Trump Vs The Planet

“Alright, let’s fire these babies up!”

Brad Plumer of Vox lays out the implications of a Trump Presidency (and Republican control of Congress) for the environment:

And there’s no way around it: What he’s planning to do looks like an absolute disaster for the planet (and the people on it). Specifically, all the fragile but important progress the world has made on global warming over the past eight years is now in danger of being blown to hell.

Trump has been crystal clear about his environmental plans. Much of the media never wanted to bring it up, never wanted to ask about it in debates, never wanted to turn their addled attention away from Hillary Clinton’s email servers to discuss what a Trump presidency might mean for climate change. But all the indications were there:

  • Trump called global warming a Chinese hoax. He couldn’t have been blunter about this.

  • Trump has said, straight up, he wants to scrap all the major regulations that President Obama painstakingly put in place to reduce US carbon dioxide emissions, including the Clean Power Plan. With Republicans now controlling Congress, he can easily do this. Pass a bill preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating CO2. Done.

  • Trump has also hinted he wants to get rid of the EPA entirely. “What they do is a disgrace,” he has said. If Congress agrees, he could readily scrap other regulations on mercury pollution, on smog, on coal ash, and more.

  • Trump has said he wants to repeal all federal spending on clean energy, including R&D for wind, solar, nuclear power, and electric vehicles. Again, with Congress at his side, this is totally doable.

  • Trump has said he wants to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal. There’s nothing stopping him. (Technically, the US can’t officially withdraw for four years, but for all practical purposes, the Trump administration could ignore it.)

All true. And some experts calculate that the impact on climate of Trump will be an additional 3.4 billion tons of carbon emitted.

But it should also be noted that the trajectory of the blue dotted line representing carbon emissions under a President Clinton also leads to climate disaster. Incremental progress will be reversed by Trump. But as I noted earlier incremental progress is not enough.

Key point: nothing that President Trump does or says will compel you or me to emit more carbon. Keep working to change how you think and live. Keep working to change how the people around you think and live. Live the argument. Win the argument. And then win an election that brings about real and meaningful change.

Climate And Revolution

I am always struck by the gap that seems to exist between what the public and policymakers THINK we need to do to blunt climate change, and what we REALLY need to do. Part of the problem has been that the media has completely failed to treat climate change with the urgency and scale it deserves, a fail which future historians will arguably rate the biggest media fail ever. Another part may be that being honest about the threat of climate change would mean being honest about how completely humanity needs to change its lifestyle, it economics and its politics. And that scares people because change is hard, and change on the scale required implies certain sacrifices.

So I am always interested to see reminders that climate change does not demand incremental policy adjustments but revolutionary adjustments. Because it is only after we come to grips with this fact that we can understand, and hopefully move beyond, the complete inadequacy and complacency of current efforts to address the problem.

The latest screaming reminder that we need to think in revolutionary terms is a failed Google effort to develop renewable energy sources to replace carbon-based energy sources. And, after crunching the numbers, Google abandoned the initiative:

We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

In other words, Google decided that even the most dramatic developments in current renewable energy technologies, leading to a 55% reduction of emissions by 2050, just wouldn’t do the job.

Because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem. Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.

 

It was necessary, but not sufficient:

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well. As Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability. To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink. We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change. What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets? How will we remove CO2 from the air? We don’t have the answers.

How do you achieve that energy revolution? Google’s engineers suggest following Google’s approach to investment and technology disruption:

Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.

Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.

Today In the United States, the vast bulk of funding for energy R&D goes to established technologies. Essentially no money is allocated to related and potentially disruptive technologies, and about 10 percent is spent on projects that don’t seek to produce economically competitive energy.

 

I would add that we should also vastly increase the investment being applied to energy tech research (and in fact I would be prepared to make an argument that the United States would be more secure if we spent a very large chunk of our entire military budget on trying to solve the energy/climate problem instead of military forces and hardware).

As to how to start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, I have an idea about that as well: get the world off meat and start reforesting the vast landscapes that have been de-forested for livestock.

Yes, all this sounds crazy and improbable. But as Google figured out, crazy and improbable is exactly what is needed if we are actually going to try and solve the problem.

Bill McKibben Calls Out The Democrats On Climate Change

And breaks down clearly the challenge of arresting climate change before it hits a catastrophic tipping point. He knows the Republicans are hopeless, but he hopes that the Democrats can “evolve” on climate change faster than they did on gay rights and marriage:

Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.

He doesn’t have much hope that they will, though, which is why his thinking leads him back to the necessity for a powerful citizens movement to change the culture and change politics:

And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve”. At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.

The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”

“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.

McKibben makes a key point. The challenge of climate warming (along with the ongoing destruction of the environment) is not a challenge that allows for decades of slow and incremental change. These are not ordinary times. These are times that call for revolutions in the way we think and act.

I am constantly struck by the fact that previous generations were in the streets to protest and decry injustice and immorality. Yet out streets are quiet. Hopefully, that will change because the times demand bold thinking and bold action. Nothing less will pass moral muster when the history of this epoch is judged (and hopefully not lamented).