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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.

From Kitimat, B.C., some 250 giant tankers a year would carry up to 2 million barrels of dilute bitumen to foreign refineries, probably in China. Potentially, some could go to California or just about anywhere else. If a tanker were bound for Asia, it would negotiate Dixon Entrance, between British Columbia and southeast Alaska. If it were instead bound for California and its refinery capacity, it might head south, reaching the open ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Up to 60 vessels a year would be Very Large Crude Carriers of 320,000 deadweight tons. The project is controversial in British Columbia — thousands of people gathered recently at the B.C. legislature in Victoria to protest the plan — but the companies and the Canadian government have huge financial incentives to push ahead.

And then there's coal. If all the plans to export Powder River Basin coal through ports in Washington and Oregon actually bear fruit, up to 150 million tons will flow through the region en route to the furnaces of east Asia every year. The first scoping meeting for the proposed Pacific Gateway coal terminal at Cherry Point was held at Bellingham's Squalicum High School on Oct. 27. Hundreds of people lined up in the rain, waiting to get in. Pacific Gateway still has a long way to go.

The Cherry Point plan is only the tip of a very large iceberg. No one knows whether or not government agencies will even consider the potential combined impact of all the proposed coal ports or the climate impacts of burning all that coal in China. When the Port of Morrow, on the Oregon side of the Columbia, applied for permits that would allow it to build facilities for unloading coal, storing it, and loading it onto barges that would carry it downstream to St. Helens, where it would be loaded onto ocean-going ships, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and citizens groups who oppose the construction of coal terminals argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should do a "cumulative-impacts analysis." For the time being, the Corps will merely do an environmental assessment. The Corps left the door open to reconsider the issue. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles says that the Corps won't discuss a cumulative impacts analysis right now, and neither will anyone else; Boyles says she can't even get a meeting with agency officials and doesn't expect to until after the election.

Most, if not all, of those fossil fuel exports would — or will — presumably be burned in the cars and furnaces of east Asia. Without enlisting the large and growing economies of China and India, Latin says, any effort to control climate change will fall flat. And neither of those countries will agree to anything that limits its development or slows its population's rise from poverty. Therefore, the world won't move closer to a solution until technologies that give them the same opportunities to keep developing are widely available and competitively priced. (In fact, if not rhetorically, it's the same for the U.S. and the rest of the developed world; virtually no one will screw today's voters for the sake of future generations, will sacrifice the short term for the sake of the long.) "Until we have technologies that can increase development and reduce poverty," he says, "we're never going to get those countries to support us. And without their support, there's no hope."

Latin doesn't think there's any less hope because Congress hasn't passed cap and trade or a carbon tax that would have simply funneled money into the Treasury or back to the people. He argues in his book that most of the emission reductions already being made or contemplated — under the Kytoto Protocol or in Europe — couldn't possibly avert disaster. It's an imperfect analogy, but Latin basically views human-caused climate change as a freight train barreling down the track. We want to stop that train. Whether we open the throttle wide or open it less doesn't really matter. Either way, that train isn't going to stop.

Latin argues that rather than merely slowing the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, we must do away totally with the main sources of greenhouse gas, such as coal-burning power plants and internal combustion engines. We must replace them with green technologies. And, yes, we must impose heavy carbon taxes — with all revenue earmarked for the development of those technologies. He doesn't think a tax by itself will deter big corporations from continuing to make big profits from business as usual. It will only work if the tax revenue subsidizes change.

"It is not easy to modify the way people think about a problem once they have internalized a mistaken conception widely shared by others in their field," Latin writes in Climate Change Policy Failures. "Climate policymakers need to stop believing that any reduction in business-as-usual [greenhouse gas] emissions will correspondingly reduce climate change risks. They need to stop thinking that if many people reduce their carbon footprints by some extent, those decentralized ... cuts would produce significant progress toward mitigating climate change dangers. ... These leaders also need to stop believing that 'every little bit helps,' and instead they must recognize that more ambitious mitigation efforts with high worldwide costs" — Latin is not among those who envision a change in energy technology without major social dislocation — "will be required to achieve any meaningful climate change progress."

Latin doesn't see the recent spate of bad news about alternative energy companies as a sign that the needed technologies lie far down the road. He thinks that the real barriers are political. "These things are failing not because they don't work," he says. "They're failing because they're not being supported as they need to be supported." Yes, demand is currently disappointing. But that's not the whole story. True, "there's not enough demand for new technologies at impossibly high prices compared to traditional fossil fuel combustion products." But "we're still heavily subsidizing oil and coal."

Take the slow sales of electric cars. Why should anyone buy a car that can't go from Seattle to Portland without recharging, especially since one is hardly sure to find a spot at a recharging station — or even to find a station on the way? At this point, Latin says, "the electric car industry enjoys no economies of scale. The government isn't buying them. It isn't creating recharging stations." Basically, "you're taking a new, developing, frail technology and pitting it against the most established companies in the world. . . . And people talk about 'the free market.'  "

"It all comes down to economics and politics," he says. "We're not giving a chance to these better alternative technologies."

The Northwest is at least doing a little to encourage those technologies. Washington law still requires utilities to get at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources other than hydro by 2020. And — except, of course, in transportation — no one suggests burning a lot more fossil fuel. Even in these brave new economic times, regional power planning isn't likely to change much. The Sixth Northwest Power Plan calls for meeting 85 percent of increased power demand by 2020 with greater efficiency, rather than building more generating facilities of any kind. (The Council staff estimated that increasing efficiency that much would create 47,000 new jobs by 2030.) The Council cranks out plans on a five-year cycle; it will start working on a seventh plan next year. Presumably, energy efficiency will still look pretty good. The number may be too low — some people argue that it is — but under federal law, the new plan will price greenhouse gas emissions at $21 a ton.

Nationally, whether you believe Latin or trust the half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none emission reductions that he deplores, this year's political campaigns have offered little encouragement. What about the concrete effort that the federal government has made to date? "I could call it half-assed," Latin says, "but it's more like quarter-assed." The EPA may start to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants, but "that only applies to new coal-burning power plants," Latin says, while older plants remain "the worst soures of GHGs [greenhouse gases] in the world." Stopping coal will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, he says, and understandably, government "agencies do not want to be the fall guys for creating social dislocation. They want Congress to do it."

So does he. "Congress should deal with this the way it dealt with the Marshall Plan, the way it dealt with the space program, the way it dealt with the interstate highway system," Latin says. But he doesn't expect our elected representatives to do much on their own. "If we have to depend on Congress," he says, "I would not, if I were you, buy any real property in the state of Florida."

"I believe we have the technologies," he says. "We just don't have the required political will and insight." What would it take for the body politic to develop that will? Is Hurricane Sandy enough? Some New Yorkers think it should be. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama as the candidate more likely to do something about climate change.

"It is small comfort to sodden and stranded New Yorkers that Hurricane Sandy’s flooding of the city’s infrastructure . . . was predicted in grimly precise detail by scientists in the latest state and city climate studies" The New York Times observed. "Deeper and more frequent flooding from Rockaway to Lower Manhattan and the city’s transit tunnels has been a repeated warning that largely went unnoticed by the public and most politicians. But now, with the floods from Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene last year on his watch, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pointedly stressing what he considers the inevitability of more such disasters. 'Climate change is reality,' the governor said." However, the editorial added, "Mr. Cuomo admits that he does not have all the answers nor enough government money for all the proposed solutions."

"President Obama and Mitt Romney seemed determined not to discuss climate change in this campaign," wrote Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "So thanks to Hurricane Sandy for forcing the issue: Isn’t it time to talk not only about weather, but also about climate?"

Maybe so, but ... the presidential candidates' responses to Sandy did not include ringing calls for a war on climate change. "We probably need a Katrina times five," Latin said shortly before Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, "a natural disaster so striking that people will wake up and say 'we can't continue.'  "

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

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).

afreeman

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.

kieth

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."

louploup

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.

Bentler

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.

afreeman

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.

Bentler

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."

afreeman

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?

Bentler

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.

afreeman

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.

Charlton2

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. :)

Bentler

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

http://www.nj.com/hunterdon-county-democrat/index.ssf/2012/11/bayonne_school_stays_in_power.html

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.

Ries

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.

Blake

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

Bentler

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