Monthly Archives: October 2009

USGS: Americans More Water-Conscious Overall

Craig MIller

Lake Mead in October, 2009 Photo: Craig Miller

Despite the addition of 81 million people over the period, Americans were using less water in 2005 than they were in 1975, according to the latest numbers released from the USGS.

The per-capita decrease of 30% since 2000, down to 1383 gallons per person per day, is a level not seen since the 1950s.  Of course this doesn’t mean that each person in the United States is using more than a thousand gallons per day at home–that number is somewhere between 54 (if you live in Maine) and 190 (if you live in Nevada).  The USGS number is derived from dividing total water withdrawals by total population.  In 2005, the total withdrawal was 410 billion gallons per day (5% less than in the peak year, 1980) and the total population was approximately 310 million.

An analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute finds that the changes in national water use are due to improvements in efficiency, particularly in industrial use and irrigation. However, the largest category of water use–that used for producing energy–is growing (by 3% between 2000 and 2005), and the analysis cites this as a worrying trend as the population increases, particularly in dry parts of the country.  In 2005, 49% of all water withdrawals were for cooling power plants.

“Far more water is required for nuclear and fossil fuel energy systems than for most renewable energy systems,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, in a statement about the new numbers.  “Water availability will increasingly limit our energy choices as climate change accelerates and population continues to grow.” California’s two commercial nuclear plants are located on the coast and use sea water for cooling.

More efficient farming seems to be one of the bright spots in the report.  Irrigation withdrawals in 2005 declined to the 1970 level of 1.28 billion gallons per day, even though the amount of irrigated land in the nation has increased by millions of acres since 1970.  It seems that American agriculture is, in fact, doing more with less, thanks to more efficient sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. Even so, agriculture still claims about 77% of “developed” water in California, according to Ellen Hanak, water policy analyst with the Pubic Policy Institute of California.

The Pacific Institute commentary added some sobering notes:

The United States, although relatively water-rich, faces a range of threats to its vital supplies of freshwater. Overuse has turned the Colorado River into little more than a trickle. Overuse and contamination threaten the massive Ogallala aquifer, which runs from Texas to South Dakota and is an important source of irrigation and drinking water. Political and economic conflicts are growing between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia over water use. And other serious threats to our water resources – including climate change, environmental destruction, and population growth – remain unaddressed.

Household water use across the country is growing proportionately to U.S. population growth.  While people are becoming more water-efficient at home, these behavioral changes are being balanced out by a shift in population to hotter, drier areas, such as the Southwest.

The Pacific Institute’s Circle of Blue Water News has interactive maps showing which states have decreased their water withdrawals between 2000 and 2005 and total water withdrawals by state for this time period, as well as charts tracking U.S. water withdrawals since 1950.

11/18/09 Update:
Listen to audio of Peter Gleick discussing the report’s findings on today’s broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition.

Attitudes about Climate Change are Shifting. Is Yours?


One possible Facebook results "badge" from KQED's "Matter of Degree" survey

Coinciding with the release of a Climate Watch Facebook survey that explores attitudes toward climate change, a new national poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows that the percentage of people who believe that climate change is a reality has decreased significantly in the past year.  Last year, 71%  nationwide believed the Earth was warming, regardless of the cause. This year the number is 57%.

Yesterday, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, and Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change joined Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation to discuss changing attitudes about climate change. (You can listen to the 30-minute segment or read the transcript here.)

Kohut said that the economy most likely plays a large role in the drop.  The number of respondents who assigned a top priority to protecting the environment dropped from 56% to 41% in this year’s study, while the proportion who chose dealing with the economy rose to 85%.  That squares with another part of the survey, in which fewer people said they were willing to protect the environment if it meant slowing economic growth or higher energy prices.

“I think what happens,” said Kohut on yesterday’s program, “is if you’re giving [the environment] a low priority, people will sometimes develop a rationale for that low priority. So you have more people saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not all that serious’…”

Kohut also pointed out that the cool summer experienced by much of the country this year could have played a role in the apparent flagging acceptance of climate change.

The Pew report, released last week, shows a dramatic partisan split in attitudes toward climate change.  Just thirty-two percent of conservative Republicans believe there is solid evidence for global warming, compared with 83% of liberal Democrats, according to Pew.

Leiserowitz discussed his research into attitudes about climate change, which was done in collaboration with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

“This research really came from the recognition that Americans don’t speak with a single voice about climate change,” said Leiserowitz. “And what we found, in fact, is that there are six different Americas within America on this particular issue.” National surveys of attitudes toward climate change often yield very different results from polls in California, where there has been greater acceptance of the warming concept in general, as well as the role of human activity in it.

The original Yale-George Mason study, called “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” divides survey-takers into six psychographic groups: Alarmed (18%), Concerned (33%), Cautious (19%), Disengaged (12%), Doubtful (11%), and Dismissive (7%).

Climate Watch teamed up with Leiserowitz and his colleague Ed Maibach from GMU, to create an online version of this survey, called “A Matter of Degree.”  You can take the survey on KQED’s website or on Facebook.  Both versions allow you to compare your results to those of the original study as well as all online survey-takers.  With the Facebook version you can also compare your results with your Facebook “friends” who have already taken the survey and can invite new friends to take the survey.  The Facebook application also features a discussion area where respondents can share thoughts about the climate change and the survey itself, and there are links to learn more about each profile “type”.

What’s your climate profile?  Take the survey and find out.

Big Journeys Begin with Small Steps

kayla-c-headshotSaturday is an “International Day of Action” organized by Greenpeace, which claims 4,800 events are scheduled around the world toward “a safe climate future.”

This seems like a good time to check in with one of our 2009 California Climate Champions. In this post, Kayla Clark of Atascadero describes her efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by targeting those ubiquitous disposable water bottles  at her school.

In my observation, sometimes when faced with the reality of climate change, we’re frightened. It can be a normal reaction to run back to our previous habits, jump in the large SUV, leave the lights on, and plead ignorance.  It’s indisputable that there is a serious issue that must be dealt with, but only through breaking down the problem to approachable and accessible goals can we hope to improve the situation.

My name is Kayla Clark, and I am a California Climate Champion and a junior at Templeton High School.  California Climate Champions is a program sponsored by the British Council in partnership with California Air Resources Board that selects young people throughout the state who are leaders in communicating about climate change to their communities.  There are 25 of us all together and the program enables us to work with one another to discuss climate change with a wider audience.

Each California Climate Champion is responsible for completing an individual project to communicate about climate change to his or her own community.  My project is to reduce the number of plastic water bottles purchased at my school and in my community by selling reusable water bottles on campus, as well as coordinating the development of a more attractive water source on campus.  For two years, I have seen hundreds of disposable water bottles purchased daily at Templeton High School. We do have recycling bins on campus but many students don’t utilize these bins. I estimate that maybe twenty students occasionally use reusable water bottles on my campus.

The goal of my project is to use water bottles to share a wider message. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing student consumption of disposable water bottles, and we can permanently change behavior–even if that means affecting only the smallest of lifestyle choices.  At the core of these goals has always been communication. For me, that has meant sharing information at my high school, collaboration with my campus environmental club, and committing to speaking engagements and volunteer opportunities.

I realize that I can’t undertake my water bottle task alone. For that reason I’ve contacted and partnered with my school’s environmental club and my school principal so that we can work together on this project, and they have both been extremely supportive. Having a local network is very encouraging.

I’ve also had a couple of great opportunities to speak with different groups about climate change. I have addressed the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) at their July board meeting and the San Luis Obispo Exchange Club.  Both experiences were really interesting, as many of the audience members had basic questions about climate change and the science behind it, so answering their questions was really exciting.

My presentations are also leading to an expanded network with new opportunities.  From my presentation with APCD, I was given the chance to volunteer at my local farmers’ market for the APCD “Food Miles” booth.  We gave out free reusable grocery bags, and educated the community about food transportation and its impact on our climate, as well as the benefits of eating locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s true that as a concerned teenager implementing reusable water bottle usage, my audience isn’t the largest. But my project is more than giving students a new water bottle and telling them to fill it up daily. I am trying to influence behavior.

I feel that my actions are part of a ripple effect and by raising awareness to the pressing issues, more ripples are being made and more students and adults are opening their eyes.

The California Climate Champions program is the U.S. component of the British Council’s International Climate Champions program, which identifies young people around the world who are leaders in communicating about climate change and engaging their communities in action. In the US, the program is co-sponsored with the California Air Resources Board (ARB) and selects 10-15 high school students from across the state each year.

See photos from the International Day of Action event in San Francisco.

Wind Picks Up While Solar Costs Drop

Solar Gain

In green building circles, the term “solar gain” refers to how much a place heats up during the day, from sun exposure. This week marked “gains” for both solar and wind energy development in California. For years, the buzz around solar power has centered on how rapidly the cost of photovoltaic systems would drop enough to make it truly competitive.

Solar panels shade the parking lot at Genentech in Vacaville.

Solar panels shade a corporate parking lot in Vacaville, CA.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab released its second annual “Tracking the Sun” report this week, which actually tracks the cost of harnessing the sun’s energy in the U.S. It finds that the last decade (1998 to 2008) has seen the cost of installed photovoltaic power drop by 30%, averaged nationwide, although there were some short-term quirks. Among the “key findings:”

Preliminary cost data indicates that the average cost of projects installed through the California Solar Initiative program during the first 8½ months of 2009 rose by $0.4/W (per watt) relative to 2008, while average costs in New Jersey declined by $0.2/W over the same period.

That’s an interesting quirk at a time of generally low inflation and would seem to resonate with our recent report from Rob Schmitz, comparing the “red tape” cost factors between California and Japan (sorry, we didn’t get to New Jersey). Of course in markets, as in climate science, short-term fluctuations aren’t necessarily meaningful.

While the authors surveyed data from 16 states, they note that the results are “heavily skewed towards systems in California and New Jersey, where the vast majority of PV systems in the U.S. have been installed.” So clearly, California is participating in the longer-term trend of declining costs.

Average installed costs vary widely across states; among ≤10 kW systems completed in 2008, average costs range from a low of $7.3/W in Arizona (followed by California, which had average installed costs of $8.2/W) to a high of $9.9/W in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This variation in average installed cost across states, as well as comparisons with Japan and Germany, suggest that markets with large PV deployment programs tend to have lower average installed costs for residential PV, though exceptions exist.

The report noted three incentive programs in California that are encouraging solar installations in new construction: the Emerging Renewables Program, the New Home Solar Partnership Program, and the California Solar Initiative, and confirms that solar has gone mainstream, with 88% of systems connected to the grid. The LBNL report finds that overall, the main driver in recent cost declines has been the cost of PV panels themselves, as opposed to other components that solar systems require.

The report contains a wealth of charts and graphs to fascinate the solar wonk. You can download the 50-page report as a PDF file.

Wind picking up

Also this week, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) released third-quarter figures (PDF download) for large-scale wind energy  installations, logging 1,649 megawatts (MW) of new power generating capacity. The figure shows growth from the previous quarter and a running total of 5,800 MW of new capacity for the year, so far.

California clocks in at third among states with the most installed wind capacity, behind Texas and Iowa–but the Golden State does not place in the top five, in recent growth.

AWEA continues to voice consternation over a longer-term tailing off in wind turbine construction and manufacturing, especially in the U.S:

…the 5,000 MW now under construction is nearly 38% lower than the over 8,000 MW under construction at this time last year. A firm, long-term national commitment to renewable energy is still needed for the U.S. to become a wind turbine manufacturing powerhouse and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

AWEA calculates the total operating wind power capacity in the U.S. to be about 31,000 MW, enough to power “the equivalent of nearly 9 million homes, avoiding the emissions of 57 million tons of carbon annually and reducing expected carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2.5%.” Average power consumption per household varies considerably from state to state.

Brower Youth Award

For the past three years, Adarsha Shivakumar has worked nights and weekends to run a non-profit dedicated to helping impoverished Indian farmers produce biofuels. He has formed an alliance with an NGO and a biotech company to ensure that growers get a good price for their product. And he has used personal funds to purchase seedlings for villagers willing to try a sustainable crop.

Not a bad resume for a 16-year-old.

Earth Island Institute

Brower winner Adarsha Shivakumar. Photo: Earth Island Institute

This week the Pleasant Hill native received the prestigious Brower Youth Award for “environmental leadership,” at a ceremony in San Francisco. He is being honored for mixing economics and environmentalism, in his efforts to aid tobacco farmers in India’s Karnataka region.

Shivakumar, who acts as though founding a non-profit is something most high school juniors do in their spare time, grew up visiting the region annually with his family. While there, he was taken aback by the hard life of the local tobacco farmers. His Indian relatives told him that the workers were at the mercy of the crop’s unstable price.

By the time he was twelve he had another realization: the farmers’ over-reliance on tobacco was leading to the slow-motion demolition of a nearby national forest.

“When we went there each year, what we noticed was that more and more sections of forest were just disappearing on the outskirts,” the Oakland College Preparatory High School student said. “This was due to tobacco growing, because what happens is the farmers have to cure the tobacco that they grow, and that requires firewood–a lot of firewood: two kilograms plus of firewood for one kilogram of tobacco.”

“It’s having a huge impact on the wildlife there. Each year…the forest is just steadily being destroyed,” he said.

So the American pre-teen decided to do something. Biofuels were big news in the United States at the time, but corn-based ethanol was getting a bad rap for causing food shortages. So he hunted around for a crop that could produce biofuel, but didn’t double as dinner for families in the developing world. Eventually he settled on Jotrapha curcas, a semi-poisonous plant that is hearty enough to survive the occasional drought and produces seeds that contain about 35% oil.

By encouraging villagers to plant Jotrapha, as well as the tobacco they traditionally grow, Shivakumar would aim to increase the farmers’ income and protect the ecologically sensitive forests nearby (Shivakumar took mild offense at a recent report on NPR about the harsh realities of Jatropha growing in Kenya. He says it’s important not to rely solely on Jatropha as a cash crop, and has learned from his time in Karnataka that, like any plant, Jatropha must be watered and cared for.)

At 13 he teamed up with his younger sister, Apoorva Rangan, and the two of them scrounged together what money they had to buy seedlings and get “Project Jatropha” off the ground. “When I was in the seventh grade I’d won the California State Spelling Bee and I got around $600 from that as a cash prize and I used that money to jumpstart the project,” Shivakumar said. “Apoorva and I had some funds that we had from baby sitting and all, and we used that as well,” he added.

The two worked with the farmers for weeks, trying to gain their trust and convince them to mix a little Jatropha in with their tobacco. In a culture where respect comes with age, Shivakumar said, this was no easy task.

But with the help of a local NGO called Parivarthana (Sanskrit for “change”) and the biotech company Labland Biotechs, he secured a deal that he hoped would make Jatropha planting profitable. Parivarthana would help teach the farmers sustainable agriculture, and Labland–which converts Jatropha into biofuel–would pay the growers for every kilogram of the crop they produced.

Shivakumar said that two years on, Project Jatropha is expanding and going strong. He still devotes hours of his days to communicating with workers in India, but said that lately much of his time has been swallowed up by media requests. He takes on these interviews, he said, to remind others that they can make a difference.

“We have to take action now–that’s the main thing,” he said. “And I hope Project Jatropha will show that it’s possible to take action and affect people in greater ways, and we hope to motivate and inspire others to take action as well.”

The Brower Youth award comes with a $3,000 prize, and it’s not hard to guess how Shivakumar will spend his winnings. “When I found out that we won, I was shocked yet very happy to say the least, because the $3000 cash prize we got is being reinvested into the project,” he said.

California is also home to two other Brower Youth Award winners. Ventura resident Alec Loorz, the youngest recipient this year, won for spreading the word about climate change. Inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 15 year old has given at least 75 presentations on global warming to more than 10,000 people.

In his spare time, Loorz founded an organization dedicated to educating young people about climate change (Kids vs. Global Warming, penned a Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels, and is set to launch the California Climate Council of Youth, or C3Y, an effort to bring precocious kids together to brainstorm and learn how to combat global warming.

Hai Vo, a 22 year old University of California, Irvine graduate, was honored for a project to bring more sustainable food to his college campus. He worked to bring “real” food, i.e. “ethically produced, with fair treatment of workers, equitable relationships with farmers (locally and abroad), and humanely treated animals” to Irvine, and eventually convinced the entire UC system to offer 20% sustainable food at its campus dining facilities by 2020.

This post was reported and written by Climate Watch intern David Ferry.

New Plan: 100% Renewables by 2030

30521491Wind, water and solar energy can provide more than enough energy to power the world, according to a new plan proposed by two California scientists in the November issue of Scientific American.

Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and UC Davis researcher Mark Delucchi crunched the numbers and have concluded that if the world used existing technology to convert entirely to electricity (and hydrogen powered by these renewables) by 2030, the world’s power demand would be reduced by 30%, from the expected 16.9 terawatts to 11.5 terawatts.  They base this expected reduction on the premise that fossil fuel and biomass combustion are inefficient, losing up to 80% of the produced energy to heat. With energy produced by electricity, only 20% is lost as heat.

Even without this reduction in world energy needs, the two researchers assert that there is more than enough renewable energy available to meet the world’s needs (their data pegs the potential worldwide energy from wind at 1,700 TW and solar at 6,500 TW).  When difficult-to-reach areas and protected lands are excluded from their calculations, the scientists find at least 40 TW available from wind and 580 from solar.   Currently, they find, we generate only .02 TW of wind and .008 of solar.

The ambitious plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, which, when spaced appropriately would occupy 1% of the Earth’s land, and 89,000 300-megawatt photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, which would occupy .33% of the Earth’s land surface.  The plan also requires 490,000 tidal turbines; 5,350 geothermal plants; 720,000 wave converters; and 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems.  Less than 2% of these energy producing installations current exist.  The plan also requires 900 hydroelectric plants, of which 70% are currently operational.

“I know it’s possible,” said Jacobson. It’s just a question of whether people want to do it.”

Of course, overhauling the entire world energy economy in 20 years is a Herculean task to say the least, and the researchers are upfront about the obstacles their plan faces.   They concede that not only would there need to be significant political support in the form of feed-in-tariff (FIT) programs, taxes on fossil fuels, and significant investment in long-distance transmission systems, but materials availability could also be a barrier in the long term.

“It’s all a question of politcal will,” said Jacobson. “It’s not a technical problem. If we shifted subsidies to things that are clean, that’s being smart. Why invest in something that puts out more carbon and air pollution rather than something that doesn’t?”

The idea of shutting off all of the world’s coal and nuclear plants and building hundreds of miles of wind farms and solar arrays  is controversial to say the least.  Aside from (not exactly minor) political, social, and economic obstacles, there is the issue of baseload power–what’s available around the clock, rain or shine, to keep the lights on–which we currently draw primarily from nuclear and fossil fuel plants.   Proponents of nuclear power like Stewart Brand argue that until there’s a massive storage system for wind and solar energy, renewables will remain supplemental sources of energy.

Jacobson and Delucchi do address this issue in their article. “Intermittency problems can be mitigated,” they write, “by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand.”

Powering Paltown: Pushing PV in Japan

Thank you, Paltown. Asako Sugawara with her son, Sota. The Sugawaras received free solar panels in exchange for living in the middle of a government experiment.

Thank you, Paltown. Asako Sugawara with her son, Sota. The Sugawaras received free solar panels in exchange for living in the middle of a government experiment.

It may have a silly name, but its mission is all business: Paltown, a neighborhood of around 800 homes outside the Japanese city of Ota, built by the government to study what happens when an entire neighborhood goes solar. This is what I find most fascinating about the Japanese: they’re so meticulous in tackling problems that they establish entire towns as part of their tinkering.

Each of the 758 homes in Paltown has photovoltaic panels on top of it. Paltown’s purpose is to work out the kinks of concentrating PV capacity in one neighborhood. One of the problems they’re looking at: On PV homes, the excess energy goes back to the grid. If the grid’s transmission lines are at capacity, a suppression system on most arrays kicks in, reducing the amount of power they generate. This, in turn, squanders the panels’ full generating potential. Engineers at Paltown prevented the suppression system from kicking in by storing excess energy in  batteries on the sides of the homes. That energy is then used in the evening, when the panels aren’t generating any electricity. Since it was established in 2002, Paltown has rarely generated too much electricity for the grid to handle. In fact, it has only happened during the holidays, when the biggest electricity consumer, the local Subaru assembly plant, shuts down. But when it has, the batteries worked.

Paltown's 758 homes all have solar panels on them.

Paltown's 758 homes all have solar panels on them.

Another thing they’re looking at is developing a system to stop sending electricity to the grid during a natural disaster. Japan is one of the most seismically active countries on Earth. When earthquakes damage homes, PV panels will usually continue to generate electricity, making a damaged system very dangerous for anyone near it. Paltown engineers have developed technology that will turn them off in these situations, they’ve patented the technology, and will soon start selling it to PV manufacturers.

Paltown pulled the plug on the battery experiment last year. The battery packs were removed but the working panels remain, along with the people who actually live here, in this renewable energy petri dish. What do they think? Asako Sugawara moved here with her husband and three children five years ago. They earn between thirty and eighty dollars a month from their solar panels. That will almost double when Japan’s Feed-in Tariff kicks in. She meets up with other housewives in the neighborhood each day, and the conversation inevitably turns to new ways they can save money. Lately they’ve been talking about the new feed-in tariff system. They’ve also shared methods of using electricity to get the biggest bang for their buck. “I’ve learned that electricity rates are the lowest after 11 at night, so I and many other housewives I know set timers on all of our appliances so that they use electricity in the middle of the night,” she told me. So much for using renewable energy when it’s available.

Rob’s radio series on energy efficiency in Japan concludes Monday morning on The California Report. All of Rob’s radio reports, blog posts, photos and video clips are collected on the Rising Sun series page.

An Hour with Stewart Brand

Photo by Ryan Phelan

Climate Watch sat down with ecologist and futurist Stewart Brand to talk about the rethinking of “traditional green pieties” that he says environmentalists will have to confront, in order to address climate change. In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline, he argues for a major change in the way “greens” have traditionally thought about stewarding the planet — one that calls for managing the earth’s natural infrastructure “with as light a touch as possible and with as much intervention as necessary.”

What do you think the world is facing in terms of climate change?

“I pretty much buy James Lovelock‘s approach that we’re warming toward an equilibrium of maybe five degrees warmer than now, which doesn’t sound like much, but the last time we were that was 55 million years ago and crocodiles were swimming around in the polar oceans. [Lovelock] thinks the carrying capacity for humans in a world that’s five degrees warmer would be about a billion to a billion-and-a-half people. And it could happen fairly quickly because there are various positive feedbacks that are self-reinforcing, amplification of change going on. A four-or-five-billion person die-back is horrible to contemplate. Nothing like it has ever happened in human history, and it does get your attention.

“I am persuaded by a number of data points he looks at and climatologists he listens to and the system dynamics of climate, which is tremendously non-linear. It has lots of these positive feedbacks in it and various thresholds. Sometimes we know where the threshold is, and sometimes we find out after we’ve passed it. Abrupt climate change, it turns out, is pretty common in the historical record and that’s what we could be looking at this century, maybe even in the first half of this century.”

You write in your book: “Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilization, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilization from a natural system: climate change.” Can you talk more about this?

“I wonder if there will be people turning up soon saying, “Let the climate do what it wants. Gaia’s just having her usual carryings-on and we must not stand in her way.” [Ed. Note: There are people already saying this] I think when it cuts this close to home, environmentalists do realize that when humans are an endangered species we’ve got to rise to the occasion and be green to protect this species and its habitat as well.

“There’s a shift that goes on because the standard, deep, ideological, emotional stance of environmentalists is that nature is always right and humans are always wrong, and this is a case when actually, nature is up to something we really, really don’t like and we have to do, as humans, something that’s right to head that off. That’s a switch. And it’s my point of leverage in the book which is to say, okay, bear that switch in mind, now think through all the things you’ve had opinions about for 20 or 30 years and revisit them.

“The climate crunch gives us permission, indeed encouragement, to rethink nuclear power, to rethink genetically-engineered food crops, to rethink how we feel about cities, and to start thinking in a serious way and an encouraging way about geo-engineering, which is direct intervention in the climate.”

The idea of “playing God” with nature can raise a lot of emotion and controversy…

“The thing is, we’ve been having god-like power in nature for a very long time, probably at least 10,000 years, maybe 55,000 years when we started doing massive burning to change the landscape in a way that we liked. In ecology, the current term is “niche construction” or “ecological engineering.” We don’t have a choice not to do it because it’s what we are doing. One of the terms for our era geologically is the ‘Anthropocene;’ the human-dominated era of geology. And so we’re already terraforming the Earth, and we’re doing it badly. So, is the choice to stop terraforming the Earth? No. Actually that’s no longer an option. The only choice is to stop doing it badly and start doing it well.”

It’s a large laboratory that we’re talking about in terms of learning from our mistakes, because we’ll be conducting our experiments (geo-engineering, bio-engineering, etc) in the world.

“We’re running an experiment in the world anyway by raising the greenhouse gas percentage in the atmosphere, and we’re starting to get results from that experiment, and we don’t like them, so we’re already doing interventionist science outside the lab in the laboratory of the world. If we don’t like what’s happening so far, we have no choice but to do better experimentation and better science and start getting the results that are better.”

How do you respond to Amory Lovins’ recent article on Grist, criticizing your position on nuclear power?

“I think it’s great that Amory Lovins, who is an old friend, has put up a rebuttal to my chapter on nuclear in the book. I think that’s absolutely fair and right since my whole chapter is basically a rebuttal of his anti-nuclear arguments.* I respect him enormously for most of the things I think he’s right about. I think he’s wrong about nuclear. He thinks I’m right about most things, and that I’m wrong about nuclear, so that’s the debate.”

*Last week we posted highlights from a conversation with Amory Lovins, aired originally on KQED’s Forum program. Brand’s name was not evoked in those excerpts but Lovins was critical of the idea of a nuclear power revival, dismissing it as financially unsupportable.

Mottainai! Saving Energy as Cultural Value

Follow Rob’s quest for understanding of Japan’s energy efficiency on this interactive map.

While reporting my series on Japan’s energy efficiency, I’ve come across a list of explanations from economists, government officials, industry insiders, and Japan experts about how Japan became the most energy-efficient country in the world (measured by greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP). Most of the reasons revolve around Japan’s lack of fossil fuels; a market-based supply-and-demand answer.

A few weeks ago, when I met with Ikutoshi Matsumura, he gave me the same answer. I let him finish, and then pushed harder: “But Matsumura-san, there are many countries, like Japan, that are equally resource-poor, and they are very poor and struggling. Why is Japan different?” Matsumura, an executive at Nippon Oil, Japan’s largest oil company, started chuckling [Ed: Matsumura also appears in Part 2 of Rob’s radio series as head of Japan’s Fuel Cell Association. He’s that, too]. He admitted that he, too, had thought this over during his lifetime, and that the conclusion he always reached was that there were more than market forces at work here. The deeper reason was cultural.

The 750 year-old Great Buddha of Kamakura. How much of Japan's energy-saving path is cultural?

The 750 year-old Great Buddha of Kamakura. How much of Japan's energy-saving path is cultural?

“Japanese culture has always emphasized education and hard work,” he told me. “The reason we succeed is because of our human resources, not our lack of natural resources.”

One last Mochi + Nobody to eat it = a Mottainai moment.

One last Mochi + Nobody to eat it = a Mottainai moment.

Mottainai is a term in Japanese that roughly translates to “What a waste.” The concept is an ancient one based on Buddhist philosophy. The meaning of Mottainai is that one should never waste anything. Buddhists traditionally used the term to show regret for wasting something sacred, such as religious lessons. In modern colloquial Japanese, Mottainai is often heard. If a child doesn’t finish his rice, his parents will spit out “Mottainai!” If you forget to put the newspaper in the recycling bin, a neighbor will see this and whisper “Mottainai” under her breath. You get the idea.

In 2005, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai visited Kyoto from her native Kenya, and learned about the word. A world-famous environmentalist, Maathai quickly applied the word to climate change. She’s reportedly used the word on her lecture tours, and while addressing the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, she led the audience in a ‘Mottainai’ chant. Maathai’s publicizing of Mottainai prompted the Japanese government and non-profits to start using the word as a call to protect the environment, too.

“Things like this often happen in Japan,” says Japanese Sociologist Yuko Kawanishi, ” Although we are the world’s second largest economy, there is something in the Japanese mind that unless something is recognized and valued by non-Japanese, there will not come the realization that ‘Oh, we have such a wonderful thing.'”

I spoke to Kawanishi about Mottainai prior to my trip in August. She’s finishing up as a visiting scholar in New York. I asked her if the concept has helped Japan become so energy efficient. “It might have helped us to exercise the spirit more easily,” she told me, but she added other important cultural traits. “It’s something about Japanese people’s collective social psychology….the Japanese people follow instructions easily. There’s also a lot of peer pressure, sort of watching each other. And also there’s this disposition among Japanese to be meticulous and thorough to whatever task is assigned to them, so if the task is to save as much energy as possible, they’re more likely to really put a lot of effort toward it, and they’ll watch each other to make sure the others are doing it as thoroughly as they are.”

Kawanishi added that this dynamic combination of internal values is not comfortable for the Japanese, but when applied to protecting the environment, it works.

An Hour with Amory Lovins

In case you missed it amid the flurry of climate-related news last week: On September 30, Amory Lovins, founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and an honest-to-goodness energy guru to many, spent an hour in conversation with Michael Krasny and callers to KQED’s Forum program. You can listen to the entire archived broadcast or scan some of the highlights here, compiled by Climate Watch intern David Ferry.

On China:

“We can count on China to lead the world out of the climate mess…Even though the U.S. has led the world in wind installations the past three years, this year China’s going to pass us so fast we won’t even hear them go by. China’s doubled its wind installation each of the past four years, and there’s a new paper in Science from Harvard and Tsinghua in September saying that China can meet all its electric needs–not the growth but the total–till at least 2030, cost effectively, from its wind resources.”

On Nuclear Power:

“Basically nuclear and coal plants are getting walloped in the global marketplace by efficiency and renewables and cogeneration because they’re a lot cheaper and they have less financial risk so they can attract private investment.”

Grading the Obama Administration on Renewables:

“Greatly improved and I think on the whole doing very well.”

On the Upcoming UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen:

“I’m cautiously optimistic…But remember that governments are usually the last to figure these things out. Most governments still think climate protection is costly. They haven’t figured out yet that economic theorists got the sign wrong and actually climate protection is profitable. Once you change the conversation from cost, burden and sacrifice to profit, jobs and competitive advantage it makes the politics a whole lot easier.”

On Energy Efficiency & Steve Chu’s “Low-Hanging Fruit” metaphor:

“The technologies keep improving faster than we use them, so efficiency is an ever bigger and cheaper source–it’s as if the ‘low hanging fruit’ had fallen on the ground; it’s mushing up around the ankles, it’s spilling in over the tops of our boots and the efficiency tree keeps dumping more fruit on our heads.”

On Large-Scale Solar Farms v. “Distributed” Power Generation:

“The sun is distributed for free. Why gather it in one place and then pay to spread it out again? The National Renewable Energy Lab says if we put solar cells on seven percent of the structures in this country it would run all our electric needs without using any land. And for that matter, the wind potential on available windy land in this country is several times our total electric need and the footprint is actually very small.”

On Whether Climate Change is Irreversible:

“There are a half-dozen known mechanisms of rapid climate change. Several of them show like they may be starting up, so it’s urgent to reverse that…we have plenty of technology already available to stabilize climate to the extent that irreversible changes have not already started. We don’t know what that extent is, so we ought to go full bore on best buys first and hope that we’re in time.”

You can also take a virtual tour of Lovins’ home in Colorado, which doubles as a laboratory for energy innovation.