Sunday, November 15, 2015

Keystone Victory

There goes my hero
Watch him as he goes
      - Foo Fighters
We are the Champions
Of the world
       As you all know by now the Obama administration has denied the application of the Keystone pipeline. .   Some hail this as a "huge win", others assert it is meaningless.
       Dave Roberts has weighed in on the side of victory.  see here.  Roberts is well known in climate-change circles, as a writer for Grist and now Vox.  He has my admiration as one of the few writers who is willing to look closely at the numbers, and who has made a point of highlighting the work of Dr Kevin Anderson . see The Brutal Logic of Climate Change Anderson has repeatedly  pointed out the chicanery that has gone into many politically motivated analyses of what it would actually take to get to 2 degrees.  See   Real Clothes for the Emperor.    So I read Roberts' analysis with interest.  
       Roberts  of course admits that turning down this pipeline will have little or no direct effect on CO2.  If the price is tight, the oil will flow- either by other pipelines or by rail , as it has been moving since the tar sands was developed.  Roberts asserts that it is a victory nonetheless .  It is political, or "activist" victory which may help to build the political will to deal with climate change..
   Dave Cohen , a former Oil Drum writer , sees things somewhat differently.  See here.  Cohen, whose blog  recounts various environmental horrors, and the human foibles that enable them, is an un apologetically pessimistic  He is willing to take a glass that is 3/4 full and pronounce it as "nearly empty".   Unfortunately, he often makes good points along the way
     In Cohen's view the "victory" is irrelevant and Roberts defense "silly".  Irrelevant because the context of what is going on in the world.  For instance. China has recently recalculated its CO2 emissions, and determined that they are 17% higher than previously reported.  This pokes a big hole in the theory that China is becoming more energy efficient, and less CO2 intensive see here.  .    The Paris summit is next month and the "voluntary commitments" add up to budget busting CO2 emissions..  The pledges, if followed,  might limit warming to 3 degrees  see here  Meanwhile, the world is in the midst of "coal renaissance",    (see PNAS study here ), with 2100 coal plants on the drawing boards and  557 under construction .   As Cohen points out, these events are occurring around the world, and American activism has little effect on them,     When stacked up against such facts, the symbolic or activist value of the Keystone denial does pale a bit .
     If you will pardon a sports metaphor , one might look at this situation as the closing minutes or a soccer game.  The other team is ahead by 10 points, and our team has just scored a goal.   Of course we are going to cheer, and jump up and down.   But, should we say that this goal is "significant"  , that somehow perhaps  momentum has shifted and the game can be worn ?
      But perhaps a sports metaphor is not appropriate.  After all who is on the other team?    Roberts points out that activism thrives on enemies.   So, we have made enemies of dirty coal, dirty tar sands,  dirty ExxonMobil .   Bernie Sanders has sponsored "keep it in the ground" bill.    You might call this a "supply side"  campaign .   This campaign has some echoes of the "war on drugs".   The main enemy in that war, you will recall, were peasant farmer in Latin and South America.  (Also users of Crack coca in - primarily black Americans).    In this conflict one might ask - what about the users?  
      If we were to see a victory over the energy suppliers,  the users would be in for quite a shock.   What sort of energy diet is implied by "keeping it in the ground"?     What is needed   is a worldwide decline in emissions between 1.3 and 3.1 per year. see  here.     GNP tracks pretty closely with energy and CO2,   see e.g  Is it Possible to Decouple? .   The recession of 2008 saw only a 1% decline in emmissions.    Kevin Anderson suggests based on equity,  the west needs to do more, so he recoemdnds reductions of 8 to 10% per year .  Anderson has noted
      "If you’re serious about 2°C, the rates of change are so significant that it begs the way we see the world. That’s what people aren’t prepared to embrace," says Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. "Essentially you’d have to start asking questions about our current society and how we develop and grow."
     So, is the XL Victory some sort of political theater? Score one for the environment but full speed ahead?.  A cynical person could argue that Obama was merely throwing a bone to the climate folks, (at a time when oil prices were so low it couldn't hurt the democrats), while keeping to the current energy policy of "all of the above"
   But, perhaps I am not considering the "long game" .   Social change takes a long time.  Roberts uses the analogy of the civil rights movement.   This analogy cuts both ways.  Yes, small victories eventuality mounted up to improve things for blacks.  But consider the time frame.  1863 - emancipation :1965 - the Voting Rights Act.  And today?   Unfortunately, we don't have time for the long game.    In 100 years, i doubt we will still be arguing about whether to burn more fossil fuels .The long game will be over, either we burned them or we didn't. 
         But lets cheer for a victory.  But let's also be aware that an one sided "activist" strategy of blaming the supplier, while allowing users to believe that they can "have it all" -  is at best optimistic, and at worst  dishonest..   At some point, the users need to be informed of what it will really take.   What it will take is degrowth, or a "planned economic recession".    
           However this seems fairly unlikely.  Here is a podcast with Dr Taintor on complexity and collapse.  He points out the through out history, when societies have needed to sole a problem, they have opted , not for a simple one  (if there was one), but by adding more complexity to the culture. (This is one way to avoid a fight with stake holders dependant on the status quou - such as the coal, oil and gas industries)   Thus , rather than ceasing to emit, we have proposals to continue to emit, and then to suck carbon out of the air.  see here
For starters, the draft ­agreement they’ll be using as the basis for discussion makes no reference to fossil fuels at all. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, given that dirty energy companies and their financial backers are among the sponsors of the summit.
In the absence of a concrete plan to roll back our reliance on coal, oil and gas, governments are kicking around climate “solutions” that let countries keep on burning them.
They’re entertaining ideas like carbon capture, use, and storage, or CCUS — a technology that would allow facilities like power plants to pump carbon emissions into the ocean or underground geologic formations. The approach is unfeasibly expensive, risky, and unproven at scale, but the U.S. and China favor it as an option that would preserve the role of dirty fuels.
The emerging concept of “net-zero” emissions goes a step further. Under that scheme, countries would be allowed to “offset” their carbon pollution with technologies that are meant to pull carbon dioxide out of the air, like producing vast quantities of charcoal and adding it to soils. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 6 billion hectares of biomass — that’s four times the total land used today to grow all the world’s food — would be needed to match our fossil fuel use.
In other words, even as governments are talking about setting climate targets, they’re working hard to expand the extractive global economy with measures that could deepen the climate crisis. That’s ridiculous. We need to cut carbon, not find new places to bury it.

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