A Failure of Government

The Senate Democratic leadership have decided to not move forward on a comprehensive energy and climate legislative bill after failing to gain any support from the GOP. It's a failure of government and one with tremendous consequences for life as we know it on this planet. While the bill failed to gain any Republican votes, a number of Democratic lawmakers from manufacturing and coal-producing states were expected to oppose the energy and climate bill.

Instead, Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid intends to move forward next week on a bipartisan energy-only bill that responds to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and contains other more popular energy items. The bill headed to the floor will not include a carbon cap or a renewable electricity standard but will contain provisions dealing with the oil spill, Home Star energy efficiency upgrades, incentives for the conversion of trucking fleet to natural gas and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The story in the New York Times:

After a meeting of Senate Democrats, party leaders on Thursday said they had abandoned hope of passing a comprehensive energy bill this summer and would pursue a more limited measure focused primarily on responding the Gulf oil spill and including some tightening of energy efficiency standards.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a champion of comprehensive climate change legislation called the new goal “admittedly narrow.”

At a news conference, the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, blamed Republicans for refusing to cooperate. “We don’t have a single Republican to work with us,” Mr. Reid said.

Democrats said they would continue to pursue broader climate change legislation.

“This is not the only energy legislation we are going to do,” Mr. Reid said. “This is what we can do now.”

Senate Democrats had already scaled back their plans to pursue limits on greenhouse gas emissions, like those in a bill approved by the House last year. Instead, the Senate Democrats had said they would seek a cap on carbon emissions only for power plants. But even that proved overly ambitious.

Even before the proverbial plug was pulled on the energy and climate bill, Timothy Egan of the New York Times had a smart column with choice words for the most dangerous man on the planet today, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Last month was the hottest June ever recorded worldwide, and 2010 is on course to be the warmest year since record-keeping began, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Senator Inhofe’s home state of Oklahoma, the National Weather Service issued a warning this week of “dangerous heat index values” of up to 110 degrees. A report from AccuWeather.com last month stated that, this year, “no other region has seen the variety of extreme weather” as much as Oklahoma.

Extreme weather. Perfect for an extreme politician, a man who won his senate seat in 1994 by using, as his slogan, the actual words of a cynical strategy to get people to think about anything but real issues: “God, guns, and gays.” Maybe, with this weather, God is trying to tell the senator something.

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Hydrocarbon Man

Oxy, otherwise known as Occidental Petroleum, has produced this spot asking consumers to consider how much of our world depends on petroleum based products. But in the realm of unintended consequences, the ad is a hit within the peak oil & alternative energy community simply because it drives home the point that unless we act now to replace the hydrocarbon economy that underpins our lifestyles we're doomed. Our dependency is laid threadbare literally as the ad leaves its hero in his skivvies. 

David Leonhardt, the business editor over at the New York Times had a great article yesterday that I meant to touch on before the Andrew Breitbart's video lynching of Shirley Sherrod took hold of the news cycle.

This city just endured its hottest June since records began in 1872, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So did Miami. Atlanta suffered its second-hottest June, and Dallas had its third hottest.

In New York, the weather was relatively pleasant: only the fourth-hottest June since 1872. Then again, New York is on pace for its hottest July on record.

Yet when United States senators and their aides file into work on Wednesday, on yet another 90-degree day, they may be on the verge of deciding to do approximately nothing about global warming. The needed 60 votes don’t seem to be there, at least not at the moment.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and President Obama may still find a way to cobble together the votes, as they did on health care and financial regulation. Perhaps they can somehow persuade moderate Republicans to support a market-based limit on power plant emissions — a policy that power plants themselves seem open to.

Or perhaps Mr. Reid and Mr. Obama can get Democrats to support a less ambitious set of rules that would require vehicles, buildings and power plants to meet certain energy standards. Several Republicans support that approach. Democrats are divided between thinking that it’s the most realistic chance for progress and worrying that it’s a fig leaf that may delay more significant action.

Either way, most Senate watchers, inside and out, think the odds of a major climate bill are not great. And if this White House and this Democratic Congress can’t pass one, you have to wonder what the future of climate policy looks like.

All the while, the risks and costs of climate change grow. Sea levels are rising faster than scientists predicted just a few years ago. Himalayan glaciers are melting. In the American West, pine beetles (which struggle to survive the cold) are multiplying and killing trees.

According to NASA, 2010 is on course to be the planet’s hottest year since records started in 1880. The current top 10, in descending order, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008.

Hot is the new normal.

It is not just the eastern United States that is sweltering, most of European Russia has suffered through 38 C degree weather, that's a 100 F, for a record nine days straight. In the process, over a thousand Russians have died just from drinking while swimming. Russia's wheat crop harvested from next month may come in at 51 million metric tons, down from 61.7 million tons last year, because of the heat-related drought. Overall, the annual Russian wheat crop is expected to be just 77 million tons as opposed to 97 million tons harvested in 2009. That's a 20 percent fall in Russia's wheat production, the world fourth largest producer and it has driven wheat prices to a 19 month high.

In India, the thermometer hit 50 C or 122 F in late May killing hundreds of people across Gujarat and Maharashtra states. Northern Thailand is struggling through the worst drought in 20 years, while Israel is in the middle of the longest and most severe drought since 1920s. In Britain, this year has been the driest since 1929. The Philippines also sizzled the past summer, with parts of the country registering scorching temperatures of 38.5 degrees Celsius in April. Also, Arctic sea ice has melted to its thinnest state in June.

Mexico, meanwhile, is facing a perfect storm of floods, rising heat and humidity that breed mosquitoes, prompting a big increase in the number of hemorrhagic dengue cases. While the milder form of dengue is on the decline, Mexican officials are worried about the rise of the more serious hemorrhagic form which has spiked to about 1,900 cases this year, compared with about 1,430 in the same period of 2009. So far, 16 people have died. Nor is Mexico the only place currently battling a mosquito plague caused by hotter weather. In Mumbai, a record 9,000 cases of malaria have been reported in the last fortnight.

In China, the problem is torrential summer rains. The rains, which began in May after a severe drought in southern China, are inundating cities and villages throughout the country. Well over half of China's provinces are now enduring monsoon-like downpours, flooding and landslides. Over 700 people have died so far and millions have been displaced. The rain are even putting pressure on China's massive Three Gorges Dam as 70,000 cubic metres per second, considerably higher than the 50,000 figure recorded in 1998, flow into the reservoir. As Chinese engineers cope with the increased water, Chinese authorities are recommending the permanent relocation of a further 300,000 people - in addition to the 1.2 million who have already been forced to leave their homes - to create an "eco-buffer" belt in the worst affected areas.

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Oil Spills, Here and There

We all, I would hope, have epiphanies when we realize certain undeniable facts about the world we live in that challenge or even shatter the comfort of previously held beliefs. I have often said and deeply hold that my world view has been largely shaped by my travels, much of was forced fed to me in the classroom was thankfully unlearned or tempered by experiences in both near and far flung points of this globe.

For example, I came to realize that something was seriously amiss with the American way of life on visits to Detroit and rural Cherokee county in southeastern Kansas. The former was once the world's fifth wealthiest city in 1950, but such is its fall from grace that the Motor City does not even rank in the top thousand today. After visiting Detroit but feeling I had been transported to bombed out Dresden circa 1945, the problems of urban America and the loss of its manufacturing base were all too painfully evident.

My visit to the land of Dorothy demonstrated the devastation of big box retailing upon the landscape of small town America. Hurricanes called Wal-Mart and Home Depot coupled with the rise of industrialized agribusiness have simply wiped out thousands of small businesses and family farms leaving ghost towns scattered across what is for many of us "fly-over" country. Across much of this country, Main Street has been replaced by strip malls anchored by big box retailers on the edge of town. To make the Walton and Tyson families billionaires several times over required the destruction of an entire way of life. And like Gertrude Stein once remarked of Oakland, there is no there there. Towns across America have simply been wiped from the map or are shells of their former selves.

Energy is something most of us simply take for granted. We flip a switch and the lights go on. Most of us are simply unaware of the vast infrastructure and the tremendous effort that goes into making such turning darkness into light an effortless flipping of a switch. But for much of humanity's time on this one Earth of ours, the fall of night has meant a plunge into the darkness and cold of space.

I can remember as a boy walking in the Andes on my grandfather's farm and seeing the night sky full of stars, a view that has bewitched generations of humanity but one that most of humanity is no longer afforded due to the effects of light pollution. Part of my rationale for travelling off the beaten path is simply to gaze up at the night sky to enjoy the spectacle of our universe and to connect with what has so captivated the human mind for millenia. This mania for the exotic less travelled path has taken me to places where by happenstance I also came to see first hand the devastation that my comfort and the ease with which I can turn darkness into light is having upon areas once pristine and though still remote now connected to the world economy and exploited for our benefit with generally deleterious effects for the native population. It was on a visit to the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1994 that I first discovered the dark side of oil, a fact which many Americans are now grasping for the first time but which Nigerians and Amazonians have long had to endure. It's touted as development but it's hard to countenance the destruction of entire ways of lives and the despoilment of wide swaths of the Earth as progress.

Look around you. Just about everything you see is made possible by our ability to exploit the energy that has laid trapped in the Earth's crust. Absent that energy, much of the civilization we have built simply disappears. We live in numbers, now fast approaching seven billion more than doubling in my lifetime alone, only made possible by that exploitation of hydrocarbon magic and its transformation into items we now depend on for our very survival. Ours is the Age of Oil.

We are but 150 years into this Age of Oil but it is increasingly evident that at the present rate of consumption and given present reserves that the Age of Oil is going to come to an end within the space of a human lifetime. The implications, thus, for a civilization built on oil are then dire. But even if we did possess a limitless supply of oil to fuel our growth to sustain the numbers we now total, it should be clear that our dependence on this elixir has had a cost in ways we are only now beginning to fully realize and never will be able to fully discount. Ours may be the last generation to enjoy a bite of tuna or to see a polar bear in the wild if you're so lucky to visit Churchill, Manitoba where they still congregate in numbers every November before heading to hunt on the Arctic ice pack. Eco-tourism is rapidly devolving into a see it before it's gone trade. Such is the world we will leave future generations and I suspect that we will be cursed by them for our improper avaricious stewardship of the planet's natural resources.

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The Empathic Civilization & The Limits of Globalization

In this talk from the @Google Authors Lecture Series, Dr. Jeremy Rifkin discusses the ideas in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. It's a massive work of over 600 pages that looks at the emerging view in the biological and cognitive science human nature is empathic based and then recasts human history in that light.

Dr. Rifkin begins his talk with this thesis, one which I largely share:

I believe that we may be at a seminal turning point in the history of our species on this planet. Sounds melodramatic and I won't be here to see it but many of the young people in this room may be a decisive generation. Species come and go. We had two events in the last eighteen months which signal the end game of a great industrial age propelled by fossil fuels that gave us one of the great short-lived civilizations in history.

July 2008, you recall that oil hit $147 dollars a barrel on world markets. Prices soared, inflation roared. Basic items became prohibitively expensive around the world from groceries to gasoline. There were food riots in 30 countries. Purchasing power plummeted at $147 dollars a barrel all over the world. The entire economic engine of the industrial revolution turned off at $147 a barrel. That was the economic meltdown. That was the earthquake.

The collapse of the financial markets sixty days later, that was the aftershock. G-20, G-8, G-2, our world leaders have not yet come to grips with what is really happening to the global economy.

Our fossil fuel energies are sunsetting. Their S-curve is exhausted and the entire infrastructure of this civilization is embedded in the carbon deposits of the Jurassic Age. Our agricultural food is grown in petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Almost all of our pharmaceutical products are still fossil fuel based, most of our clothes, the entire construction infrastructure of our civilization is fossil fuel based, our power, transport, our heat, our light, our logistics, our supply chain.

What we are seeing is the sunsetting of these energies and the life-support of the infrastructure built on it. That's what we haven't yet come to grips with.

The reason that this is happening is what I call Peak Globalization [that occurred] at a $147 a barrel. There is something called peak oil per capita not to be confused with peak oil production. They are two different things.

Peak oil per capita actually occurred over thirty years ago in 1979 at the height of the second industrial revolution. In that year, if we had distributed all the oil reserves we knew had in to each person on the planet at that time fairly and equitably that would the most oil that each person could have. We have found more oil since then but population grows quicker so if we distribute all the oil we have there's less to go around per person.

There's a lot to chew on in those introductory remarks. I've started reading the book - I am only about a fifth of the way through - but it's clear that the book's clarion call that we must act now before we descend into a madness unlike any ever faced by humanity overwhelms us is a message that needs to get out.

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Obama and the Tyranny of Oil

On August 27, 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania and ushered in the Age of Oil. The Age of Oil will not endure. Already just 150 years into it, we are seeing the endline but there is little question that oil has remade our world. That magical string of hydrocarbons allows us to live on this planet in numbers otherwise not possible. If not for oil, at least 40% of us would not be here. We literally eat oil for without we could not produce the quantity of food that enables our numbers of now near seven billion. Indeed, the major phenomenon of the modern era are wholly attributable to oil. The Green Revolution, globalization, the advent of plastics are all ultimately tied to our mastery of oil's magic. Our transportation infrastructure is largely based on a hydrocarbon economy. There is no question that solving our energy riddle is one of the paramount questions for the upcoming century.

Thus it is striking that the President last night in Williamsburg made the following comment:

This plan will begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time. It doubles our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and biofuels in three years.

It's an interesting and perhaps odd phrase, the tyranny of oil, but those involved in the study of peak oil or in the transition towns movement that phrase has real meaning and it is music to our ears. It signifies that President is aware of the daunting challenge to wean a planet off a diminishing resource before our world literally slides off a cliff. For me personally as someone who was less than enthused with candidate Obama, that phrase along with his comment back in Toledo to Joe the Plumber about "share the wealth" are the most instructive and insightful into the President's thinking and core beliefs. If President Obama addresses the "tyranny of oil" and moves to address the growing income inequality in this country then he truly is the one that I have been awaiting.

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