Friday, March 29, 2013

Climate Change and Island Fever

Thanks to Chuck Burrows for sharing a link to an article in Grist magazine about the high carbon cost of flying (link). In sheer CO2 emissions, one flight mile emits just under 1 pound of CO2. A vehicle that averages 22 MPG would emit CO2 at the same rate. The global warming effect of airplane emissions, however, may be 2-5 times higher than from a car.
For those traveling cross-country, taking a train or even driving the family sedan may seem like the better alternative. Those of us in Hawaii have little choice but to fly; and going anywhere means 2500+ flight miles.
I do my best to keep my carbon footprint low. My wife and I average 3000 miles/yr driving. We don't use the window-unit A/C in our condo. We eat a lot of fresh produce, have CFLs throughout the house, and put our computer and entertainment electronics on power strips that are turned off when we're not using them. Even our 3-yr-old turns off our 16-yr-old TV by switching off the power strip. Despite that, we average about 1 trip/yr to the mainland US to visit family, most of whom are on the East Coast. I make at least one additional trip overseas or to the US mainland for work. While that helps with our frequent flier perks, it doesn't help our carbon footprint. In fact, more than half our footprint is due to flying. My guess is a lot of Hawaii residents are in the same situation.
What are we to do: suffer through island fever and "visit" family and colleagues exclusively on Skype? Even if we decided to do that, living in Hawaii is from a GHG emissions standpoint an attractive nuisance; we've had more visitors here than any place we lived on the mainland US.
It's not a fair choice, really. However, it does highlight the kinds of big choices we make about not just how we live our lives but where. Perhaps the environmental catch-phrase of the 21st century should be "Think global (warming), live local." Investing our lives in our local communities enriches us in ways that world-hopping simply cannot. Staying connected to family, friends, and the world around us is important, but the everyday enounters and daily interactions are what mattter the most to our well-being. Fortunately, telecommunications advances have rapidly made keeping in touch remotely much easier and richer. Face-to-face interactions are still invaluable and necessary in life and work, but if we spent a bit more time building community locally, we would probably find less desire to hop on a plane to Vegas or San Francisco to get away from it all. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Human Rights and Climate Change Policy

Reposting a concise article on how a human rights framework can help inform climate change policy (link). The moral dimensions of climate change extend beyond providing a motivation for taking action; they also include what kinds of action we should take. Traditional religious ethics and mission work are particularly relevant to these discussions.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Climate Change THE Political Issue

A recent poll illustrated the rapid turn-around in public opinion on the reality of human-caused climate change and the need for action (link). While the poll segregated respondents into their preferences for the 2012 Presidential election, it is clear that a majority of the American people are ready and willing for national leadership and action on climate change. While opponents (and frankly, supporters) of such action are keen to use climate change as a polarizing or "wedge" issue, I think there is a convergence of issues and national sentiment that can make addressing climate change a central policy theme for the next Congress and Presidential administrations. Here's why:

1. Building a 21st-century infrastructure.
The aging of America's infrastructure–roads, electricity generation and distribution, water and sewer, etc–has become well-publicized in the past few years. Upgrades and replacements are desperately needed, and state and local governments recognize the economic stimulus these projects generate. Coupling the need for infrastructure improvements with climate change and sustainable resource use is a no-brainer. It's not just taking care of present needs, it's building for the future. The economic, social, and environmental benefits (i.e. "sustainability") of past efforts to improve resource efficiency (energy, water, waste management) are undeniable. We need a national effort to remake America's infrastructure–from local to international–that links the needs of people and the planet together to achieve a sustainable and just future.

2.  Regaining leadership in exportable green technologies.
Renewable energy, organic agriculture, industrial ecology, green architecture, smart growth, and many others. These areas of sustainable R&D should be promoted as the future we want for ourselves and frankly the only future that will support a just and prosperous planet of 9+ billion people. The US is not the only or even the most important innovator or promoter of these technologies, but we are uniquely capable of developing, testing, and promoting these technologies for different purposes and situations, from dense urban cities to rural agricultural areas. We should bring the best minds and best innovators from around the world here to develop these technologies, then export them, through private enterprise and development projects. Given that China has recently surpassed the US as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, this outward-looking approach is probably going to be more important than what we do to reduce our domestic GHG emissions.

3. National security and foreign relations.
Even those who support more domestic fossil fuel production recognize the fact that importing fossil fuels is a major contributor to our expensive (economically and socially) military adventures around the globe. While drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will have no discernible effect of gas prices (since oil prices are set by global production and trade), replacing fossil fuels with domestically produced renewable energy sources will improve our national security. It won't solve all our international disputes and entanglements, but it will help both in the short- and the long-run. Since countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are heavily dependent upon oil exports, moving to renewable energy production globally will force economic and social transformations in these countries. It won't be easy or pretty in most cases, but the transformations will arise internally, taking away the rallying cry of "foreign devils" or meddling interventions that keep oppressive regimes in power. It will also transform US foreign policy and strategic interests, which is a major cause of US-directed terrorism. Terrorism as an instrument of rebellion and civil unrest is here to stay, but the justifications for our "war on terror", which does nothing but feed the hatred of our foreign policy and military adventurism, will largely evaporate. We will have the capacity to remake our global alliances based on peace, democracy, freedom, and justice rather than shared economic or military interests. This extends beyond countries that are fossil fuel producers to those whose export industries are reliant on cheap fossil fuels, such as agriculture and heavy manufacturing.

4. A future of our choosing
Notice I haven't mentioned sacrifices in consumption or standards of living. Achieving a sustainable future and ending anthropogenic climate change will require significant changes in our lifestyles, but if there's anything that is constant in the universe, it is change. In the past, such changes were driven by large economic and social forces, and we reacted to them. The Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, two world wars, the rise of personal computing and the internet, the oil crisis of the 70's, the 9-11 attacks: these were all major events that forced us to undergo big changes in our lifestyles. Anthropogenic climate change is the next emerging major force, and we are going to have to adapt to it. If we are proactive, we can co-create a future that advances prosperity, justice, peace, and a greater quality of life for everyone on the planet. If we continue to be reactive, then we have little control over the outcomes and will find ourselves increasingly frustrated and powerless. Tea Party activists are promoting personal choice and freedoms. I agree, but real choice and freedom come from working together within communities to build the kind of society that allows us to make those choices. The message of politicians who want to address climate change should be that government can and should be a leader in helping to shape and build that future that allows us to enjoy the freedoms embodied in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the Constitution. Continuing our dependence on a fossil fuel-driven economy and society not only is counter to the goals of freedom, it is undermining the sustainability of a prosperous and just future for people and the planet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peak Oil is the Least of our Worries

Bill McKibben has written another powerful and chilling piece on climate change, this time in Rolling Stone magazine (link). In it he highlights a few very important numbers concerning fossil fuels and climate change. The scariest one is the amount of carbon stored in known reserves of fossil fuels on the planet, 2795 Gigatons. That dwarfs the amount the atmosphere can handle and maintain any reasonable temperature increase due to global warming (which scientists set at about 2 degrees Celcius). Prior to the latest economic bubble bust, the concept of peak oil was getting a lot of coverage due to the concern about increasing demand and prices relative to known oil reserves. Now that frakking has made billions if not trillions of cubic feet of natural gas available for mining, no one much talks about peak oil anymore. Even if frakking hadn't opened up new natural gas reserves, the world has enough coal to keep polluting the skies and running Industrial Age economies for a century or more.

Economists often like to take a value-neutral stance when it comes to such issues as global warming, assuring us that human ingenuity, market forces, and advances in technology will cure what ails us. But what McKibben has made clear is that the no invisible and price-driven hand will be able to avert the global-scale catastrophes that global warming is already causing. With past progressive movements, such as the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and minorities, and protection of the environment, economists may point to things like changing economic and technological forces that made slavery and suppression of women's full participation as workers and consumers inefficient and uneconomical and fouling of the environment counter-productive and unnecessary. While interesting, it assumes changing economics and technology are necessary (if not sufficient) for societies to take effective action. 

Regardless of what you think of that argument in general, global warming and climate change simply cannot wait for market forces or technological shifts to make the move away from fossil fuel use toward renewable energy production and sustainable economies inevitable or more efficient. Such changes must be spurred by the moral call to action and the political will to do what is right, not what is expedient. That is why people of faith cannot sit on the sidelines on this issue or urge patience and moderation, as southern ministers asked of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight for civil rights. The continuing struggle to overcome ingrained predjudice against minorities and women, e.g. unequal pay, home loan discrimination, and voter ID laws, all speak to the need for a strong moral foundation to ensure we uphold the ideals of the nation and the values we hold most dear as people of faith. Bill McKibben's latest essay not only reinforces the importance of global warming and energy use as moral issues but moreover the need for people of faith to speak out and take action to make it a personal, social, and political priority.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Bogeyman of Higher Prices

The previous blog summarized the perspective of a conservative environmentalist who argues for tackling climate change. One of the tactics he proposes, which is anathema to conservatives bullied by tea party activists and Grover Norquist, is to impose a hefty tax on activities that generate greenhouse gases. Economists generally agree that this is a pretty effective way to get people to voluntarily change their behavior. For example, taxes on tobacco products have been shown to have disproportionate effects on smoking by teens, since they don't generally have the same amount of discretionary income as working adults. The increase in the price of gasoline due to the increased cost of oil has led to declines in miles driven in the US and a shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles.  In the medium-term, it should affect commuting habits and even suburban sprawl (although the housing crisis has been pretty effective, as well).

Although advocates for tackling climate change see this as good news, the economic concern is that higher prices for basic goods like electricity and transportation fuels take money away from other economic activities and increase the cost of most other manufactured goods. This is especially true in Hawaii, where most of our goods are imported over the ocean in large container ships. It's also disproportionately hard on the poor and small businesses. Thus, the ways in which we tackle climate change matter from a moral and religious perspective. Fairness, justice, and care for the poor and vulnerable are relevant values to consider alongside stewardship of Creation.

Having lived in California and now Hawaii, I know first-hand how a high cost of living constrains your choices in life and can be a real burden for those who are poor and economically insecure. At the same time, I know that people will voluntarily make tremendous sacrifices to achieve what they most value in life, including moving to California and Hawaii to enjoy the opportunities and quality of life they offer. Money is not the most important thing in life by a long shot, and our stewardship of Creation is or at least should be one of those basic things that is more important than money. 

As people of faith, we need to make and stress that argument when confronted with the "higher prices" bogeyman. Even within an economic perspective, our choices of how to spend our money should reflect the value we get from those expenditures. Just as the cost of sin taxes are justified by the tremendous benefits, we need to make the argument that taxing and regulating greenhouse gas emissions will yield tremendous social benefits to the things that really matter to us, things that we are willing to (and indeed do) sacrifice for all the time. At the same time, we should be aware of how these increased costs affect the poor and vulnerable, providing mechanisms to reduce this burden so that they don't have to make the choice of whether to eat or pay the electricity bill. There are numerous ways to address these concerns, and faith communities have a long history of direct action and advocacy for change in these areas. Thus, the IPL network can play an important role in the public conversation, the policy debates, and the concrete actions to change hearts and minds, change behavior, change institutions, and thereby change the world for the better.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Conservative's Take On Climate Change

Jonathan Adler writes an interesting piece on a conservative approach to dealing with climate change in The Atlantic (link). His justification comes from one of personal responsibility, a core conservative value, and tries to minimize the role of government in direct decision-making or picking winners and losers. He recognizes the special vulnerability of poor people and nations and our duty to do no harm to them through our collective actions. He also provides copious links to conservative pieces written about climate change previously, most of which criticize mainstream liberal approaches to dealing with climate change.

This piece is quite valuable for providing a positive conservative perspective on dealing with climate change. It is irresponsible to continue denying, decrying, demonizing, or denigrating the fact of climate change, its importance, and the need to take action. Many complementary approaches are needed to deal with the myriad technological, social, economic, and political challenges climate change present. These approaches may have different practical advantages and disadvantages, but for people of faith, they also represent a diversity of moral and religious justifications and motivations. For liberal Christians, taking action on climate change is a no-brainer. For conservative Christians, there have not been enough people like Adler to outline how their distinctive moral and religious values and perspectives translates into positive action and policy decisions on climate change. The discourse has been dominated by negativity, which is at the very least unsatisfying for conservatives who still feel the moral and religious injustices of human-caused climate change.

Personally, I think the social conscience of America is moving inevitably toward not only an acceptance of the reality of climate change but also the consensus that we need to make fundamental changes to deal with it. Thinkers like Adler are providing the groundwork for a perspective and approach on how we can respond to climate change that upholds the values that are important to political and religious conservatives. With an agreement on the need to act, we can then work together across the religious and political landscape to make a difference. In the end, that will be much more effective and more acceptable than trying to go it alone or fighting all the way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Climate Change is Risky for Insurance Companies

Ceres posted a joint press release with insurance company executives about the potential business costs of climate change for the industry (link). Losses from natural disasters caused by extreme weather events doubled in 2011, and projections from the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment (link) predict climate change is only going to continue or worsen this level of damage. This affects not just poor and vulnerable communities in developing countries—who are highly unlikely to be insured, anyway—but middle-class and wealthy communities in the US and other countries who do have private insurance. And that means not only increased premiums but also less favorable coverage and less competition in the marketplace. Thus, although we at Interfaith Power and Light emphasize issues of justice and stewardship with respect to climate change, the insurance risks illustrate once again that doing the right thing is also doing the prudent thing and ultimately the sustainable thing for ourselves, others, and the planet.