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Friday, June 22, 2012

Transcript: 507 Climate Crisis meets Energy Boom

Today, Energy, Climate, Bill McKibbin, Phillip Verlegger

and the First Annual Adolph Award
Listen to this episode
MCKIBBIN: [In June 2012] researchers in the Arctic reported that across a wide swath of the North they were measuring atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at about 400 parts per million. We've nosed above that number at least in part of the planet for the first time in 800,000 years. The whole planet will be above that within a year or two. The inexorable rise of CO2 emissions, as we burn coal and gas and oil, is the biggest thing, it turns out, that human beings have managed to do. We've raised the temperature about a degree.

That's already triggered chaos. But the real tough part is that we're still at the beginning of this story. The same climatologists that told us that we would raise the temperature a degree and predicted the kind of chaos it would cause are robust in their prediction that if we don't get off coal and oil and gas very quickly, that number will be four or five degrees before this century is out, much of it locked in very soon. Those kind of numbers represent a science fiction planet we cannot live on the way we're used to living.

ASHBROOK: You say we're already hitting chaos. What's the chaos you see that's related to that story that you describe?

MCKIBBIN: Well, let's talk about the last two days. We've got the biggest fire in New Mexico history the third biggest fire in Colorado history burning simultaneously, because – just think of the number of factors -- record drought in the Southwest... We've had warm winters year after year so the pine bark beetle has been able to survive. They've decimated pine trees... Dead stands of pine now going up like kindling...

You know, that's one small day in the life in one corner of the world. Last year in this country we had more multi-billion weather disasters that any year in American history. In fact, we broke the record in August in Vermont. In Vermont we have enough money to at least to begin to deal with this kind of thing. In Thailand in December when they had the worst flooding they had recorded, they think it did damage equivalent to around 15 percent of the country's GDP.

You and I can both remember when the first pictures came back from the Apollo mission -- the Earth viewed from outer space. Those pictures are as out of date as my high school yearbook are. There's 40 percent less sea ice in the Arctic. You can't see it with the naked eye, but if you stick a PH strip in the ocean it comes out a different color. The ocean is 30 percent more acid as its chemistry changes as it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.

Maybe the most striking thing for those of us who are terrestrial creatures, because warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere is about five percent wetter than it was forty years ago. We have loaded the dice for drought and for flood, and we now see it on a kind of staggering and kind of Biblical basis, day after day, week after week, someplace around the world.

And as I say, this is just the start. This is the warning -- and really the last warning we get. Unless we act quickly in the face of that warning, this crisis escalates not linearly, but much more dramatically.

ASHBOOK: [Here is an article from the Economist magazine, under the title:] It says "America's falling carbon dioxide missions 'some fracking good news.' And the news is that because fracking is now where we go in and pull out all kinds of natural gas in really enormous quantities that was not accessible before, we are burning cleaner fuel than coal and CO2 emissions are actually down in this country. What do you make of that news?

MCKIBBIN: Well, you have to look at, as always, underlying physics and chemistry. Natural gas burns more cleanly in terms of carbon than coal does. The trouble is that natural gas released unburned into the atmosphere – CH4, methane -- is more a potent – about 23 times more potent – molecule per molecule – greenhouse gas than CO2.

ASHBROOK: Where is that happening?

MCKIBBIN: It happens anywhere you frack. So the question is, How much are you releasing as you do it. Anything more than about two percent of that gas escaping into the atmosphere actually makes fracked gas worse than coal in terms of its greenhouse gas impact. The only study we have so far was in Nature in January. It studied one big fracked gas field in Colorado and it found that about 4 percent of the methane was escaping unburned.... Meaning it was more damaging to the atmosphere than a coal field.

All of this is hard. The only real answer to it is to get off carbon fuel in general, to not be looking for some bridge into the future, but gird ourselves for the leap into the future. And the really good news, if you want a piece of data that really should make you happy. We can do it. A week ago Saturday, the country of Germany generated more than half of the electricity it used that day from solar panels. Now this is Germany. Munich is north of Montreal. It's far north. It's not that we don't know how to do what we need to do, it's that we manifestly and especially in this country lack the political will to get there.

Bill McKibbin
On Point
June 13, 2012


To all of you, and particularly to any of our relatives who might be listening, the burning of fossil fuels is the cause of climate change. For those of you who doubt, I want you to write a letter to your grandchildren.

Begin with, "The conditions on this planet you and our descendents are facing are not the conditions in which I grew up. I am writing to explain the reasons I did not do enough to alter the course of this change."

Then you can go on from there. If you want at the end, say, "In the event there is no catastrophic change in the climate of Earth, and these apologies are not necessary, know that I took a lot of criticism from a lot of people, but I had my allies as well."

One of those allies is coming up in the first annual Adolph Award for communications, presented by Demand Side to a principle enabler of the dysfunctional future.

But the point of today is that in looking at the prospects for climate change, we are thinking like economists. There is risk and there is uncertainty. Uncertainty is where the past is no good measure of what's going to happen in the future. It is the stuff of Keynes and the explanation for investor behavior in crisis and much else. Risk is where the future probabilities can be judged and measured and weighed with some range of probable outcomes.

Footnote: And be sure Keynes knew probability. It was his preoccupation as a student and early in his academic life. He wrote a long treatise on probability. So when he says uncertainty is operative in economic situations because the future cannot be known within a range of probabilities, it is not because he doesn't – didn't – understand probability.

Climate crisis is a risk, not an uncertainty. Climate science is a science. The outcomes as forecast have a high probability of occurring. The planet is getting warmer, violent weather is increasing, oceans are becoming acidified, phytoplankton are being destroyed, glaciers are melting, drought and flood and the rest. This is not uncertainty. Prudent people react to risk – by taking measures.

Economics is not a science. If it were, the probabilities and risk analysis that were brought to bear on conditions of uncertainty would never have occurred. The analysis blew up because it was not appropriate, securitization went under, the Great Financial Crisis. Economists are now split between, "More of the same trickle down low regulation plus new structural adjustments to degrade workers and public goods," and "Invest in public goods, write down debt, rationalize the banks, employ people." Although evidence and experience supports the latter, economic policy is firmly in the hands of the former group, but not because of any legitimacy of their economics as a science, rather for the power of their political positions.

If economics were a science, its axioms and hypotheses would be subject to scientific discipline. That done, the current schemata would have been thrown out and replaced with something corresponding more closely to reality.

But in the end, we survive the externalities of bad economics. We don't survive the climate crisis. There is no "un-do" button" on global warming. Worse than that, the bad stuff keeps happening for decades after we hit the "stop" button. Warming temperatures are locked in, and unless we do hit the stop button, those are temperatures that will end the prospects for our children and their children.

So in your letter, say yes, I lived it up, drove a big car to Wal-Mart, voted down the green taxes and the light rail, voted up Big Oil's boys in Congress. Then say whatever you can to make them feel better about you. I'm not sure what that would be. I've been trying to think of something for myself.


The First Annual Adolph Award, presented by Demand Side to the person most worthy of shaping the public consciousness of the alternative to reality that is the beacon leading onto the cliffs. Or perhaps over the cliff. "Look, the way is open, no resistance, Aaagh, we're falling."

There are a lot of worthy recipients, but none has better represented the interests of the corporate state, scapegoated rather than explained, and cast more error into the workings of the public's understanding than today's award-winner. You may be familiar with the no global warming theme, now retracted for a global warming is not the result of human activity theme. Another favorite is "half the people don't pay taxes," when nobody in the nation doesn't pay taxes, and when all taxes are considered, the incidence is flat, except at each end, when it is lower for the poor and lower for the rich. So, today, the winner is:


The propaganda arm of the corporate right wing. The champion of ad hominem debate.

Here to accept the award is Roger Ailes... No? ... In Mr. Ailes stead, Rupert Murdoch... No?

Bill O'Reilly... Sean Hannity...

Wow. They don't get awards very often. I wonder why nobody showed up. Each of them deserved individual recognition. We'll just keep their names on file for our grandchildren.

Okay. That was fun.

But we said we were going to do energy today.

Phillip Verleger is a long-time energy industry analyst and political operative. He gives us the boom side of the energy picture. Verleger is not an idiot. If we could export the climate to Mars, we would be fine.



Our view is we ought to be taxing fossil fuels to finance the transition to a clean energy future. Tax the bads, subsidize the goods. That could be done tomorrow with the Cantwell-Collins cap and rebate scheme. Essentially set a limit on carbon production, auction the rights to that limit, and rebate 75% of the tax proceeds to each household with a check. The great majority of households come out ahead financially. The price of carbon becomes related to its costs. And there is 25% for financing alternatives, a survivable future.

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