Perfect killing the good

The Everett Herald‘s editors weighed in. They urge a “no” vote on Initiative 732. They write:

Revenue forecasting is difficult enough now, without having to estimate what would come from a carbon tax.

And while it won’t generate any revenue for the state, we now have a carbon cap being put into place. At the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, the state Department of Ecology in September announced its Clean Air Rule, which sets a limit on carbon for industrial producers. Phased in over the next 20 years the cap will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.7 percent each year.

Assuming the cap survives challenges by industry and others, we will have the reductions in carbon that I-732 offers without the uncertainty it would bring to the state budget.

Fixing our regressive tax system will have to be left to another initiative or state lawmakers who can find the courage.

I find the editors unduly and cavalierly dismissive. While the initiative may be an imperfect attempt to limit carbon emissions in Washington state, and one certainly embroiled in controversy—mostly on the progressive side, it is the only game in town for the moment. If voters reject the measure, as the Herald‘s editors recommend, future opportunities to accomplish its objectives could be few and far between.

David Roberts, writing for Vox, dives into the initiative and its controversies. He begins:

It’s a fight happening within the left, and like a great many such fights in US politics these days, it reveals sharp differences over how to make progress in the face of Republican intransigence. In this case, the subject is climate change policy, but the fissures being exposed are relevant to all of left politics in an age of hyperpolarization.

Here’s the situation. There’s a carbon tax on the ballot in Washington this November, meant not just to put the state on the path to its climate targets but to serve as an example to other states.

The measure, called Initiative 732, isn’t just any carbon tax, either. It’s a big one. It would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.

And yet the left opposes it. The Democratic Party, community-of-color groups, organized labor, big liberal donors, and even most big environmental groups have come out against it.

Why on Earth would the left oppose the first and biggest carbon tax in the country? How has the climate community in Washington ended up in what one participant calls a “train wreck”? (Others have described it in more, er, colorful terms.)

That turns out to be a complex and ill-fated story, revealing divisions among climate hawks — over who pays, who benefits, and who decides — that will not long stay confined to the West Coast. The future of climate politics is playing out in Washington state, and it is not pretty.

After reading Roberts’s lengthy report on the internecine battle being waged on the left, I’m struck once again by the stiletto approach of progressives, who seem so enamored of their own niche that they lose sight of the larger picture. In this case, the initiative, if successful, will surely result in fewer carbon emissions. Making something harmful more expensive will reduce its consumption—all other things being equal. Economists of every political stripe will say as much. Also, a carbon tax will increase the value of alternatives, including renewable energy and conservation.

But, according to Roberts, people’s noses got bent out of shape, resulting in self-destructive pettiness. So, Washington voters have before them a ballot measure that is officially rejected by the state’s large liberal organizations, including labor.

What I fear, if the measure fails, is that it will be a long time before Washingtonians get another bite of the carbon-reduction apple. However, this unfortunate outcome cannot be blamed on the left. As Roberts emphasizes, it’s the Republican Party’s stubborn refusal to accept the science and reality of global warming and its steadfast and foolish resistance to any solutions that stand in the way of progress.

This situation will only get worse should voters shoot themselves in the foot by electing more Republicans. The Party of No is intent on ruining everything, including our children’s future.

Leave the trees alone

Here’s an idea. Let’s cut down then burn trees to produce electricity. After all, there are millions of trees and they’re renewable, right? Besides, the carbon released in combustion will be replaced with new trees. Simple.

If you’re a bit skeptical that this is a winning proposition, then you have no place in the U.S. Senate. In the coming weeks, the body is poised to give bipartisan support for declaring trees a renewable energy source and should therefore be counted under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

As it happens, and the cynics in each of us could hardly be surprised, this whole notion is loony and completely refuted by facts. And, as we’ve learned, facts just don’t matter anymore. Here’s Eduardo Porter, writing for the New York Times:

There are a few problems with this thinking. Wood is not very efficient. In fact, burning trees to generate electricity generates more carbon per unit of power than using coal. Power companies would produce fewer emissions if they burned coal and left the forest alone to keep sucking carbon out of the air.

And there is the problem of timing. Sure forests regrow. But it takes many decades for seedlings to grow into trees and recapture all the carbon emitted.

“It’s a double whammy, because you remove an active sink that was sucking carbon out of the air,” said Mary S. Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which opposes the assumption that biomass is carbon neutral. “Under the most conservative assumptions you are worse off for 40 to 50 years.”

The world simply does not have that kind of time.

Meh. Ignore the headlines, deny the science, and just sit back and enjoy our warming future. Our grandchildren will surely thank us.

Perfect killing the good

Ages ago, during my community activist days (at least that’s what I was called by the Everett Herald), I would occasionally rail against what I termed the “stiletto” approach to policy issues. While conservatives seemed to cohere around a simple message (for example, cut taxes), progressives and liberals would divide themselves into a myriad of narrowly defined interests and prescriptions. Conservatives walked around in huge clogs; progressives imprinted the political realm with stilettos.

Comes now Initiative 732, which will be on November’s ballot. In a nutshell, the initiative, should it pass, would impose a tax on carbon consumption in Washington state. The revenues collected would offset a reduction in the state’s sales tax, already among the highest in the country, and business-and-operations taxes. Even those who pushed for the initiative are having second thoughts, debating the revenue-distribution portion. Some environmentalists would prefer that the carbon-tax proceeds be spent on promoting green resources. (This article in Crosscut summarizes the divisions.)

But here’s the thing. Despite the arguments about revenue distribution, the carbon tax would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And isn’t that the point?

From A to B

Puget Sound, like many U.S. metropolises, suffers from traffic congestion. There are just too many people driving too many cars on too few roads. When we set out for work each morning, we inevitably join the congealed goo that clogs our freeways. Getting to and from Seattle involves one of the worst commutes in the country.

A big reason for this is the lack of alternative transportation. We are too sparsely distributed to rely on bicycles, and even if we are intrepid enough to bike, we must share the roads with giant SUVs and trucks—an iffy proposition. Buses must also compete with thousands of other vehicles, which does not make commute times any less. But the absence of trains is the largest factor in our region’s transportation mess.

The King County Executive, Dow Constantine, announced that residents of the area should not expect relief to come via more roads and freeway lanes.

With the three-county region’s population expected to grow by 1 million over the next 25 years, Constantine said transit is the only solution that can move a lot of people — 16,000 an hour, or the equivalent of 14 new lanes on Interstate 5.

The proposal going to the region’s voters this fall, dubbed ST3 (Sound Transit 3), will ask residents to pay a combined $50 billion extra to serve the citizens of Everett and elsewhere. The Sound Transit agency estimates that the average Puget Sound household would pay about $392/year, or a bit over a dollar a day.

But Republicans, as a rule, loathe anything public and especially anything to do with public rails. They believe, in their idiocy, that rails and buses undermine the freedom to roam and, though they do not admit it, wreak havoc on the environment in their libertarian pursuits. So Republicans, as a rule, oppose any collective efforts to solve aggregate problems, and transportation is the mother of all aggregate problems.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to fall behind other countries in just about all categories of social and economic wellbeing, save for our One Percent, who reign supreme throughout the world. Consider this chart on high-speed rail, based on data collected by GoEuro, a website devoted to transportation.

high speed rail

Notice where the U.S. ranks. That’s right, next to last in population coverage and dead last in costs per kilometer traveled. The GoEuro website includes a table showing high-speed rail either planned or already under construction. Again, look at The Americas.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 12.35.28 PM

The entire Western Hemisphere has just three percent of the world’s total of rail lines under construction (most of that the California project) and under 10 percent of the total planned. Current usage of existing high-speed rail is roughly two percent of all the global high-speed rail now operating.

Against Europe and Asia we suck. For you Trumpites out there, know that American cannot be made great again by cutting taxes on the wealthy or building a big wall, however beautiful. More helpful would be to get Americans moving again, quickly and efficiently, along with their goods and services. Asians and Europeans understand this.

Ben Adler, writing for Grist, offers his thoughts:

GoEuro notes dryly that the “USA and Russia, both once in competition during the Space Race,” are now struggling just to move their citizens around swiftly on land. Well, Russia is actually in 15th place, so unlike the space race, we’re losing this one. Well-known rail leaders Japan, South Korea, China, and France are the top four nations, in that order. Spain, which is persistently economically troubled, ranks fifth. None of these countries has as high a GDP per capita as the U.S., so our problem isn’t lack of resources, it’s lack of political will.

Ah, politics. The necessary evil.

A big stink

Writing for The Nation, Bill McKibben exposes another dark side to Hillary Clinton:

We’ve become the planet’s salesman for natural gas—and a key player in this scheme could become the next president of the United States. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. And much more: Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the secretary of state was essentially acting as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders to make sure US firms got to frack at will.

To take just one example, an article in Mother Jones based on the WikiLeaks cables reveals what happened when fracking came to Bulgaria. In 2011, the country signed a $68 million deal with Chevron, granting the company millions of acres in shale-gas concessions. The Bulgarian public wasn’t happy: Tens of thousands were in the streets of Sofia with banners reading Stop Fracking With Our Water. But when Clinton came for a state visit in 2012, she sided with Chevron (one of whose executives had bundled large sums for her presidential campaign in 2008). In fact, the leaked cables show that the main topic of her meetings with Bulgaria’s leaders was fracking. Clinton offered to fly in the “best specialists on these new technologies to present the benefits to the Bulgarian people,” and she dispatched her Eurasian energy envoy, Richard Morningstar, to lobby hard against a fracking ban in neighboring Romania. Eventually, they won those battles—and today, the State Department provides “assistance” with fracking to dozens of countries around the world, from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea.

Natural gas, by the way, should not be viewed as “the bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, as Ms. Clinton averred in a recent debate. The methane leaks from fracking and the natural gas delivery infrastructure have essentially overwhelmed CO2 reductions from diminished coal use. Besides, and this is a point worth emphasizing, natural gas displaces already available and inexpensive “green” resources like conservation, especially, and renewable generating resources like wind and solar.

Glub, glub

How high’s the water, Mama?

James Hansen and other climate scientists have renewed their warning about almost certain catastrophe in a newly published paper. Amelia Urry, writing for Grist, reports here.

Of particular interest to Snohomish PUD customers is the paper’s prediction about storms. Their severity will surely increase, dramatically so. I like this analogy from Urry:

And as the temperature gradient between the tropic and the polar oceans gets steeper, thanks to that slowing of ocean-mixing currents, we could see stronger storms, too.

This is surprisingly intuitive: Picture a temperature gradient like a hill, with the high temperatures up at the top and the low temperatures down at the bottom. As the highs get higher and the lows get lower, that hill gets a lot steeper — and the storms are the bowling balls you chuck down the hill. A bowling ball will pick up a lot more speed on a steep hill, and hurt a lot more when it finally runs into something. Likewise, by the time these supercharged storms are slamming into coasts in the middle latitudes, they will be carrying a whole lot of deadly force with them.

Hansen, who first warned of the greenhouse effect before Congress in 1988, has witnessed repeated expressions of ho-hum since. This recent paper concludes that years of inaction will make the earth intolerable for millions of inhabitants, with coastlines being gobbled up by rising sea levels—not in hundreds of years but by the end of this century, if not sooner.

And the lights will turn off with greater frequency.