Monthly Archives: August 2008

The Canadian Greens’ first MP

On paper — hey, great, the Greens have acquired their first member of Parliament by accepting a former Liberal who’s been sitting as an independent. That’s how the Bloc Québécois started in Parliament, more or less.

But O, what a headache Blair Wilson could prove to be. He’s been sitting as an independent because his former party suspended him for (1) alleged election financing irregularities, and (2) not disclosing some unrelated matters to the party before the election. He’s been cleared of the first, but the second problem was enough to keep the Liberals from readmitting him to caucus. He barely squeaked into Parliament in a riding where the Greens finished a very distant fourth, with six per cent of the vote, so Wilson’s very unlikely to hold the seat longer than a few more months.

All it does, the only thing, is boost the Greens’ argument for being included in the televised leaders’ debates. I think they should have been on the stage a long time ago on principle, but given leader Elizabeth May’s stated support for Stéphane Dion for prime minister, as a practical matter having her take part might not be the best thing for the party’s electoral fortunes.

The offshore drilling scam

I don’t have a settled position on offshore drilling for oil, whether it’s in Canada, the United States or Nigeria — my gut says don’t but my head says in most cases, why exactly not? — but I think it’s clear that brand-new exploration of any kind is no short-term fix to the U.S. energy shortage. As Marc Gunther, one of a thousand sources I could have cited, puts it:

Citing US EIA reports, Rick and Andy say that 200,000 barrels per day by 2030 of extra output from additional outer continental shelf drilling represents a mere 3% increase in projected US production in 2030 and only a 0.2% increase in global output in 2030. The Department of Energy says the projected price impact of opening up additional outer continental shelf drilling in the US is “insignificant”. If McCain knows that (and he should), he’s being a cynic when linking offshore oil drilling to price cuts.

U.S. miles driven drops again

Shouldn’t be a surprise by now, but yet again, Americans drove less year-over-year in July 2008 versus 2007. I think we can definitively put to rest the idea that demand for gasoline doesn’t change much with price, though apparently it is a bit sticky — prices have to remain high for a while before people start changing their lives.

Matthew Yglesias makes the obvious argument for a carbon tax.

Kyoto and IPCC kind of OK after all, Tories suggest

Saturday the federal Tories published the draft version of the first set of rules needed to make their climate-change plan work. These, on — deep breath! — how to devise and formally submit a system for measuring your emissions reductions if you’re a major industrial greenhouse-gas emitter, took over a year to produce and there are two more sets of rules to go before the system can kick in. With a deadline of 2020 to cut absolute emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels, the delays are getting Kyoto-esque.

Nevertheless, I notice two interesting things about the proposed rules.

The government proposes to fast-track emissions-reduction measuring systems that have already been approved under several existing authorities, such as Alberta’s, France’s, California’s … and the Kyoto Accord:

The Fast Track eligibility list will include about 30 external protocols that meet the following criteria:

  • the protocol is a complete document (i.e., not a seed document) that has been approved for use by the Clean Development Mechanism, Alberta’s Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, the California Climate Action Registry, the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme in New South Wales, France’s Offset System, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative;

Likewise, the government is referring people to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for some best practices on how to measure, for instance, the greenhouse-gas effects of changing land uses (that is, basically, growing forests to sequester carbon dioxide).

It’s interesting that the government rejects the targets agreed to in the Kyoto Accord and recommended by the IPCC, but supports the science underlying other elements in the treaty and advice from the UN panel.

A second thing that’s made even clearer from the new document is that this really is about heavy industrial emitters whose fundamental business process — smelting iron, generating electricity, whatever — are big emissions sources. It’s smokestacks here, not tailpipes. Mom-and-Pop shops are not considered part of the problem under these regulations, but they’re also not considered part of the solution. That is, the only people big emitters are going to be able to buy credits from are other big emitters that have cleaned up their acts. Small companies with clever ideas and entrepreneurs whose whole business model is to create and sell offsets need not apply, except perhaps as consultants to the existing emitters.

That’s the way you’d do it if your goal is to stick it to industry (and its customers and workers), and it matches the rhetoric the government has been using since the general outline of the plan came out a year ago last April. It’s not the way you’d do it if your goal is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the most economically efficient way possible.

The pipe dream of energy independence

Juan Cole, the expert on Iraqi Shi’ism who’s understandably gone a bit batty on the Bush administration since the unpleasantness began in Iraq, makes some fine points nevertheless on the subject of U.S. energy independence. Namely that it’s not going to happen and politicians should stop talking as if it is.

I happen to be more sympathetic to nuclear energy than most thoroughgoing greens, at least as an interim solution to the greenhouse-gas problem. And if “energy independence” really means “not buying billions of dollars in fuel from repressive Middle Eastern regimes that hate the United States and/or only stay in power by in turn subsidizing people who do,” nuclear power’s a pretty good way to get there. But given how much uranium the United States needs to import, it’s not a way to make the U.S. truly independent in its energy consumption.

In a global market economy, we might as well talk about silicon independence (computers being a strategic economic and military resource, after all), or pharmaceutical independence, or plywood independence. It’s nonsensical.

How many lives is a little peace and quiet worth?

Rear end of a hybrid

Photo credit: “Hybrid Butt,” Flickr/Burning Image

One of the side benefits to hybrid cars — and presumably to future electric cars that run mostly off batteries — is that they’re much quieter than standard cars with combustion engines.

Problem: blind people can’t necessarily hear them coming.

An Inland-area researcher says hybrids operating at very slow speeds pose a danger to the blind, runners, cyclists, small children and others.

“I think it’s a serious problem,” says Lawrence Rosenblum a perceptual psychologist at UCR. “But the solution is so straight-forward and so unobtrusive, there’s absolutely no reason that this problem shouldn’t be solved.”

A device could emit the subtle sound of a quiet combustion engine mixed with the whoosh of a waterfall, alerting the blind that a hybrid vehicle is nearby, he says.

Recent testing at UCR showed how pedestrians perceived the quiet hybrids.

With background noise from cars idling nearby, subjects couldn’t determine the location of a slow-moving Toyota Prius hybrid until it was within one second or 7 feet of their location, Rosenblum said. For nonhybrids, it was 28 feet from subjects’ location.

That said, the same piece notes that no actual blind people have been reported killed by hybrid cars in the last five years. Six are fatally struck by other vehicles in a typical year. So we’re talking about a fairly theoretical problem, albeit one that might turn into a real one as hybids and electric-engine cars become more popular.

That said, I’m not sure that requiring hybrids to make a racket is automatically the right answer to this problem, given the significant quality-of-life problems created by internal combustion engines in cities now. I used to live on Bank Street, a fairly major Ottawa artery, and eventually the traffic sounds started to drive me batty (at first they bothered me; then I stopped noticing them; then around year three I began to go nuts). When we were looking for a house to buy, we instantly rejected an otherwise gorgeous place that turned out to be so close to a highway you couldn’t have a conversation on the front step.

Do these concerns, even multiplied by the hundreds of millions of people for whom being struck by a quiet hybrid is not an immediate threat, balance the potential risk to the lives of a small but non-zero number of blind people? We certainly decide that convenience and economic utility are worth thousands of deaths a year.

One thing I know for sure: our traditional public-policy decision-making mechanisms are ill-equipped to answer that question.

(Via The Green Life.)

Freeman Dyson and irrational optimisim

Via Sullivan, here’s a Freeman Dyson essay (in the form of a twin book review) contemplating technological solutions to the climate-change problem. It is dense and complex and elegant, which makes it easy to miss the fact that its central message is dangerously whacked-out.

The first book the renowned physicist, mathematician and futurist (who’s 84 now, and thus has lived long enough to have to account for some of his predictions) contemplates is economist William Nordhaus’s economic study of various greenhouse-gas mitigation plans, A Question of Balance. Sir Nicholas Stern’s turns out to be very expensive, according to Nordhaus’s model; Al Gore’s is, too. The Kyoto Accord, had it been implemented, would have been slightly profitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposals would be slightly more than slightly profitable, yielding a global economic benefit of $3 trillion compared to business as usual.

But by far the most appealing option is something Nordhaus calls the “low-cost backstop,” which in his models produces a net global profit of $17 billion. The only problem, one that appears not to bother Dyson, is that it’s a fantasy — the “backstop” is any hypothetical technology that could solve the climate-change problem without incurring significant cost, details left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, Dyson’s complaint is that Nordaus doesn’t actually provide details:

The main deficiency of Nordhaus’s book is that he does not discuss the details of the “low-cost backstop” that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy…  Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, “low-cost solar power”—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change…

[I]f we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming.

Yes, and if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus. But, writes Dyson:

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Ah. Well that’s all right, then.

Look, I’m as big a fan of science and engineering as the next guy, and I do believe they’ll play a major role in sorting out the mess we’re digging ourselves deeper into. I don’t think the catastrophist branch of climate-change thought gives human resourcefulness and ingenuity enough credit. But there’s a vast chasm between respecting the power of scientific advancements and assuming that just around the corner lies science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Yet Dyson’s piece leads a writer as smart as Andrew Sullivan to say that it’s the most “helpful” thing on the subject he’s read in weeks.

He’s not as dogmatic as some climate worriers and persuasive, I’d say, in arguing that only technology can solve this problem (and government may not help much). But the possibility of genetically-modified carbon-eating trees is what really struck home[.]

The central point Sullivan takes from the piece, that science will provide the answers — possibly in the form of carbon-sucking trees — and politics but the nudge in the right direction, is important. The danger, however, is that people who don’t want the nudging to happen will assume that science is on the case and if only we wait a bit, it’ll supply all the solutions we need on a silver platter.

We’ve seen the effects of high gas prices on consumer and corporate behaviour, and from an environmental standpoint, they’re encouraging. But there’s no connection between those high prices and the climate-change problem. If everyone dials down the rhetoric in the Middle East and just calms the hell down a little, we’ll see the prices fall, and all the incentives to use less fuel and devise alternatives will fade again.

Dyson’s described his many prognostications thus:

When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.

So let’s hope we get the trees and sort this whole mess out forthwith. But let’s not bet on it.