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Climate Hope?

02/17/2010

– by Aliza Wasserman

 The question of hope for solving the climate crisis is I usually ignore.  I find it irrelevant to the ethical mandate to act when the stakes are so high.  So I would not have picked up Ted Nace’s  new book Climate Hope , had he not mailed it to me.  But I am glad that he did.  I had feared that a message of hope can unintentionally come through as “We have hope; no need to freak out; it’ll be alright.  It doesn’t matter if you get around to writing that letter to Congress or not”.  But Nace offers a fantastic array of tangible strategies for tackling the crisis, exactly what we need in these bleak times.

Forget oil and gas. Stop coal.  This primary message of the book strikes me with a bit of personal irony, since I met the author while we locked ourselves down in front of the Chevron headquarters for a “No War, No Warming” protest on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. The basis of the argument comes from former NASA chief climatologist Jim Hansen, who has been calling for a moratorium on new coal plants. Hansen is driven for several reasons.  The United States is “the Saudi Arabia of coal”, but coal’s higher carbon intensity means that it generates 80% of the utilities’ emissions but only 50% of their electricity. Coal emissions are concentrated locally. It is far more feasible for government to regulate emissions that occur at the US’s 600 coal plants than to regulate millions of car or billions of lightbulbs.

Princeton students can take pride in learning that a watershed conference occurred here, when energy experts convened on campus for a month-long brainstorm session about energy security inspired by the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s.  This meeting is where they discovered that two-thirds of US electricity was going to buildings alone. Out of this event, came many technological and policy innovations, such as pricing electricity cheaper at night so manufacturers could shift production to those hours that had excess electricity already circulating and thereby avoid new power plants.

As a self-professed climate geek, I delighted in the book’s ample statistics:

–          Stopping coal can solve 80% of the climate crisis

–          Environmental policy campaigns that include protests have a 9.5% increased chance of success (According to a 2007 University of Washington study)

–          Low-flow showerheads cost less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is 10% of the cost of building a new power plant

–          Refrigerator motor efficiency increased from 30 to 90%, which single-handedly prevented 100 new coal plants in California.

“If you want to kill a power project, focus on the economics,” as Nace puts it, emerges as a key, compelling and surprising theme of Climate Hope.  I had often read that coal is the cheapest energy source there is, and that some renewables had a shot at beating gas but not coal.  Nace argues that if all the costs of coal power were included upfront, it would be as expensive as wind power.  That makes stopping them infinitely easier.  According to trucker-turned-activist-lawyer Carol Overland, as quoted in the book, coal plants and carbon capture and sequestration plants are often times funded with a hodgepodge of subsidies and overstated productivity claims that can be used to disqualify projects under the least-cost regulatory criteria. 

I admire Overland’s Rovian strategy of going after coal’s strength – its baseload reliability compared to renewables – by arguing that the carbon capture plants are attached to refineries, which shut down more often and have longer start-up periods.  With all the hidden subsidies, state-regulated cost recovery laws, miscalculated reserves, and opportunity cost calculations, the one thing I have learned in my time as a sustainable energy activist, is that the complexity of energy accounting should never to be underestimated.  And we should never let this complexity keep us from demanding the right thing.

 “No new coal plants” is emerging as a focused message for rallying support and defensible on economic grounds, argues Nace.   I do not yet know if I agree with the economic argument across the board, since his evidence is sporadic.  But I am deeply convinced by the environmental legitimacy and political power of a focused rallying cry.  The power of a focused simple unified message is undeniable.  Thanks to the grassroots campaigns Step It Up and 350.org , the climate movement mobilized and coalesced around banners and chants of “80% by 2050” in 2007 and then “350” parts-per-million atmospheric CO2 in 2009. It was remarkable to see how these esoteric terms rapidly made their way into mainstream policy discussions.

My favorite policy strategy that I learned from the book is that we can achieve a de-facto moratorium on new coal plants by passing legislation banning new power plants that surpass the emission intensity of gas plants.  This has already been accomplished in California and Washington state.  It’s true that those states were not coal-intensive to begin with, but every state can replace new coal with the benefits of energy efficiency: it’s quick, cheap and readily accessible.

Ontario has already pledged to phase out coal entirely by 2014 and the increased hurricanes in Florida led the state to shut down all four new coal plant projects. Nace’s book has convinced me that if we want to make a moratorium on new coal seem reasonable we need a rallying cry from activists. “No coal. Period.”

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