Archive for April 11th, 2008

The Bad, the Worse and the Seriously Ugly

Sharon April 11th, 2008

I have to apologize for the title – I know most of my readers come here for the cheery, uplifting approach that I have, and that the above is a bit of a shock.  I did seriously consider titling this post “Cute Bunnies, Kittens and the Sunshine on my Shoulder” but it seemed too cruel to make you start there and head straight into the bad news on climate change.

Remember climate change?  It isn’t just this blog that has gotten a little bit quieter on this subject lately because there’s so much other, related bad news - I’ve definitely noticed a move from the front pages to the back ones as the economy and the food situation displace climate change as the worst crappy thing going on in the world.  Remember, we can’t take the human interest stories off the front pages – those sell papers.  So there has to be a heirarchy of the awful.  

And it  isn’t that we all don’t care a lot about climate change, of course.  It is just that when the bank is talking about foreclosing and we have to run down and sign up for food stamps, sea level rises at the end of the century look a lot less serious. 

This is, of course, both inevitable and a potential disaster.  Poverty has the potential to reduce our carbon emissions in some respects, and increase them in others.  James Hansen’s recent analysis of the fossil fuels situation, which notes that oil and natural gas alone can’t get us much past 450 ppm of Carbon (although Hansen’s other recent work has emphasized the absolute necessity of getting back to 350ppm - we’re past that already) , but coal can.  But to imagine us leaving the coal in the ground, we haev to imagine a level of self-restraint we haven’t managed when we were rich and flush with energy – it seems difficult for me to imagine that we’re going to be ok with rising electric prices constraining our usage when we’re already struggling.

Which brings me to a list of Unpleasant Truths about how climate change, our response and adaptation are likely to proceed.  Unfortuanately, I could find no pleasant truths to go along with it.  I really wish there were some.

 1. As we get poorer and the economy tanks, it is going to be harder and harder to muster the time, energy, enthusiasm and above all *money* for climate change mitigation projects.  That’s not to say that we might not see some or even many major public works projects.  But right now, our economy is stretched.  With the total cost of the war in Iraq looking to be 4-5 trillion and our ability to borrow from other nations headed into a serious decline,  along with the municipal investments of many towns and cities, our ability to do large scale adaptations is in serious trouble.  The price of energy is also steadily limiting our ability to do a build out.  Absolute shortages of diesel fuel may at some point may create further constraints. 

Officially, we exceeded the May 2005 oil and liquids production peak in January 2008 – which means we’re producing more oil, right?  Ummm…yeah…a big old 0.23%.  Oh, and EIA estimates of production are often revised downward more than that.  Oh, and we didn’t actually produce more conventional crude *oil* – we just produced more “liquids” which is a little different.  There’s a full discussion over here at The Oil Drum.  But the point is that there’s no reason to be getting excited – and demand is growing far faster than supply, which is essentially flat.  We’re in energy trouble.

Meanwhile, we’ve maintained the economy essentially by borrowing from the future a host of ways, among them our failure to maintain our existing infrastructure – estimates suggest that keep the water coming out of pipes and the bridges from falling on people would cost 1.5 trillion additional dollars.  And since the Fed is relentlessly nationalizing the losses of corporations at our expense, it does not take a genius to guess that trillions for a new energy infrastructure and retrofit will be discussed, the possibilities glowingly described, and most of the money won’t emerge unless the economy gets fixed.

2. Reports of a new green economy, and the ability to continue growth have been radically overstated.  People like Alex Steffen and Colin at NoImpactMan (both of whom I think are totally terrific, if not correct on this issue) have argued that we can still have plenty of economic growth and a brand shiny new economy based on renewable energies.  But a closer look at the evidence for this suggests otherwise.  For example, both refer to this site, to reassure us that it won’t cost us anything economically to switch to renewables and use less.  But besides the fact that the underlying assumptions that allow them to perform their calculations aren’t transparent on this site, the maximum imaginable reduction over business as usual emission is 40%.  But 40% not only won’t get us to 350ppm, it won’t keep us below 450, or even 550 over time.  In fact, a University of Victoria study found that the only thing that kept us below 450 was a 100% reduction of industrial emissions, and in fairly short order.  And that is a wholly different animal economically speaking, particularly given constraints on our ability to retrofit and build out new resources.

 The US economy is driven heavily by consumer spending – and the emissions for consumer goods, shipping, shopping, etc… constitute nearly 1/4 of all emissions.  Cut those emissions, and you also cut the driving force of the economy.  A steady-state economy may be possible, but it isn’t easy – even those who advocate it admit that the idea is pretty hypothetical. 

Moreover, fossil fuels have driven the economy as powerfully as they have in large part because their EROEI was so great – they are roughly the equivalent of an extremely high return investment.  The dividends on the oil you use to extract it are huge.  On the other hand, the EROEI of most renewables is fairly low (wind is something of an exception), and will never be cheap.  So more and more of our economic costs get eaten up in expenses, and it is harder and harder to keep the economy afloat.

3. Aren’t just getting poorer now, we’ve been getting poorer for a long time - it just started moving faster. The most recent poll on this subject just matches up with what we all  knew – real wages have been declining for decades, benefits have been reduced, expenses are rising, people are going into debt to maintain and wealth is getting concentrated in the hands of already wealthy people.  What does this have to do with climate change?  Well, a lot, actually.  For example, most incentive strategies for adaptation are directed at homeowners who pay out taxes.  You get them as tax rebates – but most poor people don’t pay taxes, and most people who may be foreclosed, or want to walk away from their houses don’t feel any great incentive to superinsulate them.  And our sheer level of indebtedness means that any major problem in the system is likely to bring people down fast – they simply don’t have any more cushions of credit to fall back on.

Major town and municipal infrastructure investments depend on the property tax rate – and if your town is like mine, a lot of new downward assessments are coming.  As towns start having trouble keeping the buses running and the plows going, I would expect the suggestion that the local community center go solar to rank right up there with the all-Mercedes police car proposal. 

 The psychology of poverty is probably, though, the most important thing.  People who are in or on the verge of crisis just want to maintain and get along.  They can see themselves falling into an immediate abyss, and they don’t care very much about the next terrible thing. 

 4. Matt Savinar’s axiom “We’re spending billions to fix problems we’re spending trillions to create” is right on the money here.  It is easy to get impressed by our new commitment.  It is important we look at the amount of money we’re throwing at creating and continuing the problem – and that we look carefully at how much of that money is coming from us.  Colin over at NoImpactMan has a nice rant about the evils of the political destruction of congestion pricing in New York City.  He’s totally on the money.  But that is the point - it isn’t that congestion pricing couldn’t pass, but not only do many of the people who oppose congestion pricing drive into the city and thus fund the opposition, but I’m willing to lay odds that  many of the same people who in principle agree that this is a good idea are giving money to parking lots and garages when they travel into NYC on business.  And that money is going to stop congestion pricing.  

The reality is that most of us, no matter how carefully we try to minimize our impact, are collectively funding the opposition efforts.  We’re still buying gas, even as the oil companies are working against us.  We’re still buying food at the grocery store – even me sometimes. 

The things that need to happen to mitigate climate change are huge – a cessation of the mantra of growth, for example, or the end to the biofuels boom – and the force of opposition to making them happen doesn’t just lie in the evil corporate headquarters of GE or Monsanto, it lies in all of us, who go out and make our money in the existing economy, and put our water filters on our credit cards.  The reality is that we are working much harder at making the problem worse than we are at fixing it.

5. We just did our build out, and it is not going to serve us well.   Take a look at this article on slum housing – and the future of the mass build out we just engaged in.  I think it articulates really well the problems we face, and I’m quoting it at some length because I think this is so important (btw, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums is a terrific book):

“Let’s now turn to the U.S., which has seen a similar ballooning of urban and core-suburban value. Despite the obvious need for alternative sources of energy and technology which reduces petroleum consumption, how much global and American capital flowed into these investments for the future (recall the slogan, “energy independence is national security”) in the U.S., compared to the trillions pumped into mostly urban real estate?

I haven’t been able to find adequate statistics on these investment flows, but it seems the “investment” in urban-suburban real estate is on the order of 100 times the total capital invested in alternative energy research and development.

How many jobs flow from those thousands of granite countertops and fake “Gone with the Wind” staircases in thousands of McMansions and urban condos, and from the hundreds of strip malls constructed in the past decade? None.

Yes, someone was paid to manufacture and install the construction materials, but now that the building is done, there is nothing to show for those trillions of dollars of investment. Just like the Third World mega-slums, America’s cities and suburbs are now “capital traps” of national savings.

For it isn’t just the capital trapped in empty condo towers and millions (yes, millions, see yesterday’s entry sources) of empty houses and the rapidly enptying office parks and malls–it’s also all the capital trapped in the financial institutions which enabled the real estate bubble to expand so voraciously and profitably that all other investments paled.

It’s no secret that financial firms’ profits have grown to the point that they dominate the S&P 500. Trillions of capital are tied up in U.S. real estate and the mortgage-backed securities and other asset-based financial instruments based on residential and commercial real estate.

What could the nation have gained had those trillions been invested in new production of goods and services? Was the entire real estate bubble a vast, perniciously destructive misallocation of national savings into “capital traps”? I think the answer is clearly “yes.” Now that real estate is starting its long decline from euphoric fantasy to reality, plummeting values of both the real property and the financial house of cards erected on the property are erasing trillions.

How do you extract the capital from a rapidly depreciating asset? It’s human nature to hope “things will turn around next year.” Unfortunately, real estate will not turn around next year, or the year after that or the year after that. Real estate has become a capital sink for the national savings.

This is the clearest exposition I’ve seen of the problem of imagining a renewable build out – we’ve thrown our money away on an infrastructure that is not going to serve us in any way in the future.  Kunstler’s claim that this was the greatest misallocation of resources in history is probably correct. 

 That said, however, I’m more sanguine than Kunstler that we can make something out of some large chunks of our suburban infrastructure – I’m much less hopeful for the Condos in Miami and Vegas.  The suburban infrastructure can, at least, grow food.  But the sheer scale of the problem of adapting an infrastructure made entirely for cheap oil with decreasing amount of energy and money is going to, a minimum, push our creativity.

One corrollary of this point is that we have millions of unoccupied homes and millions of square feet of unoccupied office space.  Anyone who starts any mitigation discussion with the words “build new housing” is out of their freakin’ minds.  We’re going to be living in those houses, so retrofit is the word of the day.  It may have been a wild misallocation of resources, but we simply don’t have enough resources left to throw away what we have.

 6.  The bad news about climate change is that it is growing worse faster than anyone – especially the politicians – can keep up with.  For example, areas of the ocean are warming up to four times faster than the most radical predictions.   This is non-trivial for a host of reasons, one of them be the accelleration of the collapse of fish stocks, but more importantly, the oceans are the single largest carbon absorber we have right now – and the warmer it gets, the less able it is to keep absorbing carbon – that is, the warmer the planet gets, the faster you have run to keep in place.  We are now, at best, at the point where we can perhaps avoid the very worst outcomes (that does not mean it will not be truly terrible) if we make “draconian” as Hansen puts it – changes very rapidly.  But we are very close to the point at which very little can be done – on at least one level – at all.  In fact, it is possible we are past that point – although we cannot live our lives as though that is true.

Does that mean that emissions cuts are pointless?  No, they aren’t – the difference between 3 or 4 degrees of warming and 6 are enormous – the difference between living in a vastly changed and deadly world versus a visit to hell.  In fact, it is more and more urgent that we do all we can – and that we do it FAST, before what we do stops mattering entirely.  But that means we have to understand what is going on, transmit that information *AND* (perhaps most difficult), we have to stop picking outside numbers, and start using the precautionary principle, which says that instead of waiting for some perfect certainty in the data that may or may not come in time, we now must work under the assumption that everything is more serious than we know it to be. 

To say the least, getting there will be difficult, if it is even possible.

7. Estimates of the cost of addressing global warming like the Stern report are overwhelmingly based upon old data, older estimates of how Global Warming will work, and other outdated analyses.  And they assume that we are still early on in the GW process – which doesn’t look to be the case.  We can expect climate change to eat up an increasing portion of the GDP every year – that is, every year, we’re going to have to run faster financially just to keep up.

Take the example of the city of Barcelona, which now will have to import water by ship to deal with its extended drought.  The thing is, no city or region or nation is ready for these kinds of disasters to happen over and over and over again.  As Gilda Radner used to say, “It is always something.”  Well, we’re entering the world of “it is always something” – and there will always be a better use for our dollars and energies and times than to deal with climate change – until it is too late.

8. Turning the ship around ain’t going to happen.  Global emissions have been rising – the good news is that it looks like in 2008, the stunning rate of increase (something no report accounted for) in demand may slow down a little.  But that doesn’t mean that the emissions levels are falling – that just means we’re not raising them up quite as fast. Yes, higher energy prices will probably drive us to cut back on our driving – and they will probably also drive people to accept coal plants. 

So is there any hope here?  Yes, I think there is, but I’m increasingly finding myself agreeing with Thomas Homer-Dixon in _The Upside of Down_ where he points out that a collapse isn’t actually the worst possible outcome in some cases.

The thing is, the problem with having a lot of money and high technology is that you can’t not use it.  People get weird – they start saying “but we’ve got nano-technology just sitting there.”  They develop conspiracy theories.  And the comfy and entitled get bitchy when they have to give up priveleges.

The thing about a global depression and major collapse of wealth is that it might actually save us from ourselves.  There is no way to turn the ship around – but there is a way to get the hell off the ship and start looking for safe harbors in the lifeboats – by letting the damn thing go down.  Climate change is a bigger threat to us than hard times – and I’m not minimizing the potential suffering created by a world depression.  But I don’t think there’s any way to stop it except this – make most of us too poor to burn our full share.

Ok, I could use some kittens and puppies right now.