Monthly Archives: June 2007

Security and climate change

This story annoys me for two reasons. The first is that it’s from Monday and I missed it until TreeHugger pointed it out. The second is that the reporter seems to have fundamentally missed Air Chief Marshall “Jock” Stirrup’s point.

The chief of Britain’s defence staff is echoing the warnings from senior American military planners that climate change is a security threat to the developed world, in addition to everything else:

Jock Stirrup, chief of the defense staff, said risks that climate change could cause weakened states to disintegrate and produce major humanitarian disasters or exploitation by armed groups had to become a feature of military planning.

But he said first analyses showed planners would not have to switch their geographical focus, because the areas most vulnerable to climate change are those where security risks are already high.

“Just glance at a map of the areas most likely to be affected and you are struck at once by the fact that they are exactly those parts of the world where we see fragility, instability and weak governance today.

“It seems to me rather like pouring petrol onto a burning fire,” Stirrup told the Chatham House think-tank in London.

But then at the end, clearly thinking of Iraq, writer Jeremy Lovell includes this:

Asked on the margins of the meeting if that meant military planners should opt for preemptive action where they saw a security crisis emerging, he said: “Only in the sense of building governance. Recognizing the problem is the first step.”

Stirrup evidently understands something key that Lovell perhaps didn’t: The places where climate change will endanger security are exactly the places prone to problems that we haven’t a bloody clue how to fix. We’re not talking about Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran under the ayatollahs and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we’re talking about Iraq today, where the mightiest army in the world is getting itself ground down by the day. We’re talking about Sudan, the tribal regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, guerrilla-ridden Central America. Dirt-poor places where even average people just barely get by, places already violent and riven by clan and tribal cleavages, places where government structures just barely exist, and radical religions are already well established. Places the New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof wrote about in this column:

If we need any more proof that life is unfair, it is that subsistence villagers here in Africa will pay with their lives for our refusal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

When we think of climate change, we tend to focus on Alaskan villages or New Orleans hurricanes. But the people who will suffer the worst will be those living in countries like this, even though they don’t contribute at all to global warming.

My win-a-trip journey with a student and a teacher has taken us to Burundi, which the World Bank’s latest report shows to be the poorest country in the world. People in Burundi have an annual average income of $100, nearly one child in five dies before the age of five, and life expectancy is 45.

Against that grim backdrop, changing weather patterns in recent years have already caused crop failures — and when the crops fail here, people starve. In short, our greenhouse gases are killing people here.

Climate change, and the drought and famine and increasing desertification it’s expected to bring to those particular places, will turning merely getting enough to eat and drink into a zero-sum affair: I only get enough by taking it away from you. The most primal loyalties kick in and existing ethnoreligious tensions reach the breaking point. The whole idea of sacrificing for the greater good becomes absurd, because I don’t have enough as it is, and everything I’ve got — everything my children and my brother and my parents and my cousins have — is held only as a result of our own use of force.

Pre-emptive action? What pre-emptive action could First World countries possibly take in such places? All we know how to do is knock things down there — and nobody knows how to set them back up again, except by leaning one dirty bloodstained card against the next and hoping for the best. Meanwhile, though, the angry and violent people who manage to thrive in those conditions are getting better and better at blowing those cards down. I refer you again to John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog, where he daily tracks just how good they’re getting.

Leave aside the moral implications of Kristof’s above declaration for a moment. What we’ve found, firmly, is that when our stupid neglect leads to the deaths of people over there, it’s only a matter of time before some of them start to think maybe they should come and raise some hell over here.

That’s the security challenge we can’t ignore.

Outdated pollution data isn’t much use

In concept, I love this thing: a Google Earth map of registered polluters based on the registries of Canada, the United States and Mexico, just announced with some fanfare by the (rather pleased-looking) federal ministers and cabinet secretary from each country who are responsible for the environment.

pollutermapIf you have the freebie Google Earth software installed, you just download a file, double-click it, and get an overlay of major polluters in the three countries added to the map.

Click one and you get its exact address and a link to the appropriate government’s online polluter registry, showing what the polluter is recorded as having emitted … in 2004.

The reason for this is that they settled on the last year for which all three countries have information available, and Mexico has no official figures later than three years ago. Both Canada and the United States have figures from 2005; Canada even has those numbers in Google Earth form already, and has a sort of first draft of the 2006 numbers out there already, too. Yet instead of using the most recent data from each country, they settled on the lowest common denominator.

Now, what’s good about this is that it’s a rare departure from the usual way governments release such data, which is in PDF tables, probably ordered numerically by street address so that the localities in the country are mixed in together, so that only a specialist researcher with time to kill could possibly make anything useful out of them. (This is why the Environmental Working Group’s U.S. agriculture-subsidy database is so useful: it takes data that’s essentially gibberish to the layperson and makes it visual, and they can show awesome things like the agriculture-subsidy recipients who get their cheques mailed to them in Manhattan.)

But if something like this shows old data, it’s not a lot of use. An interested amateur has to go rooting around back in the hard-to-parse databases to get an up-to-date picture of what’s going on. If I were cynical, I’d say this was deliberate, so that anyone who complains about a particular polluter can be fobbed off with the explanation that the newer data shows a lot of improvement. In my hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, for instance, you can see the orange dot belonging to the Lakeview Generating Station, a coal-fired electricity plant, and view its rather unpleasant 2004 pollution profile, with no reference to the fact that its stacks were torn down in May 2006 and the rest of the building was demolished today.

So ten out of ten here for the thought, but minus several million for usefulness in getting citizens engaged.

The public-housing death spiral

Keeping housing affordable is a problem anywhere, but it’s a particular problem in a city built on a foundation of sustainable urban design.

Portland, Ore., might be North America’s best example of sensible urban planning — compact development, lots of mass transit, etc. — and as such it’s a really desirable place to live. Desirable places to live are really expensive: in 2005, Forbes did some math and found Portland was the third-least affordable American city in which to live, better than only New York City and Seattle. So it’s a natural that the city government would spend a lot of time trying to help poorer people get by, particularly in their housing arrangements.

One of their methods is about to bite them, according to the Portland Tribune, which reports on the desperate attempt to keep rents down in 950 privately owned apartment units. They’ve been subsidized by the federal government, but the subsidy deals are all set to expire by 2013, when the mortgages do — the deal with the Housing and Urban Development Department back in the late ’70s and early ’80s was that the feds would subsidize the rents for that long.

The rent is geared to tenants’ income: they pay 30 per cent of what they make, and the government makes up whatever the difference is between that and the market rent. To get in, you have to be making less than half the median income for a family like yours in Portland.

The Tribune reports that the city is trying to scrape together the money from many sources to buy the buildings before the subsidy deals expire, and the process is a mess:

The funds needed to buy the 12 buildings and pay for any needed repairs probably will have to come from a variety of sources, including private financiers, the state of Oregon and the Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban renewal agency.

The city’s share of preserving the buildings will probably total in the millions of dollars. Although the buildings have not yet been formally appraised, the PDC estimates they are worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $25 million each, depending on the size and location.

“This will be a significant resource issue for the city for years to come. It’s going to cost us some money,” [city housing official Margaret] Bax said.

PDC funds may not be available for all of the remaining buildings, however. Six of them are in existing urban renewal areas administered by the PDC. The rest are not.

Although some members of the City Council have suggested that PDC funds should be available for projects outside renewal areas, the agency is not yet authorized to help finance such projects.

Now, this situation was predictable from the very beginning — everyone knew the subsidies would end, because they were time-limited from the get-go, and everyone knew the tenants living in the apartments when that happened would be screwed unless some other subsidy program kicked in. Now the city wants to make that happen, but doesn’t have the money, and is considering using money set aside for urban renewal projects for non-renewal purposes, just because it’s convenient.

Permanent subsidy programs are just a terrible idea. They always end up like this, one way or another.

There’s no easy, principled solution. The traditional approach is to allow ever-more construction out where land is cheap, but that’s off the table in Portland, where a firm urban-growth boundary constrains budget-eating, environment-killing sprawl.

(My libertarian argument for such boundaries is that it’s reasonable to draw a line beyond which many expensive city services simply will not be provided — you want to live way out there, you’re on your own — and a similar principle applies to justify most elements of ordinary zoning within the boundary.)

Instead, the only viable long-term solution is for Portland to loosen its zoning codes to permit even more compact construction, while spending more on transit to make it easier for people to live farther from expensive destinations and still get where they’re going efficiently. Seems to me that’s a much better investment than sinking tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars into buying social-housing buildings so you can take over the rent subsidies forever.

Update: More on the Portland housing situation here.

Two signs climate-change has gone mainstream

First, according to the Dallas Morning News (pointed out by TreeHugger), blue-chip law firms are beginning to advertise their expertise in climate-related regulation and law:

The Bush administration’s recognition of climate change along with overall Democratic momentum in Congress has pushed both energy-related companies and their law firms into action.

The regulatory side, not the litigation side, is where the bulk of the legal work will come from, said [Dallas lawyer Christopher] Carr, who hopes to bring his experience with carbon-credit trading [gained at the World Bank] to bear with Vinson & Elkins’ numerous energy clients.

“While there may be some litigation in the shorter term, the transactional area is going to be a significant source of long-term legal work,” he said. “To me, it’s personally important that we get the business legislation right.”

There’s also the virtual certainty of some big-money lawsuits, akin to suits against tobacco companies, from people who argue they’ve been hurt by climate change and want compensation from big greenhouse-gas emitters. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a very smart Canadian Inuit, has already been very vocal in international forums in protesting the effects of climate change (and other contamination from the south) on the Arctic way of life and has won awards for her efforts. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides to head for the courts, even if only to bring attention to the issue.

As a matter of principle, I think they have a point that someone’s got to pay for the damage, at least now that a scientific consensus has become clear. As a matter of law … it’s going to keep a lot of lawyers busy for a lot of years. It is, nevertheless, very significant that the lawyers agree with that prediction, and should be a reminder to regulators not to fool around, particularly in creating loopholes for one favoured industry that will create grounds for companies operating in other industries to challenge the whole legal edifice.

The second indication is the switch, on some protesters’ part, from targeting governments to targeting emitters. Grist Mill‘s Jon Rynn notes the growth of Rising Tide, a pretty aggressive-seeming protest group that focuses not on banging drums outside legislators’ offices, but on making life difficult for, e.g., coal-power-plant operators and the Bank of America for its coal-industry investments.

I don’t think much of Rising Tide’s tactics; I believe in minimal law, but the ones we have need to be respected; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for their anti-capitalist principles (or their sloppy understanding of the Kyoto Accord, which you can find in that last link, too); and I’d worry they’d cost more public sympathy than they’d create. Nevertheless, it’s significant that they’re treating the underlying issue as settled and moving on to specifics. It’s the difference between pointing out that Apartheid was evil and pointing out the companies and individuals among us who benefitted from it.

We can still argue about the theory of climate change and what our goals ought to be, but it’s good to see vigorous contests, both in boardrooms and in the streets, over how we ought to achieve them.

What are gas taxes for?

Gaspump2The U.S. federal government is experimenting with ways of replacing some or all of its gasoline tax with a system that would charge drivers according to how many miles they drive, according to North Carolina’s News & Observer. About 450 drivers in its coverage area, which includes some extremely high-tech–savvy folks, will be participating in a technical test of a GPS system that’ll track their driving.

The problem, evidently, is that drivers are switching to high-efficiency cars, and road-construction costs are going up.

Lew Rentel of Morrisville drives one reason our road money is running low — a Toyota Prius.

Rentel, 69, used to drive a hulking Lincoln Aviator that burned up a gallon of gas every 13 miles. With 48.6 cents in state and federal taxes per gallon, he was paying the government 3.7 cents for every mile he drove.

But he ditched the luxury SUV for what he called patriotic reasons: to help fight global warming and cut our need for foreign oil. Now with a thrifty hybrid that gets 44 miles per gallon, Rentel has cut his tax payments to barely a penny per mile.

He realizes that people like him are doing less to help pay for the roads.

“Something’s going to have to be done,” said Rentel, a retired UPS executive. “You’re either going to tax by the mile, or you’re going to tax some other way.”

According to the News & Observer, the gap is so great that the federal Highway Trust Fund, which depends on gas taxes, is expected to go from an $8.9-billion surplus this year to a deficit by 2009. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it’s actually worse than that — a report from last March (PDF) seems to say pretty plainly that the fund has been in deficit since 2000 and is down to $9 billion, which in highway-construction terms is like being down to whatever cash is in your wallet right now.

So they’re trying to figure out what to do, and finding ways to make people pay by the mile is at the top of the list.

The Iowa researchers will outfit volunteers’ cars with computers and satellite gear to record where and how far they drive. Each month, the volunteers will receive sample bills for how many miles they have driven. Their mileage fees will be compared to the per-gallon taxes they pay now. Congress is considering a call to boost new-car fuel efficiency standards by about 40 percent, to an average of 35 mpg, by 2020. By then, some Americans will be driving cars that use no gas or diesel fuel — and pay no fuel taxes.

Taking gasoline consumption as a proxy for road usage was always questionable, though it was certainly convenient for quite a while there. The taxes have always sent a mixed message, though, particularly since gas taxes are always thrown into the “sin tax” category with liquor and cigarette taxes. Are they taxes on sin or user fees for the roads? What if the money goes to mass transit (as some of the trust fund actually does)? What, precisely, is the rationale behind the tax? If you’re a legislator levying a tax and you can’t give a specific answer to that last question, you’re eventually going to have problems.

This is a variation on the problem with giving hybrid cars access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes even if there’s only a driver in them — are HOV lanes a congestion-fighting measure or a way to reward the environmental benefits of carpooling? Don’t know? Better figure it out, or else your policy on who gets to use them isn’t going to make any sense.

It’s never made sense to charge people buying gasoline for their lawnmowers a fee to go for highway maintenance, just as it doesn’t make sense that cyclists get to use the roads for free (or at least only for the portion of their income and other taxes that go for road maintenance). These have been minor evils in a system whose efficiency has overriden those considerations, though. It hasn’t mattered till now, when a whole lot of people are looking for ways to use the roads in ways that happen to involve not paying for them, based on the system we’ve set up.

I think the lesson applies to another great big policy question: carbon taxes. I’m still vacillating on the usefulness of carbon taxes versus the other measures that are available for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, but this gas-tax problem seems like a worrisome parallel: If using gas consumption as a proxy for road usage gets us into trouble eventually, what problems might we be setting ourselves up for if we use the purchase of carbon-based fuels as a proxy for greenhouse-gas emissions?

One is that if I’ve already paid a zillion bucks in tax for the coal that powers this generating plant I own, I don’t have a lot of incentives to sequester the carbon dioxide the thing emits. Heck, I’ve already paid for all that stuff, so why would I pay extra to keep it contained?

Unless there’s some separate incentive system — rebates on the tax if I sequester the carbon — in which case it seems to me that a carbon tax’s key selling point, its simplicity, is right out the window.

(Via Planetizen. Photo credit: “Gas pump,” Flickr/romulusnr.)

Small is difficult

The Guardian describes a classic problem for governments trying to modify behaviour. It involves the Carbon Trust, an agency set up to encourage lower–carbon-emitting lifestyles and business practices in Britain:

The Carbon Trust has a £100m budget to help businesses save energy, embrace new technologies and help to combat climate change. But David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said a survey of his members had revealed widespread disillusionment.

‘Small businesses understand that they have to make changes; but what they were saying was, there’s a lack of effective help for them,’ he said.

He said one of the trust’s main services, a free energy audit, was only available to firms with an annual fuel bill of £50,000 or more.

Governments are big, unwieldy things staffed by people with credentials and clear responsibilities. They do best when they can deal with other big, unwieldy things staffed by people with similar skills. The program David Frost mentions seems like a fine idea, but obviously requires a significant degree of professionalization in the companies that choose to take part — the Carbon Trust wants site plans and an opportunity for their consultant to “meet with key members of staff,” and promises follow-up briefings for senior management and perhaps for technical staff and so on and on and on.

The Carbon Trust doubtless gets a lot of bang for its bureaucratic buck this way. One consultant can go out and save a company thousands of pounds in wasted energy and cut carbon emissions from power generation proportionately. Britain’s big businesses are the low-hanging fruit in the carbon-cutting orchard.

The question is, though, how much of the U.K.’s greenhouse-gas problem comes from big energy users and how much comes from small businesses — which, according to the Department of Trade & Industry, provide a greater percentage of Britain’s jobs than large businesses do — and individuals. Big businesses already have a huge incentive to cut their energy use (if I had a £50,000 energy bill I’d be keeping pretty close tabs on it) and probably have professional engineers, or at least building managers, to help them do it. The woman who runs a clothing store or the partners in a small accounting firm probably don’t.

Yet the Carbon Trust’s energy-audit program is overkill for a small business, and so will just about anything the Carbon Trust dreams up to try to extend its help in that direction. Having been self-employed for a bit, in the incredibly simple occupation of writing freelance out of my bedroom, I can attest to how atrocious dealing with the government is as the smallest of small-businesspeople. Just figuring out the tax implications of buying a laptop computer can take most of the afternoon, and I’ve no doubt it’s the same in any industrial democracy with a well-developed state apparatus, Britain included. Governments don’t deal well with small. They’re elephants trying to shake hands with mice.

Unfortunately, small is where it’s at, particularly where conservation is concerned. Small improvements times many, many people equals huge results. We’ve all seen the advertisements telling us what a huge difference it would make if everyone replaced one 100-watt bulb with a compact fluorescent — vastly more than energy audits at every one of Britain’s 6,000 large companies (ones with more than 250 employees) could.

It’s simply unreasonable to expect anything as clumsy as a government agency to reach all the people who need to be reached if the fruit is going get picked all the way up to the treetops. The only way to make that happen is for individuals to choose to do these things, probably in response to higher electricity prices — pushing people to get on with the conservation projects they’ve already thought of but that aren’t worthwhile yet, like reinsulating walls and replacing old draughty windows — combined with a thorough campaign explaining some possibilities they might not have considered yet.

Energy audits for big firms? I wouldn’t bet my climate on them. At work and at home, it’s going to have to come from us.

Watery morality

WaterBottlesGet past the incredibly careless writing in this Newsweek story, and it turns out that the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, has made an order that the city government won’t buy any bottled water or allow it to be sold from concessions it controls. Like the City Hall cafeteria, type of thing.(For carelessness, this TreeHugger headline is even worse: “San Francisco Mayor Bans the Bottle.” Arguably true, but definitely confusing, since it’s only the city administration itself that’s affected.)

The argument against using city money to buy bottled water — for speakers at public meetings, say, or visitors to the mayor’s office — is pretty straightforward. Buying the bottles and then disposing of them is more expensive than keeping and cleaning glasses that get filled with tapwater, which is of perfectly good quality. They’re a waste of taxpayer money, $500,000 a year according to Newsom.
Unless they aren’t, in a wholly intangible and unprovable way.

Bottled water, in places where the tapwater is drinkable, is purely a positional good — people buy it because they like the way the brand makes them feel, makes them look, and makes them feel about how they look. Clearly, even though it’s based on vapour, that feeling is worth something, or else people wouldn’t buy ordinary water that costs more than something useful, like gasoline. In the corporate world, bottled water is a mark of status.

So what’s it worth, if you’re the mayor of a major west-coast city, to serve a visiting dignitary a chilled bottle of branded water, versus a glass from the pitcher in the fridge? Might you be giving up more than you get, if somebody who could do good things for the city goes away thinking San Francisco is run by cheap losers?

In San Francisco’s case, the glass of water is a different kind of positional good, one that ostentatiously declares Newsom a green champion. His real argument isn’t just based on efficiency with tax money, but on moral principle: “These people are making huge amounts of money selling God’s natural resources. Sorry, we’re not going to be part of it,” Newsweek quotes the mayor saying.

Steady on, there. A solar power plant or a wind farm (or a coal mine, or a wheat farm) does substantially the same thing, right? As long as the water in the bottle didn’t come from someplace dry where someone who couldn’t pay the price went thirsty so this 16-ounce bottle could be filled, I don’t get the moral argument Newsom is making, and I’m not convinced he ought to be making it on behalf of the people of San Francisco.

(Photo credit: “water bottles,” Flickr/shrff14.)