Monday, August 31, 2009

The Pentagon Ponders Climate Change

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

It seems that over the last few years, more and more science fiction writers include climate change in their future-visions. It's their job to think of the future, and most seem resigned to envisioning the world quite different than it is today.

Now, a new type of futurist - the planners - are also painting a vision of a world altered by global warming. In California, the Natural Resources Agency is encouraging cities and organizations to prepare for rising sea levels and hotter weather. In France, President Sarkozy brought together teams of internationally recognized designers to develop bold visions for the transformation of Paris and its suburbs.

Even the US military may be getting into the act. As the New York Times reports there is growing concern in the Pentagon that the violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics caused by global warming could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions. The article also mentions that the key logistics hub for forces in the Middle East is located on an atoll a few feet above sea level, and touches on the possible military implication of an ice free Arctic.

As Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni said: "We will pay for this one way or another...We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we'll have to take an economic hit of some kind, or we will pay the price later in military terms." General Zinni is no lightweight.

Is military pragmatism the right motivation for the US to take a leadership position in climate change? Does it matter? You could argue that this is a selfish rather than altruistic motive. But if this particular way of analyzing the issue creates a more globally focused and active policy, I say "bring 'em on."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Barbarians at The Turbine

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

In a recent column in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi described cap and trade as "a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an environmental plan" and further asserts that it will "allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme." A pretty scary critique.

Now I should start with the caveat that Taibbi is a somewhat opinionated and controversial figure, prone to hyperbole. He once described Thomas Friedman (NY Times writer and author of "The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded") as someone who "flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee's signs." He called Goldman Sachs "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" and he also penned an infamous piece called "The 52 Funniest Things About The Upcoming Death of The Pope."

But for me, the Enron-induced market manipulation of the energy markets that nearly bankrupted California still stings, as does the more recent mortgage backed securities fiasco that may end up bankrupting our country (thanks to the TARP, housing bubble, and stimulus packages that it has spawned). While carbon prices should drive us to demand greater energy efficiency and use less energy, the real underlying purposes of carbon credits are to fund ecosystem services (such as vibrant forests) and to finance the cost of permanent changes to the world's energy production and consumption infrastructure. A poorly designed cap and trade scheme could lead to market manipulation and speculation that transfers most of the money to sophisticated financial firms and market intermediaries, rather than groups that actually do the projects. A carbon price "spike" could easily lead to $10 of paper profits for every $1 that actually funds firms making a difference.

We set up ClimatePath so that money goes to a nonprofit that permanently retires the resale or speculation. Many of our mission based project partners also insist that credit transaction lead to retirement, not resale. We avoid treating carbon as a commodity, by linking money spent to the underlying project work. These aren't the only answers, and I do believe that market making firms are needed to make cap and trade work. But it is important that the final cap and trade bill contains strong provisions and penalties to prevent a speculative bubble. The language is there now, but as Mother Jones reports "regulation of carbon markets will probably be swept up in broader financial reforms that are the subject of intense lobbying and political pressure. It's too soon to take for granted that cap and trade will contain rules that go far enough to prevent speculation and fraud."

If you write rules for Wall Street, they follow them. If you leave loopholes, they exploit them. In the end, if your utility ends up paying $50 a ton while they transition away from coal, while the renewables supplier, forest preservation project, or conservation project receives only $10, then we have legislated the massive wealth transfer that Taibbi fears.

Photo copyright artemuestra at (CC License)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Getting along with less

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

There's a new study out by the highly respected firm Mckinsey, which concludes that, in the US alone, we have the potential to reduce energy consumption by 23% by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste, and resulting in the abatement of 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.

This is not based on new clean energy sources, or some future high tech solution like hydrogen powered flying cars. (Question: Does a flying car count as taking a car off the road?) It is based on energy efficiency - simply consuming less.

The cost? Well it isn't all free...but what is most interesting about the report is that they identify the expenditures that actually save more than they cost, and rank them based on their return on investment. High on the list are lighting, appliances/electronics, and water heating, things groups like Energy Star, utilities, and even ClimatePath have been touting for some time.

In a country where using fossil fuels is almost a sign of patriotism (a bizarre notion, given our reliance on foreign oil), some pretty sizable changes are needed to capture these savings. To sum up the Mckinsey study's conclusions, an energy policy based on supply needs to be replaced by one based on demand. Treating energy efficiency as an energy resource, more investment in energy efficiency, and cooperation between utilities, regulators, government agencies, manufacturers (and consumers) are all part of the solution.

A lot of this savings is in commercial buildings and facilities, where better codes and incentives to spend up front are needed. But that doesn't let us off the hook at home. Discover the operating costs of tankless water heaters, front load washers and other appliances before dismissing them in favor of cheaper models. And if you work in a commercial building, ask what your company and your landlord are doing to reduce energy costs. Especially in this economic climate, landlords will bend over backwards to please tenants...and they'll be saving money in the long run as well. Energy Star has a great guide for building upgrades.

Photo copyright janetmck at (CC license.)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

'Not in My Backyard' Won't Work for Climate Change

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

I was on the beach last week, and watched a fellow beach-goer finish a cigarette, dig a small hole in the sand, and bury the butt. Presto, it was gone! As most of us know, cigarette butts are not biodegradable, so that solution was temporary, and just made the pain of that butt someone else's problem.

Hiding a problem does not make it go away, and for the environment, out of sight out of mind just won't cut it. This can be especially problematic when we try to raise the bar by doing things locally. For example, one of the California CBS affiliates recently reported that "California's recycling rules are so strict that we send our electronic waste across state borders. CBS 5 Investigates found a huge pile of glass from California's TVs and monitors in Arizona, a pile that environmental experts said contained potential environmental hazards...The pile consisted of thousands of pounds of glass, broken-up screens from California's supposedly recycled TVs and monitors."

It doesn't matter if you ban certain chemicals, or require local factories to use green energy or offset, if you turn around and buy goods from somewhere else that lacks these rules. The 'emerging' world economies (where much of our food and other goods are produced) are poised to pass the 'developed' world in emissions in the next decade, and in many cases the environmental bar is set lower. Even in the US, the carbon impact of a product can vary greatly depending on where it was made.

Conscientious consumers are figuring this out. More and more, we're asking for information and labels to make informed purchases. As a result, more companies are offering extra nutrition, recycling, organic, and fair trade labeling, with carbon labeling on the horizon. We can't vote in other states or countries, but we do get to vote with our wallet every day. When we do, we have the opportunity to enforce greener, cleaner practices wherever products are produced.