Electricity pricing can be interesting. Really.

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation in July 2010. Little did they know they would one day anchor a feature-article lead.

I’ve  done some writing for the Rocky Mountain Institute this year, which I’ve enjoyed because a) I have a ton of respect for Amory Lovins and his organization’s work (Natural Capitalism and Reinventing Fire being a couple of good examples). My latest piece, with a big assist from RMI editor Pete Bronski, posted today.

Pete called earlier this summer and said eLab, one of RMI’s many initiatives, was coming out with a report outlining a path to more rational means of pricing electricity in the United States. One’s first reaction to the idea of writing 2,000 journalistic words on electricity pricing should always be reluctance.

But within about 30 seconds on the phone I recalled that this is an important topic. It’s also a timely one, it turns out. States around the country are legislating, or considering legislating, added fees for solar and other renewable energy, which utilities say are needed because today’s century-old pricing approaches don’t reflect the system costs of solar (transmission and distribution, the need for baseload backup and so on). Solar proponents counter that they don’t reflect the benefits, either (environmental, peak-shaving and so on). So parties with very different motivations seem to agree that the system could use an overhaul, the outlines of which an RMI team sketched out.

So please spend 11 minutes reading  the story (that’s the RMI website estimate, and RMI people are pretty good with numbers).

New Yorker shows Swiss, Syngenta can be scum

corn field

At Syngenta, corn apparently trumps male genitalia.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv did a great investigative piece on the tactics Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta (once part of Novartis) has used to discredit scientists – UC Berkeley’s Tyrone Hayes in particular – whose studies show their products to be harmful to amphibians and, probably humans.

The European Union has banned atrazine; they sell about $300 million of the chemical in the United States still. Study after study – except those done by Syngenta scientists, of course – show it to deform the privates of boy frogs or change them into girl frogs outright. Atrazine is clearly an endocrine disruptor. The story cites an epidemeological study showing baby boys conceived in the late spring and early summer months, when atrazine gets sprayed on our nation’s corn crops, have a high incidence of undescended testicles and undersized penises. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because of a law passed in during the George W. Bush administration, is having a hard time getting it banned here.

Aviv’s story shows the extraordinary lengths companies will go to cast doubt on scientists whose findings might impact their bottom lines, and the lack of humanity they can embody in these cases. Just as Ford did cost-benefit analyses relating to exploding Pintos back in the day, Syngenta sacrifices little boys and innocent frogs so they can pad their Swiss bank accounts (they don’t care much about bees, either, apparently). The subpoenaed notebooks of Syngenta’s public-affairs lady were particularly chilling. Lesson: the Swiss make good chocolate and have lovely mountains, but can be total scum.

Predictably, Syngenta is calling into question what will doubtless prove to be bullet-proof reporting. Merchants of doubt.

The implications here extend well beyond Syngenta – clearly a bad actor in this case, but not alone. The company is not inherently evil, but incentive structures drive behavior that is evil: money over people. Or more accurately, our people (our executives, employees, and shareholders) over the people. The company then has the advantage of deep pockets, dedicated employees and friendly legal-regulatory frameworks to advance the interest of the our over the the.

These kinds of revelations make further mockery of the catastrophic Citizens United case declaring corporations to be people. Corporations are made up of people, but they are just machines people build and inhabit to limit liability and operate in perpetuity with the inexorable goal of capturing profits. Often, they do so in generally beneficial ways and use acceptable tactics. Cases like this demonstrate the darker side, one that shows corporations to be beasts in need of restraint. Banning atrazine in the United States would be a good start.

The happiest doomsday clock

I’m on the Asahi Glass Foundation mailing list. Despite being made of glass, this is a serious foundation, most famous for its annual bestowing of the Blue Planet Prize.

When I say mailing  list, I mean this literally — you get paper-based mail. The interesting thing that, despite being based in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, my mail from the Asahi Glass Foundation comes via Brunei, on the northern tip of Borneo. I once spent a night in an airport there.

In addition to the Blue Planet Prize, the foundation does something called the “Questionnaire on Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind.” I fill it out every April (one can do this online). The most recent results were apparently released on Sept. 5, 2013. I just got them a few days ago, perhaps because they’re mailing via Brunei.

I was one of 1,364 respondents last April. The survey asked questions about the perceived nature of environmental problems and their possible consequences. Going in-depth here is beyond the scope of this post (all 22  years’ worth of .pdfs are posted here). Suffice it to say that we respondents collectively set the environmental doomsday clock at 9:19 p.m. At 161 minutes to midnight, we were considerably more optimistic than the folks over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose doomsday clock stands at 5 minutes to midnight. We gave the planet four more minutes than the previous year, though 90 minutes less than when the folks at Asahi launched the survey in 1992.

It is a very serious survey, querying our sense of major environmental concerns (biodiversity, climate change, pollution/contamination, water availability, population pressure, food scarcity, land-use problems) and the levers we might collectively pull to ease them (involving renewable energy, urban infrastructure, education, regulation, energy conservation, poverty reduction, tech transfer and other tools).

It breaks the prioritizations down by country and region, which is interesting. In the Middle East, zero percent of respondents believed that “stringent standards for auto emissions and energy waste” were desirable government measures to mitigate environmental burdens. Imagine that. In “Korea” (my guess this means South Korea, most North Koreans being too malnourished to type), 24 percent thought this might be a good idea.

The survey’s crowning achievement, though, was in a separate sheet of paper, which I photographed on my kitchen floor.

Asahi Glass Foundation Environmental Doomsday Clock 2013

This has not been photoshopped.

My eight year old was like, “What’s that?”

“It’s a doomsday clock,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and was off to play Subway Surfer on her Christmas Kindle Fire.

My initial reaction was to chuckle at the depiction. I mean, who names a rabbit “Gring?” (As a white rabbit, “Gringo” might have worked, though). Or is the name “Grin” after all (see the bottom-center of the wheel)? And these other characters — what’s with the pumpkin dude and the three-eyed rabbit-alien? Why is the panda a doll and not real? And if that’s Dumbo, did you get the OK from Disney?

But on second thought, I began to wonder if maybe the Asahi people aren’t onto something. Scads of dry, terrifying IPCC reports haven’t turned much of a tide — certainly they haven’t affected Middle Eastern survey respondents. The great problem with environmental communication — particularly climate communication — is that it’s faceless. It’s about the fish tank and not the fish. Maybe we need more colorful little Grings and Woodins and crowned elephants and blue dragons. Hello Kitty, another Japanese development, may be widely mocked, but it’s universal. Maybe cute is just what we need to connect people with the drivers of environmental doomsday.

Snorkeling in seven-degree weather

Lily and Maya in the water at Denver Divers

Lily and Maya with their snorkeling instructor this afternoon at Denver Divers.

Occasionally the full ridiculousness of modern, rich-country existence slaps you square on the cheek. It should happen more often. This morning, I was washing off fresh raspberries when I told Maya, 8, “You know, this is kind of miraculous. It’s two degrees Fahrenheit outside and here are these raspberries.”

Scuba tanks and snow

Scuba tanks in wait beneath a window shielding them from the 7-degree weather outside.

That wasn’t the slap, though — merely the sort of thing we should all take a moment now and then to consider. Rather, not three hours later, we were over at Denver Divers at 6th Avenue and Milwaukee (in Milwaukee, the dive shop is at Sixth and Denver). I have driven by the shop hundreds of times and always chuckled at the idea of a dive shop at a mile elevation. One of the great alliterative oxymorons in retailing, probably. But an interesting place inside, full of gear and fins and masks and wet suits for sale, most without prices (if you’re hardcore enough to dive in Denver, one spares no expense). It was also tropically humid. One of the lady workers was chipping thick ice from the bottom of the swinging metal-glass doors.

It  was humid because about half the square footage is occupied by a sizable swimming pool. In it, the girls took a snorkeling lesson. Because it is inadvisable to snorkel without proper training. It was 7 degrees outside at the time. Weirdest thing was, once they were in the water, it didn’t seem strange at all.

 

New climates, unknown consequences ahead

IPCC - global surface temperature now and in the future.
Aggressive climate action ASAP (left figure) minimizes future warming. Inaction (right figure) results in catastrophic levels of warming, 9°F over much of U.S. (Via ClimateProgress, IPCC)

If the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report didn’t scare you, a study in the journal Nature should do the trick. It may have a dull title (“The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability”), but it makes up for it with alarming findings.

The abstract is, as abstracts tend to be, clinical:

Ecological and societal disruptions by modern climate change are critically determined by the time frame over which climates shift beyond historical analogues. Here we present a new index of the year when the projected mean climate of a given location moves to a state continuously outside the bounds of historical variability under alternative greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. Using 1860 to 2005 as the historical period, this index has a global mean of 2069 (±18 years s.d.) for near-surface air temperature under an emissions stabilization scenario and 2047 (±14 years s.d.) under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. Unprecedented climates will occur earliest in the tropics and among low-income countries, highlighting the vulnerability of global biodiversity and the limited governmental capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. Our findings shed light on the urgency of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions if climates potentially harmful to biodiversity and society are to be prevented.

What’s this really saying?

These researchers considered the long-term average temperatures places all over the world, and then figured out how far into the future they would have to go until global warming pushed the average temperature in these places above the hottest of the 145 years from the end of the Civil War through 2005. When your hottest year becomes your average year, you’re in a new climate.

Alastair Doyle of Reuters explained it this way:

Billions of people could be living in regions where temperatures are hotter than their historical ranges by mid-century, creating a “new normal” that could force profound changes on nature and society, scientists said on Wednesday.

 

Temperatures in an average year would be hotter by 2047, give or take 14 years, than those in the warmest year from 1860-2005 if the greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with the tropics the first affected area, a new index indicated.

 

“The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon,” lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii said. “Within my generation whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.”

 

The data suggested the cities to be hit earliest included Manokwari in Indonesia, which could shift to a new climate from 2020 and Kingston, Jamaica, from 2023 under the fastest scenario of change.

 

At the other extreme, Moscow would depart from historical variability only in 2063 and Anchorage in 2071.

The year 2047 isn’t that far away. My kids will be about my age then. I may still be alive, even. My kids will have every right to be angry with me for my part in all this.

Maybe it’s the federal shutdown, maybe it’s the fossil-industry-funded denier machine, maybe I was closer to it in 2007 when I covered the IPCC’s fourth assessment report as a writer for the Daily Camera in Boulder. But it feels like there’s less interest in these kinds of stories now than there was six years ago, despite carbon-dioxide concentrations having risen and its consequences becoming irrefutably clear.