How did we get from this…
LA Smog circa 1968
On a clear day…
In my lifetime?
As a school child growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, I was all too familiar with the upper scene: ground level ozone and other pollutants that literally made it hurt to breathe. Kids would come into classrooms after lunchtime recess and cough for half an hour. Every day. The very air was killing us and no one seemed to have the ability, or the will, to change it.
The story of how LA drastically improved its air quality has much to teach us as we face the fight to do something about climate change. The tactics of those who profit from the status quo are exactly the same: denial, obfuscation, entrenched resistance. But we overcame their resistance before, and what has been done can be done. The question is: do we have the will?
Which brings me to the wonderful series on addressing these issues that ran this past week on Kai Ryssdal’s always engaging Marketplace on NPR. (Sidenote: we listen to NPR on KPCC, and we have a Solar Member’s Benefit for KPCC members!)
In a week-long series titled, We Used to be China, the Marketplace Sustainability crew looks at how, not so long ago, the US faced pollution issues every bit as daunting as what confronts China today, and more broadly, the globe. In particular, the sections on LA’s Smog and on the Cap and Trade program that cured Acid Rain are particularly illuminating. Check them out.
Folks often write about Climate Change in terms of saving the Earth, but that isn’t accurate. Solving the problem of Climate Change is about saving us, saving our skins, and a brilliant new piece over at The Nation spells out quite clearly what that will take: “The New Abolitionism.”
Now I realize that we just posted a piece yesterday featuring Chris Hayes and following it up with a summary of his lengthy article may seem a tad too fanboy for some, but there are two good reasons for these back-to-back posts:
1) Chris Hayes writes more intelligently about the subject than just about anyone, and 2) the issue is just too important to ignore. So here we go.
As you might gather from the title, Hayes draws a parallel to the steps necessary to solve Climate Change to the ending of slavery in America. But his point isn’t to equate the fossil fuel industry with the moral atrocity of slave holding. Rather, his point is about the economic impact of both ending slavery and ending our dependence on fossil fuels, and the audacity of the demand from both the Abolitionists before the Civil War and Climate Change activists today.
Hayes lays out the economic history of slavery and notes that prior to the Civil War, the value of the slave economy in the South was something like $10 trillion (with a T) dollars. And the Abolitionists were demanding that those who owned slaves - who owned that economic gold mine - give it all up without compensation. Which they were forced to do, but only after we fought the bloodiest war in our history.
What has that to do with the fossil fuel industry? Turns out that in a 2012 paper titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Bill McKibben laid out the calculation for how much carbon we could emit into the atmosphere and still avoid the 2°C temperature increase that most scientists believe is the level beyond which we dare not go, at least not if we are going to save our skins. According to McKibben, that total is 565 gigatons of carbon - which seems like a staggeringly high number, until you learn this: according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the proven reserves of the world’s fossil fuels is 2,795 gigatons. In other words, “the total amount of known, proven extractable fossil fuel in the ground at this very moment is almost five times the amount we can safely burn."
Here’s how McKibben phrased it, writing back in 2012:
Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
How much are all of those reserves worth? Hard to say precisely since energy prices are highly volatile, but according to Hayes, a fair estimate is somewhere north of $10 trillion (again, with a T). That is an awful lot of money to leave on the table, and those of us who are asking to rein in the fossil fuel industry need to understand that those are the kinds of dollars we are talking about.
Hayes takes that comparison and manages to end on an upbeat note, so you owe it to yourself to check out the entire article, The New Abolitionism, here.
Solar got a shout-out by President Obama in last night’s State of the Union speech and a well deserved one at that. Here’s what the President had to say:
…we’re becoming a global leader in solar too. Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do. (Cheers, applause.)
We were applauding, too, as we listened to the President’s speech. Of course, we are a long way removed from legislation that would actually redirect those subsidies from dirty fossil fuels to the clean energy we need for the future. And the President also touted his “all of the above” energy policy in noting that we have greatly expanded oil and natural gas production under his watch—a fact that prompted one wag to remark that he was fine with an all of the above policy, it was the stuff underground that causes all of the problems.
And let’s be clear, we are facing a major problem in climate change. Nearly two-thirds of California has been downgraded to extreme drought status and our snow pack today is 20% of what it should be at this time of year. While deniers point to freakishly cold temperatures in the nation’s heartland, they ignore the temperatures in Alaska where it rained in January for the first time in recorded history.
Check out this great summary video from our friends over at Climate Denial Crock of the Week:
So the President was right to give a shout-out to solar, as it is an important part of the solution. But a lot more needs to be done and we need a greater sense of urgency about the task ahead.
Recently the once venerable news show 60 Minutes aired a controversial piece allegedly describing the “The Cleantech Crash.” That generated buzz, but the response from one of the leading sources to the story, along with another major piece of news this past week begs the question: which sector is really crashing, cleantech or dirty energy?
Famed venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, was interviewed at length for the 60 Minutes piece and he wasn’t happy at all with how the story went down. Instead, he has published a lengthy rebuttal/open letter to 60 Minutes. While 60 Minutes made the argument that clean technology companies are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers and generally fail, Khosla pointed out that in fact, most of the companies in this space have done quite well and that the subsidies are not nearly as great as 60 Minutes sought to portray.
To quote from just a couple of the facts he cited in rebuttal:
It is on that last point that another story from the past week came to mind - the contamination of the water supply for 300,000 residents of West Virginia due to a chemical spill.
Apparently this storage facility - owned by a company called… wait for it… Freedom Industries - which leaked a chemical used in the coal industry, had not been inspected since the early 1990’s. Now there’s a perverse subsidy for you: if you don’t get inspected regularly, you don’t have to spend as much money keeping your facility up-to-date and safe, so that money can go to your profit line. Until, that is, the chemicals come gushing out of the bottom of your storage tank, overflow whatever containment measures you had in place, and flow into the adjacent river that just happens to immediately supply the drinking water of 300,000 of your closest neighbors - to say nothing of the millions more farther downstream (hello, Cincinnati!).
Imagine the Fox News coverage if a major solar facility had a spill of its own… oh wait, we just call those “nice days".
No one can dispute that federal subsidy dollars should be spent wisely, and that certainly includes how money goes to the solar Investment Tax Credit, as we have written in the past. But distorted reporting does not change the facts that the cleantech industry represents the future; indeed, our only future if we are to have a sustainable world, and the technologies and practices of entities like Freedom Industries are what are crashing. Literally.
In a curious bit of timing, two reports of great significance are being released today. The one that will get all of the headlines is the latest assessment on climate change coming from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The second report will see far less attention, but is inevitably linked - the report for the California Public Utilities Commission on the costs and benefits of Net Metering. We will have more to say about both in the coming days, but here is our first take.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has kept a “Doomsday Clock” showing how close to midnight - and thus, human-induced annihilation - the world was. At the depths of the Cold War the clock was as close as 2 minutes away, but by 2007 the clock was wound back to twelve minutes to midnight - the “safest” the world had been since the dawn of the Atomic Age.
But for Rajendra Pachauri, the lead scientist on the IPCC report, climate change has replaced nuclear destruction as mankind’s greatest threat. According to him, “we have five minutes before midnight." The report’s Summary for Policymakers, which can be downloaded now from the IPCC website, includes numerous graphs and illustrations to buttress Pachauri’s conclusion, here are two:
That map makes it pretty clear that the globe is heating up and in some parts of the world, heating very significantly.
But what about the “Global Temperature Standstill” that deniers like to tout? Isn’t it true that for the past decade, surface temperature rise has leveled off and thus, Climate Change is nothing to worry about?
The short answer to that is, not so much - take a look:
That last bar is for the past decade and it clearly shows yet another decadal increase - and that is based on observed temperatures, not computer models. And keep in mind that these are surface measurements - yet many climate scientists believe that the majority of the warming effects are occurring in the deep ocean.
So no, warming hasn’t halted, and we need to do all that we can to reduce emissions of Greenhouse Gases if we are to avoid making the clock strike twelve.
Which brings us, sadly, to the other report just released on the Costs and Benefits of Net Metering in California. Currently, the overwhelming number of residential and commercial solar installations in the state benefit from Net Metering which provides a one-for-one credit for energy produced and exported to the grid against energy consumed at a later time. In a sense, the grid acts as a storage device for solar clients, allowing them to bank credits during the day and then drawing on those credits in the evening, at night, or on cloudy days when the solar system cannot meet current needs.
The take-away from the 319-page draft report is summarized in this chart:
According to this analysis, the net cost of Net Metering by 2020 when the caps on how many net metering customers the IOUs must allow is reached, will be over $1.1 billion, or slightly more than 3% of the “revenue requirement” of the three utilities studied.
That sounds like a significant imbalance—until your realize that the report contains this incredibly important caveat which renders the entire analysis suspect:
Lastly, it is important to note that the attached NEM [i.e., Net Metering] Cost-Effectiveness Evaluation is focused exclusively on the utility ratepayer impacts of NEM, and does not include the overall societal benefits from the deployment of clean energy resources, although significant environmental, public health and other non-energy benefits occur.
We are supposed to suspend consideration of environmental, public health and other non-energy benefits, even though we know that they are significant? How can that make any sense? Worse still, we are supposed to suspend those very considerations at the same time that we are being told that it is “five minutes to midnight” for the world if we do not reduce our GHG emissions. Talk about a disconnect.
It is patently absurd to ignore the societal benefits provided by solar installations, particularly in light of the existential threat posed by climate change brought about by burning fossil fuels. The entire analysis views the world from the perspective of the status quo in which fossil-fueled utilities have a “revenue requirement” that the rest of us are expected to provide. Such a world view - and such a business model - leads to skewed results like these and if followed, would push us all closer to Midnight.