Coen brothers ad on ‘clean coal’

The Coen Brothers – directors of favourite films of mine like The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? – have made a short advertisement debunking the notion of ‘clean coal.’ It doesn’t have enormously much substantive content, but it does a pretty good job of saying: “Those promising that coal can be clean are lying to you.”

The ad was commissioned by the Reality Coalition.

Good climate policy news: Ontario and the USA

Emily Horn and Morty

I am happy to be able to report on some promising developments, both within my own province and in the giant to the south.

Firstly, the Government of Ontario has tabled a new Green Energy Act. There’s a lot to the 75 page document, but one of the most promising elements is the introduction of feed-in tariffs for renewable generation. Here’s the idea: the bill will make it mandatory for those who own the electrical grid to buy energy from renewable power sources, after connecting them. The price paid for the energy will be set by the province, and it will vary depending on technology, resource intensity, project scale, and location. Tariffs of this kind have been effective at driving renewable deployment in the United States and Germany. The whole bill is online (PDF), as is an executive summary. There is also a guide on what more is required for ratification (PDF). In addition to feed-in tariffs, the bill contains provisions for developing a smart grid, the involvement of First Nations groups, the creation of two funding bodies, and a mandate for conservation. It will also adjust energy pricing (though the issue of how is vague) and streamline the approval process for renewable energy projects.

Secondly, it is worth noting that Obama’s new budget includes projected revenue from a national cap-and-trade system. Grist is discussing it in a three part series: I, II, III. While the projected revenues are low ($83 billion per year by 2020), this is further evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to move forward on this file.

Carbon pricing and the promotion of renewables are both critical elements of a strong overall climate policy. There is reason to hope that after decades of inaction, things will really start to take off in North America within the next couple of years.

[Update: 2 March 2009] Over at Clean Break, Tyler Hamilton has written a good piece on the Green Energy Act. It includes more analysis than the other coverage I have seen.

American bipartisanship

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald has written a piece about the myth that Americans want bipartisanship. While the tone is a bit strident, it does make some good points. Partly, it comes back to the issue of how political systems fundamentally (and necessarily) constrain the expression of voter preferences. The zones of intersection between what voters want and how they are able to express those desires are always of interest, when considering the politics of democratic societies.

Another tricky aspect of this is the need democracies have for a credible opposition. Even if you feel strongly that one party or another should be in power in the US or Canada, you generally don’t want the other leading party to be a complete shambles. If they are, they don’t have the ability to hold the government to account – a role that is often more important than the generation of a competing ideological stance.

When it comes to the United States, it is actually a great shame that the excesses of the Republican party have become so extreme: for instance, their rejection of science, growing xenophobia, obsession with tax cuts at the expense of fiscal responsibility, etc, etc, etc. If they were a party with a platform worth respectfully disagreeing with, the political situation in the United States would be a much more honest and admirable one.

Dealing with space junk

O-Train end station, Ottawa

Junk in space is an increasingly severe problem, as both the quantity of useless debris and the number of useful satellites increases. Aside from international censure, there isn’t especially much that can be done at present to punish those who make the problem worse, as China did when they blew up one of their satellites in 2007.

A good international approach to mitigating the problem might resemble the following: an international agreement among space-faring states to avoid the production of such debris, coupled with a penalty system for situations in which it occurs. The money from the fines could be put into an insurance fund. Then, when collisions take place between unmanned satellites or manned space vehicles, some level of compensation could be paid out of that fund.

Setting up such a system would require the support and goodwill of quite a number of states. Nonetheless, it might help make the regions of space closest to our planet somewhat more orderly and well-governed.

On blog post timing

My current system is to produce two posts a day (sometimes one on weekends or when I am very busy). The first post includes a photo, and is generally the more substantive of the two. One post comes out at a random time between 7:00am and 8:00am Ottawa time. The other, at a random time between 6:00pm and 7:00pm.

Given that almost all the posts are written in advance, these time conventions are arbitrary. Would readers prefer for them to come out at different times? For instance, the first could be released earlier in the morning, for the benefit of those who habitually rise long before me.

Time zones are also a consideration. During the past year, there have been 22,253 visitors from across Canada, 19,789 from the USA, 5,597 from the UK, 1,314 from India, 1,297 from Australia, 642 from Germany, and less than 500 from 165 other states. The times at which posts are released matter most to regular readers, who tend to be in England (GMT), the Toronto-Ottawa area (GMT-5), and the Vancouver area (GMT-8). That means posts come out in Vancouver between 4:00am and 5:00am, as well as between 3:00pm and 4:00pm. In London and Oxford, they come out between noon and 1:00pm, as well as between 11:00pm and midnight.

Also, is the semi-random system preferable to one where they come out at the exact same moment, or would the alternative be better?

The Kindle and electronic books

Ottawa bus stop in winter

In a recent article about Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, The Economist declared that:

It seems likely that, eventually, only books that have value as souvenirs, gifts or artefacts will remain bound in paper.

Despite being a big fan of electronic content delivery systems, I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment. There are considerable advantages to having a personal library of physical books, and there are big disadvantages to taking your books in electronic format.

Physical books possess the many advantages of immediacy. One can display them and quickly glance through the whole collection. One can take notes in them, mark pages, stack them, pass them to others, and so forth. Collections of books are also physical representations of the reading a person has done. I often find that, when I first find myself in someone’s house, flat, or bedroom, their collection of books is the first thing I scrutinize. There is a reason why the personal libraries of intellectuals and political leaders are objects of interest, and I don’t think they would retain the same importance if they consisted of a bunch of PDF or text files.

Electronic books have the same disadvantages as other electronic media: you can’t be confident that they will be intact and accessible decades from now. Furthermore, they are often hobbled with digital rights management (DRM), which means you can never be sure that you can use them on future devices, or in various ways you might wish to. A library stored on a small device may be easier to transport, but it is a lot less trustworthy, durable, and reliable than one that you need to cart around in a heavy collection of boxes.

Electronic books can certainly complement physical ones. It would, for instance, be very valuable to be able to search electronic copies of books you own. A custom search engine, containing all the books in one’s library and that one has borrowed, would be excellent for tracking down particular passages or conducting general research. Partly for these synergistic reasons, and partly for the reasons listed above, I don’t think physical books are ever likely to become rare.

I do see much more promise for electronic periodicals. Hardly anybody wants to keep physical copies of their newspaper or magazine subscriptions on hand: especially when they are available in an easily searchable form online. If I got a Kindle, it would be for the wireless newspaper and Wikipedia access, not for the $10 book downloads.

Nuclear paper published

The February issue of the St. Antony’s International Review contains my article: “Climate Change, Energy Security, and Nuclear Power.” The article is meant to be an introduction to some of the important issues surrounding nuclear power, energy security, and climate change. It remains an issue that I am agnostic about. It may be that nuclear fission is an important transition technology, useful to smooth the transition to a low-carbon global economy. It may also be that it is a subsidized, dangerous boondoggle and a distraction from superior options.

The full text is available here (PDF). Comments would be appreciated.

Monbiot now conditionally supporting nuclear

Andrea Simms-Karp: camera cyclops

In his book Heat, George Monbiot rejects nuclear fission as a low-carbon source of electricity: arguing that it is unacceptably dangerous, and that we could make do without it. In a recent column on his website, he makes it clear that he has joined the ranks of those willing to reluctantly consider nuclear, on the simple grounds that he is so deeply concerned about climate change.

He does, however, have some conditions:

  1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account
  2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
  3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay
  4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

The first of these is important, but a fairly low hurdle. If there wasn’t good evidence that the life cycle emissions of nuclear are low (though they are not zero), it wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention it has been. The second matter is mostly a matter of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Nobody wants a nuclear waste dump in their area, though everyone knows that a safe dump will basically resemble: a deep and well-sealed hole in some very geologically stable rock. The fourth requirement may be a reasonable bar for states with pre-existing nuclear weapons capability, but it is a bit much to expect from states that lack that capacity and face threatening neighbours. In all likelihood, more civilian nuclear power will mean more states with nuclear weapons, a few decades out.

The third issue is the most uncertain: the cost of nuclear power. Regrettably, no government out there actually has the spine to make polluters pay the true cost of their carbon dioxide emissions. Likewise, no government seems to be willing to forego the political opportunities involved in subsidizing technologies like nuclear fission and carbon capture and storage. In all probability, more nuclear will result in taxpayers and electricity consumers subsidizing the mistakes of governments and energy utilities. It may also produce a clunky, dangerous, and expensive infrastructure that was slower to come online and less effective than focusing on conservation, efficiency, and renewables would have been. All that being said, the inevitable costs may be justified as a precaution. If it does become brilliantly clear to the public that climate change requires urgent action – to the extent that people are willing to accept the rapid decommissioning of coal plants – having nuclear as an option might be an important way to facilitate the route forward. Given the risks of climate change, its low-carbon status may also be worth the inevitable accidents and contamination.

I admit that this is an issue where my thoughts remain divided. That being said, barring some big unforeseen change, I think we can definitely expect to see Canada’s nuclear reactors replaced with new ones, during the next few decades, at the very least. The post later today will provide some further thinking on the issue.

Free lectures from top American schools online

As described in this Slate article, a new site called Academic Earth has brought together a large numbers of lecture videos and made them available online for free. Right now, it includes lecturers from Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.

There is a six lecture series on Understanding the Financial Crisis.

Business-as-usual estimates from MIT

Shoe art

Researchers at MIT have updated their climatic models and reached conclusions generally in line with the Hadley Centre in the UK, in terms of the amount of warming that would occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual case, in which no significant emissions reductions are achieved:

[T]here is now a nine percent chance (about one in 11 odds) that the global average surface temperature would increase by more than 7°C (12.6°F) by the end of this century, compared with only a less than one percent chance (one in 100 odds) that warming would be limited to below 3°C (5.4°F).

It is difficult to express how enormous a change 7°C would be. Conservative estimates of the point at which anthropogenic climate change should be considered ‘dangerous’ tend to cluster around the 2°C target adopted by the European Union, and others. As the MIT model suggests, a world that does not mitigate emissions may face a 99% probability of experiencing average warming a full degree above that target.

When politicians talking about climate change say that they ‘accept the science,’ people should be asking them if these kinds of projections are part of the science they accept. If so, they ought to be asked why they are treating climate change with such an utter lack of seriousness, concentrating far more on matters of fleeting political concern. In retrospect, it seems that people three or four generations from now will judge our current leaders largely on the basis of their failure to respond effectively to this threat.