Normative Narratives


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Green News: The Science, Technology, Economics And Geopolitics Of Climate Change Align

Sustainable development is arguably the most pressing challenge of the 21st century. The effort to reduce extreme poverty and modernize underdeveloped regions of the world is invariably linked to access to energy. The way the developing world fills its energy needs (traditional vs. “green” energy), alongside the energy consumption habits of the developed world, will have a great impact on the future of climate change (In the U.S., for example, the energy sector was responsible for 1/3 of GHG emissions in 2012).

A number of longstanding impediments still stand in the way of a meaningful global climate change policy. There is the issue of who will shoulder the majority of the costs of a shift towards sustainable energy sources, countries who have the longest history of emissions / highest per capita emissions rates (developed countries such as the U.S.), or those who currently emit the most GHGs (such as China and India, with their heavy reliance on coal based electricity)?

Unhealthy smog in China and India have put more pressure on politicians to address national climate change agenda’s, but to this point have done little in terms of bridging a global climate change agenda.

A related issue is that the countries that are most susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change are small island states, which have a negligible influence on global policy matters. Organizations such as the UN’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) attempt to overcome this issue by banding together to promote their mutual interests, but still face an uphill battle in compared to more influential global actors. Until the worlds most powerful nations start feeling strong adverse effects of climate change (which some would argue they already have), the needs of these smaller nations are likely to go unaddressed.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to global policy change is that the worlds most powerful nations house the most powerful energy companies, who have a vested interest in the status quo and hold immense political sway due to their roles as political donors and job providers.

When it comes to climate change, the burden of proof is on the “accuser”, a reality climate change deniers have used to their advantage; these companies have virtually limitless resources to challenge claims that climate change is a man made phenomenon, or that it is linked to their activities. To quote Nick Naylor in the satirical comedy “Thank You For Smoking”; “These guys realized quick if they were gonna claim cigarettes were not addictive they better have proof. This is the man they rely on, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt. They found him in Germany. I won’t go into the details. He’s been testing the link between nicotine and lung cancer for thirty years, and hasn’t found any conclusive results. The man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity.” In other words, if you pay a scientist / economist / expert enough money, they can disprove / refute any claim. 

While the costs of addressing climate change are quantifiable (difference in costs between competing energy sources, jobs / economics output lost, etc.), the benefits tend to be more abstract (ex: the costs of addressing climate change will be “greater in the future”, we can stave off natural disasters with untold economics costs, the effects on global food security, etc.). In a world of budget constraints and high unemployment, the quantifiable and immediate costs of addressing climate change tend to overpower the necessary reforms. Factoring in power asymmetries (those arguing for action are much “weaker” than those arguing against it), and the future of global climate policy becomes even bleaker.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of global climate change initiatives. For one thing, denying climate change has become a fringe position; the latest IPCC’s report found with 95% certainty that climate change is a man made phenomenon, and a slight majority (53%) of young Republic voters (the political party in the U.S. typically associated with inaction against climate change) describe climate change deniers as ‘ignorant,’ ‘out of touch’ or ‘crazy.’

In the long run, the Post-2015 Development Agenda is being developed alongside Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seem poised to be agreed upon in a Global Climate Treaty in 2015.

There are also immediate economic and geopolitical reasons to be optimistic about the future of renewable energy proliferation:

Economic:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pools the efforts of scientists around the globe, has begun releasing draft chapters from its latest assessment, and, for the most part, the reading is as grim as you might expect. We are still on the road to catastrophe without major policy changes.

But there is one piece of the assessment that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: Its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.

What’s behind this economic optimism? To a large extent, it reflects a technological revolution many people don’t know about, the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular.

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.

Geopolitics:

SO the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?

Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe.Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.

“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”

We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.

To be sure, all of the impediments discussed in this article still remain; power asymmetries, a sluggish global economy, different views about who should pay the costs of “greening” the planet. However, no impediment can withstand a well informed and empowered public; the science, technology, economics and geopolitics of climate change have aligned, the time for change is now (I hate making blanket statements like this, but for the reasons discussed in this blog, I truly believe it in this instance).

All that remains is the political will to stand up to vested interests and the public support to finance the shrinking cost gap between traditional and renewable energy sources (which could be further closed with some form of carbon taxation–again an issue of political will).

When the issue at hand is the fate of our planets ecosystems, with costs that are both unpredictable and rising, how can we not rise to this challenge?

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Green News: Army Program to Test Waste-to-Fuel Viability

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Continuing the narrative on the potential of turning waste-to-energy, an Army program will offer a natural experiment of the economic viability of the concept (original article).

THERE is an indisputable elegance to the idea of transforming garbage into fuel, of turning icky, smelly detritus into something valuable.

But big drawbacks have prevented the wholesale adoption of trash-to-gas technology in the United States: incineration is polluting, and the capital costs of new plants are enormous. Gasification systems can expend a tremendous amount of energy to produce a tiny amount of electricity. Up to this point, it hasn’t seemed worth the trouble.

Mike Hart thinks that he has solved those problems. In a former Air Force hangar outside Sacramento, his company, Sierra Energy, has spent the last several years testing a waste-to-energy system called the FastOx Pathfinder. The centerpiece, a waste gasifier that’s about the size of a shower stall, is essentially a modified blast furnace. A chemical reaction inside the gasifier heats any kind of trash — whether banana peels, used syringes, old iPods, even raw sewage — to extreme temperatures without combustion. The output includes hydrogen and synthetic natural gas that can be burned to generate electricity or made into ethanol or diesel fuel. The FastOx is now being prepared for delivery to Sierra Energy’s first customer: the United States Army.

Ethanol has long been promoted as an alternative fuel that increases energy independence, and federal law requires the use of greater amounts of it. But most ethanol in this country is produced from corn or soybeans, and many people worry that the mandate is pushing up food prices. Ethanol produced from trash — or agricultural waste, as others are trying — would allay such concerns.

The military is looking for ways to reduce its oil consumption, and to make it easier to supply the front lines with the fuel it uses in all its vehicles and generators. “These days, the supply lines are in the battlefield,” said Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational efficiency plans and programs. “And we consume a lot of fuel, which makes us a big target.

The FastOx gasifier is the brainchild of two former engineers at Kaiser Steel, patented by the grandson of one of them and commercialized by Mr. Hart. “It’s a modular system that can be dropped into any area,” Mr. Hart said, “using waste where it’s produced to make electricity where it’s used.” Once it’s off the ground, he said, “garbage will be a commodity.”  

Gasification is more efficient than incineration and eliminates toxic byproducts that come from burning trash. But it was especially appealing from a business point of view because it relied on a proven technology and used materials in wide abundance: blast furnaces being abandoned as the American steel industry was collapsing.

“What was compelling from the start,” Mr. Soderquist said, “was repurposing existing infrastructure into a generator of clean energy, with a second revenue stream from people paying you to take their waste.”

Results at the Defense Department’s testing facility near Sacramento have been promising; after about four hours, one ton of waste creates enough gas to produce 1,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which would power an average home in the United States for about a month and a half — at one-third the emissions of coal — and 42 gallons of renewably sourced fuel. And that’s with a 12-ton-a-day gasifier; existing blast furnaces can handle as much as 2,000 tons a day.

“California produces 30 million tons of garbage a year,” Mr. Hart said. “If it decided to turn its waste into clean fuels, at that rate it could meet all its oil consumption needs and still export more fuel than some OPEC members.” That is, if the FastOx can do what no other waste-to-energy gasification technology has done before: take any kind of trash, in any succession, without additional separation or preparation.

Any waste-to-energy plan, however, must overcome a major hurdle: the wild inconsistency of the waste stream. “Until you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it all, nobody’s interested,” Mr. Hart said. “I can understand it; they’ve heard similar promises before. We’ve got 150 cities, communities and businesses lined up to be Serial No. 2. Nobody wants to be No. 1.”

NOBODY, that is, except the Pentagon. The Defense Department is the country’s largest single consumer of energy, spending $15 billion a year just on fuel.

The appeal of Mr. Hart’s Pathfinder system is that it would produce fuel on site, eliminating the need to truck in fuel to dangerous military outposts. It would also reduce the need for trash-burning on bases, which creates pollution and noxious odors that have contributed to locals’ distaste for the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a result, United States forces in Afghanistan are working to close burn pits.

Ms. Burke added, “Something for military operations has to be really rugged, deployable, simple to use — all of those things.” Consultants and municipal sanitation officials who’ve looked at the FastOx say it meets those criteria.

“Waste is a problem,” Ms. Burke said. “So if we could dispose of waste and create energy at the same time, that would be a silver bullet.”

Whats not to love about this story? An idea for turning trash-to-fuel, a seemingly futuristic and complex concept, with its origins in a 1980s steel plant. The process does not require complex new technology, but instead relies on modified blast furnaces, which are abundant due to the decline of the U.S. steel industry. Utilizing recycled capital and infrastructure only makes waste-to-fuel more appealing from a sustainability and affordability point of view. 

The idea was scoffed at, evolved through trial and error and by chance, and today has become the first trash-to-fuel concept to be adopted by the U.S. D.o.D. With minimal government aid (the article cites $8 million dollars from the federal and state government), and a little bit of American ingenuity and determination, garbage may someday be worth its weight in gold (not literally, but as the article says it will be a commodity, not a liability).

A little more research into the D.o.D energy consumption further emphasized the importance of “greening-up” D.o.D operations:

DoD analyses over the last decade have cited the military’s fossil fuel dependence as a strategic risk and identified renewable energy and energy efficiency investments as key mitigation measures.

As the largest energy consumer in the United States, the federal government plays an important role in the country’s energy system. In recent years, a number of factors have led it to reduce fossil fuel dependence through investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, including supply risks, high and volatile prices, and environmental impacts. In fiscal year 2010, DoD spent $4 billion on installation energy and $11 billion on operational energy. The full cost of fuel can be as high as $400 per gallon by the time it is delivered to a remote Forward Operating Base.

Recent U.S. Military operations in the Middle East have been too closely associated with U.S. energy interests. It is hypocritical to cite foreign energy dependence as a national security threat and not do everything in your power to reduce your own organization’s reliance on those very same energy sources.

I often write about the sustainability of U.S. military endeavors from an opportunity cost (programs we can’t afford as a nation because of high military spending) and human loss perspective. This form sustainability is about knowing when to use military intervention and when to pursue other means of foreign policy, within the D.I.M.E. paradigm. However, sometimes military intervention is necessary; another manifestation of military sustainability is ensuring that day-to-day operations and necessary military interventions are carried out in the most environmentally sustainable way as possible.

Furthermore, according to the NYT article, less reliance on fossil fuels would reduce the number of military deaths; “about half of United States casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007 were of servicemen and servicewomen moving and protecting fuel convoys, according to an Army report.”

As a nation we spend a lot on military programs–far more than any other country. We also consume a lot of energy; these two characteristics of America are not completely independent of one another. Both of these forms of sustainability are about making sure every dollar that goes to the D.o.D. is truly needed an fully utilized, as it is one dollar that cannot go to a school, hospital, infrastructure project, or any other public good / program (not to mention both reforms would directly save lives). There are arguments for and against reducing military spending, which I will not get into here. It is, however, indisputable that the D.o.D. and the D.o.S. should work together in order to operate in the most strategic and environmentally sustainable way possible.

Waste-to-energy is a promising concept that could eventually transform how the military and municipalities deal with waste–I’ll be sure to keep my readers up-to-date about this exciting experiment.


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Green News: The Resounding Resonance of “Silent Spring”

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Something a bit different today, I will be reviewing not a current event but a 10 month old article about a 50 year old book. The article chronicles the life of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring”. Here are some highlights of the article (I guess this really isn’t so different from what I usually do 🙂

SHE was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.

Carson was a scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. In the course of her work, she also felt called upon to become a leader — and was no less powerful for being a reluctant one.

She was a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities associated with leadership, like charisma and aggressiveness. But as people like Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” have pointed out, leadership can come in less obvious forms. Carson’s life shows that individual agency, fueled by resolution and hard work, has the power to change the world…her story is a reminder that one person’s quiet leadership can make a difference.

IN early 1958, she began working intently on “Silent Spring” while serving as both a breadwinner and a caregiver. The previous year, her niece died after an illness and she adopted her 5-year-old grandnephew. Unmarried and living in Silver Spring, Md., she also cared for and financially supported her ailing mother.

For the next four years, she gave all the time and energy she could spare to researching and writing “Silent Spring.” A diligent investigator, she reached out to a network of scientists, physicians, librarians, conservationists and government officials. She found colleagues, clerks, whistle-blowers and others who had studied pesticide use and were willing to share their knowledge.

Her research, she wrote, “has taken very deep digging into the realms of physiology and biochemistry and genetics, to say nothing of chemistry. But I now feel that a lot of isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have suddenly fallen into place.” I now feel that a lot of isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have suddenly fallen into place,”

Health problems, including breast cancer, were a constant obstacle for Ms. Carson. In early 1961, she began radiation treatment, which sapped her strength. A staph infection, a flare-up of her ulcer and the onset of phlebitis in her legs added to her problems, leaving her too debilitated to work. At times, she despaired over “the complete and devastating wreckage” of her writing schedule and the “nearly complete loss of any creative feeling or desire.”

EARLY in 1962, Carson sent most of the manuscript to her publisher and The New Yorker. The end in sight, she took stock of her motivation for the book. As quoted in Ms. Lear’s book, she wrote to the conservationist and author Lois Crisler: “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind — that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.”

The book, combined with the New Yorker serialization, created a sensation. In summer 1962, President John F. Kennedy, citing the book, appointed a committee to study pesticide use. During the next two years, various government units called for increased oversight of and reductions of pesticides.

Small wonder that chemical makers counterattacked. A biochemist with American Cyanamid called Carson “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Invoking cold-war language, the general counsel for another chemical company suggested that Carson was a front for “sinister influences” intent on restricting pesticide use in order to reduce American food supplies to the levels of the Eastern bloc.

Later that year, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations; in 1972, DDT was banned from use in the United States. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Looking back at such events, scientists like Paul Ehrlich and E. O. Wilson have credited “Silent Spring” with a pivotal role in starting the modern environmental movement.

RACHEL CARSON’S story offers many leadership lessons, including the importance of persistence in pursuing an objective. When I discuss her with business executives, many are struck by her ability to stay focused on goals in the face of obstacles including severe illness.

Another lesson involves the importance of doing thorough research and taking the long view. A sense of context based on hard facts, along with a knowledge of history, is essential to understanding what’s at stake in difficult and uncertain situations. It also confers a sense of authority on the person who has acquired this knowledge.

A third insight concerns the juggling of personal demands and professional ambitions. Carson understood the challenge — and satisfaction — of dealing with our obligations to others even as we follow our professional drive. And she saw that this can rarely be navigated smoothly. For her, and for many executives with whom I have worked, times of great productivity were followed by fallow periods when ambitions had to be put aside for personal reasons.

There continues to be debate about the use of DDT and its relation to Carson’s conclusions. Regardless, her story underscores the power of calling others to thoughtful action. At a time when Americans’ confidence in their business and government leaders is low, her journey offers a forceful example of one person’s ability to incite positive change.

Such an inspirational article, I could not help sharing it with my audience. Even though it is a bit old, its messages are timeless, and truly resonate with me on a personal level.

First and foremost, I am inspired by Ms. Carson’s desire to share her knowledge with a wider audience. Ms. Carson saw beauty in the world, both in nature and in people. Injustices fueled her desire to get her message out there.

Second, Ms. Carson understood the importance of a multidisciplinary and long term investigative approach to solving complex problems (way before a relatively modern multidisciplinary movement in academia). She was not to proud to enlist the help of other like-minded people. No matter how talented a person may be, nobody can tackle the truly complex problems in the world by themselves. Ms. Carson’s work shows what can be accomplished when people work together.

Third, and arguably most remarkably, is how Ms. Carson remained focused in the face of her illnesses.  Ms. Carson was determined to see her work finished; she did not retreat to more selfish concerns in light of her own deteriorating health. While surely not exactly the same, as someone who has dealt with debilitating depression, Ms. Carson’s perseverance and selflessness is truly inspirational.

Furthermore, Ms. Carson never backed down from powerful vested interests. Despite her deteriorating health, she remained steadfast in the face of personal and professional attacks from people who stood to lose from her work. As someone who is constantly rallying against vested interests, Ms. Carson’s experience is a warning to expect resistance, and to continue to stand up for what you believe in the face of that resistance.

Last but not least is the most obvious lesson; one person’s ability to incite positive change. For those who visit my Facebook page, the Ghandi quote “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” is one Ms. Carson lived by (whether she knew it or not). In a world where people are so cynical, it is important to tell stories about how hard work and determination can lead to real change. It is also notable that Ms. Carson was not particularly outspoken; “traditional” leadership qualities are not a prerequisite for making a change in the world.

Ms. Carson’s battle was waged in the context of a much less globalized and post-materialistic world. Despite technological and ideological obstacles, gender bias and personal illness, Ms. Carson never wavered in her fight for what she believed was right. Her legacy is the world we live in today; the best way to celebrate her accomplishments is to put in the work needed to shape the world we want.

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