Climate and Energy: A New Series Last month, former Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship went on trial in West Virginia for the explosion that killed 29 coal miners and laid bare years of safety and environmental violations. Last week, President Obama nixed the Keystone pipeline; while New York’s attorney general subpoenaed ExxonMobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the impact of its activities on the climate and misled its shareholders about the value of their investment.

Several entwined but separate issues are involved. One is the risks posed by climate change and the most effective responses to deal with them. A second is the risks posed by the use of fossil fuels (particularly coal, which remains the world’s fastest growing source of energy), whether and how to curb our dependence on them, and what to replace them with. Finally, is alleged corporate misconduct and our comfort level with the influence large oil and coal companies have on public policy.

I’d like to start a new series, an interactive one, in which we collectively seek to define the issues and, more importantly, propose solutions. These matters have become so politicized across the spectrum that the search for solutions is lost in the noise of partisan intransigence.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas as the series progresses. Please send them to me, and I will edit them for length and post them (anonymously or not, as you wish). Most of us aren’t experts, but maybe we can make a contribution to a critical public debate.

More Heat Than Light: 2nd in Series

This is the second in what I hope will be an interactive series on climate and energy, and I have already received interesting responses to the first. Please join in a conversation that could make a difference in our lives. Let me here set down some quick thoughts to get things going.

The issue of climate change – and its sidekick, energy production and consumption – has shifted from the realm of science to that of politics. Most of us believe what reinforces what we already believe – and disregard what doesn't. The result is not a conversation but a sermon. Noise drowns out knowledge. We generate plenty of heat and little light.

climate-summit-jobs1-800x600Politicians reflexively admit they aren’t scientists before weighing in on science. They are also quick to assert that scientists are politically partisan and/or monetarily motivated. The issues of scientific bias and funding are significant, and I look forward to discussing them – but I have worked a lot with scientists, many with strong political beliefs, and they are committed to the scientific method and seek answers driven by data. Ultimately, our response to climate change is a political and – let’s not forget – a moral matter, but it must rest on sound science.

Scientists overwhelmingly believe that global warming is real. Even the famous skeptic Bjorn Lomborg accepts both its reality and its dangers, although he thinks we are chasing the wrong solutions. Yet there is little evidence that we are pursuing policies that are making any significant difference. What gives?

Agents of Change: 3rd in Series

Two responses:

  • This morning an NPR piece centered around carbon offsets asked: Isn't paying $50 to plant 18 trees to offset the carbon footprint of the flight you just took like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound?

I listened as I drove north on 101 toward Santa Barbara, with a clear view of 7-10 offshore oilrigs. My thoughts drifted to distaste as I thought of all the animals affected by the leakage, and then to the bigger picture of the eventual burning into the atmosphere of all that oil. Who do these people think they are? Don't they know about climate change? Don't they have compassion? Don't they care about our future?

UnknownI always seem to have those thoughts about the rigs while I’m driving. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't drive places each day. I take it for granted, I depend on it, it’s convenient, it’s kind of great. It’s also why those rigs are in the channel. I can't imagine the conversation about climate change changing, until I/we are willing to "be the change."

  • I recently witnessed a conversation in which one person said she lies awake at night thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This mammoth “floating island of plastic” – and the people who don’t care or notice – cause her insurmountable anxiety. "What are these people thinking,” she exclaimed? “Obviously they don't care about the earth the way I do. How do we inform people and teach them?"

    Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The other person, who had listened compassionately and carefully, responded with a simple question: “Do you use plastic?”

Assumptions and Questions: 4th in Series

A clarification from the last post in this series: I was not in Santa Barbara, nor did I overhear a conversation on plastics. Those were letters from readers. I have already received several more responses to the series, which has thrown off my congenitally subpar planning, and which I intend to publish in the future. I will print or withhold names, as you wish, so if you want credit for – or censure of – your thoughts, let me know. And welcome to the club.

I begin with the assumption that global warming is real because the vast majority of scientists, as well as the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Great Britain and the United States, are united on that. I mean, you do have to start somewhere.

I do not assume, however, that the last 50 years of warming is due primarily to human activities. While most scientists do believe that is true, I think it raises different issues from the first assumption, and it demands a different solution – adapting ourselves – so let’s talk about it.

Some other matters I hope we’ll discuss:

  • Major technological innovation ( Bill Gates) vs. values change ( Bill McKibben).
  • The real prospects for alternative energy in an energy-dependent world.
  • The role of nuclear power.
  • Fracking: transition to what?
  • Population vs. consumption: too many people or too much stuff?
  • The historic connection among energy growth, economic prosperity, poverty reduction and human wellbeing.
  • Environmental and social justice for the poor and dispossessed.

A Case for Wood: 5th in Series

A forester replies:

As to planting trees being a Band-Aid, I would say, yes and no. The larger ecosystems that surround and support us – be they rainforests, temperate forests, extensive prairie root systems or the oceans – manifest a genius for sequestering carbon. We need to enhance that capability while we simultaneously work to stop Jonesing on fossil fuels. Protecting forests, managing them naturalistically to augment their growth and carbon uptake, and restoring wetlands can sequester up to 25-30% of carbon emissions – a solution that works with the grain of nature, as opposed to hubristic ideas like seeding the oceans with iron or spraying chemicals into the atmosphere.

Pursuing such solutions will also help us better understand the connection between our wellbeing and the health of natural systems. Humans are part of those systems, not above or outside them. Nature is our home and life-support system, not merely a source of our raw materials and a sink for our wastes.

Another potentially helpful approach is to increase the amount of wood in buildings. Because of advances in engineering, it is now possible to build 10- to 20-story buildings of wood, which will provide triple benefits: (1) the carbon will be "tied up" in that wood for a long time; (2) concrete and steel are extremely energy intensive building materials, so replacing them reduces a building’s carbon budget; and (3) wood is a beautiful building material.

We must work both to eliminate carbon emissions and to increase the ability to sequester carbon as we make the transition.

Edited to fit my 250-word limit. To join the conversation, please send your thoughts to I am particularly looking for new ways of understanding the climate and energy question and workable solutions.

Sun and Wind: 6th in Series

A chemical engineer discusses renewable energy.

The Department of Energy’s just-released report is pretty upbeat. They give themselves a big pat on the back for US progress in implementing renewable energy. Much of the success is due to solar and wind achieving grid parity (comparable pricing) with electricity from coal or natural gas. Two trends – (1) the decline in capital costs for solar and wind plants and (2) improvements in solar and wind efficiencies – will continue to drive down the price of electricity from renewable sources.

Two big issues remain: low-cost storage, where battery costs are dropping, and power transmission, where efficiencies are increasing. Finally, it is noteworthy that taller wind-power plants capture power at greater heights, where wind speeds are generally higher.

An accompanying report, Getting to 100, is equally optimistic, claiming, “the mission to reach 100% renewable energy is an increasingly realistic goal” and citing successes:

  • Apple, Kohl’s, Intel, Microsoft and Unilever now power all their US operations with 100% renewable energy.
  • Wal-Mart “has hundreds of onsite solar projects in the U.S., with hundreds more coming on line.”
  • The cities of Aspen, CO, Burlington, VT, and Greensburg, KS, are powered entirely by renewables.
  • Reykjavik, Iceland, gets all its electricity and heat from geothermal.
  • Thanks to heavy rains, Costa Rica existed on 100% renewable energy for the first 100 days of 2015.

Although “huge challenges remain,” including market and regulatory barriers, renewables now comprise “approximately 22.8% of total global electricity generation.”

Real progress – although it still leaves the other 77.2%, not to mention all our cars, boats and planes.

Edited to fit my 250-word limit. To join the conversation, please send your thoughts to I am particularly looking for new ways of understanding the climate and energy question and workable solutions.

Readers Respond: 7th in Series

There has been a stimulating range of responses to this series so far, as you can see below. I want to work in as many of your contributions as possible as we move forward.

Not all renewables are equal.

  • “I believe – at least in the case of Burlington, VT – that ‘renewables’ include hydroelectric, which destroys a river’s ecosystem. (Fish ladders do not work.)”
  • “Beware of hydroelectric power. Dams destroy ecosystems and human cultures. Energy policy must recognize the need to rebuild the world's great fisheries, from the Mekong to the Columbia.”
  • “Nova Scotia’s forests are being decimated to supply woody biomass to generate steam-powered electricity, which is one of the most inefficient uses of wood and is more polluting than coal – but since trees are considered a renewable resource, industry and governments can use them to meet renewable energy quotas. Using whole trees to generate power devalues the forests to the point where the wood is considered trash, which provides little incentive for woodlot owners to improve their trees. We rarely hear the word ‘tree’ used to describe the makeup of our mixed forests. The buzz phrase is ‘woody biomass.’ Wood here is now sold by the ton, not by the cord.”

Nor are all investments.

  • NRG Energy has led the charge among traditional fossil-fuel companies to implement green-energy portfolios. But short-term investors became dissatisfied with the current share price and pressured NRG to shed its long-term focus on alternative energy and go back to concentrating on fossil fuels. We need to start putting our money where our principles are and investing in our future, instead of just talking about it.”

Please join the conversation – to disagree, to suggest innovative solutions, to provide new ways of framing the issues:

Thinking About Thorium: 8th in Series

“Solar and wind are growing quickly,” Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker wrote recently in The Boston Globe, “but still provide about 1% of electricity production, and cannot scale up fast enough to provide what the world needs.” Overall, renewable energy sources still account for less than a quarter of global energy use.

Renewables, it seems, will get us some of the way toward our carbon-reduction goals. But will they get us all the way? So we talk about transitional options – particularly natural gas – that will reduce our use of oil and coal while we figure out what to do next.

But as one of you asked, “Transition to what?”

In the meantime, the use of fossil fuels keeps rising. Coal has killed far more people – from those who mine it to those who breathe it – than any other energy source. Yet it remains the fastest growing of them all.

Like me, you may never have heard of thorium. It’s a chemical element, atomic number 90, one of only three radioactive elements (bismuth, uranium) to occur naturally in large quantities. As Richard Martin describes in Superfuel, thorium lost out to uranium in America’s nuclear-development history because it can’t be made into a bomb. During the Cold War, that was a deal breaker. It looks pretty good now.

“Thorium is no panacea,” writes Martin in a book insisting it is precisely that, “but of all the energy sources on Earth, it is the most abundant, most readily available, cleanest, and safest.”

Does nuclear have a role in a clean energy future?

An Environmental Advocate and a Farmer Respond: 9th in Series

Environmental Advocate: We need to favor decentralized over centralized power systems. For example, rooftop solar panels on residences and businesses make much more sense than huge arrays on public lands, which require new transmission lines

Decentralize energy guzzlers. For example, the centralized federal and state water conveyance system uses one third of California’s total energy consumption. The system should be regionalized.

Raise the federal gas tax and apply proceeds to energy-efficient public transportation systems – light rail in cities and fast trains between cities – to get people out of cars and planes.

Increase taxes on airline flights – one of the most damaging forms of carbon pollution – to reduce air travel globally.

Leave carbon fuels in the ground where they belong. Support divestment of companies that hold carbon reserves – oil, gas and coal – in their portfolios.

Beware of hydroelectric power. Dams destroy ecosystems, cultures and fisheries.

The rich nations need to help fund the power sources for the emerging world so developing countries can skip the carbon phase. We – not they – have dumped our wastes into the atmosphere for 150 years without paying for the damage, so we should pay the bill.

Farmer: Addressing the myriad environmental issues is important. It must be approached from a scientific perspective that doesn’t destroy the patient in the process. Making rules without properly looking at ALL the implications is dangerous and will hurt many who have struggled to operate in what they had been led to believe was the correct way.

Wrong Focus: 10th in Series


With violence continually sweeping public places in the U.S. because it is easy for anyone to buy combat-grade weapons, with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican list of candidates for president and Hillary Clinton leading the Democrats, and with gory internet executions, bombs on planes and pre-war tension between Turkey and Russia – a Middle East that is beginning to resemble Spain during their Civil War (which proved to be a proxy for World War II), I think there are more important things to focus on at the moment than climate change and the environment.

Environmental damage is crucial to the world, but it is an ongoing process and there will be no world unless solutions to increased violence at home and abroad are tackled with common sense solutions and total focus by all governments. President Obama's concentration on the environment while people are dying violently in many parts of the world due to Islamic radicalism, and mass murder in the U.S. carried out by people with military grade automatic weapons (ordinary "citizens" – how do they get hold of AR-15's? Go to and find out where easily convertible "single shot" rifles are being sold) is substituting a longer-term issue for a crucial short-term major issue.

Please don't make the same mistake. The environment is important, but if there is no world there is no need for global environmental concerns.

Note: My intention has been to intersperse this series with other topics. The posts continue to elicit interesting – and I think important – responses, including this one.

Correction. From Joshua Goldstein: FYI there was an editing error in our Op Ed – solar is 1% of total while wind is 4% more.  The conclusion is the same.  A solar or wind installation that's used to replace a closing nuclear plant does nothing to replace fossil fuel.

A Reader Responds: It’s Not Either / Or: 11th in Series

In response to Friday’s letter (Wrong Focus), my view is that we can handle both. Terrorism doesn’t require all our attention and resources all the time, and virtually all decisions and deployments have downsides and unintended consequences, requiring considerable forethought. Our overall geopolitics needs some long-term antidotal efforts right now – particularly in what we are trying to achieve in Paris, as climate change issues already significantly affect our geopolitics. Climate change is upon us and will increasingly exacerbate geopolitics. Even Syria has a serious climate component.* It would be a shame to allow our short-term concerns to derail the Paris conference. I say, if not now, when, on climate change?

All that said, I believe we can, should and probably right now are upgrading our efforts against ISIS. Also, of course, we need to be highly attentive to how we address Putin’s pouting and power plays, but he started his provocative behavior quite long ago, and though the risks may feel higher right now, his aggression was only going to get worse, and at least he is now thinking twice. (I do think an aggressive response to Syria’s crossing the red line might have helped, but again there were serious potential downsides.)

As for the violence here at home, obtuse people in the Republican Party are standing in the way of the only obvious remedial answers. The only good thing to come of it is that, hopefully, the bankruptcy of their positions will become increasingly obvious. Voting against restrictions on gun purchase for people on terror watch lists? I hope the American voters find that a very hard sell.

*And a water component

An Anthro-Skeptic Speaks: 13th in a Series 

With the announcement that 2015 was by far the hottest year on record – soaring past defending champion 2014 – it’s time to check in on our “Climate and Energy” series. To refresh: the series seeks to foster a discussion that rises above the heated rhetoric “to define the issues and, more importantly, propose solutions.”

I am not, as they say, a scientist, but I have long worked with scientists, and it seems clear that something is happening up there. The great majority of scientists believe that humans play a major role in the problem, but I have an old scientific friend who is not convinced.

“It should be remembered in all the flak, rhetoric, and hand waving now with us that the assortment of mechanisms and their mutual interactions that drive these cycles is still far from clear. It is also far from clear the extent to which anthropogenic activity over the last 250 years has exacerbated the process.

“No question about global warming, but it is sun-driven, not man-made. The big question is how much anthropogenic CO2 produced compared to terragenic CO2 produced as oceans warm, reducing solubility of CO2 in water. I am swinging to idea that anthropogenic is a butterfly belch compared to terragenic.”

This is no small difference of opinion, as it demands that we focus on adapting ourselves to inevitable warming, rather than on bending the natural world to our will.

Join the conversation.

Answering An Anthro-Skeptic: Part of a Series  

Anthro-Skeptic” raised some hackles by questioning the human impact on climate change. Remember, though, he wasn’t denying either the reality or the severity of climate change (that's reserved for Republican Congresspeople and office seekers); and he was arguing from science, however much a minority view, not polemics. He may be wrong, but one of the primary obstacles to discussing this issue is that ideology seems inevitably to trump (if you’ll pardon the expression) science.

Two respondents spoke to that, one asking for information, the other suggesting a path forward:

  1. “Your science friend has a timely and compelling view. However, it would be helpful to us lazy sideliners to have a good reference (preferably short, concise and readable for the average 12th-grade, unscientific reader). I know there is a ton of writings out there concerning ‘terragenic’ vs. ‘anthropogenic’ causes...but hey, I'm busy."
  2. “There indeed seem to be reputable scientists who are not convinced we currently have the science to determine if man is significantly contributing to global warming. However, some of these scientists seem to agree that, if it eventually turns out (through better science) that man is significantly responsible, it may be too late to do anything about it. So unless the naysayers can scientifically and convincingly prove that man’s role is not significant, the only rational course is to reduce our footprint as fast as we can. For my very humble thinking, the immediate (and perhaps long-term) answer is nuclear power.”

One last question: Is there a connection between our discussions on climate change and Flint’s poisoned water?

Stay tuned.