28 December 2004

Eskimo-Pie in the Corner

The recent move by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization that represents the rights of people of the Arctic from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, to threaten the U.S. with a lawsuit "for causing global warming and its devastating impacts," is a bold move that is causing ripples of reaction from the green and the non-so-green. The announcement, made at the recent U.N. climate summit in Buenos Aires, has been described as a salvo against the current administration’s policies by some or "the tip of the iceberg" and "evidence of the green groups' failure to convince the world of the righteousness of their cause" by others.

Cybercast News Services (cnsnews.com), which is affiliated with the conservative watchdog Media Resource Center, describes itself as "a news source for individuals, news organizations and broadcasters who put a higher premium on balance than spin." CNS quotes liberally from Chris Horner, a columnist for the "free market environmental group" Competitive Enterprise Institute, who attended the conference.

Mr. Horner "ridiculed the notion that a 'subsistence' lifestyle included modern equipment like snowmobiles and charged that the Inuits themselves are responsible for ending their traditional way of life." Really? The Inuits are not the Amish; they haven't forsaken technology for a simpler way of life. They live in harsh conditions and use every means to keep their families alive. We provided technological fixes to their hunting and subsistence problems and they put them to good use. But snowmobiles can’t swim like dogs and when they fall through the ice, arctic hunters can be stranded for days before help can arrive.

I have no beef with Mr. Horner; he's got some good opinions and his own worldview. I do take issue when he says the Inuits made a "conscious choice" to trade their lifestyle "for an ideological agenda and possible financial gain." I've spent time in northern climes. Calling the disappearance of the Inuit way of life a conscious choice is a bit like saying the Yankees made a conscious choice to let the Red Sox go to the World Series this year and reverse the curse by blowing four straight games. (Sorry, I had to get in a reference to the Red Sox before 2004 comes to a close.)

I don't think Mr. Horner is off-base when he claims in another CNS article that by "2025, the developed countries will be producing more greenhouse gases than all industrialized countries combined." But that may be due to progressive companies like BP voluntarily raising their voluntary emissions caps beyond the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for only a five percent reduction over 1990 levels, and further reductions in the industrialized nations that have signed on to the Protocol. There's little question that the Kyoto Protocol pales in comparison to what is really needed to prevent catastrophic change in our climate, even extreme greens agree on that point. Yet the recent ratification by Russia demonstrates a willingness for a majority of governments to self-regulate and take action before it's too late.

What is needed are bold and appropriate incentives for other companies to join the ranks of BP. That seems an easier play to reduce emissions further and prevent additional Kyotos and regulations. The carbon market called for in Kyoto will create a free market approach to trading emissions that probably rankles hard green enviros. Get over it. Establishing markets for the bad while encouraging incentives for the good is certainly a better choice than sticking one's political head in the ideological sand and hoping the scientists are wrong or prove to be alarmist.

If incentives and market solutions are successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the climate is stabilized, kudos for us. Will we stand back and claim that the findings were wrong or will we pat ourselves on the back for using our industrial and technological ingenuity to address a global problem? Part of making positive change is taking responsibility for our actions.

And while we're at it, how about some progressive incentives for a move towards high technology solutions like clean coal, wind power, and other alternatives? It would be a wise and bold move for our economy to take the lead in developing the technologies of the future rather than letting some other country eat our lunch again, while we draw our line in the sand.

17 December 2004

Climate Change Agent

Post-presidents lead a curious life after leaving office. They can rest on their laurels and collect fat fees for speaking engagements, suck up huge royalties for not-quite-tell-all autobiographies, set up their own presidential libraries or chill out on their ranches while riding into the sunset. For former president Bill "Slick Willy" Clinton, who has made some interesting moves -- his Harlem office, for one -- since leaving office four years ago, it’s been a combination of personal time and public pronouncements. Not comfortable in the shadow of Senator (Mrs.) Clinton (and possibly harboring some discomfort at the idea of potentially becoming the first "First Hubby'), Clinton has been outspoken on issues that he professes to care about.

The latest pronouncement is a curious one, given the foot-dragging on the issue he exhibited during his eight-year reign: Clinton wants to be a climate change agent. Under the auspices of his William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, Mr. Bill organized an energy and environment conference at NYU last week. "Tomorrow is here," Clinton told the audience. "It's time to stop worrying when, if ever, the current administration will change its mind about climate change."

But whither so enlightened Bill? Where were you on the issues back in the go-go 90s? Enviros have questioned why he didn't assert his authority on fuel efficiency and auto emissions or greenhouse gas caps, and rightly so. The expectations of environmentalists were high when he and Greenie Gore came into office. But after giving him eight years, many asked, “Where is his lasting environmental legacy?”

Clinton-Gore did advocate the market-based cap-and-trade concepts that are now the cornerstone of the Kyoto Protocol, but would a more aggressive leadership on the issue have made it impossible for his successor to ignore the global agreement? We'll never know.

For now, I'll remain skeptical that Clinton has the clout or “political capital” to tackle this complex and seemingly daunting issue. At the same time, it's a welcome shift to see an ex-Prez advocating for real change on environment and energy issues, especially if it leads to incentives to encourage a growth in new technologies that could help our economy. At the very least, if he puts his advance and royalty monies where his mouth is, maybe he can help reduce the personal carbon footprint generated by his 1000-page memoir published earlier this year.

07 December 2004

What Me Worry?

Best-selling author Michael Crichton, in an obvious ploy to plug his new novel State of Fear, which is published today, has an article in a popular Sunday supplement magazine this past weekend. (In the interest of full disclosure one of my pals is the editor of that magazine, Parade.) The piece, called "Let's Stop Scaring Ourselves" masks itself as a call for skepticism; it could have been subtitled, "Ostriches Unite!"

Crichton's own prognostication skills are unmatched. As if taking a page from his own Jurassic Park, the BBC World Service reported last week that scientists may have figured out how to clone cells from long extinct species. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner he lambastes such "media scares" as global climate cooling and warming, which were only decades apart, the population explosion, resource depletion, and Y2K.

In doing so, he has a good time. "I now recognize that for most of my life I have felt burdened by highly publicized fears that decades later did not turn out to be true," Crichton writes. And he recommends we "start regarding each breathless new claim with skepticism," as he has learned to do.

I'm all for a healthy skepticism and for "keeping fears in perspective," but is it really better to "ignore most of the frightening things" we read and hear? Or rather should we seek the truth in some of these claims and determine what an appropriate response should be? The fact that science has vacillated on the Earth's predicted temperature rise by 26 degrees over 20 years (30 in 1975; 4 in 1995) does not point to falsity. Rather it proves only that science is as inexact as art; testing hypotheses and rigorous inquiry are the hallmarks of good scientific process.

It seems to me that is no reason to stick one's head in the sand and ignore all claims. Test and take appropriate action, yes, but ignore? (On a note related to my post from yesterday, Crichton repeats the claim that the "Club of Rome" was wrong about population and the loss of raw materials. I'm no apologist for the authors of The Limits to Growth, but in the "Author's Preface" to the new edition, they claim their main purpose was "to draw attention to the phenomenon of global overshoot and to encourage society to question the pursuit of growth as a panacea for most problems." On the facing page of this preface they report on one "vivid example of global overshoot" from our recent experience: Wall Street's dot-com bubble.)

Ever the optimistic skeptic, I won't worry. I'm just going to take action to see that dire predictions never come true.

06 December 2004

Limits? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Limits

I’ve been reading the 30-year Update of the groundbreaking and much maligned book The Limits to Growth. It was originally published in 1972 to polarized reaction. The strongest voices summarily dismissed it as a work of cranks and crackpots who wanted to end progress as we knew it then and have virtually continued to know it since. There’s a case that the Limits and its progenitors were widely misunderstood – a fact that the authors should have seen coming if they ran the scenarios. The authors may have done themselves a disservice by not clearly explaining that they weren't claiming the sky was falling, but simply wanted to offer readers a few computer generated scenarios for what might be if we kept the course of exponential growth. In other words, a cautionary tale.

Of course intentions and impacts don’t often match up. As a colleague said to me just last week, "The Club of Rome was wrong, weren’t they?" Well, yes and no, is the unequivocal answer. If you believe the authors, the media grabbed onto what they interpreted as a call for the end of our civilization and ran with it. The message was, like some of John Kerry’s gymnastic explanations, not uncomplicated and, in its lack of simplicity, the original Limits may have overshot its mark.

Still, there is much in the current book that proves one point: human beings are an ingenious sort. We are great tinkerers and adaptors and will usually find a way to throw technological fixes and other solutions at problems we face. Some of these fixes the authors of Limits may have “predicted” if they were true soothsayers. But the doom-saying interpretation of the original message may have been too strong to warrant a wholesale embrace of its platform by even the most ardent environmentalists; well, all except the Earth First!-ers.

The world population didn’t spin out of complete control; in fact, there are indications it has started to level off at the six billion level. We haven’t (yet) run out of fossil fuels; and food production is at an all time high, right? So why look back on this work and pursue its scenarios further? Well, it turns out hindsight is 20/20, but computer modeling is a limited science in and of itself. You are beholden to the parameters of the system upon which scenarios are run and the amount of information it can crunch. Admittedly, the technology has vastly improved; they now run scenarios seemingly faster than I can type. Yet still, there is nothing like the human intellect and heart to interpret nuances -- and computers have not figured out a way to completely replicate the human animal’s best attributes.

The single, greatest message of Limits is, in my view, that we may be on a course towards collapse and that we shouldn’t risk it. Perhaps we need not completely abandon our ways, but rather seek to stem those that are most questionable and disruptive, while embracing those that give us a sporting chance. Why risk it? Better to develop new methods of living on the earth than to sit by and let the collapse come while we deny, deny deny. We’re naïve if we think our world or our ingenuity has no limits whatsoever; we’re equally naïve if we think we don’t have brains and gifts enough to make a concerted effort to change things before it’s too late.

I’ll write more on this subject in the coming days as I think this through. These are my first impressions upon finishing the 30-Year Update. For now, suffice it to say that I applaud the authors for bringing this subject up again – somebody has to be a voice in the wilderness. I also caution readers not to take everything they write as some sort of death knell for prosperity. We can be more crafty and imaginative than that implies.