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10 Apr

I recognize that my website is sorta oddball.  "Serious" articles on topics like green development in Africa, sustainability and climate are interspersed with professional wrestling results, games and personal photography.  This motley assortment of content precludes this site from being a pure issues blog.  While I have considered going in that direction, I built mikespecian.com to be a reflection of me along multiple dimensions.  So for now I intend to keep it as is.

With one exception.  I have added a link entitled Articles to my main menu.  This is will be the one-stop-shop for everything I have written and will continue to write on topics such as climate, energy, politics and science in general.  Thank you all for reading!

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## My Silver Bullet for Solving the Energy Crisis

21 May

In the course of travelling through life, I occasionally intersect with others as passionate as I am about our world’s climate and energy crisis.  I love to pick people’s brains and most of the time I can’t stop myself from asking them, “If you had one silver bullet policy in your pocket that you could implement today, what would it be?”

I have received responses ranging from “sign the Kyoto Protocol” (which I perceive as small beer) to “remove corporate money from politics” (which, while probably the correct answer, is wholly unrealistic).

Through these discussions, I believe I have settled (at least for today) on an answer of my own: “promote international development through green growth.”  At a time when economic concerns drown out calls for foreign aid, I’m reminded of the saying, “The cleanest power plant is the one you never have to build.”  And nowhere is the need for new power as acute as in the developing world.

For some, a Third World green intervention seems like a misallocation of limited resources.  Why not just let them build a bunch of coal plants?  For others (me included), this need provides real opportunity.  In locations where firewood is the the primary sustainable resource, intelligent green investment can be sustainable in its own way - through profitability.

But with hundreds of international initiatives underway to support green growth, it’s easy to suffer from paralysis of too many options.  What are the key strategies?  Who’s doing what well?  Where is there room for improvement?

In the United States, we look to Silicon Valley as the model of an innovation ecosystem.  It is there that raw talent, research capability, and venture capital’s business-building power converge to create the planet’s premier environment for the generation of new products and wealth.  While Silicon Valley itself has shown little interest in the developing world, their model remains a gold standard and its strategies are easily transferable.

Nurturing talent must start with education.  The status quo of having one professor teaching standard courses to 1000 students will not get the job done.  Training students in the basics is key, but education needs to become less abstract and more vocational.  Let brewing beer be a study in chemistry.  Let cows be a study in biology.  If HP cannot offer copying equipment to parts of Africa due to a lack of qualified technicians, as was recently the case, teach technology to match the need.

Then, for research to be effective the world must work together.  China and the United States are behemoths, and science agencies like the US’s National Science Foundation offer much in the way of support.  Africa, however, is challenged by having 45 separate, smaller science foundations.  Regional agencies must be formed to bring these groups together.  If Rwanda relies solely upon its own scientists, it’s going to miss 99% of knowledge generated elsewhere.

Consider General Electric’s ecoimagination, an enterprise they describe on their website as “GE’s commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions to today's environmental challenges while driving economic growth.”  Thus far, their research has proven capable of meeting global needs like lowering carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, developing/deploying wind and solar, and maximizing water conservation.  GE possesses massive resources, benefits from economies of scale and has a global presence.  There's still plenty of room for improvement, from geothermal investments in Indonesia to new public transport systems in Central America and Asia.

But while technology is the glue between green and growth, solving the R&D problem alone doesn’t mean you have a competitive product.  It certainly doesn’t guarantee a valid business model, nor is it necessarily scalable.  For instance, a company the size of GE is not optimized to sell solar panels to villages one at a time.

So while nations like Burundi will seldom outperform the science team of a company like GE, that shouldn’t be their role.  Developing nations are much better positioned to understand their own needs, constraints and goals.  Perhaps they can host franchises that spin-off First World tech to deploy on village-sized scales.  Then, the smaller region’s needs can spur local innovations of First World “big box” technologies.

For example, to process coffee, beans must be washed, hulled, polished, sorted, etc.  A developing nation relying on its own technology will be priced out of the market by big box technology that scales.  But since the final coffee product depends keenly on the details of the processing method, innovations of big tech at local sites can provide an end product neither the First nor Third Worlds could have achieved entirely on their own.

However, research and business can only do so much.  If conditions on the ground are not fertile for green growth, roots won’t take hold.  Electricity cannot be transported if the government fails to maintain electrical wires.  If the state heavily subsidizes coal or oil, green technologies competitive in a free market won’t survive in a rigged one.  Without patent protection and sharing of intellectual property, tech transfer will not occur.  Agencies like the World Bank can be coaxed into giving their assistance, but they rarely lead.  The bed must first be set by gathering global support for investment, e.g. by connecting principle investigators in neighboring countries or by getting the World Bank to fund distributed solar (perhaps by crowdsourcing) in developing markets.

Many of these issues will be discussed in June at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  If representatives can figure out how to link regional science foundations, introduce researchers to businesses (venture capital-style) and direct First World technology to Third World innovations, this might be the silver bullet most worth firing.

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## Why It Is So Difficult to Convince People That You Are Right

29 Feb

One of the biggest reasons it is difficult to convince someone of your argument is that, far too often, facts and rationality are irrelevant.

I participated for many years as a parliamentary debater in the American Parliamentary Debate Association.  We won rounds based on our ability to establish multiple, strong arguments in favor of our case, then eliminating, one-by-one, the arguments of our opposition.  It was a tit-for-tat battle.  If my opponent failed to account for one of my arguments, I could triumphantly claim that he “dropped’ my point and win it by forfeit.

This is NOT how the real world works.

In 2010 I attended a climate change education workshop in Washington DC run by the National Academy of Sciences.  The question was how climate change skepticism was so widespread despite the fact that 97-98% of actively publishing climate scientists agree with the conclusion that climate change is happening and that humans are primarily responsible.  The parliamentary debater in me firmly believed that if only people were more educated to the facts, they would surely change their opinions.

And yet psychological research, including that from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, does not support this conclusion.  In one study, cognitive scientists found that many of those most alarmed about climate change don’t even understand the science.  A recent poll from Brookings has shown that while 78% of Democrats acknowledge global warming is happening, Republicans are split down the middle.  Both examples illustrate a disconnect between facts and what people believe.

This occurs because humans develop, as a natural defense mechanism, a model for the world in which they live.  Adherence to the model gives an individual his identity.  That identity is often woven into his relationships with larger communities, like family, friends, church, or political party.  To turn his back on a foundational tenant means to ostracize himself from a group, and admit to a personal fault.

The most effective way, therefore, to convince someone of your argument is to first understand their cultural commitments.  People (political conservatives especially) tend to prefer the established order.  Failure to understand their bedrock principles can lead to arguments that rub against the grain, creating backlash and ironically, an entrenchment of previously held beliefs.  A compelling debater understands cultural commitments and plays to them.

Every approach will be different.  If you want to convince a fisherman of climate change, take him to his favorite river and highlight the changes he’s already observed, like a shortening of the winter season.  For the very religious, work through a church authority.  For politicians, find a way that allows them to accept an argument that coexists with their principles, e.g. using a carbon price to address greenhouse gas emissions rather than a complicated collection of regulations, requirements and government agencies.

Instead of directly introducing the argument you want your listener to believe, take a three-step approach.  First, ask him to name a quality about himself that he considers a strength.  While this may seem silly, this helps him assume a position of strength.  This mindset increases the likelihood that he will accept new ideas.

Second, instead of directly stating your point, begin by introducing uncontroversial facts.  Try to avoid bringing incorrect conclusions, as doing so can reinforce them.  If you must, though, be sure to first issue a big disclaimer.  For example, you might say to a global warming skeptic, “You will often hear people report incorrectly, and I stress ‘incorrectly’, that global temperatures are decreasing.  The way scientists know for sure is by taking temperature measurements all over the globe over a period of many years.”

Third, instead of explicitly saying the argument you want to convince him of, show him data that allows him to draw his own conclusion.  You might say, “Here’s a plot of the average planetary temperature as measured by 5 different groups over the last 100 years.  You can probably see why so many scientists have concluded what they have.”

Approaching the argument from this direction permits the listener to make up his own mind.  He needn’t concede that he was wrong and you were right.  Instead, given the freedom to make up his own mind, he takes control of the information as his own.  Research has shown this three-step approach to be quite effective.

There are other tips one should follow:

• Make arguments personally meaningful and attempt to trigger empathy.
• People often use poor word choice.  Use clever alliteration to aid retention of information, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
• Tell good stories if you can.
• Never overwhelm with facts.  Use three facts at most.  Going overboard has been shown to be counterproductive.
• Never dispel an incorrect argument without replacing it with a correct one.
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## Our Planet's Carbon Budget: How Much Does Each Source Produce, How High Can We Go, and What Would Be the Impact of Keystone XL

9 Nov

The fate of our planet’s climate and its people depends largely on the total amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere.  It doesn’t matter how fast we emit it or where on the planet it spews from, like flood water into a valley, as it fills up we have to fend off the subsequent catastrophes.

In this post, I will briefly summarize the sizes of Earth’s fossil fuel carbon deposits and how much each will contribute to the deterioration of our planet’s climate system.

First, we ask, “how much warming is ‘safe’”?  There’s no clear answer, of course, but a generally accepted benchmark is to limit global warming to 2˚C = 3.5˚F, which requires emitting no more than $5\times10^{14}$ kg of carbon (or approximately 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) for the next thousands years or so.  Here’s a table of major carbon sources and the percentage of the way they get to this total:

 Fossil Fuel Type Carbon Content (kg) % towards 2˚C Proven oil reserves $1.39\times10^{14}$ 28 Proven gas reserves $1\times10^{14}$ 20 Economically recoverable coal $8.46\times10^{14}$ 127 Tar Sands economically recoverable $0.23\times10^{14}$ 4.6 Tar Sands total $2.3\times10^{14}$ 46

It’s obvious that coal, which can get us above 2˚C all by itself, is the elephant in the room.  Its massive time-bomb potential begs for the rapid deployment of carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), a plea which is unlikely to be answered given the preliminary and unsettled nature of the technology.

Proven oil and gas reserves are also large contributors, with gas being preferable to oil, though not by much.  Note that all of these percentages could increase if A) new reserves are found or B) new technology or C) increases in fuel prices (through increased demand perhaps) makes extraction of these fuels less expensive.

Right now, the Alberta tar sands and the associated Keystone XL pipeline remains a hot-button political issue in Washington with environmentalists and residents of the Midwest, particularly Nebraska, staunchly against the pipeline.

Advocates of the pipeline who acknowledge its climate impacts argue that they are negligible in comparison to other sources of carbon and therefore deserve to be ignored.  They further argue the pipeline will only ship 500,000-800,000 barrels a day, which is approximately 20 times less than the amount of crude oil the US imports every day.

However, two key points need to be remembered.  First, the rate at which carbon is emitted is irrelevant.  The total amount is what matters.  So even if it were to take hundreds of years to drain the tar sands, the effect would be the same.  Second, once the pipeline starts flowing, new technologies and fluctuations in fuel prices could quickly make larger amounts of the tar sands viable.  If all were developed, which presently remains unrealistic, then this would be enough to get to 2˚C even if coal was removed from the equation.

From this perspective, we have an opportunity to cut off 5% of the remaining pie to 2˚C just by saying no to this pipeline, an option we lack with oil, coal, and gas.  Getting 5% back for free would be a huge step in the right direction.

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## My Keystone Op-Ed Has Been Picked Up by Two Major Newspapers

4 Oct

I’m happy to announce that my latest Op-Ed has been published in two major newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and New Jersey’s Star-Leger!  I've placed links to the article below.  I chose these two papers because I grew up in NJ and currently live in Baltimore.

The Star Ledger (NJ’s top newspaper, circulation of 230,000)
The Baltimore Sun (Maryland’s top newspaper, circulation of 196,000)
Pipeline Reviews (redirects to Star-Ledger)

Here’s the text of my original, unedited article:

The Keystone XL Pipeline, designed to pump unrefined oil tar sands from Alberta to Texas, won a critical victory Friday when the US State Department concluded the project posed “no significant impacts” to the environment.  This conclusion is horribly misaligned with reality.

TransCanada, a Calgary firm, intends its XL to move over 500,000 highly pressurized barrels per day through what it calls “the safest pipeline in North America,” faint praise for a company whose existing Keystone pipeline has spilled 12 times in one year.  That the 1711-mile long, half-inch thick pipeline traverses fragile ecosystems and public aquifers doesn’t aid matters.

More dangerous, though, is the resource-intensive extraction process.  The EPA estimates carbon emissions from tar sand extraction to be 80% greater than average crude.  Noted Columbia University climatologist Jim Hansen spoke bluntly of the project, claiming “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts,” adding, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”

But some advocates, including Cindy Schild (Baltimore Sun - “Keystone XL pipeline, bringing oil from Canada, is a step towards the future”, August 22), a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, claim the pipeline is needed to create jobs.  Environmental effects aside, this misses the larger point.  After the short-term stimulus provided by construction of the Keystone XL, the pipeline locks the US into a long-term dependency on Canadian crude.  We will have sent a negative signal to our domestic renewable energy markets all while American energy dollars continue to leak abroad.

Environmental advocates have been vocal in their opposition, staging a two-week sit-in at the White House which culminated earlier this month.  The peaceful protest resulted in over 1000 arrests including those of prominent climate scientists.  That our nation’s scientific experts have been incarcerated for defending our shared environment is nothing short of an American embarrassment.

To be clear, this decision is out of the hands of Congress.  Final approval of the pipeline lies entirely with the Obama administration’s State Department.  Instead of striving for a future of crisp, clean, green American energy, the federal government seems desperate to prolong our addiction to finite, filthy, foreign fuels and tar sands are perhaps the dirtiest of the bunch.  Their penetration through our American heartland should be staunchly opposed.

At last count, the Star-Ledger article had 1,426 Facebook Likes, 3 Facebook recommendations, and 7 tweets, one Google +1 (I'm not sure this is catching on yet), and 6 comments!  Not too bad for a “boring” issue like a pipeline.

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## Mythbusters: Oil Creates Jobs and Makes Us Safer Edition

27 Sep

Big Oil execs and their political counterparts love to sing the praises of the domestic oil sector.  They argue that the industry unleashes “job-creation activity” and will generate up to one million new jobs by 2018, according to the American Petroleum Institute.   They argue that increased domestic production will “enhance our energy security” by maximizing the quantity of liquid fuel obtained from “secure" North American sources.  Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) stated in a GOP weekly radio address, “Tapping our own vast resources will help lower energy costs for Americans, add high-paying jobs to our economy, and strengthen our security for future generations.”

The danger here is that many Big Oil advocates have defended expanded drilling and deregulation in pursuit of jobs and security without realizing that, unfettered, the oil industry will instead pursue its primary goal, profit.  In instances where these ideals run counter to each other, “pro-oil” policies intended to create jobs and security can more than just miss their target.  They can be directly counterproductive.

Consider a NY Times story published on September 27 (In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie) which reports that petroleum outfits operating western North Dakota’s Bakken shale field are unintentionally releasing natural gas during the oil extraction process.  The industry has claimed that the infrastructure needed to capture the gas is expensive and has chosen to burn it off instead, a process known as flaring.  An estimated 30% of all natural gas produced in the state, the annual carbon equivalent of a medium-size coal-fired power plant, is combusted in this manner.

There are no federal regulations against flaring and none are expected any time soon.  State governments have greater flexibility, but North Dakota has made no indication that it will act to restrict the process.

Let’s first examine how this fits into Big Oil’s jobs narrative.  In the case of the Bakken shale field, petroleum operators have a genuine opportunity to put people back to work creating, transporting, installing, and operating the infrastructure required to capture the available gas reserves.  But because collecting these natural gas resources fails to optimize profit, they have opted against it.  Now this is not to say that capturing the Bakken field’s natural gas reserves makes the entire enterprise unprofitable.  It simply makes it less profitable, and they view this as an unacceptable cost even if it creates jobs.

The simple truth is that the oil industry is not the engine of job growth that many advocates claim it is.  Between 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobile, BP, Shell and Chevron combined to reduce their US workforce by 11,200 while simultaneously raking in $546 billion in profits. They, along with ConocoPhillips, followed up that performance in 2010 by shedding another 4,400 jobs amidst profits of$73 billion.  They reinvested a paltry 1.2% of their profit in alternative fuels R&D and instead chose to buy back their own stock, enriching their board of directors, senior executives and shareholders in the process.

Then there is the claim that “pro-oil” policies enhance domestic security.  In pursuit of greater domestic energy supply, the United States is presently promoting a wide array of risky fossil fuel acquisition projects.  The risks are warranted, so the argument goes, because maximizing our domestic supply of liquid-fuel energy is too important to sacrifice.

For example, Congress has failed to pass a single piece of legislative reform in the wake of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster (which killed 11 people), yet will allow BP to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  There is no proven method to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, yet the US has issued leases which will allow Royal Dutch Shell to explore for oil in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.  TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pump over 500,000 barrels of highly pressurized tar sands per day straight through the American Heartland (an amount large enough to be "game over" for climate change according to one prominent climate scientist), yet the US government seems primed to approve it despite the risks.

The list goes on, but the essential point is that Big Oil and its government supporters expect Americans to suffer significant environmental and health burdens in defense of maximizing our domestic energy supply.  These are public costs worth bearing, they argue (if they chose to acknowledge them at all), in defense of the greater good.  Yet when the North Dakota oil firms are presented the opportunity to absorb their fair share of the cost in defense of our natural gas reserves, they balk.

The case of Keystone XL is particularly emblematic of profiteers’ other tactic, blatant distortion of the facts.  Cindy Schild, a refinery manager with the American Petroleum Institute, has defended the XL by arguing that “it will be a part of the nation’s energy future” without which “the oil will be shipped to other countries.”  What she fails to mention is that a full three-quarters of the tar sands have already been contracted out to five foreign companies and one domestic, Valero, whose business model is geared towards export.

Make no mistake, “job creation” and “energy security” are little more that thinly veiled justifications for policies designed to maximize corporate oil profits.  It is this obsession with profit that explains why taxpayers are needlessly lavishing oil companies with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies.  It explains why Americans are being placed in danger by weakened environmental standards and by refusals to strengthen pipeline safety rules.  It explains why some politicians have even supported shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency.  It’s the same reason companies like Exxon deliberately spread misinformation about the veracity of human-driven climate change and why oil billionaires like the Koch brothers support bogus studies discrediting offshore wind farms.

If politicians are truly concerned with creating jobs and increasing security, then the status quo of coarsely and broadly liberalizing the oil industry must be abandoned in favor of narrowly focused policy goals.  Require that natural gas in the Bakken field be collected, not flared.  Place a price on carbon pollution, which would level the playing field with other emergent sectors critical for energy security, like wind and solar.  Empower the Environmental Protection Agency to protect our water and air as much as our energy supply.

Until then, the fact remains that North Dakota is on fire, energy resources are being squandered, jobs lie fallow, and at least two million tons of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere each year.  Big Oil will persist in telling us they are interested in creating jobs and preserving security.  If only it weren’t a bunch of hot air.

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## Do Environmental Regulations Kill Jobs?

5 Sep

This question was the first sentence from last Sunday's NY Times article A Debate Arises on Job Creation and Environment.  It’s particularly timely as environmentalists and conservatives/business interests have been battling ferociously over issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, ozone regulations, and the very existence of the EPA.  Environmental proponents contend these regulations protect health, business productivity, and a sustainable environment for future growth.  Their opponents contend these rules impose onerous business expenses and can lead to lost jobs and even the closure of facilities.

But who’s right?  Apparently, no one knows!  It's striking to me that many government regulations are issued, but not followed-up on.  From the NY Times article,

“Regulations are put on the books and largely stay there unexamined,” said Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is part of the reason that these debates about regulations have a Groundhog’s Day quality to them.”

Are the regulations having their intended effect?  Are there unintended consequences, and if so, how costly are they?  Can the rules be improved?

During my time working as a Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, I came across a number of ostensibly “boring” studies of how several Department of Energy research programs were progressing.  Dull reading perhaps, but perpetual assessment and refinement of policy should be an absolute requirement of sound government.

In that spirit, I want to summarize the benefits and costs of environmental regulations presented in this article and others alongside some evidence to support those positions.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST REGULATION

• Too expensive to implement in a depressed economy
• High cost of clean-up can cause factories to close or relocate abroad
• Can lead to a loss of jobs

ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF REGULATION

• Numerous health benefits including reduced infant mortality and instances of autism, better health of children and the elderly, increased life spans, reductions in the number of hospitalizations, and other health benefits
• Increase housing prices (e.g. lack of regulation makes living next to coal plants more hazardous than living next to nuclear plants)
• Improve quality of life by maintaining a pristine environment with breathable air and clean ecosystems
• Complying with regulations requires new job-creating projects and technologies that become less expensive over time as the the clean-tech sectors mature
• Rules set far in advance can guide new investments; e.g. when choosing new technology, businesses will choose the greener one even if the initial cost is slightly greater
• Preferable in down economies to invest in upgrades rather than sit on cash

But good golly there's a lot of tit-for-tat.  Environmentalists claim that regulation is often the scapegoat for poor economic performance caused by other factors, such as low demand, poor tax and labor policies, and inadequate communication and transportation infrastructure.  They argue the costs of regulation are almost always exaggerated.

For example, the electric utility industry warned that amendments to the EPA’s Clean Air Act would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs but studies have shown the cost of the program to be closer to$1 billion and even suggested the law was a modest net creator of jobs by spurring new clean compliance technologies.  And while the cement industry projected 13,000 lost jobs and plant closures because of stricter sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide standards, EPA analysis claims the truth lies somewhere between 600 jobs lost and 1300 gained.

Even if the regulations are net beneficial, is implementing them now (i.e. in a down economy) the right thing to do?  Business leaders argue that regardless of whichever and whenever regulations are enacted, there must be stability and predictability.  They cannot be a “moving target.”

Some business leaders at least appear willing to strike a fair balance.  Spencer Weitman, president of the National Cement Company of Alabama has stated,  “we agree that we need to protect the environment and we need regulations in place to make sure that we all do it right. That’s not the argument that we’re coming up with. We do need regulations that are achievable and that make sense.”  The CEO of Caesars Entertainment has agreed to go green even if it means taking a slight economic loss.

What seems lost in this discussion, as always, is climate change, which I personally believe is the greatest existential crisis than humanity has ever faced (with the possible exception of nuclear proliferation).  Its long-term impacts on heat waves, agricultural yields, water availability, ecosystem vitality and sustainability, health, energy demand, transportation infrastructure, losses due to extreme weather, rising sea levels, forced migrations, violent conflict, etc. that will be forced irreversibly on future generations for hundreds to thousands of years decisively tilt the scales towards regulation.  Which regulations, however, may yet require deeper assessment.

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## How to Make the World Run Forever (alternate title: how to kill Kit Kat in 3 easy steps)

2 Aug

Despite its ample inventory of successful consumer offerings, Apple's growth is unsustainable.  And no, I'm not referring to the eventual departure of CEO Steve Jobs or the challenges it faces from its competitors.  I'm referencing its corporate culture, one which it shares with many other firms.  It builds great products every few months, markets them effectively, and sells them in great numbers.  Endless, frequent, addictive updates of laptops, tablet PCs, cell phones, portable music players: you name it, they sell it, we trash it.

According to the EPA, each year Americans dispose of nearly 200 million computers, televisions, and portable devices.  Less than 10% of our mobile devices are recycled, leaving tons of gold, copper, silver, iridium and other materials to go to waste.  This is beginning to impose steep costs.  Stagnant supply growth in the copper market, for example, has contributed to its more than quadrupling in price since 2003.  As Jeremy Grantham, the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, puts it, metals “are entropy at work."  As we continue to senselessly discard our resources, prices “will slowly increase forever,” imposing tight ceilings on growth.

The problem is far from limited to electronics manufacturers.  The same argument can be made for petroleum outfits who pedal a finite supply of fuel, coal companies whose product releases unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and packagers who overwrap products with materials that are discarded immediately after purchase.

The common condition is that many businesses operate under the myth that they have access to unlimited resources, aren't connected to nature, and have no role with respect to sustainability overall.  Annie Leonard's short film The Story of Stuff does an excellent job illustrating this fact through a dissection of the contemporary industrial supply chain.

Disrupting the current system is not impossible, but it does require a new vision of corporate responsibility.  This is likely not a trivial task.  Changing business as usual requires a willingness to modify all aspects of business operations.

This involves a full paradigm shift which goes beyond even the exemplary goal of reaching a carbon-neutral society.  The transition will require a careful study of regenerative systems as exemplified by aspects of the so-called "circular economy," in which products are not simply ends in and of themselves, but reusable catalysts for growth.  Conventional recycling of papers, plactics, glass, etc. and limits on overfishing are representative cases, but other less conventional examples exist.  Appliance Recycling Centers of America for example, a Minneapolis-based appliance disposal company financed by GE, has constructed a multi-million dollar machine capable of dismantling and separating old refrigerators destined for the landfill into piles of metal, plastic, and foam which can then be resold.

Some companies are taking positive steps towards sustainability when the moves make financial sense.  Walmart adopted energy efficiency targets in 2005 and now claims to be saving over \$200m a year on transport fuel alone.  Mining interests are using solar panels to avoid the infrastructure costs of building conventional power lines to remote locations.  Ikea is getting involved as well as - get this - a Wales coal museum.  Increased likelihood of droughts and other forms of resource scarcity are viewed by many business leaders to be a growing threat.

These examples notwithstanding, sustainable practices are often ignored when they fail to benefit a company’s bottom line, especially in cases where executives are more highly rewarded for a company’s short term profits than its long term health.  Unfortunately, the general public often suffers the consequences.  Natural gas providers still operate with relative immunity despite that their fracking process releases toxins into waterways.  Power companies which emit carbon dioxide contribute to ocean acidification, a cost they do not bear directly but which will permanently disrupt aquatic ecosystems and food chains.

Absent financial incentives or government regulations, firms are unlikely to address sustainability on their own unless prompted by their customers and shareholders.  Fortunately, this barrier is surmountable.  Approximately 2 billion people worldwide are engaged in some form of social media.  While global prices for raw materials are increasing, the costs of communication and social networking are decreasing.  Our collective ability to affect change is gigantic.

Take, for example, the campaign launched by Greenpeace against the food giant Nestle out of concern that the company was purchasing palm oil, an ingredient in many of its products, from firms responsible for the unsustainable destruction of tropical rain forests in Indonesia and elsewhere.  A Greenpeace video showing a baby orangutan being pulled from his mother's arms into trashing equipment went viral.  Protesters bombarded an online Kit Kat page prompting Nestle to issue promises to abandon purchases from firms engaging in those activities.

Ultimately, in a smaller and connected world, the power to bend the corporate curve towards sustainability lies with all of us.  Now, if only someone can build an app for that.

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## David Byrne's Brand New Cycling Music Video

31 Jul

On July 28-29 I attended the 2011 International Green Energy Economy Conference.  The proceedings were mostly interesting and I intend to post some of my thoughts early next week.  However, I didn't want to wait to get this up.

At the conclusion of the conference on Friday, we were given a "special treat" courtesy of David Byrne, the former lead singer of Talking Heads.  In addition to being an artist par excellence, David is also an avid cyclist.  He wrote and arranged the following video, which is a "poem to the bicycle and the people who ride them."  As far as I can tell, this video isn't available anywhere else online.  Enjoy.

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## Addressing the Claim That Climate Change Researchers are Only in it for the Grant Money

1 Jul

As a scientist myself (or at least an apprentice), it utterly confounds me when climate deniers argue that scientists only pretend to believe in climate change because their research grants depend on it.  These arguments are not only slanderous, but expose a deep misunderstanding of how scientists receive funding.

In general, there are two classes of scientist, public and private.  Public scientists are paid a salary through government institutions like NASA or NOAA. As laid out in yesterday’s comments from James Hansen, these scientists are compensated regardless of the outcome of their research, thus there exists no financial incentive to skew results one way or the other.

Private climate scientists are often employed by universities and must actively seek out research funding.  One potential source is our nation’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities.  Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so I’ll discuss its allocation process in greater detail.

Scientists may apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal.  According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative.  Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work.  This process is highly competitive.  Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.

One thing you’ll notice is that research into a plausible alternative theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria.  Given that 97% of climate scientists currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity, a plausible alternative theory clearly constitutes a great scientific advancement, one which would generate waves in many other fields.  So not only are climate deniers not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.

There are other factors which serve to support climate deniers.  First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn prestige and his name in science textbooks.  This is a huge incentive.  Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer should his research cut across the grain.  Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which mitigates consensus groupthink.  Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature.  They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it.  Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation.  It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed.  Scientists yearn for these moments; they do not penalize the search for them.

The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense.  It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it’s conducted!  And even if you think all proposals coming in tacitly acknowledge anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions.  Those missions in total have created the consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.

The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it. For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle.  As the famous Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.”

Except sometimes the prince comes to you.  Because climate change requires corrective actions, corporations that stand to lose in the transition have a strong incentive to spread misinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.  This is a clear example of climate deniers’ arguments working against them.  There are many examples of scientists who receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.

At the end of the day you ultimately need to ask yourself which is more likely: that A) 97% of all scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world's eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading disinformation to forestall action.

Given the current condition of media coverage in the United States, it’s not surprising that so much skewed information abounds.  First, many media agencies like newspapers release dedicated science reporters as margins grow thinner.  Second, the media often mistakes balance with “hearing all side of an issue.”  Granting climate deniers equal air time with members of the 97% majority would be like presenting the opinions of a Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.  Third, the media (television and radio especially) has an incentive to create conflict for ratings.

Ultimately, though, scientists owe it to themselves and to the general public to lift the haze of confusion that surrounds their work.  The public ought to know how its tax dollars are being spent, the valuable research it supports, and the mechanism by which scientists are funded.  Combining this with greater knowledge about the skeptical nature of the scientific process would go a long way towards exposing scientific partially, greed, and impropriety as the myth that it is.

Aside: If you liked this article, please repost it!  It would be a shame if only 3 people got to read it.  Thanks!

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