea that cars and air conditioning aren’t for them?  They should accept permanent sacrifice for the good of mankind?  Even in the US, no amount of conservation will move people to electric cars or eliminate the CO2 production from heavy industry.

So even for the near-term we have to recognize that the fight against climate change is not primarily about conservation but about alternative energy sources.  Worldwide, we need to evolve energy sources, so that there will be enough to take care of people everywhere.  As noted in the prior piece, there is in fact no reason to fear we will ultimately lack for power.  This isn’t about learning to live with energy scarcity—it’s about creating a future for all people, all countries, and all life styles.

For that reason we need to focus on the transition to alternative sources of power.  There are two quite different types of problems to be solved:

– Generating and distributing power

The first thing to recognize is that (despite some obfuscation from the oil companies) the future is electric.  That’s the common currency for the energy to be used everywhere, in factories, in homes, in cars.  It’s what all the renewables produce today, and what will be produced by all future candidate technologies.  Electricity is easily transmitted over long distances, and can be stored for later use (although there is much still to be done for high-volume, in-network storage).

So this work includes the electrical network, the sources of energy, and the means to store it.  Since everything will move to the electrical grid, its capacity will need to grow significantly and fast.  This is a huge project, but this is ultimately just a matter of national will.  That makes it the easier part.

– Adapting applications to use it

For that you need to work through the major sectors of energy usage.  Here is the chart for the United States.

consumption-by-source-and-sector

This is a larger and more complex undertaking, requiring careful planning for each sector.  Carbon pricing is one of the few actions that can be done across the board.   As we noted previously, assuming the atmosphere is free amounts to an annual subsidy of $1 T to the US fossil fuel industry.  Even low-level initial pricing (as with CCL) sends a message for corporate planning.  However, it is naïve to believe that carbon pricing will just take care of all sectors in time to avert disaster.  Note also, for priorities, that the residential and commercial sector is the smallest by far.

We also have to think about this problem not just for the US but for the rest of the world as well.  The US Energy Information Agency has released a document that helps in thinking about that task.  (A short summary of conclusions is available here.)  It has projections of energy use throughout the world going out to 2050.  With that it includes variants of the US energy use chart (just given) for other countries.  A significant fact is that many developing countries have a proportionally much larger industrial segment than we do, as high as 70%.

The report shows some influence of climate concerns, particularly in the US and China, but overall it describes the dimensions of a disaster.  The following chart taken from the report shows a continuing growth of CO2 emissions for the entire period.   While the report itself doesn’t explicitly call out the bottom line, the numbers from the report imply that the world will hit a point of no return already by 2035—with a CO2 concentration of 482 ppm and a temperature rise of 1.6 degrees C.

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In the EIA scenarios, the world does a pretty good job of migrating electric grids to renewables (or to some extent gas)—but a terrible job of moving applications to electricity.  In developed countries this translates to business as usual, but in the developing world it’s much worse.  India, for example, is seen as growing exponentially with much of the increase powered by coal.  This isn’t just a question of forcing them to meet our standards.  Heavy industry is a particular problem everywhere.

So the application area is a big job with many industry-specific issues.  The world desperately needs focused research efforts with results that can be applied large-scale worldwide.  This can’t be a matter of everyone guarding discoveries for national advantage.  Cooperative international arrangements will be key to meaningful progress.

 

Even at this high level there are a number of conclusions to be drawn:

– There is no do-nothing alternative.

Technology will deliver a viable future, but we’ll have to work to get there.  There’s no silver bullet that makes it all go away.

– Technology development is important and has to be figured into any planning, but technology concerns are not the barrier to success.

It is perfectly possible to put together a plan to get the US where it needs to be by 2030.  That’s not saying all technology problems have been solved (after all electric cars are still much too expensive), but we can see a path to success.  We shouldn’t trivialize the effort and sophistication required, but based on where we are, and given financing, it appears that the technical side can get done.  The next point is less clear.

– Changes are huge and have to be dealt-with politically.

This isn’t just a matter of coal-miners losing their jobs.  Electric cars alone will have pervasive consequences.  We have to understand that worries about change are rational, so an important part of domestic climate policy has to be an assurance everyone will be made whole.  Otherwise we will continue to face the push back seen most recently in the Australian election.

In the US there is every reason for the less advantaged to distrust the political powers that be.  In the developing world it’s even worse—you’re talking about giving up on the benefits of development for some unknown duration.  The situation is necessarily difficult.   It’s only going to work if wealthy people and wealthy countries realize it’s in their own interest to come up with the goods.  No one will escape the consequences otherwise.

– The international side is unavoidable.

There is only one atmosphere.   Every country in the world has to cooperate, or we all lose.  When the US opts out, everyone loses faith in the future—as was evident in the recent Madrid meeting.  We have to restore international unity in order to make progress.  And that will only come when every country sees a just role for itself individually.  As for the terms of the Paris Agreement—it is only a first step and actually better for rich countries than will ultimately be workable.

We cannot go into this with the attitude that the objective is to come out a winner at the expense of everyone else.  If everyone doesn’t win, we all lose.

– This is not a matter for incrementalism.

We’re not going to get there with well-meaning people insulating their houses or businesses putting solar cells on the roof.

It’s worth putting some numbers on this.  With current technology, the power output of a solar cell is 20 watts per square foot.  From that you can calculate how many solar cells would be needed to meet current US electrical demand.  The answer is about 2500 square miles, assuming they’re all in brilliantly-lit, weather-free Arizona.  (And there are serious problems in managing that one too.)  All of it gets an order of magnitude worse if we decide to go piecemeal in random, less promising locations–and that’s just for today’s electrical grid, not where we have to get to.

That’s not to say that Arizona is necessarily the solution.  The point is that there has to be a rational national policy that will actually get the job done.

 

Greta Thunberg is right—there is no substitute for major political action.  Anything less is delusion, regardless of who says it.  The 2020 election is the single, deciding climate issue today.

Perhaps we need the right metaphor.  The fight against climate change is a war.  We’re all in it together—losing is losing for everyone.  The countries of the world are allies in the sense that each of them is necessary for success.  National economies will be affected, but through national climate efforts with no shortage of jobs.

Right now we’re like the US in mid 1941.  We can see and understand the enemy, but we’re not convinced we really have to be involved.  That situation only got resolved when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and it was clear there was no other choice.  You can make a case we were lucky that it wasn’t too late.  Without the Nazi’s disdain for “Jewish physics”, they might even have gotten the bomb.

For climate, if we act today we have the elements of victory.   We also have ample evidence it’s a near thing.  A climate Pearl Harbor may well be too late—and beyond anything we want to live to see.

A Story that Ought to be Told

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It’s natural enough that different factions of the Democratic Party see things differently.  But we’ve got to stop letting the Republican Party off the hook.

  1. Bill Clinton may have let China into the WTO, but he was not around to see or act on China’s behavior. Essentially 100% of job losses occurred under Bush, either directly or as a result of the 2008 crash.  Obama had no opportunity to do anything:  his first two years were spent avoiding a depression, and after that the Republican Congress shut down government.
  2. That Republican Congress has never received its deserved public exposure. Its stated objective was non-cooperation with Obama on all issues,.  They understood perfectly what stimulus is good for, and they made sure it didn’t happen—with the proven-bogus “balanced-budget amendment”.   The Republican Party deliberately kept the country poor for the 2016 election
  3. On meat and potatoes issues Trump is not a rebel, he’s a Republican. His primary effect on the economy was through the tax cuts. Those were properly the Koch organization tax cuts—delivered as ordered to the primary donors to the Republican Party.

It’s not wrong to say that both parties share blame for the growth of inequality and such—but not in equal measure.  The position of the “Trump base” would have been quite different if Obama had not been denied all opportunity to act.  A Clinton Presidency would have worked on education, healthcare, and climate change instead of the Koch tax cuts.

Clinton was reluctant to criticize the Republican Congress, because she thought ordinary Republicans might support her (Comey fixed that!).  We seem to be making a similar mistake by excusing Republicans in the guise of “everybody did it until now”.   We’re letting Trump be the hero who brought it all to the fore.

On issues Trump is a Republican.  Republicans produced the 2008 crash, the Iraq war, the drastically increased inequality, and the current polarization of society.  Democrats fix things.  Trump has made it harder, but we can get it done.

The Epiphany of the Right

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It’s often difficult to understand the logic behind the right’s continued embrace of Trump’s lies and corruption.  In thinking about it, it seems that there is something even more fundamental than identity behind it.  You might call it the epiphany of the right.

This already existed in rather pure form with the Tea Party.  Tea Party participants had the enthusiasm of true believers, and they were pretty clear about their new beliefs.  When interviewers asked people on Medicare and Social Security why they were ready to deny government benefits to everyone else, the answers came down to a simple idea: “I don’t have to care!”.  In Strangers in their own Land, the author asked a Tea Party defender of personal responsibility how a poor child in a drastically underfunded school system was supposed to succeed, and she got the same response. “I don’t have to care”.

That “I don’t have to care” has become the epiphany of the right.  It’s the all-purpose answer.   It not only absolves the believer of moral responsibility, it gets you off the hook for anything you’d rather not think about—say climate change or the actual operation of world economy.  All that nagging about equality, facts, or expertise is optional!

It’s the perfect elixir for the Trump world.  Responsibilities or standards of behavior are gone.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.  Whatever you don’t like can be dealt with by any means, however brutal.  Democracy is just something else to nag about.

As with one’s personal life, this kind of behavior feels liberating and great until it isn’t.  Reality wins in the end.  But until then—there’s nothing anyone else can tell you!  I don’t have to care.

Questions for Democrats

consumption-by-source-and-sectorI’m concerned about what seems to be a kind of giddiness in the Democratic Party.  Winning control of the house was a major accomplishment, and there does seem to be a shift in national attitudes toward the liberal agenda.  But I’m worried that the feeling that everything is now possible is getting ahead of what it will take to make it so.

I’ll start with Green New Deal and Medicare For All.  In both cases there’s a lot that’s good.  We’ve succeeded in focusing attention on key problem areas that urgently need to be addressed.  But in both cases there is so much room for interpretation that it’s hard to see what will come out.  And I don’t understand what the decision process is going to be.

Climate change and healthcare are both highly technical issues.  We’ve talked here before about what it will take to put together a true national plan to address climate change.  (The chart at the start has to be addressed point-by-point.)  The current GND bill doesn’t claim to do anything like that and adds a number of other issues into the mix.  Part of that is good—for the first time we’ve succeeded in presenting action on climate change as a step forward for everyone, not as distasteful but necessary medicine.   At the same time, though, we now have a number of competing objectives for whatever will come out as plan.

However attractive those objectives may be, there is a lot more in GND than anyone will deliver.  Fighting climate change will create many jobs, but will not—by itself—solve unemployment.  If we start fighting about whose jobs get created, climate will suffer.  It’s okay that part of the planning process is political, but that can’t be the main thing.  Roosevelt had a brain trust of people driving the original New Deal.   We need something like that here, and we also need a broad-based process for contributions to the plan.  It’s not enough to let the Presidential candidates or other players chime in with soundbites.  This is a real test for our ability to govern.

Healthcare makes me nervous for similar reasons.   Medicare for All sounds very specific, but one hopes it’s not.   A literal Medical for All solution would not be a simple change and would force a premature answer to a problem that deserves careful study.   Virtually every developed country other than us has implemented some form of universal healthcare, and there is quite a lot of variety in the solutions.   We have every opportunity to make a careful and successful choice for both the overall plan and the sequence of steps to get there.

I don’t see enough of that happening.  Thus far there seems to be more concern about how to relate to Medicare than about how other countries have achieved universal coverage.  Positions of Presidential candidates seem like shots in the dark.  We should be careful to avoid making the transition harder than it has to be, we should avoid fighting battles we don’t have to, and we should certainly make sure to keep the ACA surtax!

A third and final topic is international affairs.   What’s worrisome about that one is that there is no way of avoiding competing objectives.   One of the biggest mistakes of the current administration is its zero-sum approach to the rest of the world.   We’re trying to “win” international affairs by making sure everyone else loses.  Such belligerence may sound great—defending America—but it’s a wrong model.  The world has learned the hard way that economic nationalism is self-defeating.   We need rules of engagement so that nations can participate in building shared prosperity.  The world has a real chance to succeed at that, but it’s not a given.

In particular it’s not easy for us and not easy now.  The drastic changes in the world economy are calling out for nationalism and trade wars.   “The worst thing about globalization is everything that can be blamed on it.”  Better trade rules will help some of it, as will a better safety net.  But the problems won’t go away.  Not only are we going to have to say no to tariffs (still popular despite a cost of $900,000 a job), but we may also have to spend serious money outside the US to help poorer countries fight climate change.  The only way forward is to recognize how interconnected we all are.  That applies to Trump’s Devil’s bargain with dictators too.

Both the country and the world need us to get this right.

 

 

Saving the Country

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This note grows out of a comment made during the election night coverage of the midterms.  Analysts were breaking down the vote in various categories, and one of them remarked that if you just look at white voters, this seems like a completely different country:  Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2.  They were all-in for the Trump program.

It’s worth paying attention to what that means.  Diversity is not a matter of tolerance; it’s a matter of national success.

Immigrants and their families are assets by any statistical measure.  They need to work harder to succeed, and they do it.   As the various waves of immigration entered this country, they have adapted and prospered, and the country as a whole has benefited.  It’s no accident that the most prominent players in our new economy—Google and Apple—were founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant.

But there is another aspect to this as well.   Outsiders (and not just immigrants) are not so easily tempted by images of an idealized past paradise.  Those siren-song images are not from their past, so they can keep focused on reality and the future.

Despite the many similarities between the Trump regime and the early stages of the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary, our diversity provides perhaps a degree of protection.  White voters have not called all the shots in the midterm election.  And it’s possible to believe that we’ve taken a first step back from the brink.

The problems of the Trump regime affect everyone.  First and foremost, we are squandering our strongest economic advantages out of ignorance and arrogance.  And we are at each other’s throats by conscious choice.  Dictatorships are not just bad for outside groups, they are historically bad for everyone.

So we should give credit where it’s due.  Three cheers for diversity in all of its shapes and colors—the saviors of the country!

 

Thinking Back to the 2008 Crash

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There have been many articles recently reviewing what happened in 2008 and how things have evolved since then.  It’s a good thing we’re thinking about it, but there seems to be a tinge of inevitability to our memories, as if it was all a fact of nature and we need to understand the science of how things turned out as they did.

That’s wrong.  Blithe confidence in deregulation caused the crash.  The Koch-controlled Republican Party chose—with unconscionable cruelty—to prolong the pain of the downturn, so as to get a new President who would deliver massive tax cuts for the ultra-rich.  (Remember the “balanced budget amendment” and compare with the current deficits.)  And they have placed in power and continue to support a person who in their own words “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”  It’s a good idea to think about the crash.

Despite the much-discussed topics of globalization and automation, we are not living with unsolvable acts of God.  And there are no secret demons running around hidden in the depths of the administrative state.  Dramatically rising inequality—and the decline of the middle class—is not an accident, but a chosen result.  The deep divisions that exist in our society are not an accident, but a chosen result.  Follow the money.  Divide and conquer is nothing new.

This country has dealt successfully in the past with industrialization and massive immigration.  And was stronger for both.  And we were able to share that prosperity more broadly than it had even been done before.  We can do it again.  The current, hard-won worldwide prosperity should be good for everyone if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

This isn’t going to be easy.  The current inhumane, anti-democratic Supreme Court will be around for a long time.  The much-encouraged divisions in the society will not heal easily.  But we can start by heeding the recent advice of John McCain and vote out this cult that can’t even be called conservatives.  Democrats have a great variety of people running in this critical election.  Breadth of opinions is a good thing.  Belief in democracy is a requirement.

This needs to be done.  What we do matters everywhere.  We are the leaders of the free world, and that leadership is dearly missed.

NY Times: Inviting the Next Financial Crisis

This NY Times Editorial Board piece is the best summary I’ve seen of where we are and how we got there.

Our comment:

Maybe I missed it, but one thing that isn’t explicitly noted is how much worse this could be than 2008. The major stimulus then came from the US and China, both of whom are far less able today. Also the IMF issued a warning a few months ago about an enormous increase in the global level of debt. What’s particularly galling about the current situation is that the current, hard-won worldwide prosperity IS sustainable if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

I was glad to see the article point out the unconscionable cruelty of the Republican party in deliberately prolonging the effects of the downturn so as to sow discontent for the election. We should call things for what they were: the Republicans held the country hostage for six years, so they could deliver massive tax cuts for their ultra-rich donors.