Monday, January 28, 2013

The big four debate

This is just a journalist's fantasy, but someone should really make this script, cast it, and act it out.

I'm not sure that EF Schumacher is the best spokesperson for ecological economics, though. I would have picked Herman Daly myself, but I'm probably biased, and Daly still lives, so that might violate the principle.

I expect the choices need to be "dead white men" for the notion to properly work.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Lord Nick" calls for green Keynesian boost

The 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was required reading around these parts in both the specialized GL 4003 Global Change class, whose students had to read the whole thing, in the Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability class, and in the Core III class, who were assigned the Executive Summary for that year and a few years after that.

It's hard to remember when I stopped assigning it or quite why, just a nagging feeling after the 2008 election that it was perhaps no longer quite as relevant to American climate policy as it was when it first came out.

The opportunity for a Stern insurance-type solution, investing merely one per cent of GDP per year in renewables and efficiency, probably expired around 2008 or 2009, as the Keeling Curve climbed upwards.

Now we're up to two or perhaps three, four or five percent that would be required. Some effort was made through the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the so-called stimulus package, but it wasn't enough (less than $100 billion), and so we failed to capitalize on some of the investments.

Low gas prices since then, while they may have helped to lower US emissions levels in the short term, have precluded the kind of serious, sustained investments in market-driven initiatives on top of the stimulus that Stern recommended.

You could call this the Tea Party legacy, but Democratic Party politicians too were also involved in helping to kill the 2009 Climate Bill. The major force, of course, is climate denial, but there has also been a wave of popular concern running against any government coordination of the economy, making it very difficult for the Obama Administration to consider any of the several means (direct investments, carbon tax, cap and trade, utility-only carbon price, etc) that could be used to push energy trends in the right direction.

Anyway, Lord Stern or "Sir Nick," as he's known to his merry band of assistants and graduate students, is attending the Davos forum, and has agreed that his own report is now way out of date and may not have been aggressive enough in the first place.

That's all right, Nick. We won't be blaming you when the chips fall. There are other Guilty Men.

(Chief among them the Koch brothers.)

So I guess the Stern Review, for all it's influence, is now a dead letter.

We need an up-to-date economic assessment of the costs and benefits of mitigation, as we go into what is probably our last chance for a climate mitigation bill in the US.

And this bill, if it's really to work, has to be either very aggressive, economically speaking, a real solid Green Keynesian "Climate New Deal" of a trillion dollars or so, or it has to be very very clever in setting up market incentives to allow a similar amount of private money to flow in the right direction, or a combination of both.

And it has to include the beginnings of negotiation for something like an international Green Free Trade Zone, a giant scheme of climate imperial preference or protectionism, requiring countries to charge large tariffs on non-climate compliant goods from outside the zone.

They don't have to come in the same bill. But both are required.

Anything less won't be enough.

PS: A new bicameral congressional task force has been formed to consider the details of any upcoming climate action. See here for the news release.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

SusTech student seeks to crowdsource Earthship apprenticeship

Earthships are houses built of waste auto tires, dirt, adobe, and recycled materials. They're a desert southwest thang. They are very creative, liveable buildings, and can be built for very little.

To my knowledge, although I could be wrong, no-one's built one in New England.

Former UC Sustainability Design and Technology student Adam Zwick, currently working an Americorps position in energy efficiency in Sonoma County, CA, is seeking to crowd-source funding for an Earthship apprenticeship at Earthship Biotecture.

You can find his GoFundMe site here.

So far he has 15% of what he needs.

Good luck, Adam.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Stiglitz is a green Keynesian

Joseph Stiglitz (Nobelite and probably the most widely-respected academic economist alive) has published a Guardian editorial recommending renewable energy and energy efficiency steps as economic stimulus.

In good company, then, aren't I?

Stiglitz's editorial:

PS: Follow-up with Friedman's new editorial calling for a carbon tax.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Climate inaction = appeasement?

Wikipedia photo of the appeasers and their nemeses. 
Left to right, Chamberlan, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano.

Bill McKibbon has a new editorial in the Guardian in which he likens the Obama administration's current climate policy, or lack thereof, to the shameful political stance in the 1930s which the British generally call "appeasement" and the Americans "isolationism."

I've been thinking about this period too, lately. This because, as I promised myself before the holiday, I'm reading Manchester's three-volume biography of Churchill, The Last Lion.

The primary topic in the second volume, Alone, 1932-1940, is appeasement.

McKibbon goes the whole Churchillian "fight them on the beaches" hog. He even parodies the famous "blood, sweat and tears" speech.

Actually, the proper quote is "blood, toil, tears and sweat." But the British always remembered it in their folklore as the simpler "blood, sweat and tears." That's the way I always heard it, growing up,

McKibbon, by the way, gets it right. He's obviously done some of the same research.

This is, I agree, an interesting period to study for those worried about climate denial and inaction.

And of course, any self-respecting Brit must be pleased when Americans decide to study Churchill.

There are interesting parallels between the two periods, particularly in the way that ordinary people in both countries, led by the fashionable opinion leaders of the time such as the Astors and the "Cliveden set" in the UK or the Lindberghs and Henry Ford in the US, were misled into believing their nations could successfully negotiate with Adolf Hitler.

The greatest opprobrium of the era is reserved for the arch-appeasers then actually leading the British and French governments, particularly British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier. Of these Daladier gets at least some credit for recognizing the inherent evil of Hitler's ideology, and for attempting to prepare the French military for war. Chamberlain was able to deceive himself into believing negotiation might work better than confrontation right up until the fall of France in May, 1940.

Even if they had been willing to confront Hitler earlier, public opinion ran against them.  The French and British, traumatized by World War I, were particularly terrified of another war. As Manchester makes abundantly clear, not even Churchill's rhetoric nor Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" could stir the democracies to action in the 1930s.

I didn't need to read books to learn all this. I learned much of it first hand from my relatives, old family stories. As a young boy I was looked after by my maternal grandparents during the short British summer vacations. My grandfather Arthur Watson had been a soldier during World War I, serving in the trenches. Between the wars, he'd followed the then-pacifist Labour party, despite being forced by poverty to enlist again, just to survive the Great Depression. And then in August 1939 he was called up again, still in the reserves at the age of 39. He served another six years, and was for a time assigned to heavy rescue in London during the Blitz, but luckily was never sent overseas. He served a total of twelve years in the British military, but remained deeply skeptical of war until he died. When I decided to join the RAF during the late 1970s, attempting to avoid another depression, he expressed qualified approval, saying that under the circumstances it was probably the best I could do. I don't think you could have called him an appeaser. But his militant pacifism and deep skepticism of war was, I think typical of the other working class older men I grew up with, my great uncles, all of whom had served in World War I. It certainly affected me as I reflected on my own service and began the process of becoming an environmentalist during the mid-1980s.

So I often wonder, as apparently does McKibbon, what will it take to convince the people of the great democracies that climate change is just such an emergency as World War II was? Democracy seems to have a very great inherent capacity for self deception.

And Americans and Britons no longer have the excuse that we're traumatized by experience. Compared to my grandfather's generation, we've had it easy.

But there are still, it appears, arch-appeasers and isolationists.

Are the Koch brothers and Senator Inhofe the new Lindberghs and Clivedens?

Is Obama going to be a climate Chamberlain or a climate Churchill?

A very good question.

This would be a great topic for a graduate seminar: EVST 501: Appeasement and Climate Policy: An investigation into parallel periods and parallel sentiments of public denialism.

Back to Manchester. It might be time to re-watch The Remains of the Day too.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Stayin' Warm?

(This post mirrored from the Womerlippi Farm Blog)

It's the depths of a Maine winter, and despite continued climate change and what was initially expected to be an El Niño year, we're having proper Maine winter weather. The warming trend expected in the southern Pacific in the early fall never quite panned out and SST temperatures there are right about average now.

As a partial result, we've had a solid week of cold Canadian air. It's warmed up quite a bit out there just now, a brief slug of warmer air having penetrated north as a Rossby wave passes, and the outside temperature is just below freezing. But the Canadian or more correctly polar air will return today and we'll be back in the teens and below for another week.

Minus ten to plus ten degrees F is, to say the least, pretty cold for an Englishman, even a fat one. But I long ago learned to deal with it, and even thrive.

How do we stay warm and well in such cold weather without contributing greatly to climate emissions?

Two important factors: Dogs and logs.

The science of logs is very interesting to me, especially this time of year when we depend on it a good deal. The Womerlippis heat primarily with wood, much of which we cut off our own land. This year we began the winter with about three cords on hand, most of which was ash and bird cherry, cut from the southerly end of our smallholding, that had been seasoned for two years. About a cord of ash was only one-year old, the remains of a single large ash tree tree that overlooked this year's garden expansion and had to go.

This would have been enough firewood, had we had a La Niña winter more like last year's. But the cold weather meant we burned more than we planned, and so I shopped around for an extra cord of dry firewood. A young lad in the town came by on New Year's Eve with a truck and a buddy and dropped a cord of mixed hardwood right into my firewood crib. (The very prompt delivery was, I surmised, due to a need for cash for some New year's carousing.) This was wood that had been cut and stored in tree length for two years, and so it is seasoned, but not nearly as bone dry as the Womerlippi logs that were cut and split and covered for one to two years.

Accordingly, some judicial mixing and matching of logs is called for. The off-farm logs can be burned whenever the house is too warm, or when the outside temperatures are moderate. The Womerlippi logs are saved for when the house needs to be warmed up, or when it's very cold outside. So far the coldest it's been at the farm was -5 F. It can get a lot colder than that around here. When it does, we have a back-up, a forced air oil furnace that can be fired up at the touch of a tiny button. This furnace, at 175,000 BTU/hr, dates back to the original pre-retrofit farmhouse, and is about double the capacity required for the house at its current level of air-sealing and insulation, so it heats everything up very quickly indeed. But we try not to use it, preferring to live on BTUs that are part of the contemporary carbon cycle, not the Cretacean one. 

This is a life trick that a lot of people are going to need to learn, one way or another, if we're to avoid a climate that is more like that of the Cretaceous. You don't need a wood stove. You could build a passive house like Unity College's own Terra Haus, or the Unity House. Or you could use a pellet boiler like the ones in our college library or Thomashow labs. Even a moderate retrofit of a regular oil-burning home can reduce your oil consumption enough to help meet emissions reduction targets.

But the wood stove is my favorite approach because of the nice radiant quality of the heat.

It helps in this emissions reduction project that our particular wood stove is a well-designed Norski model with the modern afterburner or secondary combustion set-up. Not only does the presence of a secondary combustion chamber reduce particulate and other emissions, it also saves firewood. The detailed retrofit work that we've invested in year after year also pays off. The house is literally cocooned in insulation. We haven't used more than a few gallons of heat oil a year for many years. Our last delivery was three years ago, and then only a hundred gallons. 

We do use the oil furnace when we leave the house and animals in the hands of a sitter, and most recently managed to fry an igniter during a power outage, requiring a diagnosis-and-repair process. Following that, I ran the unit for a few days, partly because I wanted to make sure it was working safely again, partly because we were having a cold snap and Aimee wanted me to do so. But I could only put up with the noisy thing for a few days and was glad of the excuse to turn it off yesterday when the temperatures warmed up a bit.

So, we're back to the logs. We used less than fifty gallons of oil this winter. I don't intend to use any more if I can help it.

As for the dogs, well, it's our winter break, and they get a lot of attention. In particular, they get nice long walks in the snow in the deep empty woods behind our house. There's about two thousand acres of empty Maine woodlands and wetlands back there, and in the winter, when the wetlands are frozen, it's all very much more accessible than in the summer when the bugs deter. I enjoy these walks, and appreciate the recovery of fitness and a regular sleep pattern that accompanies the exercise. If I didn't have as much work to do as I do, I'd take a good long walk with my dogs every day.

Here's some pictures that Aimee took that capture the mood of these winter hikes with the dogs.

Flame, a rescued Australian shepherd from Louisiana, has taken to the snow like a duck to water.

Ernie, an English Shepherd, and the official Womerlippi farm sheepdog, is her constant companion.

Sometimes we need to use snowshoes. 

Here's what happened to my second-best set of snowshoes just the other day! But because the snow was set up well, I was able to finish the hike easily with the fragment of snow shoe that remained attached. 

And yes, duct-tape does make a good repair material for snowshoes. If you're cheap, like I am.

So that, dear readers, is how we stay warm in the depths of a Maine winter, without adding too much to climate emissions, or to consumerism.