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    Climate change: Do we hear the alarm ringing?

    A new book argues that there is little effective policy emerging. Northwest communities may fight an issue like coal trains, but politicians' climate stance is more like duck and cover.
    Despite Hurricane Sandy's force, some Staten Island areas suffered relatively little damage.

    Despite Hurricane Sandy's force, some Staten Island areas suffered relatively little damage. Tommy Miles/Flickr

    "Drill, baby, drill," said Sarah Palin. "Energy independence," say Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It seems to mean more or less the same thing. (If Romney wins, it will be more, if Obama wins less.) Both advocate more oil and gas drilling on land and sea, more use of "clean coal." Both avoid muddying the — rising — waters with talk of climate change. Nagging people about greenhouse gases won't win many votes in coal country or among citizens focused on gasoline prices, so neither candidate does it.

    "The issue of being energy independent is more attractive to a lot of people and politicians than the issue of overcoming climate change," says Howard A. Latin, a Rutgers law school professor who has recently published a book entitled Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigtion Approaches Cannot Succeed (World Scientific, $29.95). People often confuse the two, Latin says, but energy imports and climate change are "two different problems that don't really align."

    The only countries really serious about halting climate change are the island nations that will disappear if sea level rises, and the nations of northern Europe. And even in Europe, the left hand doesn't necessarily know what the right hand is doing. Looking at European nations that do the most to combat climate change, Latin notes it's "ironic that the leading one, Norway, is paying for its cleanup with North Sea oil."

    It wasn't supposed to work this way. Just four years ago, President-elect Barack Obama said: “Now is the time to confront this challenge [of climate change] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option." Virtually everyone expected Congress to pass a hefty carbon tax or a rigorous cap-and-trade system some time soon. The Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council's Sixth Regional Plan, adopted at the start of 2010, assumes a carbon tax of $47 per ton. Now, no one expects Congress to pass a carbon tax, establish a cap and trade system, or do much of anything else. Delay has turned out to be an option after all.

    In the meantime, the media have been full of bad news about manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars, good news about fossil fuel production. U.S. oil output is up. Alberta tar sands output is up. We are now so awash in cheap natural gas that the industry must worry about oversupply driving the price down. Conversely, wind turbine manufacturers suffer from competition with that cheap natural gas, a slow economy, competition from China, the pending expiration of a crucial federal tax credit. Chinese manufacturers, which have come to dominate global production of turbines and solar panels, have created a manufacturing glut that has plunged them into financial crisis. There's a lousy market for electric cars.

    The Pacific Northwest has, of course, become a focal point for plans to preserve and expand the fossil fuel economy worldwide. Major coal and oil companies are laying plans to ship coal through ports on Puget Sound, the Oregon coast, the lower Columbia, and oil through the ports of British Columbia. They have already shipped huge tanks for processing bitumen up the Columbia and then by highway from the Pacific to the Alberta tar sands. They hope to pipe oil from the tar sands to an oil port in Kitimat, B.C. Exxon/Mobil had planned to barge giant modules for processing Alberta tar sands up the Columbia to the port of Lewiston, Idaho, then truck them — partly on a narrow road along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers — to Canada. After court challenges, they were forced to break the modules down at Lewiston and Pasco and haul them over a slightly different route. But the modules have gone north. And the tar sands oil has come out. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would enable oil companies to refine it on the Texas Gulf and export it. The controversial Northern Gateway pipeline would enable them to pipe it to Kitimat on the B.C. coast and export it.

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    Posted Mon, Nov 5, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just look at the scale of the problem and the scale audaciousness of what needs to be done.

    Even if you disagree with Latin's assessment of the problem, you have to agree that the current gov't or any gov't likely to come out of this election lacks the cahones to do anything even remotely of the kind.

    Jon Sayer

    Posted Mon, Nov 5, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    There is one, and only one thing that changes so called democratic governments' minds—the public coming to public consensus. That requires sage critical thinking in public places and a whole lot more than passes today.

    My thanks to Chasan for calling attention to Latin. The other side of the same coin (lasting consensus always takes both sides) is to be found in Roger Scruton's "How to Think Seriously About the Planet, the Case for an Environmental Conservatism (2012, Oxford University Press).

    Thankfully, none of the above depends on elections, nor the tons of money spent on influence. It depends much more, as Scruton says, on inquisitiveness, serious reflection, and sharing of same in places like Crosscut (for starters).


    Posted Mon, Nov 5, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

    " we must do away totally with the main sources of greenhouse gas, such as coal-burning power plants and internal combustion engines,," That would include the
    jet engines that power Boeing aircraft I assume. While the GE and Rolls Royce engines that power 737 and 787 are staggeringly impressive they do burn a lot of fuel. They are efficient, relatively speaking, but probably less efficient than the "furnaces and cars" of China (if you want to get to LA using the least possible fossil fuel, drive a Prius). Janis Joplin noticed "..everybody wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die" That gets close to aphorizing our dilemma. We all want the other guys, the shippers, the railroads and the Chinese to stop doing things they are doing or, at the very least, least hide stuff so we don't have to think about it and can keep living the way we live. Not many of us are likely to embrace a life like Wendell Berry... there is probably not enough arable land to make that even thinkable... but one thing this fine writer, Mr. Chasan, can do is tell us what a responsibly lived life would be like.


    Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'll bet Chasans' answer would be for us all to do away with our dastardly cars.

    Mobility = freedom, so I'm not giving up my car. I might go electric, but I'm still not convinced that choice makes economic sense re: financial dollars of mine or the futures' dollars.

    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mobility may be a component of freedom, but mobility does not require emitting fossil fuels. Not only electric cars--there are also feet and bicycles. And public transit powered by hydroelectricity (we are so lucky in the NW).

    When the cost of liquid carbon fuels gets too high (peak oil, dropping EROI, unacceptable externalities), you or your descendants will probably indeed be "giving up your car."


    Posted Mon, Nov 12, 6:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    SouthHill Conservative said it better than anyone else. Mobility is critical, and that doesn't mean feet or bikes, except in dense sections of part of the city, yet that only works for those without body impediments such as arthritis, wheelchairs or inability to climb a steep hill (elderly).

    J"oe Citizen doesn't really care what he puts in his car to make it go - he just wants it to work.

    The answer is not to make gasoline more expensive or to force people into inconvenient mass transit. The answer is to make our cars work, on our existing infrastructure, at a price that the average person can afford."

    So, instead of badgering everyone about peak oil, pollution etc, figure out a better way to become involved with bringing to market something better, something affordable.

    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 6:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's more important to maintain a hospitable planet than cling to our cars like children might with toys. Mind you, I love mobility and think cars are amazing machines, but it's obvious our system is damaging and obsolete, depends on fuel that would have run out anyway, and we can't even afford to maintain the roads we've built. We're screwed if we don't deal with our system problem--and it is a system problem, not one that volunteer action will solve. Through our collective negligence, we will leave our kids in the lurch to suffer unspeakable hardship with no easy way out. This is the bottom line for me and why it's a matter that I will vote on today.


    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 5:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    The matter, alas, does not appear on today's ballot. Furthermore, if it did, it would most probably lose. Elitist proclamations about childishness and system problems lack the informative power that moves a democracy. Or maybe what you had in mind was drone attacks on anyone "out-of-line." Hope not.


    Posted Wed, Nov 7, 6:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    I don't think a sense of priority should be confused with elitism any more than a sense of urgency under threat should be confused with a drone attack. But I do wonder what you think we should do about the problem that this article is about.


    Posted Wed, Nov 7, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    "I don't think a sense of priority should be confused with elitism any more than a sense of urgency under threat should be confused with a drone attack."

    Meaning: The most urgent priorities of those with the highest senses need no longer wait around for democracy nor rule of law?

    If so, not so. It behooves the full array of expertise, Nobel laureate and otherwise, to recognize that today's circumstances, hardly likely to be "like the last war," will decide their and our fate regardless of expert pretense that it is the public who can not handle uncertainty (or worse). One aspect of a lame duck presidency is the opportunity it offers to set pretense aside and open the flood gates for inquisitiveness, serious reflection, and sharing of same, as I say in an earlier post. The downside for this president is his difficulty in walking his talk, but he can be encouraged.

    Curiously, those countries dictatorially ruled, as some would espouse in the interest of time, are the most obsessed with manipulating temporary contractions to perpetual expansions. If not with our claim to fame of an educated, responsive citizenry, then who else is there to deal with an economy in the midst of a long-term fundamental change, that is, evolving, as opposed to merely cycling back and forth between expansion and contraction? As far as I can tell, that light bulb thought occurs to more of the governed than those who govern them, and as human nature being what it is, not enough of either variety yet dwell on it— too depressing, and there's always "technology."


    Posted Thu, Nov 8, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    The kind of inquisitiveness that would serve the public well is to ask distinguished climate scientists (people who know what they're talking about) to clarify 1) what evidence have they that we're causing the changing climate; 2) how are their models underestimating arctic meltoff by decades; 3) is it true that the most extreme models are the most accurate, and what is the implication of this if so; 4) what are the known unknowns that could threaten our future; and 5) could unknown unknowns be hiding in the future climate system that scientists have not thought about yet?

    I suspect you're talking about something else in a tricky way, though, afreeman. Do you have an opinion about how harm to others or responsible action on climate squares with beliefs in liberty?


    Posted Fri, Nov 9, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Not terribly "tricky," just extremely hard for powers that be to admit and to share. The earth's climate changes drastically and perpetually. Currently living creatures can put their heads in the sand or vote all they want about having a major hand in these changes. If interested in surviving as individuals or as species, humans will focus on what is most likely to happen where and when and how best to adapt where and when. The sooner, the better. If that were not task enough, pretending that a mere tempering of the multitude of carefree practices behind the bubbles that continue upending economies worldwide will jumpstart a normal up-cycle amounts to rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. Even those who display little interest in natural resources, the environment, or climate change, e.g., the Wiedemers, warn that all this excess wishful thinking has the world's economies evolving radically as well.


    Posted Tue, Nov 6, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Nagging people about greenhouse gases won't win many votes in coal country or among citizens focused on gasoline prices, so neither candidate does it."

    And how any votes has Romney lost by his opposition to renewables, including all the people in the wind industry whose jobs are now threatened?

    Steve E.

    Posted Thu, Nov 8, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Clean coal" is an oxymoron and a hoax.

    "Cap and Trade" is just kicking the can down the road.

    Part of our desperate situation is that these truths aren't being said out loud, except in the "Do the Math" nationwide campaign (q.v.website) by the 350 organization, which just launched this week in Seattle. 350 is the maximum ppm of carbon molocules needed to curb global climate warming. This has already been exceeded -- it's at 390 ppm and rising.


    Posted Fri, Nov 9, 6:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's not that there is a "lousy market for electric cars."

    There is a lousy market for electric cars that simply cannot perform as well as gasoline powered cars.

    Give me a cost-effective electric car with a 300 mile range, and create the infrastructure to refuel somewhere other than my home, and I'll buy it. So will many others. I'd love to wean myself from gasoline, but the technology isn't there - yet.

    Joe Citizen doesn't really care what he puts in his car to make it go - he just wants it to work.

    The answer is not to make gasoline more expensive or to force people into inconvenient mass transit. The answer is to make our cars work, on our existing infrastructure, at a price that the average person can afford.

    Posted Fri, Nov 9, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just wondering: How many people without heat and power in NY and NJ are lining up for solar panels right now?

    Posted Fri, Nov 9, 6:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    Fewer than those lining up for tea in China, for sure. Those darn solar panels are of little use anyway-- they don't fit in the gas tank. :)


    Posted Sat, Nov 10, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate


    solar panel sales will go up after Sandy, in affected areas.

    Just in terms of dollars and cents, Sandy, at an estimated $50 Billion, is a big warning- if we get weather events like that yearly, I dont care WHO causes em, we need to figure out how to deal with them.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

    I know someone who owns a Nissan Leaf, which now has a 100 mile range, soon to be upgraded to 200 miles. It costs him 50 cents a day, when he used to pay $600/mo for gas, that now makes his car payment. Like anything once the electric car reaches economy of scale, then it will be the better choice. If our cities and State buy electric fleet vehicles, then production will go up and prices come down. Remember when we paid $100 for a calculator that only did basic math? Battery technology will follow the same course. With storm water pollution coming mainly from fuel burning technology, solar/battery power is the only way forward if we are really going to reverse the carnage on our wildlife and clean up the most polluted body of water in the country.


    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 6:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Those are good points Blake-- cost of operation and pollution-reduction make electric a better choice.

    And according to Forbes, they ARE lining up for solar energy in New York - http://tinyurl.com/b28czdd


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