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New Politics Blog: Politics 2100 October 11, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in About Me, Blogroll, Green Activism.
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I’ve decided to create a blog which discusses political ideas not strictly related to “green” issues at a new WordPress.com blog.  These blogs are easy to create so, I’ve put my thoughts on these subjects there:

http://politics2100.wordpress.com/

My initial focus is on analyzing the libertarian consensus that has taken over the Republican Party in the US and influenced US politics in a manner that I find destructive, particularly if we in the U.S. are trying to act on issues related to energy and climate.  Please take a look!

My New Post/Article on Post-Copenhagen Ethics March 3, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Climate Policy, Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Green Activism, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking.
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Frustrated with the state of climate action both here in the US and at the COP15 meeting in December, I have been focusing on how to distill thinking about climate action to some simple rules.  I came up with a longer piece that builds on the work of Donald Brown at the Climate Ethics Center at Penn State University.

Since this is a long piece I have posted it in my “Energy and Transport Policy” section as a three part post starting from this page :

http://greenthoughts.us/policy/post-copenhagen/

I also have a PDF version here, which some may find easier to read or refer to.

Please read and comment!

Michael

Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere? Climate Change, Wealth and Liberty – Part 2 May 8, 2009

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Energy Policy, Green Activism, Sustainable Thinking, Uncategorized.
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In Part 1 of this post I summarized US and worldwide efforts to create legal standards to limit GHG emissions and described the political opposition to these efforts as based on a narrow conception of liberty, negative liberty, popular among conservatives over the last three decades.  I introduced two types of ethical system, deontology and utilitarianism as helpful in understanding the debates over climate legislation

The Supposed Wealth vs. Green Tradeoff
One of the more recent and cleverer arguments that counsel inaction on the climate is the notion that fossil fuel use is equivalent to social wealth and this wealth prevents more harm and maximizes more pleasure than the attempt to “go green” and slow global warming.  Originating with Bjorn Lomborg and now repeated by many, this argument is based on the narrower form of utilitarian ethics mentioned above that suggests a limited scope of knowledge about future events is wise; present pleasures and pain avoidance loom larger than dangers to future pleasures or the threat of future pain.
A version of the wealth vs. green tradeoff argument most recently available in a column of the New York Times by climate “skeptic” John Tierney, suggests that wealth both precedes and is a cause of the greening of an economy, with wealth premised on fossil fuel use.  The general structure of this argument is not new, as opponents of environmentalism have often portrayed environmental protection as a concern of the idle rich.  Tierney attempts to divert attention from government regulation’s effect on the greening of economies by suggesting that wealthy people start to care about their environment and that somehow from there we see through a presumed market effect more efficient and cleaner use of natural resources.  Many commenters to Tierney’s blog post (perhaps one positive is that Tierney’s opinionated views function as bait for commenters who actually know what they are talking about…but you have to dig to find them) are quick to point out that the relationship between wealth and environmental improvement is not linear and is initiated almost invariably by government regulations.  
Whatever the factual inaccuracies that both Tierney and Lomborg use to reinforce their positions there are some important issues related to fossil fuel use and development that need to be attended to in this discussion.  While Tierney and Lomborg counsel slow action or inaction on climate, many countries of the developing world accuse the West of a double standard in seeking to curb fossil fuel use and therefore some representatives of developing countries feel entitled to ramp up the use of fossil fuels to spur their own development.  Fossil fuels are energy “caviar”, very concentrated portable energy, stored in molecular form, that are still plentiful and fairly cheap in many areas of the world, though on a world historical scale will eventually become scarce. It is also true that all of the current industrial and now post-industrial powers have had access to and now still use fossil fuel to fuel their development.  Furthermore energy use of any kind at some level of energy-intensity is a hallmark of developed or rich countries; development and a society’s wealth can be defined as shifting from using human musclepower alone to using powered equipment to make useful products and deliver useful services.  Some commentators call this a shift from exclusively endosomatic (inside the body) to exosomatic (outside the body) energy. 
Lomborg styles himself to be a defender of the developing world in suggesting that getting rich by repeating the West’s development path is the highest priority for most of the world, while Tierney sees himself simply as a realist in suggesting that the sequence of events from fossil fuel use to greening the economy is a natural history.  However both are prey to a key fallacy that leads to their peculiar views, what might be called the “fallacy of continuity”.  Both Lomborg and Tierney assume that change and development happen as a continuous process: that the future is simply an incremental change from the past.  In this they are not alone as the U.N.’s International Energy Agency and US Energy Information Agency forecasts for energy use both show a similar tendency to stress continuity (continued growth in fossil fuel and renewable use in parallel) with regard for the climate protection goals enunciated by their sister agencies.  Both authors must show themselves to be utterly convinced that climate change will be moderate or insignificant in its effects.  And crucially both think that economic development will continue and must continue in the same way it has occurred in the past.  This leads Tierney, for instance, who almost always molds the data to suit his political framework, to overlook the “break points” in the history of environmental quality, when a regulation actually kicked in and reduced emissions or increased energy efficiency.   
Put another way, Lomborg and Tierney are, like the majority of financial analysts in 2006 and 2007, ignoring the twin “black swans” of climate change and the political and human reaction to climate change.  The term “black swan” has become popularized by writer and financial analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has pointed out how assumptions about randomness and normality led economists and business analysts to ignore unlikely events, a.k.a. “black swans”.  Assuming continuity, while seemingly the “conservative” option, is not always wise when a discontinuity is likely.  However, the attractions of keeping intact, in their own minds, their mental models and contrarian ethics keeps them discounting or ignoring these black swans.  And to make matters worse for Lomborg and Tierney, climate change and the reaction to climate change are not really “black” but at most “off-white” swans, as the data keeps pouring in about the seeming inevitability of both.
The fact is, that Lomborg and Tierney don’t know for sure, nor can they convince using reason rather than fear and innuendo, that 
1. Wealth will always and ever be associated with intensive fossil fuel use
2. The less developed countries are condemned or fated to repeat the West’s development path
Due to the threat of climate change, the likelihood is high that through intensive international cooperation a different development path or paths can be put together both for the already developed societies of the world and the developing societies.  Lomborg and Tierney both want to make these likely and preferable solutions seem less likely and less preferable for personal or political reasons that are unclear.  Certainly a contrarian stance enables one to attract media attention and sell books.  
But let’s not kid ourselves that we simply need to continue on a linear “pollution then greening” path that we have already started in the West and will spread to the developing world. As MIT Chemistry professor, Keith Nelson, ventures to comment on Tierney’s blog, the stemming of carbon dioxide emissions represents a challenge of a different magnitude than scrubbing out or removing traditional pollutants.  Nelson reminds us that the intended chemical reaction that releases energy from fossil fuels by necessity releases carbon dioxide, unlike the release of contaminants like sulfur dioxide or mercury. With 80-85% of worldwide energy use being attributable to fossil fuels, this means entering into another industrial revolution, either the third or the fourth depending on how you count these things.  
Tierney’s and Lomborg’s stance then means attempting to ignore or foreclose this oncoming revolution or the possibility of it before it really gets started.  Besides its denial of reality, the ethical fragility of this stance is evident when we see how the emerging technical details of our current development and technology, which are capable of launching us into this revolution, are denied or distorted by these two commentators.  While they grasp at the utilitarian justification that continuance of contemporary pleasures and pain avoidance associated with fossil fuel use justify ignoring the needed future transformation, this stance requires distortions of fact about the seriousness of climate change and how human will as expressed through government regulation and technical innovation have already gotten us a small portion of the way.
Risks of Change vs. Risks of Business as Usual
If ethical arguments are not Tierney’s and Lomborg’s forte, they are also relying on our natural risk averseness to send a message to their readers/listeners:  “don’t risk change, it’s not worth it.”  The subtle and not so subtle appeal to fear of change can paralyze those on the fence who otherwise might be spurred to action.  Faced with an extremely high probability of continuing disruption to the climate, people and governments, despite our natural conservativism, are girding for a long process by which societies change their emissions and energy systems.  While reassurances can be made that all our current satisfactions will remain in the same or similar form (i.e., from fossil-fueled mobility to an equal level of mobility largely fueled via renewable generated electricity) we cannot guarantee that the transition will be smooth and that no changes will occur.  Those who share Tierney and Lomborg’s position or similar, attempt to emphasize the potential loss of even the smallest convenience as paramount and more important than the gain of climate security and new forms of wealth.  
The risks of business as usual are even greater in terms of their consequences for the planet and our future pleasure and pain as well as in terms of the scope of choices that will be open to us and to our descendants.  Our attachment to our current pleasures seems so puny in comparison to the wholesale destruction of many of our future pleasures and pains and freedom to enjoy them.  In a way it seems unfair to compare these two risks, perhaps something that has aided Lomborg and Tierney, because opponents may hesitate to go at their main arguments.  
A final assumption that Lomborg and to a less extent Tierney communicate is that our current economic system and our satisfactions which support it are fragile and will not withstand green initiatives.  For them it is better to allow this fragile “beast” to continue on its way rather than to move aggressively to change our transport and energy systems.  However this position, again, normalizes inaction and ignores a history of vigorous efforts to change economies, some of which have had negative outcomes like those attempted by Mao in China and some which have had positive economic outcomes, like the building of the railways in the US, the Marshall Plan, the WWII mobilization in the US, the US Interstate system, and the Chinese government’s management of their economy after Deng Xiaoping.  To assume that continuity is the norm is to underestimate our adaptability and our ability to realize our best or at least better intentions when required.  
If what, according to the Stern report we would be facing at least a 20% drop in world GDP if we continue on our business as usual course, a few years of working out a transition to a greener, more sustainable economy would seem to be worth it.  However, the risk averse among us will remain unconvinced by anything that does not promise them the same satisfactions or even continuing enlargement of those satisfactions in a linear or geometric progression from today onward.
Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere?
To answer the question then of whether we are free to pollute requires, in the great tradition of philosophers and some politicians, to define what we mean by “free”.
The Existential Sense of “Free”
While existential sounds like a fancy word, it just means starting with the reality of human existence rather than from abstract principle.  This means “are we now able to” pollute in terms of taking the action now.
The answer is simply and disturbingly, “yes, we, as individuals with sufficient financial means can pollute the atmosphere”; we are now existentially free to pollute given that we have built an economic, transportation, agricultural and industrial system that is dependent on polluting the atmosphere as a free externality, i.e. dumping ground.  As we live in this worldwide system of interdependent economies, we are with somewhere close to 99% probability contributing more rather than less to the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases.
This means I am free to go out and drive my car around, as little or as much as I like, within my financial means and time available, able to buy products that are dependent on emissions within the same financial and time constraints, and able to do work that is dependent on these emissions.  
We are also existentially “free” to emit the more potent warming gases, synthetic CFCs, that still exist around us, though in this case we would be breaking laws in most states that regulate these chemicals, not for their warming potential but for their ozone depleting ability.
The Legal Sense of “Free”
Currently there are no laws on the books in the US that say that it is in any sense illegal to emit more or less carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, though synthetic greenhouse gases like CFCs are now heavily regulated in most countries.  A law prohibiting a certain type of greenhouse gas emissions or a cap and trade or other greenhouse gas legislation with an emissions limit (I prefer a carbon tax to the flawed cap and trade instrument for a number of reasons) would at least in theory draw a line beyond which people and organizations would NOT be free to emit naturally-occurring global warming gases into the atmosphere.  The legal “unfreedom” associated with this transgression would depend on the penalties involved in overstepping the legal limit on emissions or breaking the prohibition on a given type of emissions.
At this moment in time, prior to the implementation of either a legal rule or a law with a cap or allotment we are still legally free to emit as much or as little carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane as we like.
The Ethically Justified Sense of “Free”
Most important in designing laws or taking actions to reduce emissions is to clarify the ethical arguments that underlie our legal system and our willingness to comply with or even actively help co-create legal and economic arrangements that govern human-driven greenhouse gas emissions.  Ethics is not just the province of sticklers for rectitude or argumentative folk; we use and refer to our versions of ethical systems we carry around with us to make decisions about a myriad of daily activities.  Without a widely accepted public recognition that such laws are good and right according to widely-accepted norms or standards, they may not pass through legislatures or other institutions of government or if they pass they may not be able to be enforced or realized via shortages in funding.  
While the existential view avoids the introduction of universal principles of right and wrong before or after the fact, the ethical systems we have reviewed require either a priori principles or post-hoc analyses to determine right from wrong or better from worse.  Previously, we have already established that the only ethical justification for a continuation of business as usual in the use of fossil fuels comes from an extremely reduced version of utilitarian ethics that values the current pleasures and pains of a fraction of the world’s population and its continuance in the very near term over everyone else’s pleasures and pains.  Or, a more sophisticated version of this narrow utilitarian vision suggests that the world’s economic system and therefore it’s livelihood is premised on the undisturbed continuation of this particular balance of pleasures and pains and will not be able to withstand the regulation and mitigation efforts related to reducing greenhouse gases.
If we depart from this exceedingly narrow ethical universe, we will conclude that we are in ethical terms, not free to continue to pollute the atmosphere in excess of its capacity to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.   A reasonable deontological ethics would mandate that because of our duty to ourselves, to future generations and to those who now emit little in excess of these gases particularly in developing countries, we would need to cease in the shortest order possible.  If we expand the utilitarian perspective to take account of climate science and the expectable future pleasures and pains of our own and future generations, inaction on climate would also not lead to the happiest outcomes for the most people.  Therefore, from both a more complete utilitarian ethics or a deontological perspective that account for what is becoming common sense in the area of climate science, our existential freedom to use fossil fuels now is unethical.  Our current contemporary freedom to use these fuels interferes with the freedom of others to expand their wellbeing currently and most gravely the freedom of future generations to enjoy a decent livelihood.
Dangers of a “Climate Virtue Ethics”
Given the above conclusions, it would seem to be the most ethically justified path for individuals to cease as quickly as possible emitting fossil fuels so as not to impinge on our own future freedoms and those of others.  However an immediate cessation is often not practical and may not be desirable; despite this many of us may experience the need to purify ourselves in the pursuit of greater personal virtue.  
In addition to the deontological and utilitarian designs for ethical systems, there is additionally another parallel design for an ethical system that is called a “virtue ethics”.  A virtue ethics emphasizes that the good is that which encourages virtue and discourages non-virtuous character traits in people.  Virtues are traits of individuals and can be integrated with deontological systems of ethics most readily but also one can imagine that a utilitarian ethics has associated virtues (virtue being the capacity to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in oneself and one’s fellow beings).  Carbon pricing as the leading edge of climate and energy policy can be viewed, perhaps caricatured, as an attempt at a modern climate virtue ethics; the carbon price will encourage climate virtue in individual people and corporations and this will then spread to the social and economic systems in which we live.
The problem with a virtue ethics as a predominant operative ethical framework is that system and group effects of good and bad behaviors are discounted:  the promotion of and development of virtue is key.  This leads to an individualized ethical universe which may end up distorting the tasks ahead of us, many of which may need to be undertaken in coordination with other people and with many organizations working in concert.
Transitional Use of Fossil Fuels
If we believe that immediate cessation of use of fossil fuels, while virtuous on an individual level, is not optimal from the point of view of building a zero net-carbon society and economy, do we then necessarily arrive at Lomborg’s solution which councils slow or no action?  Lomborg suggests that we must remain “rich” which he equates with fossil fuel use and disregard for mounting GHG levels.
If we believe that a zero net carbon society will require a good deal of new electric infrastructure both for electricity generation and electric transportation, using fossil fuels, especially compressed natural gas to power the machinery that makes the zero-carbon infrastructure may be one important use for some of our remaining fossil fuels.  In this I differ with T. Boone Pickens who believes that we need a new natural gas fueling infrastructure to power freight transport in the next decades.  I believe it is possible to transition more quickly to electricity in the transport of most freight through electric rail or even electrified trolley trucking on major routes.  More important in my view, is the powering of the off-road machines like cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, and graders using a portable high concentration fuel until such time as these can be powered via electricity.  Therefore I would suggest that the ethically and technically optimal use of natural gas in the next couple decades would be to power off-road and off-grid machines building the zero-carbon infrastructure we will need. 
Even on a personal and individual level, if we would strand or reduce our personal “power” by not using fossil fuels in the next few years, it would appear that there would be slim ethical justification for doing so.  Even in a deontological ethics, one can and does have a duty to oneself to take care of oneself, even in the most group-oriented versions of such an ethical system, one does so in order to take care of others.
However, we would hope that governments and forward thinking private companies throughout the world will enable these transitional uses to “sunset” into more sustainable forms of energy use rapidly.  Otherwise the transitional use of fossil fuels will start to look ever more “Lomborgian”.
The Big Babies of Energy
If we contrast the amount of resistance and the many objections to climate legislation and action on renewable energy that are batted about the media and in political circles with the stark ethical case for decisive action, one leaves with the impression that our culture is incredibly tolerant of if not friendly towards an attitude of entitlement and short-sightedness.  In fact, that I have taken some pains to build strong ethical arguments against such flimsy positions is a sign that we normalize and accept thought and political leaders who lead us to an attitude of spoiled indulgence rather than realistic assessment of our options.  
Are we and they “big babies”?  Are we unable to buck up and face the tasks ahead knowing that perhaps, and just perhaps, there will be some sacrifice involved, along with giving birth to a new energy economy, the basis of a generally more sustainable new economy?  The gains are surely greater than the losses but we will over the next period of weeks and months hear again and again about the how terrible and dangerous the sacrifices that we will make will be.
It is too bad that the policy vehicle, cap and trade, which climate and energy action groups as well as legislators have picked is so flawed.  If there has been an unfortunately choice of emphasis, the general mission of those who support it is ethically justified, which is the focus here.  
To overcome or outgrow our “big baby”-hood will require not just a summoning of inner virtues on the part of dispersed individuals nor just pillorying the strongest advocates of our entitlement, but developing a clear-eyed view of the political and economic path ahead.  In my opinion, a full-scale mobilization of economic and political resources will be required, like that which occurred during the Second World War, that goes beyond the visions of carbon pricing advocates.  To halt our emissions at the level of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide or to return to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide as is now recommended, will require a coordinated effort that will be spurred both by things like price signals but also by coordinated efforts by governments and diverse industries.  I 

The Supposed Wealth vs. Green Tradeoff

While Lomborg and other critics of "green" point out how many advantages fossil fuels offer residents of the developed world.  Large cars, minivans, and SUVs have become key enablers of an extremely mobile lifestyle for families, allowing them to lead a hyperactive lifestyle, where much family life is conducted on the go.  An electric version of these vans is just a few years away.

Lomborg and other critics of "green" point out how many advantages fossil fuels offer residents of the developed world. Large cars, minivans, and SUVs have become key enablers of an extremely mobile lifestyle for families, allowing them to lead a hyper-mobile lifestyle, where much family life is conducted on the go. Electric or plug-in hybrid versions of these people carriers are just a few years away, so this lifestyle or some future version of it may gradually become independent of fossil fuels.

One of the more recent and cleverer arguments that counsel inaction on the climate is the notion that fossil fuel use is equivalent to social wealth and this wealth prevents more harm and maximizes more pleasure than the attempt to “go green” and slow global warming.  Popularized by Bjorn Lomborg and now repeated by many, this argument is based on the narrower form of utilitarian ethics mentioned in Part 1 that suggests a limited scope of knowledge about future events is wise; present pleasures and pain avoidance loom larger than dangers to future pleasures or the threat of future pain.

A version of the wealth vs. green tradeoff argument most recently available in a column of the New York Times by climate “skeptic” John Tierney, suggests that wealth both precedes and is a cause of the greening of an economy, with wealth premised on fossil fuel use.  The general structure of this argument is not new, as opponents of environmentalism have often portrayed environmental protection as a concern of the idle rich or at least inessential to economic growth.  Tierney attempts to divert attention from government regulation’s effect on the greening of economies by suggesting that wealthy people start to care about their environment and that somehow from there we see, through a presumed market effect, more efficient and cleaner use of natural resources.  Many commenters to Tierney’s blog post (perhaps one positive is that Tierney’s opinionated views function as bait for commenters who actually know what they are talking about…but you have to dig to find them) are quick to point out that the relationship between wealth and environmental improvement is not linear and is initiated almost invariably by government regulations.  

Whatever the factual inaccuracies that both Tierney and Lomborg use to reinforce their positions there are some important issues related to fossil fuel use and development that need to be attended to in this discussion.  While Tierney and Lomborg counsel slow action or inaction on climate, many countries of the developing world accuse the West of a double standard in seeking to curb fossil fuel use and therefore some representatives of developing countries feel entitled to ramp up the use of fossil fuels to spur their own development.  Fossil fuels are energy “caviar”, very concentrated portable energy, stored in molecular form, that are still plentiful and fairly cheap in many areas of the world, though on a world historical scale will eventually become scarce. It is also true that all of the current industrial and now post-industrial powers have had access to and now still use fossil fuel to fuel their development.  Furthermore energy use of any kind at some level of energy-intensity is a hallmark of developed or rich countries; development and a society’s wealth can be defined as shifting from using human musclepower alone to using powered equipment to make useful products and deliver useful services.  Some commentators call this a shift from exclusively endosomatic (inside the body) to exosomatic (outside the body) energy. 

While leapfrogging the use of coal to power industrial development is one of top global priorities in the area of climate.  The fatalism of climate "skeptics" is not going to get us close to a solution.

Leapfrogging the use of coal to power industrial development in places like China and India is one of top global priorities in the area of climate. The fatalism of climate "skeptics" is not going to get us close to a solution.

Lomborg styles himself to be a defender of the developing world in suggesting that getting rich by repeating the West’s development path is the highest priority for most of the world, while Tierney sees himself simply as a realist in suggesting that the sequence of events from fossil fuel use to greening the economy is a natural history.  However both are prey to a key fallacy that leads to their peculiar views, what might be called the “fallacy of continuity”.  Both Lomborg and Tierney assume that change and development happen as a continuous process: that the future is simply an incremental change from the past.  In this they are not alone as the U.N.’s International Energy Agency and US Energy Information Agency forecasts for energy use both show a similar tendency to stress continuity (continued growth in fossil fuel and renewable use in parallel) with regard for the climate protection goals enunciated by their sister agencies.  Both authors must show themselves to be utterly convinced that climate change will be moderate or insignificant in its effects.  And crucially both think that economic development will continue and must continue in the same way it has occurred in the past.  This leads Tierney, for instance, who almost always selects those snippets of data that suit his political framework, to overlook the “break points” in the history of environmental quality, when a regulation actually kicked in and reduced emissions or increased energy efficiency.   

While climate change appears to be "black swan" to those who assume continuity with the past, in actual fact it is at most a grey or off-white swan, i.e. not much of a surprise anymore.  The degree to which scientific findings are given their due is correlated with the degree of surprise accorded climate change and the need for action on it.

While climate change appears to be "black swan" to those who assume continuity with the past, in actual fact it is at most a grey or off-white swan, i.e. not much of a surprise anymore. The degree to which scientific findings are viewed as valid and important by different political cultures is correlated with the degree of surprise accorded climate change and the need for action on it.

Put another way, Lomborg and Tierney are, like the majority of financial analysts in 2006 and 2007, ignoring the twin “black swans” of climate change and the political and human reaction to climate change.  The term “black swan” has become popularized by writer and financial analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has pointed out how assumptions about randomness and normality led economists and business analysts to ignore unlikely events, a.k.a. “black swans”.  Assuming continuity, while seemingly the “conservative” option, is not always wise when a discontinuity is likely.  However, the attractions of keeping intact, in their own minds, their mental models and contrarian ethics keeps them discounting or ignoring these black swans.  And to make matters worse for Lomborg and Tierney, climate change and the reaction to climate change are not really “black” at all but at most “off-white” swans, as the data keeps pouring in about the seeming inevitability of both.  

The fact is, that Lomborg and Tierney don’t know for sure, nor can they convince using reason rather than fear and innuendo, that 

1. Wealth will always and ever be associated with intensive fossil fuel use

2. Less developed countries are condemned or fated to repeat the West’s development path

Due to the threat of climate change, the likelihood is high that through intensive international cooperation a different development path or paths can be organized both for the already developed societies of the world and the developing societies, though not without monumental effort.  Lomborg and Tierney both want to make these likely and preferable solutions seem less likely and less preferable for personal or political reasons that are unclear.  Certainly a contrarian stance enables one to attract media attention and sell books.  

Acid rain, a result of sulfur dioxide emissions from coal generation plants, comes from impurities in coal not the carbon in coal itself.  The scrubbing of emissions is at least one order of magnitude less challenging a problem than eliminating the emissions of carbon dioxide entirely, which is the "intended" chemical result of burning all fossil fuels.

Acid rain, a result of sulfur dioxide emissions from coal generation plants, comes from impurities in coal not the carbon in coal itself. The scrubbing of emissions is at least one order of magnitude less challenging a problem than eliminating the emissions of carbon dioxide entirely, which is the "intended" chemical result of burning all fossil fuels.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we simply need to continue on a linear “pollution then greening” path that we have already started in the West and will spread to the developing world. As MIT Chemistry professor, Keith Nelson, reminds us in a comment on Tierney’s blog, the stemming of carbon dioxide emissions represents a challenge of a different magnitude than scrubbing out or removing traditional pollutants.  Nelson reminds us that the intended chemical reaction that releases energy from fossil fuels by necessity releases carbon dioxide, unlike the release of contaminants like sulfur dioxide or mercury. With 80-85% of worldwide energy use being attributable to fossil fuels, this means entering into another industrial revolution, either the third or the fourth depending on how you count these things.  

Tierney’s and Lomborg’s stance is then to ignore or foreclose this oncoming technological revolution or the possibility of it before it really gets started.  Besides its denial of reality, the ethical fragility of this stance is evident when we see how the emerging outlines of this revolution are denied or distorted by these two commentators.  While they grasp at the utilitarian justification that continuing contemporary pleasures and pain avoidance associated with fossil fuel use justify ignoring the needed future transformation, this stance requires distortions of fact about the seriousness of climate change and how human will as expressed through government regulation and technical innovation have already gotten us a small portion of the way.

Risks of Change vs. Risks of Business as Usual

In this famous Monty Python sketch, a timid public accountant wants to go into lion-taming but decides after considering that he would be facing large carnivorous beasts, that he doesn't really want to do it.  Our choices present a lot less risk to us than this fictional choice, but we need to put the right policy instruments in place to be able to transition to a new energy economy.

In this famous Monty Python sketch, a timid public accountant wants to go into lion-taming but decides, after considering that he would be facing large carnivorous beasts, that he doesn't really want to do it. Our choices present a lot less risk to us than this fictional choice, but we need to put the right policy instruments in place to be able to transition to a new energy economy.

If ethical arguments are not Tierney’s and Lomborg’s strengths, they are also relying on our natural risk averseness to send a message to their readers/listeners:  “don’t risk change, it’s not worth it.”  The subtle and not so subtle appeal to fear of change can paralyze those on the fence who otherwise might be spurred to action.  Faced with an extremely high probability of continuing disruption to the climate, people and governments, despite our natural conservativism, are girding for a long process by which societies change their emissions and energy systems.  While reassurances can be made that all our current satisfactions will remain in the same or similar form (i.e., from fossil-fueled mobility to an equal level of mobility largely fueled via renewable generated electricity) we cannot guarantee that the transition will be smooth and that no changes will occur.  Those who share Tierney and Lomborg’s position or similar, attempt to emphasize the potential loss of even the smallest convenience as paramount and more important than the gain of climate security and new forms of wealth.  

The risks of business as usual are even greater in terms of their consequences for the planet and our future pleasure and pain as well as in terms of the scope of choices that will be open to us and to our descendants.  Our attachment to our current pleasures seems so puny in comparison to the wholesale destruction of many of our future pleasures and pains and freedom to enjoy them.  In a way it seems unfair to compare these two risks, perhaps something that has aided Lomborg and Tierney, because opponents may hesitate to go at their main arguments.  No one wants to be a scold but sometimes…

A final assumption that Lomborg and to a less extent Tierney communicate is that our current economic system and our satisfactions which support it are fragile and will not survive green initiatives.  For them it is better to allow this, in their accounts, fragile “beast” to continue on its way rather than to move aggressively to change our transport and energy systems.  However this position, again, normalizes inaction and ignores a history of vigorous efforts to change economies, some of which have had negative outcomes and some which have had positive economic outcomes, like the building of the railways in the US, the Marshall Plan, the WWII mobilization in the US, the US Interstate system, and the Chinese government’s management of the PRC’s economy after Deng Xiaoping.  To assume that continuity is the norm is to underestimate our adaptability and our ability to realize our best or at least better intentions when required.  

If what, according to the Stern Review we would be facing a 20% drop in world GDP if we continue on our “business as usual” course, a few years of working out a transition to a greener, more sustainable economy would seem to be worth it.  However, the risk averse among us will remain unconvinced by anything that does not promise them the same satisfactions or even continuing enlargement of those satisfactions in a linear or geometric progression from today onward.

Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere?

To answer the question then of whether we are free to pollute requires, in the great tradition of philosophers and some politicians, to define what we mean by “free”.

The Existential Sense of “Free”

Because of the nature of the energy infrastructure we depend on in the developed and developing countries, most of us have the existential freedom to pollute the atmosphere by exercising our ability to use fossil fuels to enhance our mobility.  Concerted effort will be required to transform this infrastructure so we will have the choice to enjoy powered mobility and not pollute the atmosphere.

Because of the nature of the energy infrastructure we depend on in the developed and developing countries, most of us unfortunately have the existential freedom to pollute the atmosphere by exercising our ability to use fossil fuels to enhance our mobility. Concerted effort will be required to transform this infrastructure so we will have the choice to enjoy powered mobility and not pollute the atmosphere.

While existential sounds like a fancy word, it just means starting with the reality of human existence rather than from abstract principle.  This means “are we now able to” pollute in terms of taking the action now.

The answer is simply and disturbingly, “yes, we, as individuals with sufficient financial means can pollute the atmosphere”; we are now existentially free to pollute given that we have built an economic, transportation, agricultural and industrial system that is dependent on polluting the atmosphere as a free externality, i.e. dumping ground.  As we in developed and rapidly developing countries live in this worldwide system of interdependent economies, we are with somewhere close to 99% probability contributing more rather than less to the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases.

This means I am free to go out and drive my car around, as little or as much as I like, within my financial means and time available, able to buy products that are dependent on emissions within the same financial and time constraints, and able to do work that is dependent on these emissions.  

We are also existentially “free” to emit the more potent warming gases, synthetic CFCs, that still exist around us, though in this case we would be breaking laws in most states that regulate these chemicals, not for their warming potential but for their ozone depleting ability.

The Legal Sense of “Free”

Currently there are no federal laws on the books in the US that say that it is in any sense illegal to emit more or less carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, though synthetic greenhouse gases like CFCs are now heavily regulated here and in most countries.  For power companies in New England, the RGGI cap and trade system has started its first compliance period on the first of this year, which means that these companies will attempt to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 10% by 2018.  An economy-wide law prohibiting a certain type of greenhouse gas emissions or a cap and trade or other greenhouse gas legislation with an emissions limit would at least in theory draw a line beyond which people and organizations would NOT be free to emit naturally-occurring global warming gases into the atmosphere.  The legal “unfreedom” associated with this transgression would depend on the penalties involved in overstepping the legal limit on emissions or breaking the prohibition on a given type of emissions.

At this moment in time, prior to the implementation of either a legal rule or a law with a cap or allotment we are still legally free to emit as much or as little carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane as we like.

The Ethically Justified Sense of “Free”

An important element in designing effective laws or taking actions to reduce emissions is to clarify the ethical bases of these laws and actions.  Ethics is not just the province of legal or ethical specialists; everybody uses and refers to our personal versions of ethical systems we carry around with us to make decisions about a myriad of daily activities.  Without a widely accepted public recognition that new laws are good and right according to widely-accepted norms or standards, they may not pass through legislatures or other institutions of government or if they pass they may not be able to be enforced or realized via shortages in funding, as politicians must in some way make reference to ethical arguments in building coalitions in the legislature or figuring out how to appeal to the public.  

While the existential view avoids the introduction of universal principles of right and wrong before or after the fact, the ethical systems we have reviewed require either a priori principles or post-hoc analyses to determine right from wrong or better from worse.  Previously, we have already established that the only ethical justification for a continuation of business as usual in the use of fossil fuels comes from an extremely reduced version of utilitarian ethics that values the current pleasures and pains of a fraction of the world’s population and its continuance in the very near term over everyone else’s pleasures and pains.  Or, a more sophisticated version of this narrow utilitarian vision suggests that the world’s economic system and therefore it’s livelihood is premised on the undisturbed continuation of this particular balance of pleasures and pains and will not be able to withstand the regulation and mitigation efforts related to reducing greenhouse gases.

If we depart from this exceedingly narrow ethical universe, we will conclude that we are in ethical terms, definitely not free to continue to pollute the atmosphere in excess of its capacity to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.   A reasonable deontological ethics would mandate that because of our duty to ourselves, to future generations and to those who now emit little in excess of these gases particularly in developing countries, we would need to cease in the shortest order possible.  If we expand the utilitarian perspective to take account of climate science and the expectable future pleasures and pains of our own and future generations, inaction on climate would also not lead to the happiest outcomes for the most people.  Therefore, from both a more complete utilitarian ethics or a deontological perspective that account for what is becoming common sense in the area of climate science, our existential freedom to use fossil fuels now is unethical.  Our current contemporary freedom to use these fuels interferes with the freedom of others to expand their wellbeing currently and most gravely the freedom of future generations to enjoy a decent livelihood.

Limits of a “Climate Virtue-Ethics”

Living off grid can be a personal expression of a commitment to nature and the climate.  More commonly people, in accord with a climate virtue ethics, true to make their "on-grid" life as green as possible.  Even though personal virtue should be encouraged, there are limits to what individual independent action can do.

Living off grid can be a personal expression of a commitment to nature and the climate. More commonly people, in accord with a climate virtue ethics, try to make their "on-grid" life as green as possible. Even though personal virtue should be encouraged, there are limits to what individuals can do on their own, especially if incentives and physical infrastructure are in place that encourage people to use more carbon intensive goods and services.

Given the above conclusions, it would seem to be the most righteous path for individuals to cease as quickly as possible emitting fossil fuels so as not to impinge on our own future freedoms and those of others.  However an immediate cessation is often not practical and may not be desirable; despite this many of us may experience the need to purify ourselves in the pursuit of greater personal virtue.  

In addition to the deontological and utilitarian designs for ethical systems, there is additionally another parallel design for an ethical system that is called a “virtue ethics”.  A virtue ethics emphasizes that the good is that which encourages virtue and discourages non-virtuous character traits in people.  Virtues are prized traits of individuals; virtues can originate in or correspond to deontological systems of ethics most readily (e.g. honesty = following the rule of telling the truth).  Carbon pricing as the leading edge of climate and energy policy can be viewed, perhaps caricatured, as an attempt at a modern climate virtue ethics; the carbon price will encourage climate virtue in individual people and corporations and this will then spread to the social and economic systems in which we live.

The problem with a virtue ethics as a predominant operative ethical framework is that system- and group effects of good and bad behaviors and differences in influence are discounted:  the promotion of and development of virtue individual by individual remains key.  This leads to an individualized ethical universe which may end up distorting the tasks ahead of us, many of which may need to be undertaken in coordination with other people and with many organizations working in concert.  A virtue ethics overlooks the indirect or follow-on effects of people in groups or living in society.

Transitional Use of Fossil Fuels

If we believe that immediate cessation of use of fossil fuels, while virtuous on an individual level, is not optimal from the point of view of building a zero net-carbon society and economy, do we then necessarily arrive at Lomborg’s solution which councils slow or no action?  Lomborg suggests that we must remain or become “rich” which he equates with fossil fuel use and disregard for mounting GHG levels.

 

Some immense off road machines like this mining truck or tunnel boring machines use grid electricity but move fairly slowly or over well-defined paths.  For mobile machines building the electric energy infrastructure we need, using compressed natural gas may be one cleaner alternative to diesel.

Some immense off road machines like this mining truck or tunnel boring machines are powered by grid electricity through trolleys or cables but move fairly slowly or over well-defined paths. For mobile machines building the electric energy infrastructure we need, using compressed natural gas may be one cleaner alternative to diesel.

Those who believe as I do that a zero net carbon society will require a good deal of new electric infrastructure both for electricity generation and electric transportation, using fossil fuels, especially compressed natural gas to power the off-road machinery that helps build the zero-carbon infrastructure may be one important use for some of our remaining fossil fuels.  In this I differ with T. Boone Pickens who believes that we need an entire new natural gas fueling infrastructure to power freight transport in the next decades.  I believe it is possible to transition more quickly to electricity in the transport of most freight through electric rail and other means.  More important in my view, is the powering of the off-road machines like cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, and graders using a portable high concentration fuel until such time as these can be powered via electricity.  Therefore I would suggest that the ethically and technically optimal use of natural gas in the next couple decades would be to power off-road and off-grid machines building the zero-carbon infrastructure we will need. 

Even on a personal and individual level, if we would strand or reduce our personal “power” by not using fossil fuels in the next few years, it would appear that there would be slim ethical justification for doing so.  Even in a deontological ethics, one can and does have a duty to oneself to take care of oneself, even in the most group-oriented versions of such an ethical system, one does so in order to take care of others.

However, we would hope that governments and forward thinking private companies throughout the world will enable these transitional uses to “sunset” into more sustainable forms of energy use rapidly, let’s say within 5 or 10 years.  Otherwise the transitional use of fossil fuels will start to look ever more “Lomborgian” and weak in its commitment to facing the challenge.  

Changing the Energy System

Houses such as this 4-car in Arizona are designed and sited in a way that with our current energy infrastructure demands intensive fossil fuel energy use.  Luckily Arizona has enormous sustainable energy potential but it will require leaders and consumers to commit themselves to a sustainable energy course, "weening" themselves from fossil fueled transport and electric generation..

Houses such as this 4-bedroom house with a 4-car garage in Arizona are designed and sited in a way that with our current energy infrastructure demands intensive fossil fuel energy use. Luckily Arizona has enormous sustainable energy potential but it will require leaders and consumers to commit themselves to a sustainable energy course, "weening" themselves from fossil fueled transport and electric generation..

If we contrast the amount of resistance and the many objections to climate legislation and action on renewable energy that are batted about the media and in political circles with the stark ethical case for decisive action, one is left with the impression that our culture is incredibly tolerant of if not friendly towards an attitude of entitlement and short-sightedness.  In fact, that I have taken some pains here to build strong ethical arguments against such flimsy positions is a sign that we normalize and accept thought and political leaders who lead us to an attitude of spoiled indulgence rather than realistic assessment of our options.  

Are we “spoiled” and lazy?  Are we unable to buck up and face the tasks ahead knowing that perhaps, and just perhaps, there will be some sacrifice involved, along with building a new energy economy, the basis of a more sustainable new economy?  The gains are surely greater than the losses but we will over the next period of months and years hear again and again about the how terrible and dangerous the sacrifices that we will make will be.

It is too bad that the policy vehicle, cap and trade, which climate and energy action groups as well as legislators have picked is so flawed.  If there has been an unfortunate choice of emphasis, the general mission of those who support it is ethically justified, which is the focus here.  

To overcome or outgrow our dependence on fossil energy will require not just a summoning of inner virtues on the part of dispersed individuals nor just lambasting the strongest advocates of our dependence, but developing a clear view of the political and economic path ahead.  In my opinion, a full-scale mobilization of economic and political resources will be required, like that which occurred during the Second World War, which goes beyond the visions of carbon pricing advocates.  To halt our emissions at the level of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide or to return to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide as is now recommended, will require a coordinated effort that will be spurred both by price signals but also by combined efforts by governments and diverse industrial sectors.  

Carbon Pricing is Just One Piece of the Puzzle: Towards a Comprehensive Climate and Energy Policy – Part 5 (of 5) February 26, 2009

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Green Activism, Green Building, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking.
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In the first three parts of this long piece (one, two, three), I outlined how our economic common sense has changed since the economic crisis of late 2008; monetarism/supply-side economics has given way to some newer version of Keynesianism.  I went on to claim that a primary focus on carbon pricing shows traces of the idealized vision of the market that one finds in the “free market” schools of economics; climate activists have pinned most of their hopes on carbon pricing to remedy the singular catastrophic market failure of unaccounted-for carbon emissions.  In part 4, I pointed out that there are two other important market failures which block effective action on climate in the US and elsewhere.  We then have the following list of market failures that are relevant to climate and energy policy:

  1. Externalization of costs of climate change attributable to carbon emissions
  2. Externalization of costs of infrastructure building and maintenance and high fixed capital costs of long-term private capital investment
    1. Deployment of capital intensive clean energy technologies
    2. Coordination of management and finance of upgrades to electric grid.
    3. Re-design and electrification of transport infrastructure
  3. Externalization of costs of scientific research and development

Outline of a Comprehensive Climate and Energy Policy

A comprehensive climate and energy policy is motivated by the emerging crisis in our climate, as we are rapidly approaching tipping points in the self-regulatory processes of our climate system.  Significant melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets will increase the absorption of the sun's radiation and spur further warming.

A comprehensive climate and energy policy is motivated by the emerging crisis in our climate, as fossil carbon in the atmosphere is unbalancing the self-regulatory processes of the climate system. Significant melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets will increase the absorption of the sun's radiation and spur further warming.

A comprehensive climate and energy policy can allow for differentiated roles for national states, regional and local governments, and for private businesses and individuals with differing potential contributions to reducing carbon emissions and building a 21st century sustainable economy.  Thus a view of economies as not just a uniform collection of individual actors responding to a pricing regime makes the picture more complex but also potentially more effective.

Assumptions

  1. A reversal in emissions trends is necessary within the next 5 years
  2. Sharp reductions in emissions are necessary within the next 10 years
  3. A “glide path” to zero net emissions needs to be entered into within the next 3 years, there is no time for commitment to new long-lasting infrastructure with incremental reductions.
  4. The US and the world population are generally not yet ready to pay anything more than a fraction of the externalized cost of current carbon emissions.
  5. Uncertainties and changes in economic theory and assumptions require an examination of the degree to which climate policy contains disputed assumptions about economic behavior change and investment behavior.
  6. Government policy and leaders have a key role in addressing failures of the market to respond to challenges both internal to and external to the market.
  7. Costs and benefits of government policies and expenditures must be adequately explained and accounted for by policymakers and political leaders.
  8. The economically stimulative effects and benefits of a comprehensive policy will either match or exceed its net costs for the United States, involving outlays and revenues in the area of several trillion dollars over the period of a decade.


“Traditional” Regulation (partially addresses “Market Failure 1”)

The power sector is particularly used to and suited to traditional regulation as the building and maintenance of power plants is highly regulated in almost every country in the world.  The private companies that operate power plants and utilities see regulation and regulators as just one cost and part of their business.

The power sector is particularly used to and suited to traditional regulation as the building and maintenance of power plants is highly regulated in almost every country in the world. New regulations are sometimes feared and resisted but enough pressure and negotiation can make most rules effective in ways that are more difficult in other economic sectors.

If governments can and at times must take a leadership role in managing the economy, they can do so in part by imposing laws that are in our long-term benefit.   Especially if ample consideration is made of the resulting costs and administrative overhead required to implement laws and new rules, these new rules can remove long-standing barriers to making progress in the area of energy, energy efficiency and climate protections.

We have seen that carbon pricing was proposed as a means of avoiding some of the supposed bureaucratic drawbacks of traditional regulation.  As it turns out in the case of sulphur dioxide that traditional regulation that dictated the installation of emissions scrubbers was, in some countries, more effective than the US cap and trade system in reducing acid rain pollution.  In addition to a fascination with a particular partial economic model, relying on carbon pricing alone might be simply an abdication of the authority of government in the face of resistance by industry.  Sometimes leaders need to “put their foot down”, if there is an overwhelming case to be made for new rules made and administered wisely.

  1. Coal Plant Moratorium – The primary regulation that must be a part of a comprehensive climate and energy policy is a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and sequestration.  If power utilities find this onerous, they must lobby for regulations and subsidies that make this possible for them on all levels of their businesses.  There is no time to wait for the erection of a carbon pricing system to “suggest” that this should happen through an array of artfully calibrated disincentives.
  2. Utility Revenue Decoupling – An additional key regulation that is often overlooked is decoupling the revenues of investor-owned power utilities from the amount of energy sales, which is the regulatory regime in California.  This allows power utilities to participate in energy efficiency projects as it carries with it a fairly significant financial incentive for them to cut energy use by end users as they receive higher power rates the subsequent year from the public utilities commission if they have achieved their goals.
  3. National Building Codes that Meet or Exceed California Title 24 – California has led the nation in energy efficiency requirements for new buildings and renovations with its Title 24 standard.  A much more ambitious standard that would require a revolution in the home construction and renovation industry in the US would be to adopt the passive house standard in which space conditioning costs are slashed by 80 to 90%.  Additionally “smart codes” may help urban planners and developers site and build buildings and communities with lower total energy requirements by developing “in-fill”.
  4. National Renewable Electricity Standard (as Target) –  The adoption of a percentage minimum renewable energy for the national electric grid– is productive as long as it is
    1. ambitious (25% or greater by 2020),
    2. paired with substantial finance support for renewable energy,
    3. a rising percentage of renewable energy projects are built as replacements for fossil resources (dispatchable or synchronous with power demand)
    4. is pro-rated based on renewable resource base per region thereby balancing risk between regions dependent on their resource wealth.
  5. This "passive house" in not so sunny Germany uses high performance windows, very tight construction, super-insulation, and a ventilation system that keeps interior air fresh without losing much heat or cool.  Sunlight, heat from appliances, and people keep these houses warm on all but the coldest days and cool in the summer.  Using passive houses in the US would slash heating and cooling costs by 80% or more.

    This "passive house" in Germany uses high performance windows, very tight construction, super-insulation, and a high-throughput ventilation system that keeps indoor air fresh without the need for much re-heating or re-cooling. Sunlight, heat from appliances, and people keep these houses warm on all but the coldest days and shading, insulation and the ventilation system keeps out hot air in the summer. Building or renovating homes and commercial buildings to passive house standards in the US would slash heating and cooling costs by 80% or more.

    National Energy Efficiency Standards – Utilities and government can be mandated to cut energy use by an aggressive percentage per 4 year period (10-15%).  As in California, a portion of electric rates collected can be used to pay for a portion of the efficiency upgrades in the form of rebates.   Additionally the Energy Star program and minimum efficiency standards for hard goods should be expanded and made more aggressive. A carbon price can hasten the implementation of an efficiency standard by raising the price of energy.

  6. Aggressive Auto Efficiency Standard (CAFE) – Without high fuel prices, auto efficiency standards are difficult to impose as buyers tend to demand larger, less efficient vehicles.  Still, an efficiency standard can create targets based on engineering best practices that may help automakers plan their auto line as well as function as a public expression of intent.

From a position of government authority but responsiveness about the imposed costs and implementation path, governments can generate new direct regulations that may be as effective or more effective than existing instruments.  If we believe that government has a regulatory role in financial markets, it makes sense to consider how effective rule-making by the government has in the past and can continue to spur economic progress in the area of energy.

Effective Carbon Pricing (partially addresses “Market Failure 1”)

If we take away the expectation that carbon pricing will across the board address all key issues related to a future looking carbon policy, we can more easily define the parameters that would make a carbon pricing system effective.  A carbon pricing model assumes a market of independent actors who have choices to make as to how to structure their business and private lives, which the price will influence to emit less carbon.  Secondarily, depending on a still unfinished political process, the collected revenues may either function to displace other taxes, return a dividend or finance clean energy projects.  The following then should be criteria by which the effectiveness of a carbon pricing policy should be judged (all carbon pricing systems will not qualify for every criterion):

  1. Noticeably effects the price of fossil energy, carbon intensive products, carbon emitting activities and land-use practices whether in or outside the current market.  Must inflict some economic “pain” in its first edition in order to be effective and this pain has to have information value for market participants.
  2. Through this pricing. increases the desirability of lower or non-carbon emitting activities and products
  3. Enables effective choice of a broadening category of lower carbon alternatives on economic grounds alone
  4. Signals a will to curb carbon emissions among the leadership, and additionally inspiring voluntary “above and beyond” cuts in carbon emissions.
  5. Creates a competition between carbon emitters to emit less than their peers.
  6. Generates a revenue stream and incentive structure for allowing movement towards or maintenance of carbon sequestering land use practices
  7. Enables an international trade in or regulation of trade of carbon equivalents
  8. Would dampen or eliminate price volatility in the carbon price to enable effective investment planning on the basis of the carbon price and/or the revenues generated therefrom.
  9. Progressively raises carbon price in a planned sequence to exert pressure for further emissions cuts.
  10. Creates or energizes the market for carbon-emissions reducing innovations, spurring research and development.
  11. Is directly adjustable by regulators/legislators to enable the system to learn from experience.
  12. Is not so onerous to the taxpayers/consumers that it becomes politically vulnerable (this is partly a function of public outreach about the link between climate change, carbon pricing, and economic development as well as design of the system)

Carbon Pricing Instruments

At a House Ways and Means committee hearing earlier today, the options associated with carbon pricing instruments were not fully laid out for lawmakers to review the interlocking parts and options available.  The packages that were presented were “cap and investment” and “tax and dividend”…these are not the only options, policymakers can mix and match depending on how they weight the above criteria.

Pricing Determination and Administration

  1. Carbon Tax

    Grover Norquist, inspired by Ronald Reagan, is one of the main anti-tax activists in the United States.  Attitudes about the value and meaning of taxation have a had profound impact on the formulation of climate policies, including the selection of an instrument to administer the carbon price.

    Grover Norquist, inspired by Ronald Reagan, is one of the most influential anti-tax activists in the United States. Attitudes about the value and meaning of taxation have a had profound impact on the formulation of climate policies, including the selection of an instrument to administer the carbon price. The success of libertarians like Norquist in branding taxation as an almost total loss to individuals and their wealth has until recently been almost total.

  2. Cap and Trade – There are many variations to cap and trade — it is an exceedingly complex instrument and outlining all permutations goes beyond the scope of this analysis.
    1. Full Auction of Permits
    2. Partial Auction/Partial give-away
    3. Full give-away of permits (no price)
  3. “Hybrid” Cap and Trade (Price Ceiling and Floor for Permits) – a hybrid of a cap and trade and a carbon tax stabilizing the carbon price in a range.

The selection of the carbon price administration mechanism will emerge from political negotiations between the different interest groups involved.

Revenue Distribution

Any of the above instruments can be mated with any combination of the below mechanisms to distribute the revenue from either permit auctions or tax collection.  There is no inherent relationship of the carbon tax or the cap and trade systems with any particular means to use the resulting funds collected.

  1. Carbon-Emissions Mitigating Investment – devotes the proceeds of the program to emissions reduction
  2. Partial or Complete Dividend – attempts to soften the effect of rising energy and goods prices by returning revenue on a per capita basis
  3. Displacement of other Taxes/Revenue Streams – phasing out a payroll or other taxes by using carbon revenues.
  4. Need-based Dividend or Investment – focal efforts to soften the impact of carbon pricing by either a dividend mechanism or targeted investment in energy efficiency for the neediest.

The selection of the distribution mechanism has everything to do with the political design of the ultimate carbon pricing program and how it is introduced to voters and consumers.  The potential complexity of both the resulting instrument and the process by which we will arrive there makes reliance only on carbon pricing a politically risky maneuver for people who are concerned about protecting the climate.

Design, Fund, Incentivize Zero- and Lower Carbon Infrastructure and Fixed Capital Investment (Addresses Market Failure “2”)

While it would have been preferable for governments to have engaged in a full scale “countercyclical” policy of collecting tax revenue during the boom years of the last few decades to reduce debt, we are now facing a period in which it is “do or die” for economies to stimulate demand, restructure their financial systems, and halt the slide into a Global Great Depression II.  Engaging in deficit spending to build or expand existing infrastructure to halt rising carbon emissions is a worthwhile cause to risk future inflation for current and mid-term economic and environmental benefits.  Some private capital may be organized to build some of this infrastructure but with significant

The Obama Administration's stimulus package has already found a "shovel-ready" renewable energy infrastructure project in building out the transmission system of the federally owned Bonneville Power Administration to serve new wind farms in the Northwest.  Bonneville is one of a number of federal agencies that already own transmission leading from the system of federally owned dams in the West.  The National Unified Smart Grid will in all probability be partly federally owned and part privately owned.

The Obama Administration's stimulus package has already found a "shovel-ready" renewable energy infrastructure project in building out the transmission system of the federally owned Bonneville Power Administration to serve new wind farms in the Northwest. Bonneville is one of a number of federal agencies that already own transmission leading from the system of federally owned dams in the West. Bonneville's transmission system will most probably form part of the basis of the National Unified Smart Grid, which in all probability will be part government owned and partly owned by private investors.

Different countries and regions have different infrastructure needs but for the US the following projects would add value to communities as well as represent a significant economic stimulus.   China is currently pushing ahead with a much more aggressive infrastructure program than the US, including rail building.  The selection of projects should be based on transparent criteria that include both needs assessment and short, medium and long-term cost/benefit analysis:

  1. Build an electrified passenger and freight rail network for the US
    1. Create a national rail plan that allows efficient co-mingling of freight and passenger rail along existing and new, non-HSR rail lines
    2. Grade separate existing rail lines (with multiple positive externalities associated) in high traffic areas.
    3. Build a high speed rail (HSR) network along high traffic corridors
  2. Incentivize and create the regulatory structures to build a National Unified Smart Grid to link renewable energy zones to demand centers; most likely there will be a mixture of public and private ownership of transmission.
  3. Incentivize the building of renewable electric generators through secure, premium wholesale electricity rates (Renewable Energy Payments).
  4. Rebate and tax credit incentives for energy efficiency upgrades to existing buildings.
  5. Incentivize the building of clean energy storage through incentivizing non-fossil grid ancillary services.
  6. While preserving or extending existing levels of mass transit service, electrify high traffic bus routes.
  7. Incentivize building of electric vehicle fast charge and trickle charge networks in cooperation with municipalities and utilities.

Increase funding for Clean Energy Research and Development (addresses Market Failure 3)

While the federal government has continued to fund clean energy research even through the Bush Administration, an increase in funding for research into renewable energy technologies, clean energy storage, sustainable biofuel alternatives, and cleaner, more efficient nuclear technologies are important to see if we can “leapfrog” existing technologies or reduce costs in the building of clean energy infrastructure.   Some have suggested budgets ranging from $3 billion to as much as $40 billion per year as a means of expanding scientific exploration, creativity and innovation in the area of clean energy.   If there is a reasonable chance that an innovation can open a new source of clean energy or increase the efficiency or cost-effectiveness of existing options, we should not hesitate to pursue it.  On the other hand, oversight over these budgets should keep the focus on what can pay off within the next ten to fifteen years.

The Principle of Non-Perfectability

While very simple systems may reach something called “perfection”, complex systems, including living things, social and economic systems, and the earth’s climate will never be “perfected”.  The advocates of self-regulating markets tended to treat markets as a “pure” or perfect social institution.   In chronicling so many market failures and needed programs to remedy them, I am not suggesting that policy will “perfect” the market or be able to completely address these market failures.

Purpose of a Comprehensive Policy

The purpose of this piece is to outline what a revised, reality-based economic and political framework for understanding both the course of previous energy and climate policy and the trajectory for effective future policy will look like.  The lore of a self-sufficient, self-regulating market put policymakers and clean energy advocates on the defensive and narrowed the focus largely to transforming the actions of individual market actors.  In response, efforts were made to “perfect” the market through a carbon price.  If we are to create a reality-based set of policy instruments we have to face facts both about the nature of economic models and the physical realities on which they are supposed to act.  I am supportive of the Repower America program, but feel it does not fill out enough the actual mechanisms by which it would achieve its ambitious goals, therefore the proposed framework.  A comprehensive climate and energy policy addresses both flaws in systemic functioning and problems of incentives and disincentives that cause individual market actors to continue to ignore the very serious consequences of anthropogenic warming.

Defeat of Tax Credits/Bali — A Day of Shame for the US December 14, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Renewable Energy.
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By a single vote, the Senate today failed to pass the tax credit package for renewable energy.

http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/story?id=50843

There are dinosaurs still alive in the US.

To those who contacted their Senators/Congresspeople…thank you!

Also, the news from Bali is not good either.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/14/world/14climate.html?hp

Just as the old energy economy has relied on massive subsidies and favorable policy conditions to continue to mine and drill for fossil fuels around the world, the building of a renewable electron economy is going to require a policy environment that adequately prices in the externalities of climate, geopolitical uncertainty, and environmental degradation into markets.  We in the US are continuing to lag behind other countries in taking steps to re-orient ourselves.

We have just taken a step back, but maybe this is an occasion to re-group and connect with the American people about the value of renewable energy and investment in our common future.  From this may come a determination to create policy that is more durable and more transparent to everyday people, so lawmakers can no longer play with our common future without repercussion.

‘Nuther Action Alert for US Readers: Renewable Energy Support December 4, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Efficiency/Conservation, Green Activism, News and Events, Renewable Energy.
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Luckily, and in part through the work of Nancy Pelosi, the Renewable Energy provisions have gotten back into the Energy Bills and now it’s time for Congress to vote on them.  What is contained in these bills is the bare minimum support that renewable energy projects need in the form of tax credits and a national Renewable Portfolio Standard.

http://capwiz.com/re-action/issues/alert/?alertid=10616351&type=co

Solar Nation, the activist organization in favor of solar energy, has a neat little gizmo that sends the letter of support to your congresspeople.   It’s just about a minute of your time to keep the US, kinda sorta in line with the intentions that most of us have to depend more on renewable sources of energy.  We are lagging many of our European friends in this regard, so we need all the help we can get.

US Readers: Action Alert – Renewable Energy Support Endangered November 14, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, News and Events, Renewable Energy.
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The climate of short-sighted compromise and legislative solipsism in the US Congress is endangering important provisions of the 2007 Energy Bill that was supposed to put US Energy policy on a new footing.  Subsidies for gas and oil exploration were to be cut while renewable energy was to get new support in the form of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard/RPS (rule that utilities need to supply a certain percentage of their energy from renewable energy) and production tax credits for renewable energy generated, a key incentive to renewable energy investors.  

The US House of Representatives has passed two bills:  HR 3221 (the New Direction for Energy Independence) and HR 2776 (the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act) but they need to be jointly passed by both House and Senate to become law.  These bills jointly would see a transfer of the $23 billion subsidy of the fossil fuel industry to renewable energy projects.  Over the weekend, rumor has it that the renewable energy provisions of these bills will be cut, including the tax credits and RPS provisions.

While these bills are not the absolutely ideal ways to promote renewable energy (a feed-in tariff is most effective as witnessed by the growth of renewable energy investment in Europe) they are good starts.  Also, the US Southeast with diffuse sunlight and low wind speeds will need extra technical and policy help in developing a renewable infrastructure and/or means of investing in renewable energy outside the region.  For Southeasterners, biomass to electricity with carbon capture (carbon negative) might be a way to get extra credit for renewable electric generation capacity in those states that actually subtracts existing carbon from the atmosphere.

So, please, US readers, call your Senators and Congresspeople!  Here is the legislative action page of the website of the American Wind Energy association:

http://capwiz.com/windenergy/home/

And here is the website of Solar Nation with a similar feature:

http://www.solar-nation.org/

You can read more about the bills here:

http://energypriorities.com/entries/2007/11/energy_bill_2007.php


Change in Nomenclature: “The Renewable Electron Economy” July 2, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Green Marketing, Green Transport, News and Events, Renewable Energy.
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I’ve been devoting this blog for the last 4 months to talking about the “electron economy”, how most of our energy needs can be satisfied by using electricity and electrical devices with minimal damage to the planet and our future well-being. I am somewhere in the middle of my series of posts on the technical, marketing and political issues related to clean electric power and efficient electrical devices but a string of events in the real world and the world of ideas has highlighted for me the need to change terminology. Rather than advocate for an “electron economy” I am raising the stakes in the nomenclature department by adding the word “renewable” or “clean” (with and without parentheses) to the “electron economy” catch phrase. So henceforth I might use “renewable electron economy”, “clean electron economy”, “(renewable) electron economy” and “(clean) electron economy” interchangeably.

Ulf Bossel, the fuel cell engineer and sustainable energy advocate who invented the electron economy phrase and concept, brought an analysis of the relative energy efficiencies to bear on the choice of hydrogen, biofuels or electricity. He concluded based on electricity’s overall efficiency and availability of renewable sources of electricity that an electric energy delivery and conversion system would be the only system that has a reasonable chance of being the energy backbone of a future carbon-neutral economy. Biofuels and energy recovery from waste would be parts of a clean energy economy but would play smaller roles. Electricity has not enjoyed some of the marketing hype of biofuels or hydrogen but is the solution to most of the energy questions that are raised by climate change.

I’ve adopted the electron economy concept but have come to realize that forces and tendencies in the fossil fuel industries (primarily the coal industry), the electric power generation and electric manufacturers industries might easily twist the concept to serve shortsighted goals that increase our dependence on fossil fuels. As conceived by Ulf Bossel and adapted by myself, the electron economy concept has at its heart the use of contemporary renewable energy flux, not that of the Jurassic period, to generate electricity.

In the United States and in other coal-rich countries in an age of uncertain petroleum and calls for energy independence, coal will continue to function like crack (cocaine) for electricity generators, electricity consumers, and legislators who leave carbon emissions out of the picture. This was brought home graphically by recent attempts by the coal lobby in the United States to get support from Congress for subsidies for Coal to Liquid (CTL) as a substitute for petroleum. As I’ve discussed earlier, coal is the most carbon-intensive means of generating electricity, much more than even petroleum or natural gas, so coal to liquids will compound our climate woes while, as it is intended, reducing oil imports.

On the marketing front, General Electric has brought down its green marketing credentials a notch in my book by linking its Ecomagination brand with coal: in its latest commercial we see a lump of coal with legs claiming to the words of an old country song that it “will be a diamond someday”. Investigation on General Electric’s website indicates that this is the public face for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) coal power plants. On the website there are some slightly misleading claims that IGCC will reduce carbon dioxide emissions without adding that to reduce carbon dioxide emissions one would have to integrate an IGCC plant with, as they say in the car business, an optional carbon capture technology AND an optional carbon sequestration repository like an old salt mine (CCS). IGCC in and of itself will not reduce carbon emissions and those two options limit the siting of IGCC plants and raise the technical challenges and costs of use considerably. As of this moment in time, there are no existing large scale coal powered plants that are sequestering carbon dioxide.

Though I’m quite sure an IGCC plant would be a big contract for GE and I accept that coal with carbon capture and storage may play a transitional role to a fully renewable energy economy, not adding that carbon capture is an additional set of steps dumbs down the message unnecessarily. Furthermore, General Electric has an already established business in wind and hydroelectric turbines as well as photovoltaic that are in and of themselves carbon neutral means of generating electricity. Why not push ahead with innovations as well as publicity in these areas? General Electric, if it continues to position itself well, will be a key player in the renewable electron economy and will profit handsomely from efforts to mitigate carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. To advertise IGCC in this manner tends to further an “addiction to coal” and coal-generated electricity.

Jeff Goodell in his recent book “Big Coal” now in paperback, highlights how important coal producers are to the US electric industry and by extension to power consumers. With the US’s substantial coal reserves and the political power of coal producers and coal producing states, there exists a considerable danger that we will continue to rely on coal long past the time that we have the capability to generate electricity much more cleanly and even more cheaply. These coal advocates are also underestimating the inevitable price that carbon-dioxide emissions will carry.

A movement towards a moratorium on coal power plants without CCS is gaining momentum as now at least one of the 2008 US Presidential candidates (John Edwards) supports it as well as, as one might expect, Al Gore and the Live Earth initiative. Other candidates, like Barack Obama, have flirted with Big Coal though now appear to be backing down. The Democratic leaders of the US House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, just recently signed Al Gore’s Live Earth pledge that calls for a moratorium on coal without carbon capture.

It is in this context that calling for a positive solution, for a renewable electron economy to be built, shows the way for government, stakeholders in the electric industry and investors, to direct their energies in an effective way. Just calling for an “electron economy” with the renewable or clean portion assumed, underestimates the power of inertia as well as motivated opposition to solving the climate crisis by shutting down or transforming certain industry segments in favor of others.

To create a renewable electron economy is doable within 25 years, with substantial reductions in our emissions within 10 years. But we need to act now within our industries, our personal lives, through investments of time and money and through exercising political influence. Al Gore’s Live Earth Pledge is one place to start:

http://liveearthpledge.org/algore.php

In the upcoming weeks, I will continue to sketch the future of energy and how concretely we can take steps now to reduce our carbon footprints through building the renewable electron economy.

Is it too late? Perspectives on taking action about climate change December 26, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Sustainable Thinking, Uncategorized.
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I had a conversation with one of my cousins a few weeks ago that triggered a series of thoughts about differences in how we see climate change. I had assumed that most people were in one of three groups: ignorant of the climate change, in the camp of “climate change deniers” or were convinced that we must do something about slowing or stopping global warming. As the struggle between deniers and global warming believers has been at the forefront of debates, more nuanced and realistic views of climate change and what we can do have not gotten the play that they deserve. As we come to accept that climate change is a reality, we will begin to see the full range of choices available to us as individuals and as societies.

In our recent conversation, my cousin, who is environmentally conscious and scientifically literate, expressed the idea that, though he would do what he could, he felt as though it was “too late” to do anything major about climate change, that we are only now feeling the effects of carbon emissions from 20, 30 even 100 years ago. Scientists who estimate that greenhouse gas emissions have an exceedingly long “half-life” once in the atmosphere substantiate this view.

It occurred to me that all of us have different ideas about what climate change will mean to us and that the actions that we are willing to take will stem in part from our ideas about climate change. While, in the future, scientists may develop an extremely explicit and highly predictive model of how our climate will change, currently there are large areas of uncertainty about what will definitely happen and how much we can do now to avert which consequences. for the time being, our imaginations play some role in shaping how we think about what to do and what we can do. The dimensions of the problem seem to be related to how each of us answers the following questions:

1. Is it too late FOR WHAT?

2. How does the future look to me?

3. What role do I WANT to play in the future?

4. What role am I ABLE to play in shaping the future?

1. Too Late for WHAT?

Is it not too late to preserve the earth’s climate as it is now or has been over the last millennium? From my understanding of trends in the climate and in GHG emissions, I think so but some people may feel as though action is only worth taking if we can “keep it all”. Therefore action-taking is reserved only for what now looks like a utopian outcome: keeping all of what we have now.

Is it not too late to preserve the outlines of our currently climate system and climate zones only a few degrees warmer as well as the approximate levels of our seas and coastal outlines? I don’t know. Some scientists will say that it is still possible others will say that this is highly unlikely. I personally act “as if” this were the case, even though I am not certain that this will be the outcome of even radical changes on the part of how humans emit carbon and other GHGs.

Is it not too late to preserve a livable but much warmer earth of any description? Probably human populations in perhaps reduced numbers will survive in some form on a radically warmer earth. If you are strongly convinced that this is the outcome, you will probably prepare more for personal and familial survival than for action on reducing global warming. Still, there may still be an earth that is too warm even for climate survivalists.

2. How does the future look to me?

This is, in part, the old “glass half-empty” “glass half-full” situation: how optimistic are you? Usually people who are optimistic are more likely to take action to try to improve a situation but there is a difference with climate change. If you are very optimistic, you might be less inclined to even register the importance of the problem…you may be looking at only those aspects of the world which support your optimism rather than a fairly grim problem like climate change. Some climate change deniers seem to me to be either natural inveterate optimists or those who believe in a gospel of optimism…i.e. that it is a moral imperative to be optimistic. On the other hand if you are very pessimistic you may become depressed or at least inactivate yourself as there will be no point in taking action. In all probability some moderate optimism with a dose of pessimism is required to sustain interest in and focus on issues of climate change.

There is also a difference in types of optimism: Some people are optimistic about what can come to them in opposition to what they see around them. Those who feel optimistic about their own chances as opposed to those of the population as a whole are more likely to take a survivalist approach to climate change, while those whose focus is on society and the world in general will take more of a activist approach to trying to stop climate change.

3. 3. What role do I WANT to play in the future?

Some people want to be activists and doing things for the greater good while others want to take a more private role. Those who are more into activism and doing things for the world in general are going to be more likely to take action for the greater good. Those who wish to play a private role may be willing to be led and may make some positive consumer and electoral choices. Still others will be purely “apathetic” about climate change and will only do something when there are no other choices.

4. 4. What role CAN I play in the future?

Opportunity and circumstances will both expand and narrow choices that are actually available at a given time to any one person. There is a multiplicity of potential roles and activities in both public and private life that will effect how we individually and collectively deal with climate change.

Some individual and societal choices will be very difficult and it will be necessary for governments and private groups and corporations to provide support for positive decisions and reduce the number of potentially harmful choices available to people. For instance, the California Solar Initiative is just one step on the way to helping support action in concrete ways. What to do about mobility and automobility are areas where, at least in the United States, there are huge differences among different activist and industry research groups and concrete future-looking choices have not yet been put yet before either the consumer or the voter. The extent of government’s role is still controversial and will be hotly debated by both advocates of a regulated and advocates of a largely market-driven economy.

More on these issues in future posts.

Humanism, Anti-humanism, “Poly-speciesism” and “Pan-speciesism”: Who is central to a sustainable world? December 18, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Activism, Sustainable Thinking.
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[This is another installment of my series on some basic issues in sustainability.]

Over the years, the environmental movement has collected distinct groups of people under its umbrella, who share different preferences and philosophies as well as goals for the future.  As sustainability becomes a concern for the broader society, the diversity of perspectives on what should be our future will only grow.   Before it all gets too complicated and disagreements become too profound, it might help to create a conceptual “map” of what have been some manifest and underlying tendencies around some of the basic issues. 

One of the subtle but profound issues in thinking around sustainability has to do with who is the “subject” of sustainability.  “Subject” in this discussion is a fancy use of the word from philosophy meaning “central character”, “bearer of consciousness”, “knower”, or “protagonist”.  Another way to put this is that every major strain within ecological thought has implicit ideas about who and what is at the center of a sustainable future.  It is rare that people discuss this explicitly, so perhaps this post will contribute to a positive discussion of this potentially controversial issue.

Humanism

Humanism is a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance at least and has been a major philosophical and cultural movement that, in general, has opposed the rule of organized religion over society.  In the millennium before the Renaissance, in the West, most public discourse was dominated by religious thought and religious conflicts.  Humanism has allowed the growth of among other things, scientific thinking and championed rationality over irrationalism.

In the sense I am using humanism, it also means that human beings are made the center of the natural order.  Other aspects of nature are either ignored or are viewed primarily as instruments to the fulfillment of human desires.  Humanism is broad enough and flexible enough to allow for human concern for the fate of non-human nature but this becomes an “additional concern” among many competing issues.  If ecological issues are paramount or particularly pressing, a humanist view is not going to yield much in the way of new insight though it may “go along for the ride”.

Anti-humanism

Humanity’s disregard for the effects of human activity on the natural environment has prepared the ground for anti-humanist strains within parts of the environmental movement.  Most notable are strains of disdain and disgust for crass commericialism and wastefulness generalized to most human beings and notable preferences among some active environmentalists for landscapes relatively untouched by humanity.  Earth First and neo-primitivist strains within political and cultural movements related to ecology are the most explicit expression of anti-humanist strains.  The purity or righteousness of natural processes is contrasted with the ugliness and waste of human society.  Though not explicitly environmentalist in nature, some animal rights groups have a similar anti-humanist strain to them.  While proponents of these views might take issue with the “anti-humanist” label, it is my suggestion that there is a fundamental sympathy with the non-human world that leads to a focus on human destructiveness to the exclusion of other human traits.

More fundamental and ultimately more important are the potential for strains of anti-humanism within discussions of population control and growth.  While potentially quite divisive, the sustainability movement will ultimately have to have something intelligent to say about human population and control of fertility.  While this is not necessarily “anti-human”, to contradict the instinct to procreate goes against eons of evolution and the naked imperatives of biology.  Arguments for population control have often been couched in terms of human welfare but increasingly we will see that planetary and ecology welfare will be added as an additional factor. 

Ultimately the opposition between humanity and non-human nature is I believe an unproductive dichotomy, a sterile argument that denies the commonalities and continuities between humans and non-human nature.  Below I will suggest some new terms to describe who we are discussing whom we imagine will inhabit a future sustainable world.

Humanism and anti-humanism are also non-realistic, idealized ways of looking at the human relationship with nature.  We have to introduce other species into the mix, not just the opposition “human” versus “non-human” and then choose sides.

“Polyspeciesism”

Realistically, human beings will only survive in coordination with other species…we cannot be an island unto ourselves.   We are ourselves animals and have numerous dependencies on a set of species with which we have co-evolved as well as the larger web of life.  It has taken the environmental movement and ecological thinking to re-introduce this concept into a modern Western conceptual system.  Various tribal systems of thought and belief included representation of some of the most important co-evolved species in their mythologies.  The mythic acknowledgement of the importance of specific non-human species was lost in those whose worldview was dominated either by one of the major monotheistic religions or by pre-ecological Western science.

Polyspeciesism is however a very broad tent as there are millions of species of living things in the world as well as a vast number of varieties of non-living parasites (viruses).  Here is a sampler of how to sub-classify Polyspeciesism:

  • Narrow polyspeciesism:  here human beings conceive of themselves and the world as being part of a narrow set of related animals.  Most popular and folk (i.e. traditional pre-scientific) conceptions of how the natural world works would fit into this category.  Here we have, for instance, people, cows, horses, pigs, wolves, bears, mice, flies, bees, ants, dogs and cats as making up one set of species about which people can relate to or care about.  In different areas of the world and environments, one would typically find different sets of species being recognized within the recognized group of species.  Narrow polyspeciesism is not necessarily ecological in the modern scientific sense nor in the traditional folk sense.  Generally, though, an accommodation of the needs of a wider set of species make narrow polyspeciesism an attitude more amenable to sustainability
  • Broad human-centered polyspeciesism:  The assumptions underlying much scientifically informed thinking about sustainability place humans at the center of nature as at least the most powerful manipulators of, if not necessarily the prime benefactors of natural processes.  What makes this polyspeciesism and not “panspeciesism” is the exclusion of certain human pathogens and disruptive species from the circle of species with full “rights”.  In other words, broad polyspeciesism assumes that humans can try to exterminate viruses and bacteria that threaten them or how they conceive of the welfare of ecosystems that could support human life.  Otherwise, in broad polyspeciesism, there is assumed to be an intricate web of life which can only carefully be altered for human benefit.  Human benefit is thought to depend on the health of a broad spectrum of species.  The concept of endangered species and ecosystems and their protection, is best supported by a broad polyspeciesism.

“Panspeciesism”

An absolutist view of ecological sustainability would suggest that ALL species are at the center of a sustainable world, that we humans are unable to select wisely among species of living things.  In practice, however, it is a stern mental discipline if not a practical impossibility for humans to appreciate their natural foes especially among diseases and parasites for humans and their domesticated plants and animals. True panspeciesists would be fatalistic with regard to human welfare and longevity as they see a valuable function for the microscopic foes that we spend an inordinate amount of resources in controlling and potentially eradicating.  Earth First might have been a panspeciesist organization and has had an accordingly small following.

It is difficult to find people who oppose placing ourselves in a privileged position with regard to non-human nature.  It is more likely that someone will be indifferent to OTHER people’s fates and declare that such and such a disease is a plague for perceived bad behavior.  The same people will most likely not be indifferent to the their own or the prospect of the suffering of those they hold to be virtuous or innocent. 

A Multi-species “Big Tent” 

Whatever the fundamental assumptions and views of a given political program or philosophy of sustainability (humanist, polyspeciesist, panspeciesist), ecological thought opens the possibility that the center or subject of a future sustainable world is a collection of species or an entire web of species that co-evolve.  The currently unfashionable term “co-evolution” is fundamental to all visions of sustainability.  The relative position of humans in this web or grouping of species is a matter of dispute between different views of ecology.   It is pretty safe to say given that we are human and that we are an extremely influential species, that our placement is pretty central to working in either a destructive or creative/conservative way with regard to natural processes and systems.  As stated earlier, a “both/and” dynamic with regard to human and other species interactions rather than an explicit or implicit “either/or” dynamic seems to be both the most realistic and productive way forward.