Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

photo: NRDC

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The climate war has shifted to California.

Proposition 23, an initiative that would suspend Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the state’s landmark global warming law, provides the first ballot box test for climate change legislation — and for the prospects of reviving a national cap-and-trade bill.

So far, much of the media attention has focused on Prop 23’s funding. It’s being underwritten by the Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero along with other mostly out-of-state petrochemical and fossil fuel interests. Prop 23 supporters have contributed more than $6.5 million to the campaign.

But a review of opposition fundraising — for the No on 23 campaign — offers a revealing look at what amounts to a fight for the future, a struggle between the industrial behemoths of the old fossil fuel economy and a startup coalition of environmental groups, Silicon Valley technology companies, financiers, and old-line corporations looking to profit from decarbonizing California.

“The choice that is before California is between the new clean economy versus the dirty old economy,” says Annie Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Silicon Valley folks who are willing to invest in the new clean energy economy with their dollars are tangible evidence that this is an economic issue as well as an environmental one.”

The NRDC has emerged as one of the key fundraisers, funneling more than a million dollars to the No on 23 campaign to date. Big green groups such as NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund took the lead on forging alliances with Fortune 500 companies in the unsuccessful effort to pass national climate change legislation. In contrast, the heavy hitters in California’s Prop 23 battle are green tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who have traditionally shied away from electoral politics.

The last stand for climate change has brought John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the table. Doerr has given $500,000 to defeat Prop 23. And he’s not alone.

Wendy Schmidt, founder the 11th Hour Project, a Silicon Valley environmental grant-making nonprofit (and wife of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt), donated $500,000 to NRDC’s No Prop 23 Committee. (Disclosure: The Schmidt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Grist’s, and Wendy Schmidt is a member of the Grist Board.)

Google itself hasn’t contributed to the No campaign, but last week the search giant’s green energy chief, Bill Weihl, assured a gathering at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters that, “We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign” and the global warming law, known as AB 32.

When asked about Google’s potential financial support for the No campaign, company spokesperson Parag Chokshi said, “Google has been a very strong supporter of AB 32 and wants it to be implemented. We’ll continue to monitor the situation as we move forward.”

To date, the heaviest hitter on Team No is Thomas Steyer, the press-shy founder of San Francisco hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. Steyer, a big donor to Democratic candidates, has pledged $5 million and stepped forward to co-chair the No on 23 Committee with George Schulz, the Republican former secretary of state.

“I personally come at this issue as a businessperson who cares about the economic future of California as well as the environmental and security issues here,” Steyer said on a conference call late last month. “The right way to frame this is that we have a fairly stark choice to either move forward or turn back the clock.”

“We have 12,000 companies in California working on clean energy already,” he added. “It’s going to be one of the dominant spaces in the world and for us to excel and lead in this area we need a consistent regulatory framework for investment.”

Yet another mainstream investor is Robert Fisher, former chair of The Gap, the San Francisco-based clothing empire. Like Schmidt, Fisher has put up a half million dollars for the NRDC fund. And Southern California investor Anne Getty Earhart, an heir to the Getty oil fortune, donated $250,000 directly to the No campaign.

“What makes this unusual is that this is not your classic tree-huggers-versus-big business battle,” says Steve Maviglio, a longtime California Democratic operative and the chief spokesperson for the No on Prop 23 campaign. “Environmentalists, dyed-in-the-wool businessmen, tech companies — they have all been very active in fundraising, active on the lecture circuit and before editorial boards.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

Photo: Lori Eanes.

In a piece I wrote for Yale Environment 360, I interview the new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, about what’s next for the green movement in the wake of the defeat of federal climate change legislation:

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.” will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Read Full Post »

photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On Thursday, Yale Environment 360 published a story I wrote about a growing fight over using the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife at risk of extinction from climate change:

While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.

A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).

As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.

The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.

The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

This post first appeared on Grist.

Eric Pooley came to San Francisco last Tuesday to talk about his new book, The Climate War, at the offices of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The book, subtitled “True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth,” is a riveting tale of the battle to pass climate change legislation in the United States. Pooley, deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the former editor of Fortune magazine, embedded himself with key combatants in the climate war, including Fred Krupp, EDF’s president. (Read a review by Grist’s David Roberts here.)

It is, of course, a book without an ending as efforts to enact a cap on greenhouse gas emissions start to resemble a not-so-funny legislative version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

The timing of Pooley’s Tuesday talk was appropriate, as that day a new front in the climate war opened up on the West Coast when an initiative to suspend California’s landmark global warming law qualified for the Nov. 2 ballot.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, popularly known by its legislative moniker, AB 32, requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. One of the options to do that is to implement a statewide cap-and-trade market to limit emissions by carbon polluters such as oil refiners.

Two Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, are largely funding the anti-AB 32 ballot measure, which the California secretary of state in a bit of cosmic irony has designated Proposition 23 — a reversal of 32, get it?

Prop 23 would put AB 32 on hold until the unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent for four straight quarters, which is as likely in California as the legislature delivering the state budget on time four years in a row.

It promises to be an epic battle of the Old Economy vs. the New Economy — Silicon Valley green tech startups, venture capitalists, and big corporations with a stake in the nascent renewable energy economy versus the old industrial giants with the most to lose from the new green order.

“If you look at investment in clean energy, China is now investing $9 billion a month with centralized control of the energy economy the likes of which we can’t equal,” Pooley told EDFers gathered on the 28th floor of a downtown San Francisco tower. “A price on carbon would change the rules of the road and take capital off the sidelines and put it to work building clean energy infrastructure and jobs here in this country. It could happen in California first as so many things have happened in California first.”

“But I really worry about this proposition,” he added. “It’s going to be tough to defeat.”

Pooley noted that the passage of AB 32 in 2006 helped put pressure on the federal government and an administration resolutely opposed to cap and trade. Suspension of AB 32 would take away a big playing card in the climate change poker game.

While the environment may be as Californian as the beach, redwood trees, and plastic surgery, the fight over Prop 23 makes environmentalists nervous, especially in a state with a sky-high unemployment rate.

Pooley asked Derek Walker, director of EDF’s California Climate Initiative, to handicap the electoral odds.

“When I’m asked that question, I would have said a year ago there’s no chance we’ll have a Republican senator from Massachusetts anytime soon,” Walker said. “But I think that all other things being equal, Californians have a very strong ethic for conservation and if there’s enough evidence of the green economy growing in California there’s a compelling case.”

As Pooley noted, “Nobody has done more than California to step up on this issue. There’s never going to be a perfect moment to do this. As if we all can wait for the golden day when all is in order and embrace the future. History does not work that way. Progress does not work that way. We have to rise up to meet the future or we’ll cede it to somebody else.”

Read Full Post »

photo: Picarro

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about California’s move to deploy the world’s first statewide greenhouse gas monitoring network:

SAN FRANCISCO — California is preparing to introduce the first statewide system of monitoring devices to detect global-warming emissions, installing them on towers throughout the state.

The monitoring network, which is expected to grow, will initially focus on pinpointing the sources and concentrations of methane, a potent contributor to climate change. The California plan is an early example of the kind of system that may be needed in many places as countries develop plans to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases.

“This is the first time that this is being done anywhere in the world that we know of,” said Jorn Dinh Herner, a scientist with the California Air Resources Board.

While monitoring stations around the globe already detect carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, they are deliberately placed in remote locations and are generally intended to measure average global concentrations of greenhouse gases rather than local emissions.

The California network, by contrast, is meant to help the state find specific sources of emissions, as well as to verify the state’s overall compliance with a plan it adopted to limit greenhouse gases.

The air resources board has bought seven portable analyzers made by Picarro, a company in Silicon Valley that also supplies the machines to the federal government and academic scientists.

By this summer, the analyzers will be deployed on towers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, home to large agricultural operations and oil fields, and on Mount Wilson, outside Los Angeles. Data will also be collected from Picarro machines maintained by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the coast and from several monitoring stations operated by other agencies.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

4004055880_542a818b37_b

Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Next month the United States Department of Energy will release a study finding that China contains huge underground repositories that could be used to store 100 years of carbon emissions. As I write in The New York Times on Thursday:

China has vast underground repositories that could store more than a century’s worth of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities, according to a report to be released by the United States Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The study, conducted with scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that the geologic formations are in close to a large percentage of the country’s power plants.

That could permit “the continued use of cheap, domestic coal within China while supporting CO2 emissions reductions via the capture and geologic storage of the associated CO2,” according to an eight-page summary of the study.

The full report will be released in November.

“A lot of the policy dialogue and technical discussions have this really sharp dichotomy — either you use coal and bad things happen to the environment, or you forgo coal and bad things happen to the economy,” James Dooley, a scientist at the laboratory and an author of the report, said in an interview. “We’re trying to say maybe there’s a third way here.”

Such technology, which remains untried on a commercial scale, comes with high costs, because capturing and storing carbon emissions consumes significant amounts of energy and water. The potential environmental impact of putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide underground also remains unknown.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

malta-smart-grid

Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »