George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change (first chapter in pdf) should be on the must read list for anyone concerned about communicating climate change (and — as importantly — who is open to reconsidering much of their thinking about what works and doesn’t work). In 43 short and highly accessible chapters, Marshall lays out how we mentally are not prepared to tackle climate change and, as revealingly, how most climate ‘communicators’ have failed to understand how their own biases impact how they communicate and undermine their ability to convince others.
For example, Marshall contrasts a highly successful anti-science advertisement with standard environmental approaches.
“Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life.” … it leaves a lasting impression of the wonders of the life ahead for her. … It is devious, exasperating, and outright mendacious. But it is also damned good communication. … maddeningly good … texbook example of how to speak directly to the emotional brain. …“The video is an artful compilation of frames for life, civilization, health, hope, and salvation. And, by contrast, the image of Times Square and the children fading into darkness speaks equally well to metaphors for decay and death — as it would in every culture in the world.
… the World Wildlife Fund uses the same metaphors at the core of its largest public engagement exercise around climate change, Earth Hour. Every year it encourages us to turn off our lights … WWF thinks it is a huge success … but there is no avoiding the fact that, if one is going to play in the world of symbols, one had better get it right. However you read it, a universal frame for decline, decay, and death is being promoted on a vast scale around the world as a symbol for climate change.
This was not a hidden issue, after all an anti-science blogger has a post showing North Korea from satellite with the caption “It’s always Earth Hour in North Korea”. I, however, have always felt vaguely (to strongly) uncomfortable with Earth Hour. Marshall has given me a studied explanation as to why that ‘vague’ discomfort was right.
As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time and energy worrying about how best to communicate on energy and climate issues, I opened the book with a decent amount of understanding and perspective on the issues. In what is perhaps my top compliment to any author, the book is filled with marginalia — with many items marked “excellent” and “gem”. For example, a ‘gem’ from the concluding paragraph:
Climate change is a process, not an event, so it requires that we RECOGNIZE MOMENTS OF PROXIMITY that can demand attention. These may be moments of political decision-making, collective action, or generated conflict. … the Keystone XL pipeline is a legitimate attempt to create a historic moment. Those critics who argue that the pipline will only ever be a small part of overall U.S. emissions are missing the point. Their complaint is like saying that the locations of seats at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth’s or on the Montgomery buses were trifling examples of racial segregation. Sometimes the act of CREATING THE SYMBOLIC MOMENT is far more important than its overall relevance.
Those arrested at the White House protesting Keystone XL are, in their own way, Rosa Parks — challenging a specific element of a much larger societal challenge.
Without question, while the full book merits reading, the last twelve-page chapter (the bolding above is how it appears in the chapter) is a must read.
Many times in the book, Marshall talks about people’s “belief” in climate change even though he provides, partway through the book, an explanation why he uses the word “conviction” rather than “belief”. Hmmm … perhaps the editing should have gone back and questioned every use of “belief”.
Far more importantly, Marshall implicitly accepts what is likely wrong-headed analysis as to the costs-benefits of climate action. ”Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.” An aggressive program of climate mitigation and adaptation would not just mitigate against “longer-term loss” but would provide significant gains. Conducting fully-burdened cost-benefit analysis shows many ways of “gain” — from reduced (controlled) energy costs to improved health to improved student achievement to increased worker productivity to … Tackling climate change seriously is not just about mitigating loss but can — should — be about creating gain. And, in many ways, this doesn’t even require ’short-term loss’. For example, investing in energy efficiency — which contributes to reducing pollution — is far less expensive than investing in new energy generation capacity. Working to restore wetlands and natural ways to deal with storm surges is typically cheaper — with other useful benefits (improved fisheries’ productivity) — than pouring concrete. And …
Marshall successfully made me think and is forcing me to rethink many things. This is not a book to read and put away — but one that merits returning to and engaging with intellectually. Is there a higher compliment that one can give an author?
Don’t Even Think About It isn’t just for climate communicators — it is suitable for every library bookshelf and would be a welcome addition to many classrooms (psychology, advertising, English, …).
Climate change is emotional, especially when the effects are disastrous and people’s lives are ruined. It is vague, sometimes. For example, bad weather happens and always has happened, so an increase in frequency or severity of bad weather isn’t necessarily qualitatively novel, and can be hard to put one’s finger on. Although the negative effects of climate change are already here, more serious effects are in our future. So, climate change has a component that is mysterious and hard to relate to, because it is in the future. Climate change is global, but spotty on a given day or in a given month. So, you may spend a long period of time between direct bouts with the phenomenon and forget about it or write it off as an “it can’t happen here” sort of thing. Climate change is scary or depressing, or both, so it is one of those things one tends to avoid thinking about. Climate change is complex, and climate change includes variation that is hard to understand.
When we look at how the human mind works, using the tools of anthropology, psychology, or any of your favorite ways to study the human condition, we find that we are better at some things than others. All those things I just said about climate change are things we humans tend to be bad at, find hard to comprehend, evaluate, understand, or explain.
Therefore, climate change has two very important characteristics. 1) It is very important, representing an existential threat that we must deal with; and 2) we are cognitively, emotionally, intellectually, pragmatically, unable to deal with it. Or, one would hope, unable to deal with it easily. Hopefully we will get past that.
Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed. …
Marshall has obviously thought deeply about how to address different audiences and, for such a difficult subject, he has produced a surprisingly accessible read. That takes a lot of wit, work and wisdom and it proves that at least that he knows how to communicate. We should pay attention.
Most people think and most analysis occurs in a stove piped fashion. Difficult in conception and more costly in resources (whether brain cells, time or cash), narrow and constrained thinking often fosters not just far from optimal but simply bad decisions. This is true across virtually all of human existence. The energy arena is far from an exception to this problem. From not considering life-time electricity use when buying Christmas lights to using the ‘commodity’ price rather than delivered cost (”fully burdened cost of fuel”) in military procurement decisions to only discussing energy savings returns off insulation or new windows without talking about comfort or health benefits in the house to ignoring the productivity benefits from greening workplaces (and schools), the limited nature of thinking when it comes to energy and environmental issues is hard to exaggerate. (And, of course, these are only benefits ‘within the decision-maker’ rather than all the externalities (both benefits and costs) that are left out of the economic transitions.) The all-too-often limited lens restricts us (all of us) to sub-optimal or simply wrong decisions.
Shaun Donovan, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and former Secretary of the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) along with lead on Hurricane Sandy relief, gave his first public talk as OMB Director this this morning at the Center for American Progress. A notable point: this first talk focused on climate change issues, the costs of inaction, and the payoffs from incorporating climate in our decision-making processes.
when you consider the impact of climate change on the Federal Budget, it’s bad news for everyone. Even a small reduction in real GDP growth can dramatically reduce Federal revenue, drive up our deficits, and impact the government’s ability to serve the public.
Donovan’s prepared remarks are beneath the fold and are worth reading. And, his responses to questions were substantial and thoughtful.
Rather than, however, attempt to dissect the comments, perhaps some impressions:
Quite simply, Donovan spoke forcefully and thoughtfully. Having an OMB Director who has a substantive understanding of and serious concern about climate change matters. The OMB has, over the decades, has been all too often a serious obstacle to movement forward on environmental issues. Donovan’s way of engagement suggests that is undergoing serious change.
What might be called climate adaptation and post-disaster rebuilding with climate change in mind truly had the strongest focus. Climate mitigation and the payoffs from aggressive efforts to reduce future climate change did not, imo, receive forceful enough attention from Donovan.
To support this point, Donovan provided an intriguing and specific example. When investing in infrastructure, how does one account for the differing trajectories of ‘concrete’ vs ‘green infrastructure’. He pointed to flood control measures — comparing building up dikes and other concrete with investing in wetlands. That poured infrastructure begins to decay from the moment construction stops while the wetlands restoration is a longer term prospect and, in fact, should become stronger and more resilient (rather than less) over time as plants spread and trees grow (and root structures strengthen). How does one account for this difference in analyzing life-cycles and cost-benefit analysis? That is the sort of question that Donovan says he is of asking of staff, that is being asked with OMB?
As he put it, “incredibly wonky stuff” but the incredibly important wonky stuff that drives how policy concepts get transformed into reality.
A question worth asking …
Within that wonkiness, there are innumerable questions. Here is one that merits asking:
With the focus on assuring “that we are appropriately pricing in climate change in all that we do”, will OMB require the use of social cost of carbon within the fiscal accounting of all government decision making?
As background and context of that question, here are three more specific ’sub’ questions.
Leasing of coal fields: There is not a single Federal mining lease related to coal, that I have been able to discover, that would show a profit for the taxpayer if there were a reasonable social cost of carbon (SCC) applied to the burning of mined coal (let along accounting for all the other coal costs/impacts, from mining through transportation to burning to disposal of ash). In fact, it appears that coal leases return to the Federal government just pennies on the dollar in terms of the actual social costs of the resulting burned carbon. The authorization of coal exports and leasing coal mining rights should include the SCC in the decision-making processes. Has OMB directed that this be done?
Keystone XL pipeline: Without question, the tar sands projects produce liquid fuel with a higher carbon load than traditional fuels and alternatives (from efficiency through emergent bio/synthetic fuels). The Department of State analysis essentially ignored the social cost of this carbon. How has OMB evaluated the SCC from Keystone XL in its examination of the DOS report?
LNG Export: There is a strong push underway for liquid natural gas (LNG) export. Natural gas — especially with the methane leakage rates from fracking — potentially has a higher carbon load than burning coal, the energy costs for liquifying and transporting LNG around the globe turn this “potentially” into a simple reality. While natural gas has a lower carbon implication than coal during actual combustion, full life-cycle analysis changes that equation. Has OMB required incorporating full LNG life-cycle carbon loads and that a SCC be applied against that true carbon implication as part of the export license approval process?
Mike Stark asked, post the presentation, some questions along the lines of what is suggested above. Here is his (early, not fully transcribed yet, provided to me) material from his exchange with Donovan:
Question: The United States generates revenue from fossil leases. But particularly in the cse of coal, it’s been shown again and again that every ton of coal we burn costs us much more than it benefits us - and not just in terms of carbon… Mercury, particulates… So why are we still issuing coal leases?
Donovan: It’s a matter of getting the costs and benefits right.
Question: Speaking of costs and benefits…After the BP mega-crime in the Gulf, is OMB considering a risk premium for future off-shore leases?
Donovan: We already build that into the cost.
Question: Has it been increased?
Answer: We’re constantly looking at it (I may not have that answer correct; I’ll have to check the recording)
Question: Also speaking of costs and benefits… Are you familiar with the coal leasing case in Colorado in which the administration aligned with Arch Coal in arguing that the social cost of carbon should not be applied to coal leases? Do you see the conflict many of us see - the administration talks a lot about climate change, but sometimes acts in ways that don’t match their words? Will the administration be joining Arch Coal’s appeal?
Answer: No decision has been made yet.
Stark also noted that Donovan mentioned OIRA several times although there were not follow-up questions about “the office where really good rules go to die a slow, lingering death”.
There is excellent work, by the way, laying out how the entire concept of “cost-benefit analysis” when it comes to environmental issues is bankrupt and inappropriate. To be clear, “cost-benefit analysis’ is near uniformly stacked against moving forward with environmental protection policies and regulations for a number of reasons (difficulty of analysis, reliance on industry for cost estimates, etc …) And, the entire concept of ‘cost-benefit analysis’ is a good example of the shifting the Overton Window to the right — the structure and concept originated from those seeking to stop and reverse regulatory protections. See Frank Ackerman’s Poisoned for Pennies.
Donovan, however, is operating within existing legal and policy constraints, which mandate OMB put programs under a cost-benefit analysis scrutiny.
While Ackerman’s (and others’) arguments about why cost-benefit analysis is unaffordable and cannot be accurate in the environmental space merit serious consideration, that Donovan is setting out to make the OMB cost-benefit analysis re climate mitigation/adaptation stronger and more accurate merits praise and strengthening.
In any event, as per the above, time to put things in context. While renewable energy plant designs should take into account risks to wildlife — and take reasonable measures to reduce those risks — those screaming about the Ivanpah facility aren’t talking too much about America’s kitty kats reign of terror on wildlife nor do they speak much about how pollution from coal plants doesn’t only hurt human health and endanger the climate, but also hurts animal health and damages habitats.
Yes, those 300,000 mirrors are — without question — killing birds. Brightsource has given $1.6 million in recognition — in payment — for that damage and proposes using that money for a spading program to reduce the numbers of cats and, therefore, the number of birds killed by those cats. How many 100,000s of bird deaths will be avoided with that money?
And, the Ivanpah electricity — now that the plant is built and running — is pretty close to pollution free. No particulate emissions to hurt bird (and human) health. No greenhouse gas emissions to worsen climate change and worsen risks to birds (and humans).
Lets be clear — there is no such thing as a perfect energy source nor a perfectly pollution-free energy system. However, we need to place things in context — whether it be bird deaths or carbon emissions, Brightsource’s CSP system can be improved but it is already much better than the existing incumbents.
Those attacking Brightsource are, in many cases, the ones who shout the loudest about wildlife impacts from wind power. As to that, perhaps we should expect the Audobon Society to soon release something on solar power similar to Audobon’s wind power position?
Audubon strongly supports wind power and recognizes that it will not be without some impact; however, harmful effects to birds and other wildlife can be avoided or significantly reduced
Every megawatt-hour produced by wind energy avoids an average of 1,220 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. If the United States obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind power by 2020, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 71 million cars off the road or planting 104 million acres of trees. Expanding wind power instead of fossil fuels also avoids the wildlife and human health impacts of oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and burning fossil fuels.
To provide a perspective.
1. To supply 100% of US electricity supply — eliminating not just coal but all nuclear, wind, rooftop solar, natural gas, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, etc — would require roughly 4100 similarly sized CSP plants. (And, by the way, nearly eliminate GHG emissions from US electricity supply. … Note that this is a highly theoretical construct that doesn’t comport with real opportunities.)
2. The 28,000 number is almost certainly too high (see link above). Even if it is 10,000 (which is still likely to be high), that works out to 4.1 million birds a year *to supply 100% or the US energy needs.
3. Put another way, that represents 0.4% of the number killed by windows, perhaps .1% of the numbers killed by cats, and less than half the number killed by burning coal.
The system can/should be improved … but let’s look at it within a context.
Simply put, the economic analysis related to climate change issues in public debates has systematically gotten things wrong. The very nature of the analytical process fosters an exaggerated projection of costs and an understatement of benefits from climate mitigation and adaptation investments. This fosters a discussion of the “costs” of action, rather than a more honest and meaningful discussion of the extent and nature of the “climate mitigation return on investment”. Fully-burdened cost-benefit analysis would highlight the huge return to be secured from sensible climate investments.
When it comes to cost-benefit analysis, two just released reports shed important perspective on this issue:
Risky Businessdocuments the costs the United States is already accruing due to climate change impacts and projects these costs through the century. Costs could include over $500 billion of coastal property below sea level by 2100, outdoor labor productivity declines of over three percent, agricultural production losses that could — in some regions — exceed 50 percent, etc … Writ large, $trillions at risk in the US economy from unchecked climate change.
A simple truth — only dupes and villains can deny that we face very serious risks and consequences from climate change.
The key hope, however, is that we (writ large) still have some potential to control how bad the situation will become and opportunities to seize value streams along the path toward climate change mitigation and adaptation.
That there might be silver linings amid climate change’s looming dark clouds does not create a ‘good’ Anthropocene even as we might seek to find better framing and language than “less catastrophic Anthropocene”.
Responsibility: We face a serious situation. We — collectively and as individuals — are responsible for creating the problem(s) and must take responsibility for helping solve them.
Patriotic Pride: We have solved serious problems in the past and have the capacity to do so moving into the future.
Accountability: While we must recognize that we, individually, have responsibility, there are institutions and people who have much more serious claim to responsibility for creating our problems and for inhibiting action. We must communicate, clearly, who these are and determine ways to hold them to account for their actions.
Within this, a central point is that meaningful and valuable action is possible — that there is a serious difference (for the better) between “business as unusual Anthropocene” and a “less-bad Anthropocne” due to serious climate mitigation and climate adaptation measures.
And, a simple truth underpinning this — we already have valuable opportunities for action and are seeing serious progress.
After the fold is an infographic from The Climate Group laying out “10 smart reasons to invest in a clean revolution”. Putting aside the unmentioned one, that reducing the risks of utterly catastrophic climate change would create an imperative for action anyway, these 10 are interesting to consider.
For example, you have all likely seen the graphics about the drastic reductions in solar prices. Think about this one:
“the cost of LED lighting in the United States has dropped 70 percent since 2009 and deployment has increased by 50x”
It is pretty rare to see CAGR of that enormity for a basic household item. That seems more like fad (Chia pet, anyone) CAGR material.
An acquaintance of mine’s business supports lighting in the building sector. Several years ago, I spoke extensively with him about the value streams of making LEDs central to his business activities. He, not that many years ago, simply did not see a pull from the market for LEDs and — while valuing the learning / discussions — did not see the financial ROI for an LED-focused business strategy. Now? The vast majority of his business is LEDs and, increasingly, other lighting options aren’t even in the discussions with their clients.
Between LEDs and compact fluorescent bulbs, lighting in American households has fallen dramatically as a percentage of home energy use.
And, as a reason for optimism, solar and LED are not oddities in terms of rapid change in the clean energy sector.
Again, see after the fold for an interesting infographic …
Communicating on science is difficult in American society. Tackling that communication in the face of concerted efforts to undermine science is an even more difficult challenge.
Effective teachers use a variety of methods to communicate with their students, seeking to find ways to communicate to all of the seven types of learning. For aural, we’re advised to
“use sound, rhyme and music in your learning”.
Those concerned with educating, engaging with, and mobilizing people about climate risks pursue multiple tools, including music such as the catchy song in this video (which is worth watching for some of the embedded graphics). (See after the fold for a second video … )
Aside from a catchy (hmm, recognize it …?) tune, there are many ‘quotables’ within the lyrics.
Before heading further and in line with the Debunking Handbook, let us start with some basic truths about investing in climate mitigation.
Climate mitigation investments will have huge economic returns on that investment ranging from energy efficiency reducing total energy bills to new economic activity surrounding the new technologies and businesses seeking to reduce our climate impact.
Climate mitigation investments will have huge corollary benefits — such as improved human health (from reduced allergy risks to reduced emergency room visits with asthma attacks to reduced deaths due to fossil fuel pollution), improved visibility at national parks, reduced climate impacts on business operations (such as reduced railroad kink risks), increased worker productivity, …
Climate mitigation will reduce the huge risks associated with climate change and will provide an insurance against the potential that climate change implications could be far worse than standard projections suggest (e.g., the risk that the modeling is erring on the too optimistic side).
Climate mitigation is an investment that will provide huge returns — across a spectrum of economic, social, and environmental fronts.
With that in mind, putting aside accusations of skewing the situation to protect incumbents from innovative technologies threatening their business models and to protect polluters from having to take responsibility for the damages their businesses cause, does the past historical record provide us a window on whether we can trust institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to provide reliable information as to the costs of environmental compliance?
Ramez Naam’s the Infinite Resource: the power of ideas on a finite planet is a powerful discussion of how innovation can enable us, even at this stage, to address climate change successfully. Naam presents a strong version of what I describe as ‘pessimistic optimism’ — he is quite clear as to the extent of our challenges and problems while also providing cogent arguments as to why and how unleashing innovation can enable a transformation of American (and global) society toward a prosperous, climate-friendly future.
Naam has, among other things, an excellent discussion of how opponents and proponents have gotten the cost-benefit equation wrong on past policy discussions of addressing environmental issues (pages 201-204).
Addressing Acid Rain
Industry groups predicted annual costs of $25 billion per year, EPA projected $6 billion per year, over the past 20 years the costs habe been “only $3 billion per year, just one-eight of the industry estimates, and half of what the EPA estimated.”
Benefits: ”regulations saved an estimated $118 billion per year in reduced health expenses”.
And … Americans still have electricity for their big-screen TVs.
“Don Hodel … [Reagan] secretary of the interior after James Watt argued that any near-term risk of thinning ozone layer could be handled by telling people to wear hats and put on more sunscreen. … [DuPont] warned that phasing out CFCs could cost the United States more than $130 billion and “that entire industries could fold.” … the Competitive Enterprise Institute … phasing out CFCs would cost the countgry between $45 billion and $99 billion. … The EPA expected the phase-out to cost a total of $28 billion. …. the actual cost across the entire US economy turned out to be less than $10 billion … less than a tenth of what DuPont had estimated, less than a quarter of the lowest cost estimates from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and only slightly more than a third of what the EPA itself had estimated.”
While opponents of action had warned that refrigerators would become a thing only multi-millionaires could afford, “the country’s air conditioning and refrigeration kep on working without disruption.”
Benzene: When putting limits on benzene emissions at industrial sites, chemical companies forecast costs of $350,000 per plant. Within a few years, changed processes that eliminated benzene entirely (beating the regulations) reduced this cost to … zero. Health benefits > $billions.
Asbestos: OSHA estimated costs of $150 million to end asbestos use in insulation and the costs turned out to be $75 million. Health benefits > $billions.
Reduced coke oven pollution: EPA estimated costs of $4 billion in 1987 learning by 1991 led to revised cost estimates of $400 million. Health benefits > $billions.
“Everywhere we look, the cost of reducing either resource use or pollution drops through innovation. Even the cost estimates of regulators turn out to be too high.” (205)
Much will (and should be said) about the EPA rules released this morning. (Questions such as … Whether the 2005 starting point is gamesmanship to make the targets look bigger? (Well, yes …) Whether the rules go far enough? (Well, no …) Whether the coal industry is bearing enough of the financial burdens for the damages burning coal causes? (Hmm, absolutely not.) Etc …) But most simply … That the EPA is moving forward with guidance on coal fired plants is — seriously — good. That President Obama and the Administration are demonstrating a willingness to take — in wide public view and in the face of serious political interest pushback — Administration action in the face of a do-nothing Congress is good. That this is a step in the right direction is — without question — good.
What is not good is that, inevitably, the entire discussion will exaggerate the costs of action and understate the benefits of action.
And, well, as to the question above:
Does the past historical record provide us a window on whether we can trust institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to provide reliable information as to the costs of environmental compliance?
Yes. And, that window says that their predictions should not be trusted.
Figure. Claims that environmental laws will destroy the economy have been regularly made and are consistently false. This graph shows U.S. GDP from 1929 to 2013 in real 2009 dollars (corrected for inflation) along with the years major environmental laws were passed. (Prepared by Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute. GDP data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.)
NOTE: Sadly, the word “skeptic” has gotten a rather black eye in recent years as people engaged in outright science denial wrap themselves within the term “skeptic” as they are too often JAQing off (”Just Asking Questions”). Skepticism, however, is a very valuable intellectual trait as long as it is done honestly: prepared to look at and consider evidence and answers with a willingness and ability to adapt one’s thinking in line with reality rather than seeking to have reality conform to your preconceptions and ideologies. While we all (or, well, at least most — I hope) seek to have such internal honesty, this is difficult and many are unable to get past their preset framework to achieve learning from responses.
Knowing that the coal’s damaging impacts on human health, especially on children, isn’t a PR success, the industry has decried that President Obama had the audacity to
Simply, the declarative U.S. policy can be summarized as targeting global warming as remaining below a two degree centigrade (2C) warming above pre-industrial areas.
Figure 4-1 on page 32 is a reproduction of an EIA chart of energy-related carbon emissions. As with fossil fuels, this graphic shows a dramatic decline in emissions compared to what was forecast. In 2005, as you can see to the right, the EIA forecast essentially a steady upward path for US emissions. 2013 emissions were, in fact, roughly 30 percent lower than what EIA predicted just eight years earlier. And, the 2014 projection is essentially a flatline stability from now into the future.
The baseline path is computed using a combination of historical trends and published forecasts as of 2005. Relative to this baseline, slightly more than half of the decline is due to slower growth than projected in 2005, that is, because of the decline in economic activity as a result of the Great Recession. Slightly less than half the reduction is due to cleaner energy, primarily the reduction in electricity generated by coal and the increase in cleaner natural gas and zero-emissions wind and solar generation. Improvements in energy efficiency made a small contribution: although economy-wide efficiency improved over this period, it improved only slightly faster than the rate projected by the Energy Information Administration in 2005.
The EIA got the ghg emissions path as wrong as it did the fossil fuel projects. However, with all the focus on climate-change issues (and tomorrow’s projected release of EPA carbon rules for power plants), this issue is buried on page 32 without a serious discussion as to the implications.
The 2005 forecast pointed to roughly 8 billion tons of emissions in 2030 while the 2014 projection is for under 5.5. That is good news … perhaps. With the ‘flat line, those energy related emissions are roughly projected to be 5.5 billion metric tons in 2040.
A simple question to ask. Is this anything close to what is required?
The International Energy Agency recently released a report that models what is required globally and within individual countries to meet temperature targets of 2C, 4C, and 6C. There is a very interesting graphical interface that enables looking at the IEA work from a number of angles. Click on the “emissions reductions” and then “United States”, we can then see where the IEA projects the United States has to go as part of a global emissions profile for a 2 degree, 4 degree, or 6 degree centigrade temperature increase. As a reminder, the globally ‘accepted’ target by the international community: 2 degree temperature increase from levels prior to the industrial revolution. From the IEA work, the US emissions have to be below 2B tons by 2040 and down to 1.1 by 2050 for some confidence of a 2 degree path. The EIA’s 5.5B ton emission path? That is right in line with 6 degrees.
At 1 degree Celsius, most coral reefs and many mountain glaciers will be lost. A 3-degree rise would spell the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, disappearance of Greenland’s ice sheet, and the creation of deserts across the Midwestern United States and southern Africa. A 6-degree increase would eliminate most life on Earth, including much of humanity.
And, the EIA’s baseline case projection of US emissions assumes a 6 degree increase. In technical terms, OH SHIT!
Thus, returning to the simple question, a simple answer: No, this is not close to what is required.
The White House staff evidently recognizes this issue. From the report:
This analysis of the recent reduction in emissions shows that while progress has been made, much more remains to be done.
But that is it … no serious acknowledgment that the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration’s baseline scenario assumes a 6 degree C future or, as some more expert than I might put it, utterly catastrophic climate chaos.
Should climate catastrophe catastrophe be our baseline scenario?
Shouldn’t this issue merit more serious examination.
NOTE: And, if the EIA’s projections on fossil fuels, renewable energy, and greenhouse gas emissions have proven so off from the past, shouldn’t the Administration take a serious look at why this is the case and what might be possible to either the forecasting structure. In government and industry, the EIA data and forecasts are taken as ‘gospel’ and serve to undermine investment decisions with decades-long implications. If the projections cannot, on a regular basis, be reliably counted on for projections, how can and should we restructure the reporting to better inform decision-making requirements both within government and outside it?