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Archive for June, 2008

Just as the time becomes ripe for a major push towards clean, cheap sources of electricity, the Bureau of Land Management has put a two-year stumbling block in the path of solar power development. In response to the clamor of proposals submitted for solar plants—130 since 2005—the Bureau has decided to put a hold on further development, claiming that that an exhaustive environmental impact report must be completed before solar plants can be installed on federally owned lands.

Such a disproportionate justification for suppressing solar initiative doesn’t fly with environmentalists, who must feel like their political tool (the EIS) has been co-opted by a darker force (and just in time to coincide with the expiration of the renewable energy tax credits, which were left to die out of apathy). Alas, perhaps, for the Mojave ground squirrel (a species allegedly threatened by the solar development), but anything that actively interferes with the success of clean, renewable energy strikes me not only as useless or odd, but actually dangerous. (more…)

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Taking a break from its everyday responsibilities, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) took a noteworthy step yesterday when it delivered a briefing on climate change to the House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The briefing, given by Thomas Fingar, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, represents the first time that the American intelligence community has weighed in on the issue of climate change.

Now, these guys are not physicists, nor were meant to be: Fingar explicitly stated that they “did not evaluate the science of climate change per se,” choosing to focus instead on analyzing the national security implications of existing predictions (their chosen model was a mid-range IPCC prediction). Nevertheless, the mere fact that this briefing was given at all is hugely significant…and on top of that, they have some very interesting and insightful things to say.

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Breakthrough Generation was just featured as a “Breakthrough Technology” on the technology news site, JumpIntoTomorrow.com:

“Breakthrough Generation (BTG) – the youth leadership initiative of a progressive think tank called the Breakthrough Institute is advancing an innovative form of political organizing it calls “intellaction,” centered on the power of cutting-edge ideas, multidisciplinary analysis, and modern communication and information technology. BTG is a new organization headquartered in Oakland, CA with two young directors and fourteen fellows, who were each selected through a rigorous application process.”

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Increasing energy prices have had some positive environmental side effects. Before we celebrate, let’s think of what that truly means.

Perusing the Wall Street Journal this morning, my eye caught a truly terrifying headline “Oil Shock: Analyst Predicts $7 Gas, ‘Mass Exodus’ of U.S. Cars.” Yet, as the country bemoans its energy woes, is this not what we greens have always been hoping for, albeit ever-so-secretly? Doesn’t a “mass exodus” of cars sound kind of nice?

With increased energy prices, people are driving less, thinking about where their home energy comes from, and investing in energy efficiency measures to save money. We even are beginning to reconsider the suburban sprawl that has both dominated our landscape since the 1950’s and profoundly influenced the very fabric of our communities and society at large. It’s almost as if a kind of “I-told-you-so” smugness attitude has arisen as Prius-driving greens speed past the poor schmucks paying $115 to fill up their Escalades.

Awhile back, when I was first getting into climate and energy issues, I listened to James Howard Kunstler give a speech about his then-new book, “The Long Emergency,” arguing that the increase of energy prices due to dwindling supply will be enough to drive us back into low-carbon lifestyles in thriving urban environments. European cities certainly provide an alluring example, where great public transportation systems, thriving urban centers couple with limited driving and high gas prices to set a strong potential example for our future. Perhaps $7 gas—or more—will finally muscle us into becoming the society we’ve always wished we could become.

Putting a price on carbon would act in a similar manner—provide economic incentive to slowly wean our way off fossil fuel by driving up the cost of dirty energy. The problem is, if we are already in an “oil shock,” what problems will arise under even increased energy prices under a hard cap? And how will that affect our ability to pass climate policy?

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“ ‘Function dictates form’ is a belief that the on-the-ground, real and specific changes that any group or person advocates for are a reflection and an embodiment of the new reality that this person or group would create. In other words, the “function” of the group—the policies it advocates for, the actual reforms it pushes—exemplify the “form” of the change the group is promoting. The function of large scale government investment dictates a form for society that is new, forward-oriented, and empowering.”

Function Dictates Form Silverware

We here at Breakthrough are often accused of wanting to techno-fix our way clear of any serious social or cultural change. In other words, a will to create clean energy so that we can maintain our overly consumerist, overly isolationist, and overly self-involved American lifestyles is often projected onto BTI and BTGen. This is far from the case. Instead, we are believers in what I call the “function dictates form” model of social change. A discussion about function versus form might benefit all of us who wish to bring change to the world, be it to solve climate crisis, lift billions out of poverty, redefine the American city, or achieve energy independence from foreign oil. (more…)

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Bjorn Lomborg — the famous “Skeptical Environmentalist” — wrote an op-ed today for the Washington Post, A Better Way Than Cap and Trade, calling for a global investment of $33 billion per year in clean energy research and development (R&D).

The answer is to dramatically increase research and development so that solar panels become cheaper than fossil fuels sooner rather than later…The United States has an opportunity to lead the world on research and development, which would give it the moral authority to demand that everyone else do the same. The world’s sole superpower could finally provide the leadership on climate change that has been lacking in the White House.

Even if every nation spent 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development of low-carbon energy, this would be only about one-tenth as costly as the Kyoto Protocol and would save dramatically more than any of Kyoto’s likely successors.”

In the United States, this approach would open up new avenues for the nation’s creative, innovative spirit and leave behind the political mess of Kyoto-type negotiations.

A low-carbon energy, high-income future is possible. Unfortunately, the political battles we just witnessed in Washington have done nothing to make it a reality.”

0.05 percent of global GDP for R&D — or $33 billion per year — is a good start for reducing the price of clean energy technology below that of fossil fuels and stimulating mass commercialization. However, R&D is insufficient to accomplish this goal. Public investments in demonstration and deployment are also necessary to spur the innovation process and capture the benefits of “learning by doing.”

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In a recent article in Time Magazine, Jeffrey Sachs took up the call for a $30 billion annual investment in clean energy:

At the start of the next Administration, it will be high time to increase our annual energy-research budget to $30 billion, which would make it at least comparable to what we spend on medical research each year at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And I propose, with the same sense of mission that gave rise to NASA and NIH, that we create a National Institutes of Sustainable Technology.

Sachs joins the ever-growing number of energy scientists and policy experts who are challenging the efficacy of carbon pricing and calling for massive public investments in clean energy. If anything, Sachs is calling for an even greater level of investment, since his $30 billion proposal would apparently be reserved for research-only.

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