Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Blog Project

Hello Readers:

I'm going to be blogging now and then at What's Left?, www.whatsleft2016.blogspot.com, so come find me there if you feel like it.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The End of the Road to Paris (and a New Road Out?)

Dear Readers,

I started this blog as a year-long project to chart the run-up to the Paris conference, and in the process to learn more about the climate change problem and its potential solutions. I imagined that the COP 21 meeting would be one of the more momentous events of our time, and it did not disappoint me. For all its shortfalls, it was, I think, both a fascinating milestone in international diplomacy and a significant though preliminary step toward creating a new global energy system.

The blog worked for me, and I hope it was useful to some dozens of readers who consulted it (at the end I may even have broken through to a hundred views or more). What did NOT work was my hope that the blog would be a forum for discussion. I remain disappointed that not a single reader posted a comment or responded in any way. I have seen and contributed to blogs that became lively corners for discussion, and I think it's a great use of the medium. I'm not sure why this one didn't work out, but MAYBE IT STILL CAN (see below).

Moving forward, I have three intentions:

1) Locally: I'm looking to work for a specific and important climate project. I think the failure of the Mass legislature to pass enabling legislation to encourage solar installations ('net metering') may offer the biggest opportunity for citizens to intervene here in Massachusetts, and I hope to get involved in the new year.

2) Globally: strengthening climate awareness and support for renewable energy in the US, and electing a President and Congress that will press ahead with renewable research, funding, and overseas support (massive funds for the Green Fund and similar projects), is one of the most crucial ways to build on COP 21 and 'ratchet up' that agreement. Expanding carbon taxes and exchanges would be another biggie. These large-scale interventions are hard to do much with, but we can try.

3) IN THIS SPACE: the blog will stay up, and I would still love to see it blossom into a discussion forum. Just click on "comments"and tell us what you think: about Paris, climate change, nuclear power as a solution, China's reliability as a partner, the tragedy of low-lying coastal regions ... there's lots to talk about. If people respond, I will moderate, and open up new posts/threads as needed. It's your turn now so don't be shy ...

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Paris: It's Over so Now We Begin ...

Years ago the acerbic Oregon senator Wayne Morse had a solution for the Vietnam war: declare victory and come home. Cynics may see the Paris conference ending the same way. Certainly there is a certain false ring to the triumphalism in the official statements. But is this a hollow victory?

In some ways yes: the language on emissions reductions is alarmingly weak ("as soon as possible"), and the ambitious target of 1.5 degrees C in temperature rise is only aspirational. In fact none of the concrete measures, individual or collective, are binding in any legal sense. This weakness has led James Hansen to call the agreement a "fraud" and The Guardian's George Monbiot to call it a "disaster."

The only objective rebuttal would be to invoke the periodic reviews (starting as early as 2018, and officially every 5 years from 2020) with the intention of 'ratcheting up' what everyone recognizes are inadequate proposals. One could also cite various funding commitments, though the overall accounting for the 'Green Fund' and related projects will take a lot of sorting out before we know what's real.

But I believe there is a positive reality in the way it feels this time: a greater sense of cooperation and compromise than was possible 6 years ago, a broader recognition even among the reluctant nations and interests that this problem can't be ignored. Starting with  a US president more adept at working around a neanderthal Congress, and state governments like California's that have moved ahead on their own; including a more capable and cooperative leadership cadre in China; building on years of achievement in Europe and new resolve in emerging powers like Brazil; and yes, drawing the attention of financial and corporate powers, who feel the need to get on board in some visible way--these represent subjective but real changes in the global landscape. Paris was the occasion for these many parties, governmental and non-, to reorient to the new realities. Not altogether, not enough yet, but substantially.

The danger is that anyone might think the job is done. It has barely started. The challenge? To keep the momentum, both among governmental policy makers and advocacy groups, that Paris has accelerated. Particularly among advocates: any relaxation of pressure would allow the actual agents to take the easier road of limited compliance. My perception is that advocacy in the US falls way short of what would be needed even under a Clinton presidency, much less the nightmare of a Republican administration, to keep the renewable energy transformation moving forward. We need to do better.

At the top of my wish list? A movement for a global carbon tax. Next? Massive capital transfers to India and the other members of the 'global solar alliance' it brought to Paris. Third? Technology transfers between China and the US, and then all over the world, following the lead of the Chinese-American city to city partnerships that began this fall. There are thousands of great ideas out there for energy efficiency and conservation as well as clean energy generation, but we need to speed up the pace of trial and innovation. Local interventions--like persuading the Massachusetts legislature to stand up to the utilities and continue supports for domestic solar installation--may be the most important--and winnable--battles.

Was Paris a turning point in this great human drama to avert our own destruction? We will only know the answer in retrospect. Let's hope it's 'Yes.' Better yet, let's resolve, starting today, to make it so.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Taking Sides with Planet Earth

With the rush of commentary emanating out of Paris, and the unblinking pace of statements, drafts, positions, and proposals, I have found it all a bit overwhelming, and difficult to stop and take stock. But as we reach the final days and hours, I want to record a few main impressions:

  • 1.5 degrees C: it was for me a welcome surprise to see this ambitious number take a prominent place in the discussions. Many scientists have criticized the 2 C measure as arbitrary and too permissive to avert serious harm. Now many of the G77 states, with the support of US ambassador Todd Stern and the 'high ambitions coalition,' are trying to get the lower number into the agreement. Secretary Kerry says it will be 'aspirational,' not really a set goal. Still, the accelerated pace it implies--much larger reductions by 2030, elimination of fossil fuels by 2050--will be a salutary recalibration--if it makes it into the agreement.
  • Legally binding rules for transparency, accountability, review, and recalibrated goals: with careful support from the US, even more careful support from China, muted opposition from India and others, this concept may make it into the final agreement, and that will be big news. Without it, the conference will have failed--no question. The current INDC proposals clearly won't get us where we need to go. 'Ramping-up', coupled with verifiable trust, has to start the day after everyone goes home. These binding measures address those gaps in trust and performance. They will be the conference's most important outcome.
  • Finance: this sticky question feels hopelessly unresolved. The OECD says on behalf of wealthy nations that we're almost there, i.e. close to the magic $1 trillion over 10 years. Developing nations say the books are cooked, with double counting, old money called new, loans instead of grants, corporate instead of public funding. There is no clearly correct path through this thicket. What seems obvious to me is that it's a hard thing to ask for, given the US political paralysis, the downturn in China and chronic low-growth in Europe. The fact that China, Brazil, and other newly richer nations are willing to consider being net donors is good news. The fact that climate justice demands more from the reluctant rich is indisputable, but who can make it happen?
  • INDC promises, as far as they go, are great--the 'bottom-up' strategy has been a remarkable success so far--but are they real? One essential driver--higher carbon pricing to accelerate the conversion to renewables--has been off the table from the get-go. The parallel process, where giant corporations come to Paris and promise to convert their energy sources to renewables, is impressive in its way but is it trustworthy? Massive public investment in scaled-up solar and wind would look more reliable to me, but where is that capital coming from? The conference has been the scene of a hundred proposals for meeting its goals, but the overarching question of capital allocation is addressed in piecemeal fashion at best. 
[Update: Yesterday [12/9] Ségolène Royal, France's minister of the environment and energy, tweeted that the [private] financial sector must take responsibility for raising the capital necessary for a low-carbon economy ("Le secteur financier a la responsabilité de mobiliser les capitaux nécessaires à la transition vers l'économie bas-carbone
  • Which leads me to the big question that has hovered over this process from the start: can the capitalist world-system address this existential question in a meaningful way? All the technical diplomatic maneuvering happens within that framework. Promises will be kept or broken, progress accelerated or slowed, through political and financial mechanisms driven by that market system. For all the hopeful rhetoric, structural impediments--think Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, and the Republican Party if you're American, but their equivalents are everywhere--are at risk to delay and pervert the process. The world's political leaders (and their financial backers) have bumbled and fumbled with this issue for 25 years, and Paris, though much smoother than Copenhagen, is an adjustment, not a radically new departure.
I was struck by two articles--one by a Hindustan Times editorialist, the other in Le Monde by 'agro-ecologist' Pierre Rabhi--who call for a complete reorientation of our human perspective. Harmony with nature and ecological balance, not so many carbon parts per million or renewable Gigawatts, are their goals. Not a series of adjustments, however comprehensive or sincere, but a wholly different way of living on the earth--that, these authors suggest, is the only way out.

The Paris conference did not take place in that register. The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Naomi Klein and others was marginalized to a Paris suburb and ridiculed by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times. So be it. The mainstream alternative, the COP with its 195 nations, its 50 page memorandum with 800 bracketed alternatives, its corporate sponsors and incremental adjustments, is an impressive achievement in a world so riven by differences. But is it enough? No. Can it ever be? I doubt it, not enough to avert huge climatic disruptions, suffering, human die-offs, global civil strife. That's the bleak underside of the Paris summit. I admire the many dedicated civil servants and climate advocates who have made it happen, and will (I suspect) bring it to a reasonably harmonious conclusion. But at the end of the day, I think we need to be guided through this wilderness by prophets rather than politicians.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Images from Paris

Welcome to Le Bourget ...

where the whole world...

will decide this nation's fate--

"Please [world leaders] we want more on the table."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How We Doin' So Far?

So the long road has finally brought us to Paris, where all eyes rest on the shoulders of those delegates who hold the earth's future in their hands while they try to put it on life support. Let's at least hope for Metaphor Change before the rhetoric heats up beyond our human endurance.

Seriously, for all the problematic dimensions of this process, I have to think the conference has started well, due in no small part to our remarkable President. Burdened by an oppositional Congress and a field of absolute idiots who seek to ridicule and replace him, Obama managed to bring credibility and common sense with him to Paris. Most critically, he urged support for a binding process of review, transparency, and periodic reevaluation which would mean that the Paris agreement can serve as a platform for further advances in energy conversion. That's a reasonable way to frame the otherwise inadequate proposals on offer from the world's nations, and it's the best a US leader can do, given the Congress we have elected. Obama, whose political skills have often been questioned, has emerged as a wily and capable world leader at this crucial moment.

The other promising thing is simply the volume of discussion, attention, and even urgency that attends the start of this conference. Inviting 145 leaders of state and government to appear--and then sending them away after their 3-minute addresses--is a way to dramatize for all but the most obtuse how much consensus there is around the goals of COP 21--even though its particular propositions will draw plenty of disagreement. Inviting the world's billionaires and big corporations to pitch in, while it arouses my suspicions, is also a pragmatic and perhaps useful initiative, given the realities of wildly maldistributed wealth. If Bill Gates and his friends can raise billions for the Green Climate Fund, perhaps the failure of Congress to appropriate a dime won't matter as much. As scientists and policy wonks from all over find a venue for their ideas, perhaps some important innovations will come to the surface. There is an excitement in the air that makes me feel this event is almost living up to its world-historical intentions.

Problems around the bend? Sure. The question of financing new technologies for poorer countries that need and deserve them will not be easily resolved. India's INDC is not nearly good enough, Russia's is mendacious, China's promises may be hard to believe in, and our majority party in Congress is shouting to the world that the US proposals are even less reliable. Many, many advocates, including these distinguished economists and policy-makers, recognize the need for a global carbon tax, but there doesn't seem to be a political opening at the moment. Loss and damage provisions are viewed as essential by the most vulnerable nations, but any such proposal will send delegates from the developed nations screaming from the room. (That's a quote from one of them.)

So no, it won''t be a smooth path from here to utopia, but the progress since Copenhagen, or Rio, looks substantial. Let's hope the mood holds, and let's prepare to build, not rest, on the work being done in these next 10 days.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Living Within Our Carbon Budget

With the security lockdown in France persisting through the Climate conference, Naomi Klein and a host of other climate activists are lamenting the loss: instead of a dialogue between 'official' climate policy-makers and their activist critics, we are at risk to get just one side of that conversation. It is extremely useful, then, to read the advance critique of the conference agreement by Justin Gillis in today's New York Times. Gillis advances the notion of a 'carbon budget'--which may be the most important metric in the whole climate discussion, and one of the least contestable. A pointed conversation about that concept would indeed be useful, in the streets of Paris, on-line, or wherever, since it's not going to happen inside the conference hall.

Carbon budget? Scientists have pretty clearly identified a total quantity of carbon emissions which would keep temperature increases below 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C). This is a measurable amount of fossil fuel--and 2/3 of it has been burned already. On the present post-Paris trajectory the world's economy will reach the limit by 2050 or sooner.

And when the 'budget' is all 'spent' ... ? Economic activity will not cease. Fossil fuels will still be consumed. Temperatures will rise beyond 3.6 F, perhaps as high as 6 or 8 degrees F in this century--and the planet will become a very different, quite possibly uninhabitable place. That is the inexorable logic of the carbon budget.

How certain is that cause-and-effect relation? Well, here's where it makes sense to say that 'climate is complex,' multiply determined, hard to be precise about. The key term here is 'carbon sensitivity': we know that carbon levels in the atmosphere will increase in direct proportion to fossil fuel consumption, but we don't know exactly how that will translate into temperature increases, and where, given the vagaries of ocean currents, carbon sinks, solar variability, and a host of other factors. But the 'carbon budget' assumption that fossil fuel consumption beyond a fixed level will take us beyond a 3.6 F temperature rise is widely accepted by scientists studying the question--most notably the UN's IPCC report in 2013.

So why not set a fixed carbon budget and mandate compliance from the world's nations, if that is the only way to guarantee tolerable carbon emissions limits? A sensible question, and maybe the only climate policy question that matters. The upper bound of carbon consumption can't really be finessed. It's real (even if the numbers can be slightly adjusted). But the process of allocating shares of dwindling carbon allotments has long been viewed as politically, diplomatically impossible--which is why the only truly meaningful way to measure success at Paris will not even be considered by the conferees.

And if a 'carbon budget' were implemented? The immediate problem, as Gillis makes clear, is a daunting question of justice, or equity: the US, China, and Europe have spent the vast share of that 'budget,' i.e. are responsible for most of the problem. We've used up our share, and the remaining consumption of fossil fuels by rights belongs to the less developed countries. In the short term, fossil-based growth should be permitted only to those historic under-users. In the longer term, the developed countries need to massively invest in conversion to renewables, at a much faster pace than previously imagined, both in our own economies and in the developing ones--including big ones like India. Effectively this would mean huge transfers--many trillions of dollars--of capital: from richer to poorer nations, from fossil-fuel producers to renewables, from one set of investors to another. The dislocations to the global economy would arguably be as catastrophic as big temperature increases unless carefully managed, in the framework of an international consensus.

Would market regulation of carbon do the same thing without the coercion of a fixed budget? It is true that carbon exchanges or taxes have more supporters than the global carbon budget idea, though these carbon market proposals seem to be excluded from the Paris talks as well. In theory, a carbon tax system could enforce a de facto budget, and exchanges (with huge subsidies) could address the equity issue by causing transfers to poorer nations. But would this happen? I observe that among the proponents are major corporations, including the big oil companies, as well as certain status-quo-oriented politicians. Why? Because all these market systems depend on the details of pricing, which would be endlessly negotiable. Low-priced exchanges such as the EU's have wasted valuable time and energy. Pricing that enforced stringent reductions in fossil fuels would meet all the same political resistance as a strict budget--but in a more complex, possibly covert forum. I like the simplicity of a fixed carbon budget--and so do a lot of climate scientists.

So what would it take? First, an acknowledgement of the equity issue by nations like the US, who have tended to promote a model of equal responsibility moving forward, with limited transfers of development funds. Second, a complete paradigm change, involving subordinating the economic interests of the rich and powerful to norms of equity that favor the poor--a tall order. And third, it would require the technical means to convert trillions in investment into rapid renewable energy generation--a scenario whose feasibility is debatable.

Alternatively? We can stumble along with the incremental approach inscribed in the Paris agreement (if it gets approved). We can press for the 'ratcheting up' over time of that agreement (and congratulate ourselves that 195 nations, including recalcitrants like China, the US, and India, are even in the conversation). We can hope 'climate sensitivity' coefficients are lower than most scientists think. Or we can fantasize about a techno-fix that some bright geo-engineer will invent tomorrow.

Personally I don't think any of the alternatives represent any security whatsoever for our children's and grandchildren's future. The rigid, top-down structure implied by 'carbon budget' logic presents a huge challenge to our frail human skills at diplomacy, negotiation, and enlightened self-interest. But truly, what choice do we have? Either Paris moves us a step closer to some real solution, based on absolute limitation, or it promotes a false sense of security that will haunt us in coming decades. I would like to believe in the former, but I suspect and fear the latter.