Oil Lenses


There was an oil spill.

It's getting worse before it gets better.

At its core, the oil spill is both a horrible disaster and terribly instructive. People care about environmentalism in lots of circumstances. The oil spill, mountain-top removal, rainforest deforestation, whales - the best example for how action on climate change should be moving forward is the international measures taken following the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. We don't even have to be cynical and say that there are all photogenic, which was my gut reaction. But the ozone layer is only somewhat photogenic, being an invisible layer of gas (though you still get scary images like this or (god) this). I don't think that that's the key at all.

Instead, we can compare all of these things and the actions being taken to fix/prevent them and deduce a couple of things about how humanity tends to respond to environmental dangers.

First, timing is a critical factor. When the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, that was something that was happening right then - it was growing. And the solution was something that we could put into effect very quickly. And, reinforcing that, we could quickly get results.

The oil spill is happening right now. It should be stopped right now - we can see that each hour brings a new cost in terms of the amount of oil pouring into the water. And we can see efforts to fix it, right now.

Deforestation and similar are happening, but at a slower pace - and they have been happening for a while. We can count how many trees are felled each hour if we want, but generally, people aren't too concerned.

That's because of the second factor - location. We are far away from rainforests, so we care less. The people closer to rainforests are the ones getting (badly needed) economic assistance from deforestation.

Location - or more accurately, proximity - is yet another reason for the quick response to the oil spill (and it was a quick response, even if it's been mediocrely managed and has only had slow results). The United States is powerful, and we're under threat. Other nations are more moved to consider their own potential oil spill problems (though I'm sure they've all been very helpful).

But the proximity aspect of a threat is strange, because the human mind is not logical. A global threat isn't really a threat against us, personally - especially when it's so far removed in time. And climate change is both removed in time (we'll only feel the real effects in decades, if not centuries) and, generally, removed in terms of proximity.

And that's why it's so dangerous. We could end the threat of climate change if we felt threatened enough - but the characteristics of climate change make it hard to feel threatened. At best, we feel like it'd be a good idea to maybe act on that, when we can.

Understanding this - through the lens of the flurry of activity surrounding this oil spill - helps in the fight against climate change. The better we recognize how the monster of climate change evades our human-sized perspective, the better we realize that it is a problem, and a problem that requires that we join together.

Because there's also a third aspect to threat response; identifying the instigator. BP is an easy company to blame - they're huge, they've got a history of safety problems, and they've made some public relations gaffes in response. Coal companies are easy to blame for mountain-top removal, a whole class of products easy to blame for ozone depletion.

But climate change? We can talk about our industrial-age ancestors or that guy in China all we want, but the truth is that it's us. Almost all of us - especially with growing middle classes and industrialization everywhere - have stake in this. And most of us don't want to admit it, so we don't.

Climate change is not a serious threat, because if it were, we'd be forced to blame ourselves.


The Decline of Hope

Never mind the damn oil spill. We broke the Gulf of Mexico, we know - it happened, BP is to blame, the B-man is on the case (doing nothing quickly). It's true, greatest environmental disaster (and largest governmental response to an environmental diaster) requires some publicity. But no more. We're done. Tell us when something important happens.

Because the more we focus on the active threat of oil killing birds, the less we remember to fear the subtle. The oil spill, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and wettest-months-on-record (yay for the Pacific Northwest) are all fascinating stories, full of God/Nature's wrath, but that's not the only thing going on.

There's this terrible impulse that goes around to try and link the disasters occurring right now (wildfires, snow storms, hurricanes) to climate change. At best, you end up with "Someday, this could happen more often! Spooky!" and let's be honest, that's just not enough. It's not enough because, at the end of the day, people don't assume that natural disasters will ever happen again. At best, we buy insurance, even though we're sure we won't need it.

In reality, climate change is boring, even in the destruction that it will cause. We already know that it won't be like The Day After Tomorrow, which may or may not be a good thing (depending on your proximity to Emmy Rossum), but the truth is that climate change is way more boring than anyone else thinks. Think about it this way - we've already been going through it for at least twenty years, and no one's even noticed.

Here's the problem. Assemble a list of catastrophic events climate change will bring. To each item, amend the amount of time it will take for this to happen. You end up with stuff like THE OCEANS WILL RISE... TWO FEET OVER THE COURSE OF THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS. Scary.

And it is scary, because it will change the lives of billions of people around the world, possibly make a couple (small, island) nations homeless, and force us to redraw our maps. (That's a little crazy to think about - we might have to change our maps.) But it's not Hollywood-Scary.

This is important, because this whole oil spill thing shows how powerful a Hollywood-level story can be, even when zee Media goes above and beyond all reasonable expectations in terms of reporting a story. According to this incredibly smart guy, zee Media has been trying to set the B-Man up as Harrison Ford-esque action hero/President, despite the fact that Obama can't do anything more to help this situation.

This is all very revealing of the psychology of climate change, which is the subject to study if you're a huge fan of depressing the hell out of yourself. Basically, climate change is a very large scale, very distant threat that probably won't affect you. You cannot be shown pictures of climate change approaching and/or encroaching on your backyard. And even the pictures you can be shown, of wildfires and floods and ice storms that kinda-sorta-might've been caused by climate change are weak sauce because, really? We had ice storms before, we'll keep having them, and isn't it supposed to be global warming?

And yet, this is the one time in history that we can actually prevent climate change. It's like someone, years ago, had said "Hey, maybe we should grab an acoustic trigger to prevent a catastrophic failure a mile under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico". Which they did. And no one did it.

But with climate change we're looking at an extremely not-simple fix, executed across all nations, for the foreseeable future... to prevent a disaster that will take hundreds of years to subtly arrive.

The pessimistic reality of this is why I've titled this post the Decline of Hope. This thing, climate change, is so huge that it dwarfs anyone and everyone. The most common reaction, it seems to me, is to ignore it. A less common but still frequent reaction is to deny it, because it's just not possible that the world as we know it can change (or that scientists can be right about something big). Unfortunately, an even more infrequent reaction seems to be to stand up and try and do something about it.

For the last year, I've fallen into the first camp. I'd like to relocate myself to the third, again, but it's hard. We all know that it is, because if you're reading this then at least you've thought about climate change.

But it does have to be done. Even if it's a depressing slog, it's necessary. Because even if it takes BP another two months to lock that oil down, the Gulf will, someday, be clean again. The birds can be cleaned off, and they might be able to replenish themselves.

But once climate change happens, it's almost impossible to go back - it lays too many blocks in the path. Ice disappears, ecosystems are damaged beyond reconciliation, and methane from all over the world is released into the atmosphere. When we reach the point of no return (here's to hoping we're correct and that it still lies in front of us), I certainly hope we've grown up enough to meet it head on. At the least, I hope that we don't start blasting the President for not showing enough emotion. It will truly be all of our faults.


Wolves that Cry Sheep Just Make Other Wolves Hungry

So, there's this thing that comes up every so often in the climate debate about how incredibly wrong environmentalists are like, all the time. Well, no - they're wrong about the world ending, every time they say that it will. Which is fine, if you like making doomsday predictions - but it tends to hurt the climate change debate sometimes.

Consider for a moment that environmentalists have (as individuals, mind) made the following claims:
In the near future (less than 50 years):
We will all be poisoned to death by chemicals
We will be incinerated by ultraviolet rays from holes in the ozone layer
We will run out of food
The rainforests will be cut down
Most species will be extinct
There will not be enough top-soil left
We'll be out of fresh water
Acid rain will wipe out all the forests
The world will turn to deserts
We will run out of most minerals and fossil fuels
The climate will shift, get colder, and we'll find ourselves in a new ice age

The problem is exacerbated by the media, which is a terribly cliched thing to say in all cases except this one - because let's be honest. To most people, most Earth science is unexciting. Geological time-scales are not recipes for exciting new developments. But if there's an approaching catastrophe, that's interesting, and we all know how it goes. And the scientists get a little caught up in it (and funding becomes more readily available for the research-of-the-year) and environmentalists get caught up in it and all of a sudden, gloom and doom is coming.

You can debate some of the stuff - some of it might still happen, some of it (like the ozone thing) may have been stalled by the quick response from individuals and nations as a result of environmentalist efforts - but the over-all point remains, and is this:

To most people, the world is always in peril to environmentalists, and thus far they've been wrong.

So what does that mean to "most people" when they hear details about climate change?

Or, even worse, when they're holding the legitimate facts about climate change up against the politically-minded lies that this is more of the same hysteria and that nothing unusual is happening?

To set the record straight, here's the facts of the matter:

While global warming may have begun the same way many other environmental-doom fads have, we have discovered that climate change as a result of global warming exists and is caused by humans. We have an idea of what will happen. It will not be the end of the world, but it will be deadly to some, horrible to many, and uncomfortable for everyone else. If we begin acting now, we can prevent most of the deadly/horrible stuff and just keep with the uncomfortableness.

We know that climate change is real. It has gone through scientific tests and criticisms that no other doomsday claim from environmentalists has ever been subjected to. There is still consensus, which means that it's happening right now, and is still a danger.

Maybe the record is a little straighter, now, hopefully?

Oh, and for a demonstration of how this whole process works, read this article (via Yglesias) and try to nail down your immediate reaction. If it's negative, those environmentalists probably just hurt the cause.


And we're back.

Sure has been a long time for the vast readership out there - how y'all been handling the break?

There are two basic elements that are part of the lack of updates. The first, higher-level, public reason is that I've been working a lot on things not related to environmentalism - basically, I've been busy. Which is fine.

In addition to just not having a lot of free time, though, the trailing-off-then-ceasing of updates basically resulted in environmentalism, climate change, and the next stage of human social organization (and, y'know, stuff) getting pushed onto the mental back burner, which is, perhaps understandable.

That is, it's understandable, but not okay.

Because here's the truth of the matter - it happens to everyone. We all have lives, and the simple truth is that for 99% of us, environmentalism and the consequences of climate change are not a part of our day to day life. The evidence, infrastructure, and industrialization is there, if you know where to look for it - but so is physics, and chemistry, and philosophy, and theatrical lighting design, and all sorts of other academic pursuits. It's true that every time we change a light bulb, we're making a choice (say, between incandescent and compact fluorescent - or even a LED fixture) and continuing to use electricity and all the things that come with that, and every time we do we could take it as an object lesson in environmentalism... but more often than not, we don't. I don't, anyway.

Which probably explains some things. The spectre of climate change is so huge and so spread out across the world (even if is concentrated primarily in developed, Northern Hemisphere nations) that it's hard to bring down to an individual level. In order to work against it, we really have to learn about the issues and keep them constantly in mind.

So should we? It amounts to social reorganization, essentially - and, taken further, begs for worldwide intellectual unity on a subject that isn't even agreed on by members of the US congress (which is, maybe, a bad example). Putting climate change and environmentalism into people's daily thoughts is a huge job.

But I, personally, don't see another way of accomplishing anything. We can rely on our governments and scientists and maybe the occasional retired statesman or rich, philanthropic businessman. We can keep our faith of "action" in the governmental sense - new policies, huge solar and wind farms, carbon taxes (or cap and trade), NGO fundraisers, all those things.

But all the evidence to date suggests that the sorts of things that'll come out of political compromises will be too slow. Even the ambitious goals of the B-Man Obama - assuming they get out of Congress unchanged, which won't happen anyway - aren't ambitious enough.

So the only alternative left to us is to act ourselves. Not as revolutionaries, or even activists. Again, 99% of us don't have the time and will for that - it takes a rare breed in all but the most special circumstances.

What is left to us - and what can make the difference - are the small choices. We don't want to see taxes raise, it's true, but to be responsible world citizens we may need to spend a little more.

We can drive a little less, and a little less heat will escape into space.

We can buy organic, local, environmental-responsible products. They're more expensive, it's true - but maybe then the ocean deadzones will shrink a little, and there'll be fewer cargo ships bringing our our grapes up from Chile. We can eat a little less beef, or choose the more responsible, smaller scale, local stuff over the industrial food-lot stuff at fast food restaurants. We can honor the restaurants that make a point of being sustainable with our business, and make the effort to support them.

We can choose more responsible forms of power, and as we show our demand, they'll respond. They'll build more solar, wind, geothermal; they'll hire more scientists, and make the technology better and more proven. It will be slow, but with a bit of willpower - a tiny pinch for each of us - the mass of this whole thing will grow.

But most importantly, we can think and talk about this thing. This climate change, this environmentalism - this change.

We haven't created this change - that was done slowly, over the last century and a half, by our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. But we continue the change, every day of our lives, and that makes us party to us. We can ponder what it is, what it will be - and whether we can take the reigns away from habit and choose our own destiny.

Because this isn't just about the danger of climate change. That's what I've realized - and one of the things that gave me pause about coming back to this project, because the name - this goal of 450 by 2050 - doesn't encompass everything I want to talk about any more. I don't just want to think about the danger and prevention. We, as a generation, have been given a chance to consider our destinies. Climate change is dangerous, too - but so is how we confront it. It has the opportunity to open our eyes, and ask us whether this is really what we want.

And it gives us a chance to reinvent ourselves and our society. Not in a huge way, perhaps - maybe most things are fine the way they are, I don't know. But the truth is that we didn't decide the society we were born into - and if we continue as we are, unthinking, then we'll never have the choice.

So let's think about it, together and apart, and figure out if the current form of it all is really what we want. Confronted with this fear, though - and these very real dangers - it's hard to imagine someone answering "Yes."


The Wrong Way

So, according to the New York Times, Republicans in the House have drafted their own energy bill. This in and of itself is not shocking - even though congressional republicans have been lagging behind and disorganized in how they approach these things, they're still expected to offer another choice (as in the whole stupid budget thing).

The shocking thing is the content: nuclear power, increased drilling, and nothing to restrict greenhouse gas production. Oh wait that's not shocking at all.

Now, to be fair, their position isn't so ridiculous. Lots of human problems are not solved by direct, large-scale action; some of the time, we just slowly work our way out of the issue. And there are jobs at risk, and the economy is doin' bad still, etc. etc.

But here's the thing. If we look at history, the environment has been one of those things that individual people just can't solve on their own with a little more money from tax cuts. The history of America versus the environment can pretty easily be viewed in terms of regulation equaling success. Without regulation, there's rampant pollution and ecosystem destruction (like clear cutting). With regulation, we're starting to save wetlands, forests, resources - hell, the ozone layer is starting to heal. The simple fact of the matter is that the scale of environmental problems are far above and beyond us individuals.

And that's fine. That's one of the big reasons governments exist as-is - to handle things that are beyond an individual. That's why we need Waxman-Markey bill; it wants to regulate, and it's trying to put us on the right path.

We don't have time to hope the problem works itself out. And we've only got one atmosphere. Time to make the decision, say that it might hurt a little in the short term, but press on down the path we truly know we have to walk. Because once again, these outspoken congressional republicans have offered nothing that can accomplish anything in the kind of time-frame we have.


The world comes crashing down

Maybe this is a little idealistic, but what's wrong with admitting that you're wrong? Or, strike that - admitting that you need to investigate something before all the conclusions are drawn?

In this case, we're talking about hydraulic fracturing, a process where pressure is built up in the hole that we've drilled to the point where the surrounding rock formation starts to crack. The point being that then, gas and liquids can flow to the hole better, and you get increased yields.

So, that's fine. And tree-hugging, gaia-wounding protests aside, there have been (very specific) uses of fracturing that have passed the EPA.

Enter this little controversy, thanks to Grist and ProPublica.

I'm less concerned about the issue at hand - as horrible as it perhaps is, it's short-term. What's a little more concerning is the industry's reaction.

So here's the question: have the issues of climate change and sustainability hardened the coal, oil, and gas industries to the point of never admitting wrong?

I mean, what's the logical response to an investigation of a technique that might have as many as 1,000 cases of contamination? You stop doing it until you can find out if it's harming anyone. If it is, you either modify the method or stop doing it. Period.

But that's not what we're seeing.

When asked about the record of Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s largest independent gas producer, Mike John, a vice president of government relations for Chesapeake, told the committee that “I would emphasize that in my experience we have not seen any problems with hydraulic fracturing in my career.” John did not mention the recent Louisiana case in which 16 cattle died after allegedly drinking spilled fracturing fluids at a Chesapeake well site – a case that is still under investigation.

Let's be clear: I don't know anything about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, but clearly there's concern from people who do. There are investigations (on multiple stages of the process) and allegations, and that should maybe give you some pause, as a company.

...Or, you know, as an elected official.

“I am proud that I am supported by the oil and gas industry because they employ a lot of people in my state and I am going to stick up for them,” said Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK). “I am sick and tired of a lot of folks in my own caucus coming after the largest employer in my state.”

Again, I don't know whether fracturing is a dangerous thing. But here's the kicker - neither does anyone else. And that should give a United States Representative pause.

I'm not saying that the oil/gas/coal/whatever business is an evil supercorporation with shady government ties. I don't want to say that our elected officials are obsessed with the seasonal buzzword "jobs". I don't want to get into a trading-out-green-jobs thing.

I just want someone to make a realistic decision. Forget the baggage. If information comes to light that one of your industrial practices might be a health risk, then you put a hold on it until you can investigate it.

But, hey, those liberals are babbling about climate change again. We've gotta stand by our guns, am I right?


Technology Revisited

There's a great post by coby of A Few Things Ill Considered on The Energy Grid about the origins of our current mess. The basic problem is essentially politics, by which he means organizations of people. As groups of people, we haven't looked forward enough.

Which, while a simple and poignant way to put it, isn't anything new. The really interesting ground is where he goes next - why can't technology save us?

And it's true, humanity has always shown an ability to leap the natural hurdles that usually constrain growth. And that's a good thing - I don't think any of us, other than a very small minority, want the human race to go extinct, so if we can buck nature's rule that all species die off then hey, go us.

But at the same time, we may be hastened extinction - or, at least, a catastrophic loss of quality of life - just because we are so unconstrained.

And that's the key, the way coby puts it. The analogy he chooses is building a new bridge to alleviate congestion, and how that doesn't work - more capacity between A and B leads more people to drive, build houses at point A, work at point B, take A and B instead of going around to point C to dodge traffic, etc.

So isn't it the same thing with energy usage? Even if we discover futuristic technology - or just finally get around to making Fusion work - will it actually help us in the long(ish) run?

His answer is no, and I'd tend to agree. Unless regulated by some sort of negative pressure - governmental regulations or societal pressures - we'd just take the energy and grow until even that energy isn't enough. In fact, from the right way around, a limitless source of energy is actually far more frightening than an energy collapse - who knows if we'd be able to stop our expansion.

So what's the point?

The point is that we need to learn to regulate ourselves - and that maybe we all need to do some deep soul searching to decide if that's even possible.