On the Politics of Civic Engagement

Boulder faces an interesting decision in the wake of an Ignite Boulder talk by Code for America’s Becky Boone, exhorting a relatively young, tech-savvy audience to engage in the city’s civic sphere. Some have objected to her use of profanity, but given the positive response of the 21 and over crowd and the content of past Ignite talks, these concerns are overblown. Daily Camera columnist Steve Pomerance and neighborhood blogger Kay MacDonald have tried to level a more substantive criticism: they feel that Boone’s presentation was pro-growth, and that such advocacy would be inappropriate for even an off-duty city consultant.

I’ve watched the talk repeatedly, and transcribed it word-for-word.  Boone clearly takes no such stance.

She highlights the accessibility and value of participating in our local democracy, and gives a couple of positive examples: the Fairview High Net Zero Club’s campaign to implement a grocery bag fee, and an unidentified citizen group gathering signatures for a fall ballot measure whose content is unmentioned. She also asks her audience their thoughts on whether Boulder’s housing issues result from too many jobs, or insufficient housing — a question that’s been raised by Boulder Housing Partners commissioner Dick Harris, among others.

None of these statements is political advocacy.

Rather, the political content of Ms. Boone’s presentation resides with her choice of audience. The Ignite crowd and Boulder’s startup community are younger and newer to Boulder than those traditionally engaged in city governance. They’re also probably more likely to be renters. Despite the city’s laudable efforts to recruit representative citizen working groups, these demographics have been woefully underrepresented in our housing policy process.  We know this because we’ve collected demographic data at the city’s housing events. Engaging the Ignite Boulder audience makes our discussion more representative of our citizenry. This is good for our democracy.  It also has political implications.

By definition, rallying a disinterested population to participate dilutes the power of those who are already engaged. To their credit, and despite this difficult set of political incentives, the city has prioritized “developing new approaches and tools that support more inclusive, transparent, collaborative, and interactive community engagement” in the development of our Comprehensive Housing Strategy. This is exactly the job that Becky Boone was hired to do, and which she has apparently done a bit too well for the comfort of some incumbent interests.

We now have a choice, and it’s an unavoidably political choice.  Do we want to cultivate a representative democracy in Boulder that proactively seeks input from as broad a population as possible, or would we prefer a narrowly targeted discourse that is intended, through its choice of media and venues, to preserve the status quo?

If we choose to limit our communications and data collection to serve incumbent interests, then we must admit that Boulder has become a fundamentally conservative place. The choice to collect or avoid data or is often political. When congressional Republicans vote to de-fund NASA’s work documenting climate change, or block the use of statistical sampling in the census, they are advocating an Orwellian world in which Ignorance is Strength.

Boulder should be better than that, and so I favor proactive engagement, as I believe much of City Council does. They need our support to make the right choice: to stand behind Ms. Boone and build upon her valuable work in Boulder going forward. We should live stream and archive any city meeting taking place in Council chambers on a well used platform like YouTube. We should subtitle the archived versions in Spanish. We should expect our elected and appointed policymakers and city staff to participate competently in social media, and use it as the incredibly cost-effective and democratically empowering platform that it has become worldwide. It’s been a long time since the Internet was the exclusive domain of a technological elite — today it is the people’s platform, much more so than Wayne’s World style public access cable TV, or even our beloved Daily Camera. Newer digital platforms that are accessible to parents with young children and full time jobs need to be weighed heavily in our policy discussions, right alongside inconvenient, time-consuming public meetings.

Given last week’s firestorm of activity in support of Boone on Twitter I suspect that going forward, Boulder politicians and policymakers will ignore the digital realm at their peril.  Just because you do not take an interest in social media, does not mean that social media will not take an interest in you.

Coal Geology vs. Coal Economics & Politics

The geology part of classifying coal as reserves is a lot of work, but it’s doable — with enough drilling logs and other data, you can determine where the coal is, how much of it there is, and its general quality. Once you’ve got that concrete geologic understanding, it’s unlikely to change drastically — it might be refined modestly over time, maybe increasing as mining technology improves… but if you’ve done the work well, you’re probably not going to suddenly discover that 90% or 99% of the coal you thought was there actually isn’t.

The economic part part of classifying coal as reserves is fundamentally different, and more changeable with time, because market conditions change much more quickly than geology! I think the experiences of the UK and Germany are particularly interesting, because they were both early large coal producers, part of the first wave of fossil fueled industrialization. They’re extremely mature hard coal mining provinces that have fallen off their peak production dramatically — they’re ahead of the curve that most of the rest of the world is still on.

The drastic downward revisions that both the UK and Germany made were due to changes in economic policies and domestic politics — not geology. Both nations historically had strong labor interests tied to coal mining, and the desire (like most nations) to maintain an indigenous energy supply. But as the cost of supporting the industry grew and its productivity fell, the political logic of maintaining the illusion of a viable coal-based energy system faded away. In Germany, it seems likely that popular support for the nation’s ambitious Energy Transition made it easier for the nation to face up to geologic reality. In the UK the politics seem to have been influenced by the Thatcher government’s desire to privatize previously nationalized industries like coal mining, as well as the discovery of massive offshore natural gas reserves in the North Sea.  In both cases the “proven reserve” numbers appear to have vastly overstated to begin with, but the political desire to support the industry and maintain the illusion of long-term energy independence was a powerful incentive to ignore the geologic reality.

However, in the end, geology wins.

Where are we headed?

The EIA’s admission that we have not, as a nation, officially and transparently evaluated the economics of extracting our vast coal resources opens the topic up for discussion. The economic and political forces at work today in the US may be different than they were in 1980s Britain, or early 2000s Germany, but they’re pushing in the same direction. A powerful incumbent coal industry is weakening both financially and politically — because of their own increasing production costs, low natural gas prices, flat electricity demand, plummeting renewable energy costs, and concerns about both traditional pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. This gives us the opportunity to re-evaluate our policies around them. What should we change?

We might start with ending the practice of soft pricing in uncompetitive BLM coal lease auctions, as laid out by the Government Accountability Office in February. However, by far our largest subsidy to the industry is our acceptance of the externalized costs they impose on us. A 2011 Harvard study (on which CEA co-founder Leslie Glustrom was a co-author) estimated these costs to be roughly $345 billion/year in the US — equivalent to adding $0.18/kWh of coal fired electricity (explore the study graphically, or see the full peer-reviewed paper).

Even if we ignored traditional environmental impacts and public health consequences, and just applied the modest $37/ton social cost of CO2 calculated by the US Office of Management and Budget, that would add roughly $60 to the cost of a ton of coal! With current PRB production costs in the neighborhood of $10/ton, and operating margins often less than $1/ton ($0.28/ton in the case of Arch last year), this — or even a smaller carbon price — would likely be a crushing blow to the fuel.

Given the current state of the industry, even without these “drastic” policy changes it’s possible that we are headed for our own major downward reserves revision. This isn’t “running out of coal”. Britain and Germany both still have enormous amounts of coal — it’s just not worth digging much of it out of the ground, given the available alternatives. It’s time to figure out whether we’re in the same boat, admit it to ourselves and the world if we are, and move on to the task of building real solutions.

Two Possibilities, One Course of Action

There’s an irony in all this, which is that regardless of whether we’re running short on economically recoverable coal, we need to expunge the fuel from our energy systems as quickly as possible in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. If the global reserves numbers reported by the WEC are accurate, then we need to leave 60-80% of those reserves in the ground. This was highlighted most famously by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone in 2012, and implies that a huge fraction of the world’s fossil fuel assets are in fact worthless, unburnable carbon, and most of the world’s coal companies and unconventional hydrocarbon extraction projects are destined for bankruptcy. On the other hand, if the reserve numbers need to be revised downward because most of the listed coal isn’t economically extractable, then a lot of the coal industry’s supposedly bankable assets are worthless and the industry’s growth potential is seriously constrained.

In either case, the right thing to do is stop planning as if today’s coal plants are going to continue operating for much longer, figure out a way to take them offline, and replace them with cost-effective, low risk, zero-carbon generation resources and energy efficiency.

  1. US EIA on the Economics of Coal: No Comment
  2. A Long Time Coming: Revising US Coal Reserves
  3. In Good Company: A Brief History of Global Coal Reserve Revisions
  4. Coal Geology vs. Coal Economics & Politics

Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C

Reading the the Copenhagen accords of 2009, it would seem that virtually the entire world has signed up to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at levels that will keep warming below 2°C, consistent with the scientific understanding of the climate system, and on an equitable basis globally.  Unfortunately, virtually nobody is considering policies that actually lead to that outcome.  Among others, the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that our current emissions trajectory is consistent with 6°C of warming by the end of the century, which is considered by many to be inconsistent with an organized global civilization.  In fact, even if we implemented all the “reasonable” policies we’ve talked about so far (which we’re not doing) the outcome looks a lot more like 4°C than 2°C.

Yet almost nobody is willing to either give up on 2°C publicly, or — maybe more constructively — start a serious discussion about what scientifically grounded, equitable policies that are actually likely to result in less than 2°C of warming look like.  Almost nobody, but not quite.

For the last several years Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK have been trying to publicize this massive disconnect, and get policymakers and the public to acknowledge that in reality there are only radical futures to choose from — either a radical alteration of the climate, or the radical emissions reductions required to avoid it.  There is no status quo option.  Anderson and Bows are critical of both the scientific establishment for playing down this disconnect, and leaders for refusing to acknowledge in public what some of them understand very well in private.

This conversation isn’t going to go away any time soon.  Some selections:

Here’s an hour-long invited talk by Anderson at the Cabot Institute from 2012:

Continue reading Kevin Anderson and Getting to 2°C

Why Your Big Move to the Big City May Be Your Last

Moving to the city seems to be a one-way trip, and a couple of new studies sheds some light on why.

People re-normalize risks that they are exposed to on a regular basis, while often over-estimating novel risks.  Driving is vastly more dangerous than flying, but it’s much more common for people who drive regularly to fear flying.  In the same way, “crime” is often cited as a risk associated with city living, but once you’ve been exposed to the risk for a long time, and it is familiar, the perceived severity of that risk decreases significantly.

At the same time, it turns out your mode of transportation — the way you pass through the world around you — affects your snap judgements about the people you encounter.  Driving makes it much more likely that you will assume the worst about others, while walking predisposes you toward relating to them as human beings.

So once you’ve moved to the city, and begun to live an urban, walking life, it feels like a safer, homier, more human place to you.

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.

Continue reading Exploring a Carbon Price for Colorado

The Fight Against Small Apartments in Seattle

A bizarre account of the NIMBYs fighting against tiny apartments in Seattle.  They fear that small living spaces must necessarily end up filled with sketchy-ass meth-heads.  But it turns out they’re more often young professionals, retirees, and other completely normal folk who either don’t want or can’t afford the canonical American Dream of yesteryear… and would rather live downtown and have access to the city.

Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg

Complete Streets

I recently came across an interesting article by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher about the city of Freiburg, Germany and its transportation system and planning since WWII (when it was 80% destroyed by Allied bombing raids).  The city isn’t so different from Boulder, Colorado, but it’s a lot further down the path to sustainability that we are.  In fact, their transportation mode split today is roughly what Boulder has laid out as our long-term goal in our Transportation Master Plan: less than 1/3 of all trips are made in cars.  Fully half of trips are done under human power (23% walking, 27% biking), with another 18% via the city’s 4 tram lines and many feeder buses.  The transit system covers 90% of its operating costs from the fare-box, with most people buying monthly flat-rate unlimited use passes for around $50.  Around 2/3 of all citizens and all jobs are located within a 3 minute walk from a tram line, and the trams run every ~5 minutes during peak hours.  Households in the US spend about $8000/year on transportation, or $2700 more per year than Germans do, and it ends up being a higher proportion of our overall household expenditures (19% vs. 14%).  You might think that that’s just because the government is spending more on their behalf, but actually their total governmental spending is also lower — $460/year vs. our $640/year.  All this, and Freiburg’s per capita transportation GHG emissions are only 29% of the US average.  So the idea that a high-quality, low-carbon transportation system has to be expensive is a myth.

Continue reading Sustainable Transportation in Freiburg

A Moral Atmosphere

Bill McKibben rants eloquently about the need for more than individual actions to combat climate change — it’s a systemic problem, the solutions to which can only come with changes to the systems we are all embedded in.  Changing your light bulbs and riding a bike are the easy parts.  Organizing a devastating political campaign against the fossil fuel interests is much more challenging, and utterly necessary.

Shades of Green

There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion.  I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why.  Who are the people I’m trying to convince?  What camp do opponents imagine I’m in?  Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.

Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by.  Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources.  Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why.  In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change.  The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people.  The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all.  Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it.  The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.

Continue reading Shades of Green