February 28, 2013

The New Abolitionists

These mugshots from the Guardian of the "climate change abolitionists," a.k.a. "climate hawks,"  show the leading figures, from Bill McKibben in the upper left to Jeremy Grantham on the lower right. Clicking on the picture will take you to the Guardian site, where there are brief biographies.

Andrew Winston, in the accompanying piece at the Guardian, writes of the new abolitionists:  "Climate abolitionists are not fighting to eliminate growth. Eradicating slavery did not rid the world of cotton or tobacco, and moving away from carbon will not mean abandoning human and economic development – in fact, it will help ensure it. What we want to abolish is our outmoded, broken economic and energy systems that threaten our survival, in part because they put no value on human and ecosystem inputs and impacts. We're seeking a new way of powering our world that will save vast sums of money (variable costs of near zero), avoid the significant health impacts of burning dirty fossil fuels, and conserve our planet's ability to support not only our entire $70tn economy, but our very existence."

See also Joe Romm's take on the "new abolitionists," of which he is one (just to the left of Grantham).

February 25, 2013

Arctic Death Spiral

This disturbing graphic, via Climate Progress, shows the decline in the volume of Arctic Sea Ice from 1979 to 2012.
A more finely grained look is provided in the innovative video of Andy Lee Robinson:

Resource Curse for the USA

Predictions that the United States will become a net energy exporter by 2020 have become increasingly common. The heaviest hitter to weigh in with such a prediction is the International Energy Agency, whose November 2012 energy outlook  predicts that around 2017 the United States will become the largest oil producer in the world. In Bloomberg's summary, "The U.S. will pump 11.1 million barrels of oil a day in 2020 and 10.9 million in 2025, the IEA said. Those figures are 500,000 barrels a day and 100,000 barrels a day higher, respectively, than its forecasts for Saudi Arabia for those years. The desert kingdom is due to become the biggest producer again by 2030, pumping 11.4 million barrels a day versus 10.2 million in the U.S."

Whether these predictions will come true remains, I think, a big question--there are lots of dissenters to that proposition. If it does come true, however, the implications are not all rosy, quite apart from the environmental consequences. The strong dollar that would follow such a profound change would give the U.S. a version of the "resource curse." Daniel Altman of New York University explores the implications in this piece from Foreign Policy:

To buy all that oil and gas, America's new customers will need dollars -- and that will begin to push up the currency's value. It will rise further still if the oil and gas industries energize the U.S. economy enough to pull in new investment from abroad. Offsetting this trend somewhat, Americans might also buy up more assets abroad in a rush of cash similar to the petrodollars that flowed out of the Middle East in the 1970s. But overall, the demand for dollars is likely to climb sharply. The prices of gold and other commodities denominated in dollars will plummet, as dollars will have become more valuable while the intrinsic value of the commodities will not have changed.                                                                 

Though these shifts will be dramatic enough, the most profound effects will be on American workers and consumers. A stronger dollar is usually fine for Americans, as long as their purchasing power keeps up with the currency. Yet this is exactly where the problem will be. The new exchange rates will make it harder for non-petroleum industries -- where many more Americans are employed -- to export their products. At the same time, the strong dollar will make imports more affordable to American consumers. Some of the money generated by oil and gas will still filter through to other industries, but those dependent on exports or competing with imports could find themselves in a dire situation. 

The news for consumers is not all good, either. With more income coming into the country, local prices will creep up as well. The United States might go the way of Norway and Australia, rich countries that have become two of the world's most expensive places to visit and live, in large part because of their resource booms. The combination of higher prices for goods and services and falling wages in industries unable to compete at the new exchange rates will squeeze household budgets from both ends. 

Over time, an economic divide will open between Americans who benefit from the oil and gas boom and those who do not. If the economy does not change in a way that ensures more Americans fall into the first category, then inequalities will continue to widen, and the United States might end up looking more like Brazil or Mexico. 

Of course, the government could have something to say about this. To start, it could try to weaken the dollar. Indeed, for years political leaders and officials have paid lip service to a strong dollar policy while trying to support American exports by pursuing more favorable exchange rates. Sometimes they have told other countries to let their currencies appreciate, and sometimes they have devalued dollars simply by printing a lot more of them. 

But what will they do when the dollar really is strong? The likely answer is not much. With a booming economy -- even if some sectors are suffering -- the last thing the Federal Reserve will want to do is add fuel to the inflationary fire by injecting more cash into the markets. The Fed's job is to keep prices relatively stable and maximize employment for the whole economy; if anything, it will keep interest rates high to stop the economy from overheating. 

Alas, high interest rates will just inflict more pain on struggling families. A boom for the economy as a whole will be a bust for them, several times over, because their wages will be slipping while prices go up and borrowing becomes more difficult. As a result, their fate will depend on those who can extend a helping hand: state governments, Congress, and the White House. 

Analysts of emerging economies have seen all of this before. Windfalls of natural resources are common among poor countries, and the question is always the same: How will they turn these newfound riches, generally controlled by a minority, into long-term economic gains for the majority? The answer is often to retain and set aside a large share of the revenue and invest it in education, health care, infrastructure, and the broader development of the private sector. 

For the United States, the answer is less clear. How much petroleum revenue will be collected as taxes? How will those taxes be used to reduce inequality and put the entire economy -- not just the petroleum sector -- on a solid footing?
Today's politicians can't even agree how to budget for the next 10 months, let alone the next two decades. In this case, however, planning ahead will be absolutely essential.

Daniel Altman, "The United Petrostates of America," Foreign Policy, February 25, 2013

Apocalyptic Visions

This piece by Malise Ruthven from the New York Review, “Waiting for the Apocalypse: From the Romantics to Romney,” (8/25/12) provides a nice tour of apocalyptic visions over the centuries. It is interesting to think about such visions, often religiously inspired, in the context of nightmare projections today emphasizing ecological, financial, and other forms of collapse. Today, predictions of apocalypse often take the form of “settled science,”  making them fundamentally different in origin and tenor from earlier ideas. And yet there are some similarities:  

The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining—or predicting—the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president. 

Perhaps this should not surprise us. Apocalyptic movements have been motors of religious—and secular—change throughout history. The origins of Christianity are inseparable from the apocalyptic spirit that consumed the Judeo-Hellenistic world in late antiquity. Albert Schweitzer in his highly influential The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), saw Jesus as the archetypical messianic prophet who expected to see the establishment of God’s rule on earth—as theologian John Riches puts it—through a “mighty act of divine intervention in history which would put an end to the evil age.” Muhammad’s original mission cannot be explained without reference to the apocalyptic admonitions, the foreseen calamities and terrors of the Day of Judgment described in the early suras (chapters) of the Koran “when mankind shall be like moths, besprinkled, when mountains shall be like tufts of wool…” [101:4-5] 

Apocalyptic rumblings—to name a few examples—surrounded Luther’s call for reforming the Catholic Church, Sabbatai Zevi’s claim to be the Jewish messiah, the French and American Revolutions (with George III as the Antichrist of Revelation) and the Babist movement in Persia led by Sayyid ‘Ali al-Shirazi, known as the Bab or ”Gate” (1819-1850), who claimed to be the Hidden Imam of the Shi’a and a “manifestation” of God on a par with Jesus and Muhammad. Although Shirazi was executed—along with thousands of his followers—his movement eventually evolved into the separate faith of Bahaism. 

Many such notions are also present in modern totalitarian movements. The most obvious example is Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The historian Peter Fischer sees Nazism as a “synthesis of nationalist ideology and Apocalyptic Christian mythology” with the “warrior-dictator” leading “Germany to the Promised Land …once he has destroyed evil, sin and death in their earthly embodiment as the potent, satanic Jew.” . . . 

The paradox of apocalypticism is that the prophets who predict the end of the world can also be great initiators and innovators. The fear of catastrophe, despite its perceived inevitability, acts as a spur to construction. A striking example is the evolution of the Mormon Church from a doomsday cult that originated in upstate New York during the 1830s to the formidable “kingdom” created in the Utah desert by the end of the nineteenth century. The sense of impending disaster inspired the Latter Day Saints, who saw themselves as a “saved remnant” of humanity, to congregate first at Kirtland, Ohio, then near modern Independence, Missouri, and eventually at Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois (where the movement’s founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844), before the great migration across the Great Plains and Rockies under Smith’s successor Brigham Young. 

The early Mormon experience can usefully be compared with that of early Islam: the persecution suffered by the Saints in Jackson County, Missouri, which they were forced to leave after being disarmed and flogged by slave-owning settlers, may be compared with that experienced by Muhammad’s first Muslim converts in Mecca, while the utopian community forged by Joseph Smith under divine guidance in Nauvoo corresponds to Muhammad’s reign in Medina. As the German historian Eduard Meyer noted in 1912: “Without the least exaggeration, we may designate the Mormons as the Mohammedans of the New World according to their origins and their manner of thinking. There is hardly a historical parallel which is so instructive as this one; and through comparative analysis both receive so much light that a scientific study of one through the other is indispensable.” . . .

You've just got to love that bit about the Mormons and Muhammad.

February 24, 2013

Ecological vs. Environmental Economics

The extracts below, about 10% of the entry on Ecological Economics at Wikipedia, emphasize a series of contrasts with the dominant neoclassical approach embedded in “environmental economics.”  

Ecological economics is referred to as both a transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing "strong" sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital. . . . 

According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation. Ecological economists have questioned fundamental mainstream economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis, and the separability of economic values from scientific research, contending that economics is unavoidably normative rather than positive (empirical). Positional analysis, which attempts to incorporate time and justice issues, is proposed as an alternative. . . . 

Some ecological economists prioritize adding natural capital to the typical capital asset analysis of land, labor, and financial capital. These ecological economists then use tools from mathematical economics as in mainstream economics, but may apply them more closely to the natural world. Whereas mainstream economists tend to be technological optimists, ecological economists are inclined to be technological sceptics. They reason that the natural world has a limited carrying capacity and that its resources may run out. Since destruction of important environmental resources could be practically irreversible and catastrophic, ecological economists are inclined to justify cautionary measures based on the precautionary principle. . . . 

While this natural capital and ecosystems services approach has proven popular amongst many it has also been contested as failing to address the underlying problems with mainstream economics, growth, market capitalism and monetary valuation of the environment. Critiques concern the need to create a more meaningful relationship with Nature and the non-human world than evident in the instrumentalism of shallow ecology and the environmental economists commodification of everything external to the market system. . . .  

Ecological economics is distinguishable from neoclassical economics primarily by its assertion that the economy is embedded within an environmental system. Ecology deals with the energy and matter transactions of life and the Earth, and the human economy is by definition contained within this system. Ecological economists argue that neoclassical economics has ignored the environment, at best considering it to be a subset of the human economy. 

The neoclassical view ignores much of what the natural sciences have taught us about the contributions of nature to the creation of wealth e.g., the planetary endowment of scarce matter and energy, along with the complex and biologically diverse ecosystems that provide goods and ecosystem services directly to human communities: micro- and macro-climate regulation, water recycling, water purification, storm water regulation, waste absorption, food and medicine production, pollination, protection from solar and cosmic radiation, the view of a starry night sky, etc. . . . 

The potential for the substitution of man-made capital for natural capital is an important debate in ecological economics and the economics of sustainability. There is a continuum of views among economists between the strongly neoclassical positions of Robert Solow and Martin Weitzman, at one extreme and the ‘entropy pessimists’, notably Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly, at the other.  

Neoclassical economists tend to maintain that man-made capital can, in principle, replace all types of natural capital. This is known as the weak sustainability view, essentially that every technology can be improved upon or replaced by innovation, and that there is a substitute for any and all scarce materials. 

At the other extreme, the strong sustainability view argues that the stock of natural resources and ecological functions are irreplaceable. From the premises of strong sustainability, it follows that economic policy has a fiduciary responsibility to the greater ecological world, and that sustainable development must therefore take a different approach to valuing natural resources and ecological functions. . . . 

A key idea of ecological economics is conveyed in the following figure, also from Wikipedia, which shows the “three nested systems of sustainability”—the economy is wholly contained by society, and both are wholly contained by the biophysical environment.

Water Losses in Middle East


A new report, utilizing satellite data from NASA, shows water storage declining sharply in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  In the seven year period studied, from 2003 to 2009, “the region lost over 144 cubic kilometers of fresh water, an amount equivalent in volume to the Dead Sea,” and the rates of reported water loss are continuing. The report’s lead author, Jay Famigliette of the University of California, summarizes the results at National Geographic  

Our team’s expectation is that the water situation in the Middle East will only degrade with time, primarily due to climate change.  The best available science indicates that the arid and semi-arid regions of the world will become even more so:  the dry areas of the world will become drier (while conversely, the wet areas will become wetter).  Consequences for the Middle East include more prolonged drought, which means that the underground aquifers that store the region’s groundwater will not be replenished during our lifetimes, nor during those of future generations. 

Moreover, the rapid rates of groundwater depletion that we report will only accelerate the drying of the region, placing additional stress on already overtaxed resources.  After all, a typical human response to drought is to rely more heavily on groundwater resources, since more accessible surface waters are not available. 

Declining water availability in the Middle East is consistent with an emerging, if not alarming, global picture.  Our satellite data and available measurements on the ground now tell us that most of the world’s aquifers in the dry parts of our planet are being rapidly depleted. The human fingerprint of water management has left an indelible and irreversible impression on our water landscape.  Climate change and population growth only conspire to make this bad situation worse.  The Middle East is by no means alone in its water woes.  Analogies are present on nearly every continent, including the key aquifers in the U. S. – the Ogallala and the Central Valley. . . . 

We cannot reverse climate change and its impact on water availability, but we can and must do a far better job with water management, including the modernization of national and international water policy.  Our research and its implications point to the following critical needs, not only for the Middle East, but in all regions of the world where groundwater resources are in decline. 

First, it’s high time for groundwater to be included under the water management umbrella. In most of the world, groundwater pumping is unmonitored and unregulated.  It is as true in much of the U. S. as it is in the Middle East.  That’s no different than making withdrawals from a savings account without keeping track of the amount or the remaining balance:  irresponsible without question, and a recipe for disaster when multiple account holders are acting independently. 

Second, since nearly 80% of the world’s water resources are used to support agriculture, continued improvements in agricultural and irrigation conservation and efficiency should be an important focus for research, development, investment and cooperation.  In the Middle East, some countries, notably Israel, are pioneers of efficiency, while others are less advanced.  Much of the technology is in place. It just needs to be disseminated and embraced across the entire region. 

Third, our report and others that have preceded it clearly demonstrate that satellite technology has advanced to the point where a reliable assessment of regional hydrology can be produced with little access to observations on the ground. Our 2009 study of groundwater depletion in India is yet another example of current capabilities. My point is that data denial policies amongst nations will ultimately be rendered obsolete.  It will be far better to share key measurements now, to enhance and fully utilize the satellite picture for mutually beneficial water management in the long term. 

Finally, the priority of international water policy discussions must be elevated.  All around the world, we will increasingly be faced with the need to share water across political boundaries, either within nations or between them.  More generally, our common water future must accommodate the ability to move water, either literally or virtually, from the regions that have it to the regions that do not. The international policy and legal framework is simply not in place to ensure peaceable water management capable of circumnavigating the complexities of the 21st century water landscape.  In the Middle East, the difference in interpretation of how Tigris-Euprhates waters should be shared amongst riparian countries is a prime example of obstacles that must be overcome, cooperatively. . . .


These two NASA photos, acquired by the Landsat 5 satellite, show the startling loss of water in the Qadisiyah Reservoir in Iraq between September 7, 2006 and September 15, 2009, "Freshwater Stores Shrink in Tigris-Euphrates Basin," March 13, 2013.

February 23, 2013

Clean Coal?

A press release from Ohio State University, “New Coal Technology Harnesses Energy Without Burning, Nears Pilot-Scale Development,” reports some promising research:   

A new form of clean coal technology reached an important milestone recently, with the successful operation of a research-scale combustion system at Ohio State University. The technology is now ready for testing at a larger scale. 

For 203 continuous hours, the Ohio State combustion unit produced heat from coal while capturing 99 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the reaction. 

Liang-Shih Fan, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of Ohio State’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory, pioneered the technology called Coal-Direct Chemical Looping (CDCL), which chemically harnesses coal’s energy and efficiently contains the carbon dioxide produced before it can be released into the atmosphere. 

“In the simplest sense, combustion is a chemical reaction that consumes oxygen and produces heat,” Fan said. “Unfortunately, it also produces carbon dioxide, which is difficult to capture and bad for the environment. So we found a way to release the heat without burning. We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor.” . . . 

Though other laboratories around the world are trying to develop similar technology to directly convert coal to electricity, Fan’s lab is unique in the way it processes fossil fuels. The Ohio State group typically studies coal in the two forms that are already commonly available to the power industry: crushed coal “feedstock,” and coal-derived syngas. 

The latter fuel has been successfully studied in a second sub-pilot research-scale unit, through a similar process called Syngas Chemical Looping (SCL).  Both units are located in a building on Ohio State’s Columbus campus, and each is contained in a 25-foot-high insulated metal cylinder that resembles a very tall home water heater tank. . . . 

The researchers are about to take their technology to the next level: a larger-scale pilot plant is under construction at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, AL. Set to begin operations in late 2013, that plant will produce 250 thermal kilowatts using syngas. 

The key to the technology is the use of tiny metal beads to carry oxygen to the fuel to spur the chemical reaction. For CDCL, the fuel is coal that’s been ground into a powder, and the metal beads are made of iron oxide composites. The coal particles are about 100 micrometers across—about the diameter of a human hair—and the iron beads are larger, about 1.5-2 millimeters across. Chung likened the two different sizes to talcum powder and ice cream sprinkles, though the mix is not nearly so colorful. 

The coal and iron oxide are heated to high temperatures, where the materials react with each other. Carbon from the coal binds with the oxygen from the iron oxide and creates carbon dioxide, which rises into a chamber where it is captured. Hot iron and coal ash are left behind. Because the iron beads are so much bigger than the coal ash, they are easily separated out of the ash, and delivered to a chamber where the heat energy would normally be harnessed for electricity. The coal ash is removed from the system. 

The carbon dioxide is separated and can be recycled or sequestered for storage.  The iron beads are exposed to air inside the reactor, so that they become re-oxidized  be used again. The beads can be re-used almost indefinitely, or recycled. 

Since the process captures nearly all the carbon dioxide, it exceeds the goals that DOE has set for developing clean energy. New technologies that use fossil fuels should not raise the cost of electricity more than 35 percent, while still capturing more than 90 percent of the resulting carbon dioxide. Based on the current tests with the research-scale plants, Fan and his team believe that they can meet or exceed that requirement. 

The DOE funded this research, and collaborating companies include Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group, Inc.; CONSOL Energy, Inc.; and Clear Skies Consulting, LLC.

Note that this new technology does not propose a solution to the problem of how to store or recycle the carbon dioxide the process produces. As such, it seems rather inconclusive in its implications.

Fossil Fuel Reserves on World Stock Exchanges

Carbontracker's Unburnable Carbon report, from which these graphics are taken, indicates that 20 to 30 percent of the market capitalization of the Australian, London, Moscow, Toronto, and Sao Paulo stock exchanges is linked to fossil fuel extraction. The reserves of listed companies, worldwide, only account for 26.6% of total world fossil fuel reserves, so this is not really a very revealing picture of the where the stuff is actually located. As Carbontracker notes, 50% of conventional oil reserves are from companies listed on stock exchanges, but the figures for other fuels are much lower: 20% of global coal reserves, 12% of unconventional oil reserves, and 10% of natural gas reserves. The low proportion of natural gas and coal listed on stock exchanges, notes Carbontracker, is due to their concentration in Russia and the Middle East.

The older map below, based on 2004 data, offers a much better picture of the world distribution of petroleum reserves, and it remains essentially accurate so far as conventional oil reserves are concerned.  The reserve figures for the Persian Gulf producers have changed very little over the past decade; the big increases are in the reported figures for Venezuelan and Canadian tar sand reserves.

The first table below shows world oil reserves by country for 2010. The second table shows reserves for 2004.


World Distribution of Carbon Reserves

The Carbontracker report from which this table comes, Unburnable Carbon notes that the figures are based on proven reserves (those which have a 90% certainty of being extracted). It excludes probable reserves (which have a 50% chance of being extracted) and possible reserves (with a 10% chance.) Later, Carbontracker provides the following figure showing that BP's unproven reserves are much larger than its proven reserves. In the text it says that BP's unproven reserves are at 35 years, whereas in the figure it puts the amount at 38 years, but in any case the report suggests that the amounts of probable and possible reserves are much larger (perhaps nearly 3 times) than the proved reserves listed in the above table.

February 17, 2013

14 Carbon Bombs

A new report from Greenpeace, "Point of No Return," highlights 14 "Carbon Bombs" scheduled for deployment over the next several years. They range "from massive expansion of coal mining in China, to large-scale expansion of coal exports from Australia, the US and Indonesia, to the development of risky unconventional sources of oil in the tar sands of Canada, in the Arctic, in the ocean off the coast of Brazil, in Iraq, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Kazakhstan, and to gas production in Africa and the Caspian Sea." To avoid a catastrophic warming, Greenpeace urges, "the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure needs to stop within five years."

Here is a rough map of the carbon bombs, stitched together from the Greenpeace report by Brad Plumer:

Greenpeace details, in the following figure, the expected results of business as usual approaches (warming of 5 to 6 degrees C by 2050, the red line) and the emissions reductions required in order to have a 50% chance of keeping a temperature rise under 2 degrees (the orange line), and that required in order to achieve a 75% chance of meeting that target (the bottom line, whose color I cannot quite make out.)

Greenpeace emphasizes that all is not lost; solutions exist. The following two figures show "realistic deployments" by 2020 for coal and oil by way of efficiency improvements and large-scale investments in various renewables.

How realistic these "realistic deployments" are is a key question. They are to be contrasted with BP's projections for growth in energy demand to 2030 by region, primary use, and fuel.