Category Archives: U.S.A.

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.

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.

Al Gore makes himself difficult to defend

With this absurd speech.

… I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

For reasons I still haven’t grasped, it’s nearly impossible to write about climate change in a mainstream setting without having denialists pop up and, among other things, accuse you of taking orders from Al Gore. (My friend and Ottawa Citizen colleague Kate Heartfield remarked on it a little while ago.) Or, for reasons even more obscure, “Algore,” like he’s a biomechanical replicant of a former vice-president with a model and make instead of a person with a regular name.

But anyway, the criticism usually revolves around the idea that Gore is a crank, full of pie-in-the-sky ideas about someday we might live in a paradaisical vision of windmills and solar panels, not useful proposal for what we might actually do right now in the world we actually live in. Or, alternatively, that he’s a doomsayer whose obviously absurd prophecies of planetary doom are beneath any rational consideration.

Either line of criticism is so disconnected from the reality of Gore’s message, and the manifestly reasonable tone of his main vehicle An Inconvenient Truth, that they’re difficult to engage.

Then he goes and says something like that America should be carbon-neutral in its electricity generation by 2018. And he compares it to the U.S. space program.

On July 16, 1969, the United States of America was finally ready to meet President Kennedy’s challenge of landing Americans on the moon. I will never forget standing beside my father a few miles from the launch site, waiting for the giant Saturn 5 rocket to lift Apollo 11 into the sky. I was a young man, 21 years old, who had graduated from college a month before and was enlisting in the United States Army three weeks later.

I will never forget the inspiration of those minutes.

I wasn’t alive for them, so maybe I can’t fully comprehend the power of the moment he’s talking about, but this strikes me as a dangerously false parallel. The Apollo program, as ambitious as it was, was essentially about making it possible for a few people (astronauts) to do one thing (walk on the Moon) once. More often if possible, but once would meet the challenge. Gore is talking about changing the way everybody does everything, for always. (Clive Crook makes a similar argument here.)

Someone whose public credibility is as fragile as Gore’s is — on a rising curve but certainly not secure — and so important to the movement he argues is key to the continued viability of the planet Earth as a home for humanity, should treat it with a little more care.

From Crook:

Does he even mean it? “I see my role as enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year,” he says. Translation: I advocate the impossible so that the possible becomes more probable. Fair enough, one might say. But propaganda in a good cause is still propaganda, isn’t it?

Ah. So it’s strategic nonsense.

Look. It’s not happening, no matter who gets elected. Building a new wind farm, a small one, takes two years, and there’s a shortage of gear and qualified people to install and maintain it. You can’t fix that in a decade (see the difference between an accomplishment for the few and a fundamental change for the many, above). It’s so far from happening that it’s difficult even to take the idea seriously. You can’t.

It’ll be all the denialists talk about for the next year, pointing and laughing, and for a change they’ll be right.

No way not to be appalled

By this:

George Bush surprised world leaders with a joke about his poor record on the environment as he left the G8 summit in Japan.

The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.”

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

That’s not the Onion, it’s the Daily Telegraph. What can you say?

Fixing the climate-change problem is still affordable

But the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.

Severe adverse effects from climate change can be avoided at a reasonable cost but only if politicians stop talking and start acting, a major report from PricewaterhouseCoopers said today.

Updating a study it first did two years ago, the accountancy firm said that inaction on reducing carbon emissions in the interim means the necessity for action has become even more urgent than before. It called on leaders of the Group of Eight leading economies, particularly the United States – the world’s largest per capita polluter – to commit themselves to firm timetables for emissions reductions at next week’s summit in Tokyo.

It estimated the cost of a 50% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2050 at around 3% of global economic growth, at the top of the 2%-3% range it estimated in 2006. This is slightly higher than the upwardly revised figure of 2% estimated by Lord Stern recently but PwC stresses that its forecasts are broadly in line with Stern and both are affordable.

Meanwhile, progress continues at the usual rate.

GM bets the farm

Jonathan Rauch writes excellently in The Atlantic on just how hard it is to build a working mass-market electric car, how hard General Motors is trying to do it, and how much GM is putting on the line to make it happen.

In conversations with everyone from staff engineers to Rick Wagoner, the chairman and CEO, I heard references to the Apollo program. “John Kennedy didn’t say, ‘Let’s go to the moon and, you know, we’ll get there as soon as we can,’” Wagoner said in a recent interview in his office, atop a high-rise in Detroit. “I asked our experts, ‘Guys, do we have a reasonable chance of making it or not?’ Yes. ‘Well, then, let’s go for what we want rather than go for what we know we can do.’” With the Volt, GM—battered, beleaguered, struggling for profitability—hopes to re-engineer not just the car but the way the public thinks about cars, the way the public thinks about GM, and the way GM thinks about itself.

McCain’s silly prize

Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants to offer a $300-million prize to anybody who can devise

a battery package that delivers power at 30 percent of current costs and has “the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

Right, ’cause there aren’t billions to be made in being the first to market with that anyway.

I like the idea of prizes for technological advances — especially for fun things, like going to space without working for NASA or the Russian space agency — but they’re really only a lot of use if everyone’s not already desperately striving to get there.