Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Afghanistan, leading to thoughts about America itself

This is a slightly edited letter to my brother, Chris, sent in reply to an article he had sent, in the days just before President Obama's speech set for Tuesday of this week which will announce his policy on further troops to Afghanistan. Posted on November 29th, 2009: Norma's birthday, and our fortieth wedding anniversary.

'Allo, Chris--

Thanks for sending out the Polk piece. (William R. Polk, Let America be America and Depart Afghanistan) I went back and looked him up, starting of course with a good article in Wikipedia, and found a trove, including his own website that gives lots of his writings, and a recent "Letter to Obama," very much in line with the article you sent.

Polk clearly has a very broad expertise, but in this current writing, he focuses very strongly on Afghanistan itself, and the Taliban. I myself think that the controlling factors in the decisions that Obama is now taking are not in Afghanistan. Afghanistan itself doesn't really matter a great deal, Stanley McChrystal and Leonid Brezhnev to the contrary notwithstanding. From its mountainous geography alone, not to speak of geography turning over the centuries into culture, it is poor, disunited, and while defensively strong within its borders, very weak outside them. To the Virginia of the plains and cities of Pakistan and India, it is West Virginia or Appalachia. It is not a prize or a linchpin, or worth fighting over for itself, and the idea that we owe Afghanistan the liberation of its women, or the modernization of its culture through the application of American force is absurd, although plenty of Americans will repeat this sort of thing with no idea at all of what they are really implying. Similarly, we need not be persuaded by the corollary that we must not abandon the Afghan women and others who have had a taste of modernity in the last decades. They will have to fight their own cultural battles within their own national context, and will undoubtedly do so, and will undoubtedly win, although perhaps not immediately.

Our original post-9/11 foray into Afghanistan had the character of a British punitive mission in the old imperialist days. It had to be expected, and was broadly acceptable because 9/11 was a very serious attack, and the Taliban government was defiant about its significant role in it of sheltering the attackers' chiefs. But severe retaliation upon the government of Afghanistan did not imply that we had to replace the Taliban government permanently in a situation where it was the "natural" government of the country, meaning the dominant party among the dominant Pashtun plurality of the population. Pushing out the Taliban in 2001-02 did mean that the government of Afghanistan, whether Taliban or other, had to understand that it could not provide a base and harbor to people plotting terrorist attacks against other countries, including us. It can be understood, as Polk points out, that even the Taliban now do accept this. The fact that they would not give Bin Laden up to us does not mean, after their own experiences after 9/11, that they would ever permit Al Qaeda to resume its plotting of terrorist attacks on the United States from an Afghan sanctuary. Apart from the issue of where Al Qaeda actually exists, the famous Afghan doctrines of hospitality and refuge do not go so far as to say that a guest under one's protection can repeatedly pull down the house of his hosts.

Unlike Afghanistan and the Taliban, Al Qaeda, is a real problem, although an infinitely more limited one than George Bush, for his own reasons, inflated it into being. (Remember your own question soon after 9/11, proposed for conversation in a restaurant in East Boston, "How important is this, on a scale of ten?") 9/11 was indeed a very serious hit against the United States. (I'm curious, and perhaps Eric Holder's trial of Khalid Sheikh and others in New York will bring out the answer, whether the 9/11 plotters knew and intended that the two tower buildings completely collapse. It appears to have been due to the burning fuel loads, but it was not obvious on the face of it that having stood through the impact of the planes, the buildings would fall completely, killing everyone inside and rising to 3,000 dead.) But the 9/11 attack was also the product of a handful of people in a struggle among sects in a distant religion which is not ours, and its threat to us was not remotely a central one to our continued existence. It was not all that different in kind from the Oklahoma City bombing by Christian extremists, which never for a moment generated a "War on Terror."

The subject, and all common sense, were completely confounded by the Bush Administration's use of the 9/11 attack as a pretext to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Following the punitive raid and the deposing of the Taliban government when it refused to hand over Bin Laden, and we failed to find him, the necessary defense against Al Qaeda and the Islamic terrorists was not a military but a police and secret service matter, as befitted the very small numbers of active terrorists, and also their dispersion, secrecy and "irregularity" in military terms. Not only immediately, but on a longer-term basis, the critical point in defending the United States against terrorism was obtaining the active cooperation of the national governments and the national and local police in Muslim and all other countries. After a hit as grave as 9/11, it could not have been for the tender-minded. Apart from massive and coordinated intelligence gathering, and intervention into money and weapons channels, programs of capture and killing such as the Israeli one in the film Munich, would undoubtedly have taken place, and perhaps on a significant scale. But it would not have been military war, and it would have been a great deal quieter and less public.

So, Polk is definitely right, along with a lot of other people, that we should not be fighting militarily in Afghanistan. He's right, I'm also sure, in his perception that Afghan politics is very different from ours--like totally. Tribalism is the key, and the flood of talk that we are going to make Karzai more acceptable domestically by bringing pressure against "corruption," is as ridiculous in Afghanistan as Boston Brahmin GooGoo's trying to break the link between the city's Irish population and James Michael Curley by crying "corruption."

In fact, in these days of decision (which apparently as of today, November 25 have pretty well come to a close) Obama is dealing with the familiar American rightist politics of imperialism and intervention (our permanent hawks) much more than he is dealing with Afghanistan. The real push for more troops to Afghanistan does not come from Afghanistan, or even from the situation in Pakistan (where there are real questions and dangers, greatly aggravated by nuclear capacity) but from within our own country. The military and the American right want to drag him into sustaining, and even redoubling the policies of the Bush Administration, under the general rubric of not giving up in the "War on Terror."

It comes down, in many ways, to what Obama often says: we are continually defining ourselves. True, we cannot be defined as a country that lets itself be hit without the will and capacity to reply. But we also do not want any more, to be a country on a broader "imperialist" power mission in the world, justifying military actions and a huge defense budget by a thin skinned and touchy, and very selective, sense of our own security. Our last national election rejected that, we hoped, and rejected a self-concept for us as a country that asserts the right (and practices it) of injecting itself unilaterally with force into very distant conflicts that are not ours, as the Bush-Cheney administration did.

In the present world, (although it needs to be transitioning to something much different and more multilateral in the next twenty years), we do (and should) play a role of a certain leadership, a dean-ship call it, making us a "doyen," based on our economic capacity, but also our modernity and intellectual strengths. We should try to exercise it well and responsibly, and generally earn respect and supporters through helping others toward what we want for ourselves, prosperity and a balanced modernity that it respectful of tradition. We can indeed help with matters such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the world trading regime, the development agenda of Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia pushing to fight poverty worldwide. Right now, above all, we should be leading forward in matters of sustainable relations with nature, such as climate protection, rather than cowering and footdragging as we are. Isolationism is not recommended any more than intemperate military and proto-military engagement in the wrong things. In all domains, we should offer our counsels, which will generally be science and technology-based counsels of modernity, on a take-it-or leave-it basis, not impose them by force. In fact, what we offer, again, basically modernity, is a solid enough value that we will always have takers, and do not need force. Such leadership can be greatly rewarding, but of course it has burdens and costs (major ones) as well as rewards, which many among us are quick to wish away, rather than seeing the necessary balance.

Let me pass along a great quotation from Edward Levi, the University of Chicago law school leader and Gerald Ford's attorney general, who did a lot to stabilize the situation post-Nixon. It was preserved in Levi's NYT obituary in 2000, and has been on the wall of our study since then: "The one thing we ought to worry about is the propensity of this country to overreact and to engage in cycles of bitterness. There is a kind of theme that runs through the modern world that human relationships should be looked at in terms of power relationships, in terms of the manipulation of power. I really think that that is one of the most wicked ways of looking at the world. It's a very incomplete way. It strips people of their humanness. It converts all the other good attributes people have into just an ability or a desire to manipulate others."

That is a great thought, and expression of thought, by a very substantial man, although I differ from it in thinking that the prominence of power considerations in human relationships is not alien to our humanness, but, alas, as Mum recognized, deeply embedded in it. The power orientation, I would further dissent from Levi, is not a quality of the modern world, but is part of the traditional, non-modern picture, and is most fundamentally related to poverty. One of the things about the modern world is that it is basically rich, while the traditional world was poor, and much of traditionalism is based on adaptations to poverty. If in terms of material goods, now there can be "enough for everyone" in the rich modern world, the themes of contesting, manipulating, and establishing power relationships to corner scarce goods, cultural themes that were part of the poor traditional world, should be fading out, not intensifying. One of our great dilemmas in the United States now, is "how to be wealthy." It is certain that sharing, cooperation, saving, and moderation in consumption are part of the right answer, and obviously there is a lot more to it beyond that......

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Alarm Bell -- Climate Change and the Waxman-Markey ACES Bill

A very large meteorite on the scale that brought extinction to the dinosaurs is heading toward earth. Human beings, with the Americans currently in scientific, economic and political leadership, have good solutions to avoid a crash, but little, beside hand-wringing talk, is getting done to avert the impending catastrophe. Does this make sense?

Translate the giant meteorite’s impact into a slow motion threat, rather than an instantaneous crash of enormous bodies, and it is a fair comparison with global warming. The raw, purely physical effects of climate change will be of that magnitude, or greater, but they will happen over, say, fifty years rather than in single cataclysm. Slow changes, however, will transform our world just as as inexorably and irreversibly as a meteorite’s hit, and we will be just as helpless, when warming passes a point of no return in the relatively near future. Global warming’s effects will be broad, and the disruption of human life, including large destitute human migrations, will be massive, but the slow development of the damage over a longer timespan means less abrupt drama. That is making it far more difficult for humans to mobilize and take action in response.

The analysis of what full climate change will mean is now abundantly clear to scientists. Can we call ourselves capable human beings if we let our drama-thirsty emotions control and retard our response when the facts of global warming are so clear? Does democracy, or capitalism, or any other social arrangement or doctrine, give us a right to be boneheads?

The analysis of the the core steps needed to avert climate change is equally clear, and basically not complex. We must go off fossil carbon energy. Decarbonizing means switching to electric vehicles which will be supplied, along with all our present power uses, by renewable and nuclear generating systems, rather than by coal-based generation. Electric energy, which will be an increased share of all energy, needs to be distributed by a high-capacity “intelligent” national grid.

The capital investment costs of such new system will for a time raise the price of power per kilowatt hour, on the order of forty percent or less, a rise which can be substantially softened, perhaps eliminated, by using fewer kilowatt hours through efficiency and conservation measures. A major help is that for transportation, electric propulsion will cost only a third of using petroleum. Energy will become a capital intensive industrial sector (relying on networked equipment, such as wind turbines), rather than a resource intensive one (based on coal, petroleum and natural gas). In the longer run, say starting in twenty or so years, energy will be cheaper than it is now because fuel costs for wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power are nil or very low compared with coal, natural gas and gasoline.

Much employment will be generated by a large scale energy conversion and investment drive, and our corrosive dependency on foreign petroleum will end. Engineers and utility executives will be intensely busy, coal and petroleum investors and managers will need to move their capital and adjust their skills, but daily life for ordinary citizens will be virtually unchanged, except perhaps that cars may be somewhat smaller and the air cleaner. If done purposefully with a minimum of pork, the full decarbonization of our energy sector can cost on the order of two trillion dollars over ten years, a small fraction of the $150 trillion that our economy will generate over a decade, and far less than the cost of the Iraq war. Much of this need not be government spending, and most of it will be genuine investment which will pay itself back over time.

But proud America lags, looking aside from the challenge, twisting its ledgers and shuffling its feet, in an extraordinary display of short-sightedness, parochialism and the power of vested interests. The last Bush Administration wasted eight important years. Now “conservatives” of both parties in the public and the Congress are dragging the new Administration’s more vigorous proposed actions down to what could be called “a late twentieth century General Motors pace of change.” That means doing just enough to say one is doing something, but resolutely adapting slowly enough so that competitors eat one’s lunch. Or in this case, dragging our feet enough that fossil carbon emissions continue to rise. Especially, the United States is being sufficiently dilatory and distracted that other countries have no positive example from us, but themselves are given strengthened pretexts to dither and to ignore a very real problem. Atmospheric CO2 overload and climate change themselves continue growing toward their probable tipping points into irreversible acceleration.

If our descendants have to struggle with a damaged and destabilized climate, history will look upon this period of “American leadership” harshly and without our own comforting self-flattery. The wisdom of conservatives, especially those in both the House and the Senate right now, is particularly being tested. They need to switch off a partisan “auto-pilot,” adopt a longer time frame, and urgently rethink their positions. They should be helping to strengthen, not sap, the Waxman-Markey climate bill now moving through the latter days of amending and voting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Action on Climate Change as Obama comes into Office

January 13, 2009

Climate Change Policy as a New Administration Takes Office

What are the main immediate action points to protect the climate from greenhouse warming? This is a central question as the Obama team readies itself to replace the Bush/Cheney administration after eight years of ignorant and irresponsible stonewalling against a climate response.

The first need is to understand the scale and proportion of this issue relative to the many other concerns pressing in on the new president. Man-made climate change is an epochal mega-threat with the potential to transform human history in a devastatingly negative direction. It is a world historical imperative, at a level far above this decade’s politics and economics of the United States or any other country, to end the emission of man-made carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as soon as that can possibly be done. Since using energy from fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, and at the same time this energy is a key foundation stone of modern civilization, changing away from fossil energy is often seen as a politically and socially wrenching matter, which it could indeed become, especially if it is mishandled. But making the change at the national and world levels remains an imperative, as it was imperative at the personal level to stop smoking when the health effects of smoking became understood. Whether or not decarbonizing of energy can be achieved will depend in part on keeping the costs of the change, both economic and political, as low as possible. Getting the pace of the effort right will also be important -- further on, we’ll take up what “as soon as possible” means in this context.

Secondly, in addition to the large and remarkable ongoing world of scientific knowledge and study that informs us about the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its effects[1], there is also an entirely legitimate and significant world of historical, philosophical and cultural discourse[2] that explains how we got into our unprecedented situation and where it can lead. All of the thinking and judging in this latter world, while often true and important, should not distract or detain us from moving against carbon emissions through technology and public policy, “as fast as possible.” Seeing the climate crisis as an opportunity to escalate and win long cultural struggles, and disdaining “technological fixes” for a problem caused by technology, will simply allow climate catastrophe to take place, if the search for social enlightenment and reform delays taking the necessary engineering steps to cut carbon emissions. The focus must be kept not diffuse and aspirational, but sharply, even narrowly, on understanding what needs to be done to stop and reverse global warming, and on getting that done. The global warming game is not over; there is still time for effective mitigating action, but it now must be swift and decisive. President-elect Obama’s intention to stimulate the economy through large scale infrastructure investments creates an historic opportunity, which can and should be firmly harnessed to fight climate change.[3]

Former Vice President Al Gore is often portrayed as extreme in his calls for low final atmospheric carbon levels (350 ppm, less than the present level), and for his urgency (decarbonization of U.S. electricity production in ten years) but that is mistaken; his views are solid, correct and doable on both scores.

Most greenhouse climate change is caused by the emission into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide which is excess to the balanced natural circulation of carbon among the land, oceans and atmosphere. In practice, this means the carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and from large-scale deforestation. Such “excess” CO2 emissions are now about twenty nine billion tons per year globally (about six billion tons from the United States), and are still growing.[4] In practice in the United States, eighty per cent or more of our energy for electricity, transportation, industry and heating, that is to say for modern life, comes from greenhouse fossil fuels.

This must now be ended. Substitute sources of energy, which are ready and available at reasonable cost, must replace coal, oil and natural gas, most urgently the first two, the heavier emitters of CO2.

There are three main domains for change and action in bringing non-fossil energy into use. First, electric energy will replace gasoline and diesel fuel in cars and trucks. This is what happens in the plug-in hybrid automobile and its all-electric cousin. The entry and success of such vehicles in the market will be a huge step forward in eliminating fossil emissions (and in achieving national energy independence). Plug-ins, such as the Chevrolet Volt, and full electric vehicles could well drive out gasoline internal combustion engines virtually entirely from the new production array within five years and approach full fleet replacement in about fifteen years, certainly by 2030. It will be valuable to use strategically applied policy support in the form of extra fees or carbon taxes that will hit fossil gas and diesel as disincentives, or subsidies which will act as incentives for the initial plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Electric driving will advance dramatically in the market when buyers realize that the electricity equivalent to a gallon of gas is domestically produced, goes into a car silently at night or while parked at work, and costs less than a dollar, compared to the recent, and likely future, gas price of $3.50 a gallon.[5]

Secondly, eliminating CO2 emissions from plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles depends on making electricity production fossil free. Half of electricity is now coal-fueled in the United States[6], and about 15% is from natural gas. The main potential non-fossil substitutes are nuclear power and two principal renewables: wind and solar. Solar power comes either from photovoltaic panels that convert light directly, or from solar thermal units, mirror arrays which use the sun’s heat to raise the temperature of a fluid and then produce power through a standard turbine.

Nuclear reactors have advanced technically in their output, and existing ones supply about 20% of U.S. power, but there have now been major technical gains in both wind and solar power such that it is now considered possible at reasonable cost levels for them to replace coal and even natural gas generation without building further nuclear plants. A Department of Energy study indicates that the U.S. national electric system could absorb up to 20% of its power from wind without disrupting overall supply[7], despite wind power’s intermittency, which can be significantly compensated by linking geographically dispersed wind farms. A Scientific American article of January 2008 makes the case that virtually all U.S. power could be generated by solar thermal arrays in the hot southwestern deserts of the country.[8] Electricity is notoriously costly to store, but new solar thermal generators will store the sun-heated fluid that turns their turbines, so that they supply power at night as well as when the sun is shining.

Thirdly, the remaining great project for immediate implementation is building an “intelligent” high-capacity power transmission and distribution grid at the national level. Such a highly computerized grid will match ever-fluctuating demand across the country, minute by minute, with a multiplicity of nearby or remote generating sources, also fluctuating. The intelligent grid will be important for the integration of plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and will also help along energy conservation in a major way, for example, by indicating to programmed consuming devices, such as an efficient computerized refrigerator, what is the lowest cost moment in the day or night for them to take their power. Experts have come to believe that at present, shortage of transmission capacity for renewable power is the critical bottleneck for renewable expansion.[9]

The relationship between the three major areas of energy reform are interesting and important. Obviously, switching transportation from petroleum to electricity as its main “fuel,” will create a very large new demand for electric power. But costly power generating capacity, that is to say, a power plant, is not built for increases in demand, but only for increases in peak demand—the amount of demand that has to be met at one moment, the moment of highest consumption in a daily, monthly or annual cycle. Specifically, large new power demand for automobiles will, in principle, be met mostly at night, that is to say in the lowest part of the daily demand cycle. At such hours, the present generating system has plenty of spare capacity. Therefore, it is not required to build more plants, but only to supply more fuel (now meaning more coal, uranium or dam water) to already existing plants which are idle at that part of the day.

A second consideration is that one of the major renewables is wind power, which is intermittent, since at times in a given location, the wind is not blowing. Photovoltaic power, also, is not supplied by the sun in the hours of darkness[10]. These intermittencies can be mitigated in various ways, but not entirely, which means that not only does power demand vary across the geographical map, and across the hours of the day, but power supply, as well will have its own new fluctuations. These variabilities in consumption and production from moment to moment matter because electricity is difficult and costly to store—it can not be easily warehoused to smooth out differing moments of availability. What harmonizes these unavoidable and not entirely predictable fluctuations from both the supply and the demand sides will be the intelligent transmission system—the grid. By using variable pricing, it will encourage demand in the hours when supply is high, and will work to reduce demand when supply is tight. It will bring power (which although hard to store is easily and quickly moved from place to place) from a surplus part of the country to a deficit region on a minute to minute basis as needed. Our present obsolete national grid’s low capacity is now a bottleneck, but if the intelligent high-capacity grid is built rapidly as a first order of business, the grid itself in operation will be able to indicate whether renewable power sources and energy efficiency will be adequate for national needs as fossil fuels are phased out, or whether nuclear power will be necessary to avoid continuing to use coal.[11]

All the technologies in this set, plus rapidly developing energy saving techniques such as the intensely-designed “Passive House” from Germany[12], taken together can substitute for all the fossil energy used in the United States. They are ready to be built starting now, and are also primed for substantial improvements in efficiency and lowered cost which will accrue as they are widely applied.

The threat of global warming that is being averted is massive, and the “behind the scenes” transformations in our energy infrastructure from the point of view of an investor, engineer or builder will be very large. There will also be a two-decade additional expense for new capital equipment for the grid and wind and solar power.[13] But the broad public should not be overly apprehensive. The daily changes and adaptations required from people in the ordinary consuming population will be virtually nil, or invisible—less change perhaps overall than going from driving a manual shift to an automatic transmission car, and similarly in the direction of greater ease rather than more difficulty and hardship.

We see that with the electrification of vehicles (and of space heating through heat pumps), virtually all of our energy will come in the form of electricity. Converting from a fossil energy system to a non-fossil, electricity-based one will have a capital cost, and this will necessitate collecting the cost through higher energy prices for a time, but energy prices need not be a great deal higher. There will be a difference well less than the present variation of power costs from one section of the country and another.[14] A good deal of the increase should be collected in the form of a carbon tax (or carbon permit fee) on the fossil energy which is being phased out.[15] This in itself will incentivize and speed along the conversion.[16] Very importantly, once a renewable system is paid for, not only does it do no environmental damage, but it has no fuel cost since the wind and sun are free. With a new system that is capital (machinery) intensive, rather than resource (coal, oil, natural gas) intensive, in the long run flexible clean energy for everything we do, from vehicles to lighting and home heating, and to computers, should cost substantially less than energy costs now.[17]

This change-over from fossil energy to full use of renewable (or renewable and some nuclear) electric power throughout the economy has the potential to move United States carbon emissions toward very close to zero, putting us at long last in a position to lead the rest of the world, especially China and India, in the same direction. It is clearly the main path to follow, and it is clear that the technologies involved are both ready, and that they will have further improvement as they are produced on large scales, perhaps especially the intelligent high-capacity grid. Study and development along other paths, such as basic chemical and physical research, and bio-fuels (probably ultimately mainly for aviation), can and should proceed with vigorous funding (although the search for carbon capture and sequestration from coal looks more like a political sop to a vocal industry, and would better be abandoned.) A struggle which some have foreseen from the Obama appointments of Carol Browner and Stephen Chu between a “regulatory” orientation and a “research” approach is entirely unnecessary and would only cost valuable time.

The question of time, or pace has become very prominent in climate policy discussions. Public goals for carbon emission reduction within certain time periods are widely announced. A leading pledge is California’s under Governor Schwarzenegger, now actually embodied in legislation, to bring this large state’s emissions to1990 levels by 2020 (roughly a 25% reduction in California), and to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Since his election, Barack Obama has echoed this, saying that he also wants to achieve an 80% reduction by 2050 at the Federal level. The European Union has set similar targets, and is now moving into the second cycle of them.

But the time dimension is very tricky. The actual speed and cost at which the construction of an intelligent grid, the conversion of vehicles to plug-ins, and the replacement of fossil generation, can be accomplished are not known.[18] Setting a target is far from the same as actually producing non-fossil energy and cutting carbon emissions. There is therefore a major risk that over-ambitious scheduling targets will ultimately discourage and depress effort, and that under-ambitious targets, too quickly and easily achieved, will turn into ceilings rather than goals, also inhibiting the intense and continuous effort that is needed. The too-easy target is a particular danger that could hobble progress by decades. The best temporal framework for action, although it demands more complex understanding and support from the legislators and the public, is to see that the best answer to “how fast should we go?” is “as fast as possible,” without too much stress being place on setting time-bound targets. That sounds almost simple minded, but it is not. How fast did Britain develop and implement radar as WW II loomed? Not according to timed, stage by stage planning, but “as fast as possible,” seeking and chasing down every path to the goal.

Moreover, the necessarily cautiously programmed and budgeted work of large institutions like the U.S. Department of Energy or California’s Air Resources Board will certainly be indispensable, but we should also be open to innovation from less formal operations, like the famous Lockheed “skunk works.” The overall de-fossilized energy investment system should be set up explicitly to foster, and not block, innovation and impetus from unpredicted and untrammeled spirits who can dash forward in the fast lane, as Craig Venter radically speeded up the analysis of the genome which was being pursued with bureaucratice propriety and deliberation under Francis Collins at a massive public institution, NIH. Basically we should be betting on everything, including the unexpected long shot from left field who may save the day. In a way, the whole blossoming plug-in hybrid development in the tradition-encrusted field of automobile transportation is such an opportune outrider which we should be ready to seize, scale up, and exploit vigorously.

The most recent news from the scientific front is that greenhouse climate change, at our present 385 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, is going forward faster than earlier expected, with the possibility of several tipping points now looming beyond which self- nourishing feedback mechanisms will be triggered making warming difficult or impossible to stop. As Barack Obama takes office, the importance and urgency of the issue is increasing, almost day by day, rather than receding.

The moral of the story for the new administration is to give an immediate high priority to this issue, to attract as much effort and funding to it as possible from the need for employment-generating economic stimulus projects, and to open with a sharp focus on rapid diffusion of hybrid and electric vehicles, renewable/nuclear power generation to replace coal, and a high-capacity highly intelligent grid.

Peter Lydon

1584 LeRoy Avenue,

Berkeley, CA 94708

[1] See the summarizing IPCC reports of 1995, 2001, and 2007, especially the most recent. These are however, massive reviews of a large field. More compactly, John Houghton. 2004. Global Warming, the Complete Briefing, Cambridge University Press, and most compactly, John Holdren, “Six Reasons to take Action”, Foreign Service Journal, 4 pp. March 1999 (suppliable in .pdf format by me).

[2] Notably Bill McKibben’s 2006 The End of Nature. Random House, New York

[3] Compare E. Spitzer 1/5/09 “The Best Policy: Robots not Roads.” Slate.

[4] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2008. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases Report. Report #: DOE/EIA – 0573 (2007) Release Date: December 3, 2008

[5] Compare Vlasic, Bill. 2009. Detroit Goes for Gasless Cars, but will Drivers? NYTimes, 1/11/09, p.1

[6] In the area of public policy, it is critical that no new coal power plants be allowed to be built.

[7] 20% Wind Energy by 2030, Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply. DOE/GO-102008-2567 July 2008. See also and .

[8] Zweibel, Ken, and James Mason and Vaisilis Fthenakis. 2008. “A Solar Grand Plan.” Scientific American, January 2008.

[9] Wiser, Ryan and Galen Barbose. 2008. Renewables Portfolio Standards in the U.S., a status report with data through 2007. LBNL-154E April 25 rev’n. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA

[10] This is in contrast to solar concentrated power, which can be stored at the plant itself in the form of superheated fluid, and thus can be dispatched as electricity on a 24 hour cycle.

[11] This parallels the analysis of James Hansen, who urges that substantial research continue to be funded on what he refers to as “secure, low-waste” Fourth Generation nuclear technology, and on thorium based nuclear technology, in full cooperation with India and China, leading to readiness for judgments on their feasibility in about a decade. “If by then, wind, solar and other renewables and an improved grid prove to be capable of handling all of our electrical energy needs, there would be no imperative to construct nuclear plants in the United States.” Document from Hansen titled: Tell Barack Obama the Truth -- the Whole Truth. Nov/Dec 2008: .

This text gives considerably more detail on 4th Generation and thorium nuclear technologies. See also Hansen’s brilliantly organized November 2008 workshop on non-fossil electric power at .

[12] Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is the longstanding dean of American energy efficiency, conservation and decentralization advocates ( For the “Passivhaus” see Elizabeth Rosenthal, “No Furnaces, but Heat Aplenty in Passive Houses” New York Times, 12/27/08, and, in greater detail, , which proides a link to Nabih Tahan, AIA and Christopher Polk, “First U.S. Passive House Retrofit” Home Energy Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008.

[13] A great deal of this investment can be made using the billions to be saved by going from a hign-cost transportation fuel, gasoline, to a low cost one, electricity, as mentioned above.

[14] U.S. Dept of Energy, EIA, on variations between states in cost of electricity: Kentucky, 5.73 cents per kWh; Connecticut, 15.75 cents. 5_6_a.html

[15] This is the important and thorny subject of “putting a price on carbon.” It has already generated, as it had to do, a tug-of-war within the prospective Obama administration: James Broder. 2009. “In Obama’s Team, Two Camps on Climate.” New York Times, January 2, 2009. This large issue is beautifully discussed in a slim work culminating decades of study by the Yale economist William Nordhaus, well equipped and deeply steeped in the subject: A Question of Balance. 2008. Yale University Press.

[16] James Hansen vigorously and rightly prefers a carbon tax to pricing carbon emissions through “cap and trade” arrangements. Rather than using the proceeds of the carbon tax to invest in carbon-free energy infrastructure, he would rely on the disincentivizing effect of the tax, which will raise the cost of all goods and services which embody carbon. Hansen would rebate its entire proceeds directly to the public, thus building popular support for the tax, and disadvantaging only heavier than average consumers of carbon-based energy. He refers to this as a “cap and dividend.” This leaves it entirely to the market to direct the necessary capital flows to investment in the new energy productive apparatus. With the new forms of energy enjoying a substantial price advantage to the consumer, it is perhaps the case that non-fossil energy production would attract adequate investment on a purely market basis. This seems to presume that the Hansen carbon tax would be quite high, and that leads to problems of political feasibility.

[17] The ideal laboratory to lead in working out these relationships could well be the Federally created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which is now a very large energy producer, using coal, hydro and nuclear power generation.

[18] Galbraith, Kate, and Matthew L. Wald. “Energy Goals a Moving Target for States.” New York Times, December 5, 2008, in NYT series, “The Energy Challenge.”