Humans as Curators in Troubled Times

We had some of that golden evening light tonight just after house meeting.  The kind that makes you think maybe an apocalypse is just over the horizon.  That the mountains are on fire.  That the gods are angry.  This Saturday I went for a long bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway with Amy from Picklebric.  At the Sunshine Saddle she pointed out the cheat grass — an invasive species that she works on.  Studying disturbed ecosystems, and how to assemble new approximations of the originals from the parts at hand.  You can’t get rid of the invasives, but maybe you can influence which ones thrive.  Just beyond the divide above us, the mountains covered with red trees, a forest being transformed in a lifetime.  500 years from now will they be the Aspen mountains?  Tim applied for a job at the Nature Conservancy as a landscape ecologist in a similar vein — understanding and managing wild and semi-wild lands for their own sake.  Like the Colorado river pulse.  All this made me think of the ecopoesis that Kim Stanley Robinson portrayed in his Mars books, especially Green Mars.  Humans as gardeners of the no longer quite wild.  From here on out, it’s all gardening. Mandatory gardening.  It’s just what kind of garden do we want?  What will grow in this climate?

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Alone in the Wilderness

I’ve been thinking a lot about risk tolerance and discount rates lately, and how they profoundly shape our perception of the economic costs associated with minimizing climate change.  Basically… if you’re willing to vary your preference for the present over the future or the level of uncertainty you’re willing to accept, then you can make mitigation cost whatever you want.  All else being equal, low discount rates and low risk tolerance make taking action cheap, while high discount rates and high risk tolerance make it expensive.

Unfortunately, we live in a society with high discount rates and high risk tolerance.  Or at least, that’s what you’d infer from our collective behavior.  It’s also what you’d gather from a lot of the rhetoric around climate action, and our obsession with trying to make it “economically efficient”, to the point of maybe not doing it at all.  Our risk tolerances and discount rates aren’t really objectively measurable.  They are fluid, and context sensitive.  The same person in different situations will not behave consistently.  Different people in the same situation may come to different conclusions.  How we deal with uncertainty and the value of the future is a personal as well as cultural decision.

For some reason, I find myself with a low pure time preference, and an aversion to many kinds of risk.  This is part of why I find our unwillingness to act on climate infuriating, and why I’m working on climate policy.  I got to wondering, how did I end up this way?  Why isn’t it more common?

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Exploring a Carbon Price for Colorado

In May of 2013 I gave a talk at Clean Energy Action’s Global Warming Solutions Speaker Series in Boulder, on how we might structure a carbon pricing scheme in Colorado. You can also download a PDF of the slides and watch an edited version of that presentation via YouTube:

The short policy overview:

  • We should begin levying a modest carbon tax, in the range of $5 to $25/ton of CO2e.
  • The tax must be applied to the fossil fuels used in electricity generation (coal and natural gas). Ideally it should also be applied to gasoline, diesel, natural gas used outside the power sector, and fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, but those are less important for the moment.
  • New electricity generation resources must be allowed to compete economically with the operation of existing carbon-intensive facilities, and fuel costs must not be blindly passed through to consumers without either rigorous regulatory oversight, or utilities sharing fuel price risk.
  • Carbon tax revenues should be spent on emissions mitigation, providing reliable, low-cost financing for energy efficiency measures and a standard-offer contract with modest performance-based returns for new renewable generation.
  • Over time the carbon price should be increased and applied uniformly across all segments of the economy, with the eventual integration of  consumption based emissions footprinting for imported goods.

But wait… I can hear you saying, I thought James Hansen and others  were rallying support for a revenue neutral carbon tax proposal?  Even the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute was looking into it, weren’t they?

A carbon price alone is not enough to get the job done — there are other pieces of our energy markets that also have to be fixed to get us to carbon zero.

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Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C

A good seminar by Kevin Anderson (former head of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK), exploring the conflicts between our stated goal of keeping global warming under 2°C, and the actual energy and emissions policies that the developed world adopts:

The same basic information, in a peer-reviewed format Beyond “Dangerous” Climate Change: Emissions Scenarios for a New World, in the Transactions of the Royal Society.  Also in a Nature Commentary (paywall).

The basic point he’s making is, the assumptions that are currently going into climate policy discussions are unrealistic, with respect to what’s required to meet a 2°C goal, even 50% of the time.  They require global emissions peaks in 2015 and eventually negative emissions, in order to be able to accommodate the 3-4% annual emissions declines that the economists (which he likes to call astrologers) say is compatible with continued economic growth.  But a global peak in 2015 is at this point outlandish from China or India or Brazil or South Africa’s point of view.  To give them even a tiny bit of breathing room, and treat our historical emissions even somewhat equitably, the developed world has to peak roughly now, and decline at more like 10% per year for decades, and the developing world has to follow our lead shortly thereafter (maybe 2025).

None of this is compatible with exploitation of any unconventional fuels (tar sands, shale gas, etc.).  And, he argues, it also isn’t likely to be compatible with reliance on market based instruments, given that we need to implement drastically non-marginal changes to the economy.

Refining Steel Without GHG Emissions

Refining metal ores is one of those things that’s really, really hard to do without emitting a huge amount of greenhouse gasses.  The energy sources behind our material economies are not as easily substitutable with renewables, because what they often require is extreme heat, and sometimes the carbon itself (in the case of steelmaking and concrete).  Researchers at MIT are looking at a way of directly refining molten iron oxide directly into pure iron electrolytically that results in very pure iron, and virtually no emissions, and it might work for other oxide refining processes as well.