Among the different tactics that activists employ to stop climate change, divestment from fossil fuels has recently drawn a lot of attention. The idea is simple: if it is immoral to invest in fossil fuels, we should no longer do it. In a famous article in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben from 350.org showed that, if we are serious about stopping climate change, we cannot afford to extract many more fossil fuels – most of what’s available must be left underground. According to the divestment movement, this means that investment in fossil fuel extraction is now immoral.

While Desmond Tutu has endorsed the divestment movement, Harvard University has refused to divest. The website Go Fossil Free lists a large number of campaigns around the world, and every day seems to bring more and more stories, debates, and arguments to the forefront.

Can divestment work? On a mechanical level, the answer is almost certainly no. As more and more activists divest from fossil fuels, others use the opportunity to invest profitably in fossil fuels. There is no shortage of potential investors, and divestment probably cannot stop fossil fuel extraction as long as demand for energy remains high and continues to grow in the world. That much should be clear.

However, the divestment movement may have deeper, beneficial effects on the society. Even if activists fail to really hurt the bottom line of fossil fuel companies, casting fossil fuels in moral terms may effect changes in attitudes and opinions. The publicity surrounding divestment forces people to consider their own views of fossil fuels. If the divestment movement succeeds in turning the public against fossil fuels, radical change becomes possible. If a large majority of the American public thought that burning coal is truly evil, the days of the coal industry in the United States would be numbered. Social movements against slavery, apartheid, racial discrimination, and gender inequity succeed when they win the battle for hearts and minds.

So, divestment from fossil fuels is a campaign worth following and, in my personal opinion, supporting. Robert Stavins has made a the case against divestment, arguing that it carries a high opportunity cost, but his argument depends on the assumption that we can stop climate change without a radical change in how we talk and think about climate change and fossil fuels. If a change in our morals and beliefs is necessary for real action, then divestment from fossil fuels is a strategy worth considering. Without great social change, I am skeptical about our ability to implement policies that impose, explicitly or implicitly, a high price on carbon. So, consider me a supporter of the divestment movement.

A recent Gallup opinion poll shows a few interesting patterns in public opinion about energy policy options in the United States. While opinion polls are difficult to interpret and often do not gauge the depth of public sentiment – people tend to over-report their enthusiasm for environmental protection when they do not have to pay for it – this one is interesting for a few reasons. A grain of salt, and here goes:

- Support for energy conservation instead of more energy production is growing. 57% of the respondents now prefer energy conservation. This is a clear increase from the low of 48% in 2011, though we are still 7 percentage points below the high of 64% in 2007.

- Among all Americans, 59% prefer investment in renewable energy to fossil fuels. The really interesting observation, however, pertains to differences between age groups. Among Americans between 18 and 34 years, 80% prefer renewables. Among 55+ years, the corresponding number is only 49%.

Part of this could be youthful enthusiasm, but the large difference between age groups is also an encouraging sign. First, younger Americans live in a media environment that seems to be more favorable to renewables than before (to be honest, this is based on a gut feeling). Second, renewable energy is becoming more competitive and employing more and more people. Third, 80% is such a high number that support among young conservatives must also be relatively high.

Public opinion is not enough to turn the tide, but it could be one part of the solution. These are encouraging signs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is usually in the news to share more bad news about the possible consequences of climate change. While the organization has always had a working group on mitigation, this group’s contributions have rarely been considered as important as those focusing on climate science and the effects of global warming. That’s a shame since we are not going to solve this global problem just by talking about consequences. We may even have to do something to make our economies and societies more sustainable.

It’s great to see that the mitigation aspect of the IPCC work on the Fifth Assessment report, to be released in October 2015, is more oriented toward solutions. The draft summary for policymakers has now been released and is being discussed in the media. The message of the report is clear:

“Many RE technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale (robust evidence, high agreement).”

“Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters, but differences between regions and fuels exist (high confidence).”

In plain English, (i) renewable energy is ready to conquer the world but (ii) the fossil-fuel industry will continue to fight ambitious climate mitigation measures.

In the United States, the energy policy debate has often lost sight of these two important facts. The policy elite spends a lot of time talking about secondary issues, such as shale gas and “energy independence,” instead of focusing all their energies to pave the way for a clean energy future through the aggressive deployment of renewables and equally ambitious energy conservation measures. This is not surprising, given how much political clout the fossil-fuel industry has on Capitol Hill and in many state capitals.  Independent energy policy analysts should step up their efforts to end this digression and re-focus the debate on more relevant issues. The more time we lose counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the more expensive it will be to stop disruptive climate change.

Greenpeace Energydesk has published a great report on China’s increasingly ambitious efforts to deal with the huge environmental and health damage that coal burning causes:

” If implemented in full, the measures announced to date could put China’s emissions almost in line with a 2 degrees trajectory in 2020. And more action is still expected.”

Another key line from the report:

“Over half of global CO2 emission growth between 2002 and 2012 was due to increased coal burning in China.”

The promising scenario would be driven by action in twelve Chinese provinces accounting for 44% of the country’s total coal consumption. These provinces are mostly located along the coast and in the northern parts of the country. Another 17 provinces are considering measures to constrain or reduce the burning of coal.

The big question, of course, is whether or not these policies are actually implemented. In general, non-implementation and non-compliance with announced environmental measures plagues the world, and China is no exception. However, there are a few reasons to be optimistic. Coal’s effects on China’s population and, therefore, the economy, are nothing short of catastrophic. With an increasingly wealthy and educated workforce, I suspect that it makes no economic sense for China to continue these high levels of coal consumption.

A potential slowdown in China’s coal consumption puts the ball back to the court of the rest of the world. Can other emerging economies, especially India, grow prosperous without relying on more and more coal? Can the United States kick the coal addiction for good? We have a lot of work to do – let’s go and do it now.

Stretching the concept of “international relations” just a little bit to increase the number of readers, here are some thoughts on the desperate electricity situation in the city of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India:

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2014/04/accountability-in-public-service-provision-lessons-from-a-film-festival.html

Some new thoughts on how we should study climate policy here:

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2014/03/how-should-we-study-energy-and-climate-policy-critical-insights-from-an-isa-roundtable.html

Renewable energy continues to conjure images of immaturity and novelty, and I even once heard an aspiring energy analyst say that “solar power is the energy of the future, and may always remain so.” But novel is renewable energy? How recent is the idea that humans can use renewable sources to generate the energy needed to power a convenient and prosperous lifestyle?

Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, answers these questions in his meticulously researched book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (2011). I realize I am reviewing this book much too late, but for some incredible reason I only found it last week. I was immediately hooked and pretty miserable when I realized I had finished the book. Yes, it was that good.

Simply put, the book shows that serious attempts to use modern sources of renewable energy have a long history in the United States. Small-scale hydroelectricity powered a prosperous New England manufacturing town early in the 19th century, solar water heating was all the rage in pre-World War II America, a massive wind turbine generated power in Vermont in 1941, and entire “solar homes” were popular for years after the end of the war.

Madrigal’s case studies are impossibly captivating, and his ability to derive policy implications for contemporary renewable energy advocates from the historical record is equally impressive. Madrigal makes a compelling case for the role of politics, technological learning, and cultural factors in the past successes and failures of renewable. Perhaps most powerful is his critique of the appropriate technology movement, which refused to consider renewable energy a part of the modern industrial society, instead dooming the cleanest of all energy technologies into commercial irrelevance and technical stagnation. It has been a long time since somebody has made me think so hard about my own assumptions and ideas about renewable energy.

I expect and hope this book to become a standard reference for anyone who wants to understand the role and development of technology in our society. In this day and age, this should be a pretty large group of people, too.

It has been a quiet summer for climate policy here in the United States, but yesterday brought a new development: President Obama announced rules for new power plants. The proposed rule, which could enter into force in the fall of 2014 if it survives the inevitable legal challenges from the power utilities and coal mining companies, is that new large (small) natural gas plants must not emit more than 1,000 (1,100) pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, while coal power plants must also achieve the 1,100 pound limit.

For natural gas, this is not a big deal because the fuel produces much less carbon dioxide than coal. But for coal, the new rule is tough. The only realistic way to bring CO2 emissions down to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour is carbon capture and storage, but this technology is currently experimental at best. Accordingly, some commentators have called the rule the first move in Obama’s “war on coal.”

How important is this tough new rule? At current natural gas prices, it would be nothing worth discussing. It is remarkable that new coal power plants today are not economically competitive, even if one ignores their severe negative effects on health and the environment. Unless natural gas prices increase significantly (major decreases in coal prices are not in sight), new coal power plants are not a winning proposition in the United States.

But if natural gas prices do increase, then Obama’s rules could be important. Since natural gas is the main competitor for coal in power generation, an increase in the price of natural gas — perhaps because estimates of the cost of extracting shale gas prove too optimistic — could bring coal back in the game. But not under Obama’s new rule.  Increases in the price of natural gas would favor alternatives, such as wind and solar power. This would be great news for the country and the world. So, Obama’s new rules are a form of insurance. They do not have much effect unless natural gas prices change, but they could save us from a coal renaissance in that contingency.

The other question about the rule is whether or not it really signals a war on coal. I am skeptical. Tough rules on existing power plants would have real and immediate effects on electricity prices across the country, and this “nuclear option” would give Republicans a potent political weapon. Moreover, the whole idea of regulating carbon dioxide emissions hinges on the Clean Air Act, which was never designed to address climate change. If the coal industry is willing to fight against rules for new power plants, their response to tough rules for existing plants would be so much more aggressive.

President Obama is formulating policy in an environment characterized by three basic facts. First, climate change is not any kind of a priority for the public. Second, there are powerful interests who oppose limits to carbon pollution. Finally, the President must accept constitutional limits to his authority. Against this backdrop, Obama’s new rule should be recognized as a useful step forward. At the same time, we all should remain very depressed about the fact that this step is worth celebrating.

It is not very often that I find the products of conservative think thanks worth discussing, but today seems different. I swear I am not entirely sure how I found my way on Examining the Social Cost of Carbon, a post by Paul Knappenberger, who apparently is an associate director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute. In the post, Mr. Knappenberger argues that it is disingenuous of the Obama administration to impose a social cost on carbon due to uncertainty about the effects of carbon dioxide on the society (the post also has some more specific arguments about climate science, which I am not qualified to comment on, and normative claims suggesting that America’s carbon price should not consider the damage of climate change outside the United States, which are not worth commenting on):

“The social cost of carbon is a poor concept from the start. It is an ill-conceived, one-sided supposed measure of the damages associated with climate change resulting from human emissions of carbon-containing greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane). Or, rather, it is a measure of the damages predicted to occur by a collection of computer models — computer models which themselves largely fail at capturing the climate evolution during recent decades.”

I have serious reservations about the Obama administration, and I would love to join the bashing just for fun, but this is a funny argument. Suppose we had no carbon price. That would be the same as if we had a carbon price of zero. This non-policy is also a policy. It can only be justified with respect to some model saying that carbon dioxide emissions are harmless. So, the social cost of carbon is not a “poor” but “fundamental” concept. Without such a concept, systematically approaching the complex challenge of climate change would be next to impossible.

The greater point is that uncertainty is itself not an argument for inaction. If there is uncertainty, damages could be either lower or higher than expected. Policy should consider both the expectation and variance of an estimate, without an implicit or explicit status quo bias.

Another post of mine on the Duck of Minerva:

How Much Would the World Pay for Biodiversity? Nothing, Really

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