Thursday, 28 March 2013 19:35

The Politics of Climate Change

Global warming has become a highly charged political issue.  The players in the climate change drama cast into different roles.  It seems like you must be a Democrat to be interested in combating global warming, or if you’re a Republican, you cannot be environmentally motivated. 

“The Earth’s climate does not care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t care whether you’re liberal or conservative. Climate change will affect all Americans no matter what your political beliefs, your religious beliefs, your race, class, creed, et cetera, okay. And in the end, the only way we’re going to deal with this issue is if we come together as a country and have a serious conversation, not about is it real. But what can we do about it,” Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University said in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company.

For many years fossil fuel company interests have waged an active disinformation campaign that has borne fruit for them.  They learned well from tobacco war strategy, which was to make people believe the science isn’t clear and that the experts do not agree.  This leads the average person to reserve judgment on climate change.  They aren’t likely to take global warming seriously until it seems that the experts reach a conclusion.  Unfortunately that day will be long coming because these big, powerful companies will continue to spread misinformation.

The climate change disinformation campaign has spread so far that it’s even affected politics.  In last year’s presidential election the question was, “If we focus on protecting the environment, won’t that harm the economy?”  The truth is that there is no inherent contradiction.  The U.S. could, in fact, lead the Green Industrial Revolution.

 What is also interesting is that Republicans weren’t always painted with the not caring about global warming brush.  They actually led the charge on issues such as acid rain.  President George H.W. Bush passed cap and trade legislation on sulfur dioxide.  It was one of the most successful environmental programs in American history, and it was accomplished at a cost far below even best guess estimates at the time.

The answer to the politicization of climate change is that the U.S. needs a groundswell of grassroots movement for environmental change.  We need to get organized and demand change of our politicians.  This country’s political system simply is not conducive to making the changes itself to deal with the global warming crisis we desperately need.  Let’s take partisan gridlock out of the picture.  We can begin by mobilizing and directing the 16 percent of Americans that are the Alarmed, defined in my last post on climate change communication, but are unsure what to do to make a difference in climate change.

Published in carbonfree blog
Tuesday, 26 March 2013 16:17

The Art of Climate Change Communication

My last blog post covered the psychology of climate change.  The post closed questioning whether or not the public will heed global warming’s warning signs.  One of the dilemmas facing climate change educators is that research has shown that there is no single American public.  There are actually six distinct audiences that need to be communicated with differently regarding climate change. 

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, says in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company, “There are multiple publics within the United States. In fact, what we've identified are six Americas.”

Leiserowitz goes on to outline, “Six different Americas that each respond to this issue in very different ways and need different kinds of information about climate change to become more engaged with it.”  He cautions those of us that want to educate others about global warming, “if we were to do a true engagement campaign in this country we would need to recognize that there are very different Americans who need to be engaged in very different ways who have different values and who trust different messengers.”

Here are the six publics that Leiserowitz refers to:

The Alarmed

This group comprises roughly 16 percent of the public and is made up of people who believe global warming is happening.  They acknowledge that it is primarily a human caused, serious and urgent problem, and they want to begin implementing solutions as quickly as possible.

However, they aren’t always certain what the solutions are.  This is coupled with an uncertainty as to what they can accomplish as individuals as well as society at large.  There are things we can do on both fronts, but there remains a communication gap climate change educators need to begin addressing.

The Concerned

This group composes about 29 percent of the public.  Like the Alarmed, the Concerned believe climate change is happening, it’s human caused and serious.  Where the two groups differ is on the urgency of the problem.  The Concerned tend to think of global warming as a distant problem.

Distance is perceived by this group on two levels: in time and space.  The Concerned think of climate change impacting their children or other future generations.  Spatially, they think global warming is affecting Arctic animals or island nations such as the Philippines.  In essence, climate change is a serious problem to this group, but they think there will be plenty of time to address it in the future.

The Cautious

Approximately a quarter of the public make up the Cautious group.  This group is undecided.  They question whether or not global warming is happening and what is causing it.  They aren’t sure it’s even a serious threat, but at least they’re listening.  Climate change educators need to engage this group on some of the basic facts of global warming.

The Disengaged

This group comprises around eight percent of the public.  These people have heard about global warming, but know nothing substantial about it.  Climate change educators should begin by elevating the Disengaged’s basic awareness of the issue.  Then they need to outline global warming’s causes, consequences and potential solutions.

The Doubtful

The second to last group makes up roughly 13 percent of the public.  This group doesn’t think climate change is really happening, and if it is it is natural and not human caused.  This leads the Doubtful to believe there is nothing that we can do about the issue.  These people pay scant attention to global warming, but even if they do they’re inclined to believe it is not a problem.

The Dismissive

This last group comprises a mere eight percent of the American public, but they are very vocal.  These people do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem.  Many of the Dismissive are conspiracy theorists who claim global warming is a hoax.  They loudly and openly question the validity of climate science data, claiming it’s some sort of plot to further other countries and/or people’s gains.

As you can see from the six distinct publics, there are some definite climate change communication challenges, but the first step is certainly knowing your audience.  Perhaps we should also consider looking at statistics in a different way, one that addresses humans’ visual nature.

Seeing Climate Change from a Different Perspective

Chris Jordan is a digital photographic artist best known for his large scale works portraying mass consumption, consumerism and waste.  Jordan imbeds the message in his art.  For example, the photograph above titled, “Caps Seurat” is made up of 400,000 plastic bottle caps, which is equal to the average number of plastic bottles consumed in the United States every minute.  Jordan has said of his art, “There's this contrast between the beauty in the images and the underlying grotesqueness of the subjects. And it's something that I put there intentionally. Because I was using beauty as a seduction, to draw the viewer in to sit through the piece long enough that the underlying message might seep in.”

Now that you see the art of climate change communication, I’ll explore the political nature of the issue in my next blog post, which is the final in this three-part series.

Published in carbonfree blog
Friday, 22 March 2013 13:43

The Psychology of Climate Change

Regular readers of this blog are all too aware of the dangers that are starting to manifest regarding global warming.  Given the reality of 2012 being the hottest year on record, and other climate change related disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, why isn’t more being done domestically and globally to avert this crisis?  The answer is in our psychology as humans.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, specializes in human behavior, in particular the psychology of risk perception and decision making as it relates to global warming.  He is an expert on U.S. and international perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change.  Leiserowitz points to humans’ needs to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level.  The first problem with the issue is that we cannot see carbon dioxide.  Perhaps if we could see blue smoke, for example, billowing around us we would be more motivated to immediately tackle global warming.

The climate change problem is further complicated by its faceless nature.  There isn’t one country or person we can point to as causing global warming.  We are all responsible on a daily basis.  Then add to that there’s the fact that climate change is not an immediate threat.  It’s certainly becoming one, but it takes time for the planet to heat up and we are fast approaching the point of no return.

Many people do not understand how a few degrees one way or the other will make a difference to the planet.  Leiserowitz likened it to a fever in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company.  “People often will say, ‘Wow, you know, four, five degrees, that doesn't sound like very much. I mean, I see the temperature change more from night to day.’  But it's the wrong way to think about it. I mean, think about when you get sick and you get a fever, okay. Your body is usually at, you know, 98.7 degrees.”

He continued to say, “If your temperature rises by one degree you feel a little off, but you can still go to work. You're fine. It rises by two degrees and you're now feeling sick, in fact you're probably going to take the day off because you definitely don't feel good. And in fact, you're getting everything from hot flashes to cold chills, okay.  At three you're starting to get really sick. And at four degrees and five degrees your brain is actually slipping into a coma, okay, you're close to death. I think there's an analogy here of that little difference in global average temperature just like that little difference in global body temperature can have huge implications as you keep going. And so unfortunately the world after two and especially after three degrees starts getting much more frightening, and that's exactly what the scientists keep telling us. But will we pay attention to those warning signs?”

My next blog post will discuss how to effectively communicate about climate change to overcome some of the psychological challenges humans face outlined in this post.  There are ways to get the public to pay attention to, and in fact, engage on the issue of global warming.  However, there is an art to it.

Published in carbonfree blog

Many people have read in the news about how the United States is tapping into unprecedented natural gas reserves through the process of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, where highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals are inserted to fracture shale rock which releases natural gas.  Drilling can have environmental impacts such as contamination of ground water, air quality risks, migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, and surface contamination from spills and flowback. 

Or they’ve read about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that is seeking approval to move oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands down through the western United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast.  There is evidence that extracting oil from the sands are increasing levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes far beyond natural levels.

The latest news in accessing exotic forms of carbon comes from Japan, where their government announced that they’ve successfully extracted natural gas from methane hydrates, also called clathrates, buried beneath the sea bed.  Clathrates are an ultra-concentrated frozen mix of water and gas.  A cubic meter of clathrate contains 164 times as much methane as a cubic meter of methane gas.  Extraction of methane hydrates opens up the possibility for a catastrophic release of gas in the form of accidents during the extraction process.  Even releasing a small amount of clathrates could contribute significantly to climate change.

Governments and corporations worldwide need to stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars searching for new fossil fuel reserves and discovering ways to extract ever more unusual forms of buried carbon.  And we need to stop giving them incentives to do so.  Yes, it is hard to want less and do less, but for the sake of our planet’s health we need to curb our global appetite for fossil fuels.  Let’s start by lowering our carbon footprints.  Then we need to agree to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

According to a detailed estimate, we need to leave four-fifths of global fossil fuel reserves untouched for a good chance of preventing more than 2°C of global warming.   The worst part is we have already identified more underground carbon than we can afford to burn between now and the year 3000.  Now is the time to implement a low carbon lifestyle.  We should do it for our planet, ourselves and for the sake of future generations.

Published in carbonfree blog
Friday, 08 March 2013 13:43

Global Energy Focus on Renewables

Those of us living in the United States can easily get wrapped up in the domestic energy picture, but it is important to stop and take a look at how renewables are doing in other countries too.

If you peruse a list of countries by 2008 emissions, the top emitter of carbon dioxide is currently China, followed closely by the U.S.  China accounts for 23.5% of world emissions, and the U.S. is responsible for 18.27%.  However, the good news is that China’s renewable-energy industry is currently on the upswing due to supportive government policies and generous subsidies; so much so that they’ve achieved the height of the world’s wind and solar industries.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “Everything is made in China.”  The U.S. does import many goods from China, but a report released this week titled, “Advantage America” analyzed trade between the two countries in solar, wind and smart-grid technology and services in 2011. 

The analysis, by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Pew Charitable Trusts, showed $6.5 billion in renewable energy technology and services traded between the U.S. and China.  But the U.S. sold $1.63 billion more to China than it imported. 

It’s good to see both countries making such strides in renewable energy.  Oftentimes, the countries are perceived as being in competition with one another, but a more accurate picture would be that they are interdependent.  The bottom line is that both countries should be doing as much as possible to focus on renewables, especially considering they’re the top two carbon dioxide emitters on the planet.  And the global interest and investments in renewables doesn’t stop there.

Saudi Arabia, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves, is beginning a green revolution.  This week, Saudi King Abdullah revealed ambitious plans to develop renewable energy programs that will produce 54,000 megawatts of electricity by 2032 as part of a strategy to save 1.2 million barrels of their oil per day for export.

King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-Care) is a strategy paper set up by King Abdullah in 2010 to develop alternative energy sources so the country won't have to burn millions of barrels of oil a year on power generation.  KA-Care outlines the preliminary phases of the kingdom's agenda for its energy future and focuses on thermal solar, photo-voltaic solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy.  Much of the desert landscape in the Persian Gulf is well suited to solar energy production; a fact that has not escaped the Saudi’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The UAE, with 8% of the world's proven oil reserves, has also embarked on a major renewables program, which focuses on nuclear and solar energy production.  By taking a look at the global energy picture, we see that even those countries with vast fossil fuel resources recognize the finite limitations of their reserves and the importance of investing in sustainable energy projects, which is great news in the fight against climate change.  Every country on the planet contributes to global warming, and every country will have to do their part in order to pave the way to a sustainable energy future.

Published in carbonfree blog

Most of the time, we do not take into account the complete costs to producing or consuming a good or service.  This is because we focus on the explicit costs.  For example, if we were to bake a loaf of bread, we would take into account the cost of the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, milk, and butter.  Perhaps we would even calculate our labor time to make the dough and the cost of running the oven, but would we account for the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere for the delivery truck that delivered the baking supplies?  How about the CO2 emissions from the power plant burning fossil fuels to generate the electricity to run the oven?  The problem is that we are not required to bear the full cost of production.  Some of the costs to bake that loaf of bread were shifted to society as a whole. 

Even if we did not bake the loaf of bread ourselves, we’re still shifting costs to society as a whole just by consuming it.  Our cars burn gasoline to drive to and from the grocery store, and regardless if we walked or biked, gasoline was likely also burned to deliver the bread to the grocery store in the first place.  Sure the delivery truck paid for the gasoline, but many companies do not pay for the carbon emissions their operations generate.

We need to make some drastic changes to avoid the ills of global warming, which we are beginning to see affect our daily lives, but the logistics of transforming our world’s energy system can be intimidating.  The first thing we need to do is get off fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources.  Easier said than done, I know.  It will be a complex and time-consuming process converting power plants, vehicles/transport systems, homes and commercial buildings.  Unfortunately, time is not on our side here.  We really need to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. 

So then the question becomes how can we transition the world’s energy infrastructure to sustainable sources by mid-century?  One of the ways suggested is to implement a tax on CO2 emissions that begins low and gradually increases.  There should be no mystery either about how much and at what intervals over time the tax will rise.  Then people, businesses and governments can plan their fossil fuel exit strategy.

The revenues the carbon tax generates should be directed into subsidizing renewable energy innovation and overhauling energy infrastructure. 

Ideally, the carbon tax should be global.  Again there are logistical challenges to this climate change solution.  The key is that we need a systematic and practical process.  Isn’t it time we started taking responsibility for the full costs of production and consumption?  Society is bearing the cost as a whole, and society as a whole needs to be part of the solution.

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This Sunday approximately 35,000 protesters gathered on the National Mall to march past the White House and demand action on climate change.  The Forward on Climate Change march was said to be the largest climate rally in U.S. history.  Protestors organized by groups such as Sierra Club and 350.org’s aim was to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project and set limits on carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants.  Last year, the EPA proposed limits only on new plants.

For quite some time, Congress has remained gridlocked on the issue of climate change.  President Obama has promised to tackle the problem on more than one occasion, but perhaps we the people should consider the effect we can have on bringing about meaningful change.  Top down efforts are certainly necessary, but we should all be supporting more bottom up efforts as well.  After all, that’s how broad changes have been achieved before. 

Take for instance the Civil Rights movement.  The White House and Congress were encouraged to overcome their extensive political reservations and bring about true change on the issues of racial equality and voting rights only after a strong grass-roots movement led at the local level by activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed public opinion and made it politically unacceptable to do nothing.

There are other examples of successful grass-roots movements, but the core message is that we have to begin leveraging our bottom up power.  This weekend’s rally was a great start.  Let’s build on the momentum and begin organized, local activism, especially in the districts and states of those members of Congress that are hesitant to act on global warming. 

We cannot expect President Obama to do all of the work on combating climate change.  Everyone can do their part at the local level and even in their own homes.  Let’s also lessen the demand for energy.  We live in such a blessed country, but using less energy and being more efficient is in everyone’s best interests.  Here are some good ways to start reducing your carbon footprint, and then you can also go carbon neutral and offset the rest.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) delivered the yearly update of the High-Risk Series report to Congress this week, which officially elevated the threat of climate change.  The report contains the greatest threats the government faces in carrying out federal programs, and the GAO is responsible for identifying items such as flaws in the defense contracting process and health care program fraud.

This year the GAO believed it had to highlight the risk from climate change despite some members of Congress’ dismissal or outright denial of global warming.  Regardless if some in Congress do not like the move, the GAO is supported by the information coming from the National Academy of Sciences and even from the federal government's own global change research program.  The GAO did, however, sidestep the issue of what is causing climate change.  Instead they focus on urging lawmakers to prepare, and most of all, budget for more disasters.

The number of disasters in 2012 was above 90, a record number.  The federal government’s exposure to the increasing number of disasters from extreme weather brought about by global warming includes owning hundreds of thousands of buildings, the operation of defense installations, financial disaster assistance to local governments, and managing crop and flood insurance programs.

Even if the lawmakers cannot agree on climate change, the fact is that a wide variety of disasters are on the increase and Congress has not planned or budgeted for them.  The time for ignoring the issue is past.  Hopefully Congress will heed the warnings and begin addressing our country’s part of global warming in a meaningful way.  If they do not, the issue may be taken out of their hands.  President Obama said in this week’s State of the Union address that, “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

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Ever wonder how large facilities in your state are doing regarding greenhouse gas emissions?  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began collecting greenhouse gas emissions data in 2010 under the congressionally mandated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reporting Program.  In February 2013, the EPA's program released its second year (2011) of emissions data, which provides public access to emissions data by sector, by greenhouse gas, and by geographic region such as county or state.

The 2011 data includes information from facilities in 41 source categories that emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses.  New this year is data collected from 12 additional source categories, including petroleum and natural gas systems and coal mines.

Highlights of findings from the 2011 data include:

  • Power plants represent approximately one-third (33 percent) of total U.S. GHG emissions, making them the largest stationary source of GHGs in the country
    • 2011 emissions from power plants were roughly 4.6 percent below 2010 emissions, demonstrating an ongoing increase in power generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources
    • Refineries represented the third-largest source of GHG emissions, which increased by a half of a percent over 2010 data
    • Overall emissions reported from the 29 sources tracked in both years were 3 percent lower in 2011 than in 2010

Transparency is critical to a better environment and the key to conquering climate change.  If companies, communities and individuals take a look at how large facilities are doing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and compare the latest data to national averages, perhaps we can find ways to cut these emissions and begin to curb global warming.  Being better informed is also good for the businesses as they may identify opportunities to conserve energy and thereby save money.

Check out how individual large facilities in your state, county, and even zip code perform.  Access this data through the Facility Level Information on Green House gases Tool (FLIGHT), which is a web-based data publication tool, or dig deeper through the EPA’s online database Envirofacts that allows information searches via zip code.

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Last week in President Obama’s inaugural speech he addressed the most serious threat our planet has ever faced, climate change, when he said, “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

It is exciting and hopeful to hear our nation’s leader pledge to put us on the path to conquer global warming and combine it with the economic recovery the US so badly needs.  Now we need to back up these words with some actions.  What can we do to lead a green industrial revolution?   

Well we’re already seeing some promising actions from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).  Did you know the DOD is the largest single consumer of energy in the world?  The agency spends approximately $20 billion on 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and 120 million barrels of oil per year.  That’s a lot of energy, and sometimes fossil fuels are bought from countries hostile to U.S. interests.  So the U.S. military is turning its eyes to renewable energy.  Fortunately they are not starting from scratch; they currently have about 80 megawatts of installed renewable energy capacity.  However, the good news is that a report released this week by Pike Research forecasts this number to quadruple to 3,200 megawatts by 2025.  The research firm quantifies the increase in renewable energy use to a predicted almost $1.8 billion in 2025 of U.S. military spending on renewable energy programs, including conservation measures. 

All of this green spending can have lasting positive effects on the industry overall.  For example, as the demand for solar cells increases, it encourages the building of more solar cell manufacturing plants.  Due to economies of scale, the cost of producing solar cells can decrease, and the new lower costs are passed on to the private sector.  Additionally, the solar industry, because of large sales from the U.S. military, has more funds available to conduct research and development into better and cheaper solar cells, which can drive down the price permanently.

It is encouraging to hear and see the U.S. take steps towards leading a green industrial revolution.  Is there more that can be done?  Absolutely!  But we have to recognize these constructive efforts as they are brought to light.

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