The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

GM’s Feisty and Embarrassing Vice Chairman

“Once again, Bob won’t get the job.” That was the definitive prediction this weekend by Automotive News, the industry’s journal of record, on GM vice chairman Robert Lutz’s chances of being named CEO [link may require subscription]. Yesterday they were proven right when GM’s acting CEO, GM chairman Ed Whitacre, announced that he would continue permanently in the position. What they got wrong, however, was why Lutz was unfit for the top job.

Automotive News let Lutz speak for himself, arguing that at 78 years old he was too “geriatric” for an ailing automaker in need of rejuvenation. That logic flies in the face of Whitacre’s logic that what GM needs most, after ousting two CEOs in 2009, is stability. After all, Lutz has served in top product development and marketing roles for GM since 2001, and previously held top jobs at Chrysler and Ford.

What makes Lutz the wrong man at the wrong time is that he rejects the intensifying concerns for sustainability that now drive automotive markets and innovation worldwide. At the Detroit Auto Show last week Lutz held forth on climate science with the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining that Earth is being cooled by a dearth of solar flares rather than warmed by greenhouse gases from cars and other fossil fuel-burners:

“All I ever say is look at the data, look at the empirical evidence…Katrina was six years ago and we have yet to have the next hurricane.” Continue reading

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

Opponents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change are hard at work via Internet forums making a last stand against the present societal momentum to address our impact on global climate and, specifically, to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy systems. Midland, MI-based multimedia producer, cartoonist, and alternative energy enthusiast Peter Sinclair is returning fire, nugget-for-nugget, with his new YouTube-distributed video series, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

Each episode of Crock answers one of the climate denial “hobby-horse arguments” with five minutes of science-based, semi-professionally produced video. The Vikings star in this week’s episode, Medieval Warming?, which explodes the notion that Earth was warmer in the Middle Ages:

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Complication and Climate Communication

In response to CNN’s termination of its science/tech/environment unit and continued questioning of anthropogenic climate change, personal friend Peter Offenhartz wrote me to comment that while CNN’s move is “impossible to understand,” the continuing controversy over climate change is less perplexing.

In his email, Offenhartz suggests that part of the problem lies with the climatology community, which has not excelled at simplifying their models’ main results so that ordinary people can understand them. “The evidence is not so hard to understand as most people seem to think,” he writes. Offenhartz, a physical chemist, makes his case by offering the informal lecture on climate change that he’s been sharing socially in recent weeks. His explanation highlights the idea that rising CO2 matters most where water vapor concentrations are low: (emphasis Offenhartz) Continue reading

CNN’s Climate Change Denial Darkens a Dimming Media Picture

CNN axed their entire science, environment and technology unit in December, as documented by the Columbia Journalism Review. The Society of Environmental Journalists (disclaimer: I serve on the board of directors) joined three other journalism groups on a letter to CNN’s leadership protesting this “short-sighted” move “at a time when science coverage could not be more important in our national and international discourse.” Unfortunately, further developments suggest that we can expect further occular dysfunction from the media majors in general and CNN in particular.

This week CNN anchor Lou Dobbs gets the silliness award for devoting prescious broadcast minutes to a poorly documented rehash of climate change skepticism, putting sunspots and natural cycles in the climate change driver’s seat rather than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. See the video clip below, immortalized by progressive media watchdog group Media Matters’ County Fair blog:

The deterioration of science reporting threatens to spread as other major media outlets follow suit with budget-slashing bloodletting. Joel Makower, a pioneer in reporting on sustainable business, made that point last month in a discouraging post entitled Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?. Makower sees the cuts at CNN as just one example of a “devestating” trend, noting the recent loss of senior journalists at Fortune magazine, The Weather Channel, and the Los Angeles Times.

The likely result is that fewer reports on the environment (ie energy according to the IPCC, which Dobbs ignores) will run. As Makower points out, those that do run will be delivered by generalist reporters scrambling to get up to speed on complex topics:

I hear from such reporters every week: general-assignment reporters from newspapers and broadcast stations around the U.S., niche trade magazines, and others seeking comment or context on a story they’re covering. I can tell you unequivocally that the nature of their questions reveals a high degree of ignorance. I’m happy to bring them up to speed, but it’s a slog.

One of the few bright spots is the New York Times, where the environment team is still growing. However, given that the paper recently announced plans to re-mortgage its headquarters building to make up for slumping ad revenues, one wonders how long the leadership will last.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Gorilla in the Greenhouse Meets the Coal Machine

The Natural Resources Defense Council embarrassed the coal industry last week by acquiring and distributing video of Don Blankenship, CEO of number-four U.S. coal producer Massey Energy, proudly professing his continued denial that climate change is real. Now multimedia producer Jay Golden and environmental media firm SustainLane have released video that’s considerably more entertaining and, thus, potentially far more damaging: a high-energy, Scooby Doo-esque production called “Turn It Up Day” from their savvy Gorilla in the Greenhouse cartoon series:

I heartily endorse the review by online videobiz blog NewTeeVee, which calls Gorilla in the Greenhouse “genuinely entertaining and informative”:

Green gorilla KJ is an enigmatic environmental savant, telling the future through riddles that the kids who share his greenhouse must solve in order to ward off threats to the planet. (And in their spare time, they have a rock band. Of course.)

In the 7-minute episode released last week, the Green Gorillas gang exposes the blend of complacency and deception that allows our civilization to literally chew through mountains in search of the coal that fuels half of U.S. electricity production. With sage advice from KJ and a little follow-the-wire detective work, the kids trace the cause-and-effect connections between their own profligate energy use, the ‘turn it up’ hype embedded in popular media, and mountaintop removal mining.

As NewTeeVee put’s it, the Green Gorillas’ 2nd episode “fires on all cylinders”:

It teaches complex issues in a digestible way; it shows the characters taking practical action; and it even goes a little deeper, teaching kids to not buy into the hype about something just because it calls itself green, but to really learn about what’s going on behind the scenes.

My favorite character is the talking worm that plays the coal baron, Wormulus, who delivers several crucial Seussian rhymatribes. His malicious gloating opens the show: “My Wormulator chops the rocks, making loads of watts per hour. So They get their precious energy, but it’s Me who gets the power!” Later his willful deception is exposed in this dialogue with Dr. Morlon Hufflebot, whose brain Wormulus inhabits: “Our robot tears at the Earth as fast as it can,” says Hufflebot. “It’s a cause and effect they don’t understand,” says Wormulus.

Kentucky author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry noted how hard it is for people to connect power use and coal mining when he spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Roanoke, VA this fall. He also told a poignant Christmas tale of direct action that helped me make the connection. Recalling a holiday season advertisement years ago by the coal industry with the message, “We dig coal to light your tree,” Berry said he never again allowed an electrified Christmas tree in his home. The tale struck a nerve: I’ve been avoiding escalators ever since.

AND NOW A NOTE FROM OUR SPONSOR: The 800-pound savant in Gorilla in the Greenhouse, KJ, is in no way related to the Green Gorilla power spray system, highlighted last week as a “special gift for the gardener in your life” by Canada’s Financial Post. That Green Gorilla puts an end to hand pumping garden sprays thanks to its rechargable lithium ion-powered pressurizer. “No more sore arms and sore backs,” assures the Post. It’s a steal at C$71.95! (Solar charging kit not included.) Or buy direct and get the dual-tank bundle for just US$94.99! (With separate tanks for your herbicides and insecticides you’ll “never cross contaminate again”!)

Season’s Greenings from Carbon-Nation!

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

CO2’s Bottom Line Just Keeps On Rising

Climate change skeptics obsess about the immense uncertainties that plague climate modeling. It’s not, however, all a matter of mysterious physics and chemistry. Human behavior — in this case our boundless capacity to ignore grave danger — poses the greatest challenge. No order of scientific progress nailing down the links that regulate Earth’s climate will enable certain projections of climate change over the next century because it is human behavior that controls the most powerful element: emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane.

Today scientists with the international Global Carbon Project are releasing an updated accounting of CO2 emissions, and they far exceed the best guesses of human behavior by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Emissions in 2007 were at the high end of’ those used for climate projections in the last [IPCC] report,” says Global Carbon Project participant Corinne Le Quéré, an environmental chemist at the University of East Anglia.

Emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement manufacturing — the largest sources of anthropogenic CO2 — continue to increase rapidly (see graph above); in 2007 they were now 38% higher than in 1990. In total, emissions drove up the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 2.2 parts per million last year, compared with 1.8 ppm in 2006. At the end of 2007 CO2 was at 383 ppm — the highest concentration during the last 650,000 years and probably during the last 20 million years according to the Global Carbon Project. 

At the same time the oceans, which in past acted as a buffer to absorb excess CO2, are saturating. Le Quéré, who coauthored a report last year in Science that the Antarctic Ocean had already saturated, calls it a dangerous combination: “If this trend continues and the natural sinks weaken, we are on track towards the highest projections of climate change.”

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