Can There Be This Much Climate News?

"Reports to the Contrary" by Chester Arnold

"Reports to the Contrary" by Chester Arnold

Some weeks it seems like KQED could fill up its entire “news hole” with climate-related stories (thank goodness we don’t). Last week was a prime example.

Monday: A keynote speaker at U.C. Berkeley’s annual Energy Symposium said that we need a “Fed” for energy policy. John Hofmeister, a former executive at Shell Oil and founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy, told the lunch crowd that the only way to overcome the current two-year “policy cycle” (the length of a congressional term) is with an autonomous policy group like the Federal Reserve Board, which can take a longer view.

Tuesday: PG&E announced a massive new solar power initiative (it was brought to my attention this week that no news story is complete these days without the word “massive”–at least when there’s no opportunity to use “deadly”). If approved by state regulators, the project will provide 500 megawatts of photovoltaic energy by 2015. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the plan is that instead of, say, taking over huge tracts of the Mojave, the project will rely heavily on “solar infill;” making use of property already owned by the company, where they can conveniently access the grid.

Wednesday: Senator Barbara Boxer chaired a hearing of the Energy and Public Works Committee to update members on the latest climate science. They heard testimony from four experts, including Christopher Field of Stanford, who essentially said things are worse than you think. Ranking minority member James Inhofe of Oklahoma seized the moment to decry a $6.7 trillion “climate bailout,” a reference to upcoming federal climate legislation and costs associated with an aggressive plan to fight global warming. You can watch the entire two-and-a-half hour webcast for the gory details.

And of course also on Wednesday, the Coen Brothers rolled out their TV ad for The Reality Coalition, assailing the concept of “clean coal.”

Thursday: The California Air Resources Control Board rolled out new regulations to control some of the lesser known (but highly potent) greenhouse gases, including sulfur hexaflouride, used in the manufacture of computer chips. CARB says a pound of it has the same atmospheric warming potential as ten metric tons of CO2. The board also unveiled a new drought page on its website.

Friday: The Governor issued the latest in a series of drought declarations, this one proclaiming a state of emergency and called on cities to reduce their water use by 20%.

And this week wasn’t all that unusual.

Monday, another week begins with the winter’s third survey of the Sierra snowpack. While recent storms will no doubt have raised the water content from last month’s 61% of normal, it should be something of an anticlimax, especially given that the Governor didn’t wait for the numbers to make his drought declaration last week.

No Country for “Clean Coal?”

An activist group led by the Alliance for Climate Protection has crafted another national TV ad aimed at debunking “the clean coal myth,” this one directed by Hollywood legends Joel & Ethan Coen (directors of No Country for Old Men, in case you’re still puzzling over my obscure headline).

Produced by The Reality Coalition, the ad depicts a pitchman touting a fictional product called “Clean Coal” air freshener. He’s inter-cut with shots of a family spraying what looks like coal dust out of an aerosol can and coughing. The spot ends with the coalition’s stock text message: “In reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean coal.'” The best line in the mock ad, though, is when the pitchman explains that the product “harnesses the awesome power of the word ‘clean,'” the implication being that saying something is clean doesn’t make it so.

Former Vice President Al Gore has been on the stump for some time, carrying the same message; that clean-coal technology “doesn’t exist.” Reality Coalition spokesman Brian Hardwick goes farther than that. He claims that not only does it not exist but the industry isn’t doing much to make it reality. A separate analysis by the Center for American Progress pegged the research commitment by U.S. coal companies to carbon capture technology at about $3.5 billion “over several years,” compared to combined profits of $57 billion in just one year (2007).

The clean-coal debate is relevant to Californians. Mostly through imported power, coal provides more than 16% of the electricity we use. And as I mentioned in my radio segment for The California Report, China is counting on the U-S to develop technology to allow them to burn coal “cleanly.”

While clever, the ad does kind of miss the climate connection. It seems to be aimed at particulate pollution rather than the unseen emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Hardwick responded to that critique by saying that “Truly clean coal would have to mitigate all the (environmental) issues” involved in burning the fuel. Still, it’s a source of potential confusion for viewers unclear about the distinctions among greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting gases and local air quality issues.

PPIC Analyst: Start Adapting Now to Climate Change

This is a guest post from Louise Bedsworth, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.  She and PPIC Research Director Ellen Hanak are co-authors of the report: “Preparing California for a Changing Climate,”  which we wrote about here last month. The report discusses the challenges that climate change poses for a number of the state’s environmental and resource institutions and how well prepared we are for addressing these challenges.

What is adaptation to climate change and why do we need it now?

We have discussed our report on preparing for climate change with a variety of audiences over the past several weeks, beginning with a half-day event in Sacramento on December 2nd that included state leaders, representatives from environmental organizations, and city officials from all over California.  We found that while the topic of adaptation can seem to be all doom and gloom, there are several programs in place and underway that should help California prepare for the effects of climate change that we can’t prevent. One important question that keeps coming up at these events is why we need to be thinking about adapting to global warming now that the state has focused on fighting it.

Adaptation, or climate change preparedness, refers to the adjustments that can be made to help to cope with the effects of climate change.  These impacts include higher temperatures, accelerated sea level rise, and disruptions to the state’s water supply, all of which have real consequences for California.  For example, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has prepared maps showing what the Bay would look like with one meter of sea level rise.  These maps show the significant impacts on San Francisco Bay communities and infrastructure, including inundation of the region’s airports and Silicon Valley.

Ideally, adaptive actions will help to reduce vulnerability in the face of change or to improve resiliency.  Even under the most optimistic scenarios (e.g., successful emission reductions globally), some amount of climate change appears to be inevitable.

Adaptation goes in hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Generally speaking, the more successful efforts to reduce emissions are, the less adaptation will be needed.  And, some efforts to reduce emissions – such as energy efficiency – will also help us adapt by lessening energy use under high demand conditions.  But, adaptation and mitigation efforts can be in conflict – for example, planting non-native trees either to store carbon or provide shade can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but could place additional stress on efforts to protect native species in a changing climate.  To avoid such conflicts now and in the future, adaptation needs to be well-defined and integrated in the current climate policy discussion in California.

A recent report from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies found significant obstacles to climate change adaptation in the United States.  These were similar to barriers that we observed for California – uncertainty in the science of climate change, lack of funding or resources, regulatory and legal obstacles, and lack of political will or incentive.

But, we also found some reasons to optimistic about the prospects for adaptation in California.  Water and electricity agencies appear to be out in front on adaptation and overcoming these obstacles.  As service providers, both water and electricity providers have an incentive (and an obligation) to be considering adaptation.  They are used to doing long-range planning and weathering supply uncertainties.  Finally, and very importantly, water and electricity providers have a rate-payer base that can provide funding for undertaking adaptation.  In addition, there are tools in other sectors that can help with adaptation.  There are public health programs such as disease tracking and heat emergency plans that can provide a starting point for developing climate change preparedness.

As the California Resources Agency develops the state’s Climate Adaptation Strategy, the knowledge and experience from these programs should provide a solid starting point.

CNN: Berkeley Lab’s Chu to Head DOE

xbd200805-00226-24.jpgReuters news agency is quoting CNN today in reporting that Steve Chu will get the nod from President-elect Obama to head the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Since 2004, the Nobel laureate physicist has been the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Lab spokesman Lynn Yarris said he could not confirm the report. In an email to KQED’s Cy Musiker, he wrote that Chu is traveling until next week, adding that right now the report is “all still speculation.”

Chu has maintained a fairly high profile, writing op-ed pieces on America’s energy future and lecturing on potential solutions to climate change (note that this link is to an hour-long video).

He’s also been a vocal supporter of California’s comprehensive plan to attack climate change, known by the shorthand AB-32. From an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle last year, co-written with U.C. Berkeley’s chancellor, Robert Birgeneau:

“The development of new, carbon-neutral energy sources are needed to avert the predictions of disastrous climate change. The landmark global warming legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year committing our state to ambitious reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 is a strong and encouraging step. California is a national and global leader moving toward a sustainable energy future, and it is in the public mission of the University of California to help find ways to meet these goals.”

LBNL has been a leader in developing energy-saving technology, from lighting to windows, to “cool-roof” coatings.

In 2006 Chu was interviewed on KQED’s Pacific Time.

The California Air Resources Board is expected to vote on final acceptance of an implementation plan for AB-32 tomorrow. Speaking of which, published reports indicate that Mary Nichols, who heads California’s air board, will be passed over for the top spot at the Environmental Protection Agency, and that the nod will go to Lisa Jackson, a former state environmental regulator in New Jersey.

Photo: LBNL.

400,000 Jobs or Bust. Or Both.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition nowadays between the grim economic/public funding forecasts and the eye-popping estimates of job growth in the “green-collar” economy…at least in the ever-optimistic Golden State.

Given the current meltdown in the capital markets, there is understandable fear that investment in renewable energy and carbon-reducing technology will be nipped in the bud. Recent articles in the New York Times and Times of London reflect the new angst.

But against this backdrop of doom, predictions are popping out all over about the coming economic boom, if we can somehow stay the course toward a low-carbon economy. This week number-crunchers at UC Berkeley issued the bold declaration that through energy efficiency alone, California can add 403,000 new jobs. David Roland-Holst and his colleagues assume a scant 1% annual improvement in overall energy efficiency, in order to get there. And by the way, they say, you can pencil an extra $76 billion in gross state product into the bargain. We’ll be spending so much less to light, heat, cool, and move us around, that it will free up billions of dollars and an outbreak of general prosperity will ensue. Sound like Pollyanna gone wild? The authors say we’ve done it before.

A recent economic analysis by the California Air Resources Board predicted that full implementation of the sweeping Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (CA AB-32) would add 100,000 jobs by 2020. The astute reader might wonder how, since energy efficiency is just one facet of AB-32, can the Berkeley number be so much higher. The answer, according to Roland-Holst, is that the Air Board estimate is “innovation-neutral.” In other words, it assumes that nothing new is invented on the efficiency front.

Hear more details as KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler speaks with  Roland-Holst about his methodology.

Net Zero Energy Future?

According to the Air Resources Board, about a quarter of California’s (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings–or what planners like to call the “built environment.”

My colleague Peter Jon Shuler was at today’s meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, when it rolled out its master plan for energy-efficient buildings throughout the state. Peter’s notes:
The California Public Utilities Commission has taken the first steps in an innovative plan to eventually get all new construction in the state down to zero net energy use.

On Tuesday, the PUC adopted what it’s calling the Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan.  More than 500 individuals and organizations came together to craft the ambitious plan – designed to save energy while growing the state’s population and economy.  It’s still a little fuzzy on the details of how all this will happen.

The plan includes what it calls its four Big Bold strategies:

• All new residential construction in California will be zero net energy by 2020;
• All new commercial construction in California will be zero net energy by 2030;
• The Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) industry will be reshaped to ensure optimal equipment performance; and
• All eligible low-income homes will be energy efficient by 2020.