Showing all posts by Ethan Elkind
Is It Productive To Scare People About Climate Change?

Climate change is one of the most difficult political — let alone natural — challenges we face.  It’s a relatively far-off calamity that requires action now among the entire developed and developing world, with uncertain costs associated.  So how do we motivate people to act?

One option is to scare them with the worst-case scenarios.  David Wallace-Wells tried this approach recently with a widely circulated New York Magazine cover story describing the absolute worst-case scenarios for climate change, starting with this intro:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Lots of climate advocates and scientists pushed back on this approach though, arguing essentially that “despair is never helpful.”

But David Roberts at Vox.com celebrated this kind of journalism, pointing out that we need to hear more of this alarming, worst-case potential to motivate action:

It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough. At the very least, it seems excessive to draw a pat “fear never works” conclusion from these sorts of data.

Second, even if it’s true that fear only “works” when it is joined with a sense of agency and efficacy, that doesn’t mean that every single instance of fear has to be accompanied by a serving of hope. Not every article has to be about everything. In fact, if you ask me, the “[two paragraphs of fear], BUT [12 paragraphs of happy news]” format has gotten to be a predictable snooze. Some pieces can just be about the terrible risks we face. That’s okay.

Finally, fear+hope requires fear.

Julie Beck at The Atlantic meanwhile reports on the counter-productive tactic of simply making people anxious, particularly via social media. While the thought may be that anxiety leads to action, it can often instead just immobilize and distract people:

Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.

“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”

But the article also notes that fear-based messaging can work:

Though several people I spoke to said that fear-based appeals to action don’t work, and may even backfire, there’s actually evidence that they do work. Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, did a meta-analysis in 2015 of all available research on fear-based appeals and found that overall, inducing fear does change people’s attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. She and her team did not find a backfire effect.

But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.

For my part, I think the public should think about the absolute worst-case effects of climate change. While the worst-case scenario may not come to pass, we need to be prepared for the full range of impacts. Second, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the biggest mass mobilization efforts in history: namely, wars. And climate change will require a similar level of mobilization and urgency.

But I agree that fear-based messages should be paired with actions. Those steps should range from the individual (eat less red meat, install LED light bulbs, buy an electric vehicle if you need one, install solar panels, etc.) to the political (support candidates and policies that address the problem, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, and transit-oriented housing).

Otherwise, anxiety without hope or a achievable remedy will be self-defeating.

Redundant Rail Service In L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley Wastes Limited Transit Dollars

Los Angeles County is a big place, with lots of urban centers to connect with rapid rail transit. Funding is limited for these expensive trains, despite the passage of two recent sales tax increases and two others passed in 1980 and 1990 respectively.

So why is the region spending these limited dollars on two rail lines in the mostly suburban, auto-oriented, low-density San Gabriel Valley? The issue is now front-and-center with the June approval of a $1.4 billion extension of the Foothill Gold Line light rail to Montclair.

The problem is that the line dovetails with an existing Metrolink line, which is a diesel train for commuters into downtown Los Angeles. This map tells the story:

Image result for metrolink map gold line

The existing Gold Line extension to Azusa already is cannibalizing nearby Metrolink service, as Urbanize LA reported:

In a report prepared for the Planning and Programming Committee, Metro staff notes that there has been a precipitous drop in ridership at a nearby station on the San Bernardino Metrolink line. In the year since the completion of the extension, which Metro calls the Gold Line Extension Phase 2A, boardings at Covina station have fallen 25 percent, despite being several miles from the Gold Line terminus at Azusa Pacific University.

Even more worrying for the future of Metrolink’s highest ridership line is the Gold Line Extension Phase 2B, which will extend the light rail line from Glendora to Claremont, and with a potential contribution from the County of San Bernardino, across the County line into Montclair. Three of the new stations, in the cities of Pomona, Claremont and Montclair, will be built in the Metrolink right-of-way and have stations directly adjacent to their commuter rail counterparts, offering perhaps an alluring alternative to the existing service. While Gold Line trains will take about 15 minutes longer to travel from Montclair to Union Station, they will be far cheaper and offer service every 7-12 minutes for most of the day.

I discussed this issue with KPCC radio recently, explaining that the reason for this extra rail service is simply politics.  To secure two-thirds voter approval on the recent sales tax measures for transit, local leaders had to essentially buy off San Gabriel Valley leaders with a gold-plated rail line promise, even though the region doesn’t have the ridership to justify the expense.

That’s not to say that duplicative rail service is a bad thing by definition.  If the population and job density is sufficient, two rail lines in proximity can make sense.  But in this case, the density isn’t there.  Metro leaders should have stood up to the San Gabriel Valley and funded a right-sized transit line.  That would have most likely meant bus rapid transit and not light rail, which still would have been a big transit win for the region.

It may be too late to downsize the train route, but perhaps in the meantime Metro can develop adequate policies to ensure that San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire leaders encourage maximum densities along the route.  More dense development will not only give local residents more housing and commercial service options, it will provide more riders to minimize the losses on this unfortunate decision.

What Is The Future For Coal Workers?

Yesterday we discussed the future of the coal industry on KPCC’s AirTalk, but what about the future for coal workers?  We agreed on the show yesterday that the future of coal in the U.S. is not bright, given cheap natural gas and environmental policies.  So how can we help transition these coal workers to more sustainable jobs?

Clean energy advocates typically argue for retraining them to work in renewable energy, like solar and wind.  But Gizmodo throws some cold water on how easy this would be, noting the geographic mismatch of coal states and renewable policies and prime locations:

Solar and wind jobs pop up in places where sunshine and wind are abundant. Sunny California leads the solar industry, with 40% of all solar jobs found in the state. Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota exemplify the potential for wind energy in the Midwest, with a quarter of each states’ total electricity production coming from wind. Even Texas, well known for its oil resources, produced 13% of its electricity from wind in 2016. But could solar or wind jobs pop up in major coal mining states, such as Wyoming, West Virginia or Kentucky?

Furthermore, these coal states have virtually no incentives for renewables.  So they would need to drastically revamp their domestic policies to create a market for renewable jobs.  Otherwise, coal workers would essentially have to abandon these states to find work in more prosperous regions — hardly a recipe for success for rural America, at least in the short term.

But if we could figure out the retraining process, the jobs in renewables can be very rewarding.  As my colleagues at the UC Berkeley Labor Center described in the “Link between Good Jobs and a Low Carbon Future,” renewable energy has provided good blue collar jobs throughout California, paying an average of $46/hour plus health, pension, and training benefits.

The key is to get sufficient funding for these worker retraining programs, which aren’t cheap.  Gizmodo reports:

The cost isn’t trivial. In 2016, Joshua Pearce, a Materials Science & Engineering professor at Michigan Technological University, estimated the cost of retraining coal workers for the solar industry. He found that it would cost the five most coal-dependent states between $120 million (“best case scenario”) and $1.1 billion (“worst case scenario”) to do so. An apprenticeship would cost around $18,000, while advanced degrees, enabling miners to become engineers or project managers, could cost over $136,000. The study assumes that lower-ranking miners would pursue apprenticeships, while seniors would go for degrees from top-tier schools.

Some California counties have successfully leveraged solar investment in their regions to pay for these job training programs.  So that could present a promising option for states to use any solar fee revenues to fund these programs.  And if the jobs are union, then the unions themselves can pay for these retraining programs, saving taxpayers and these companies from some of that burden.

But the bottom line is that American politicians and renewable advocates need to get serious about this issue and start taking our jobs success stories in places like California to a nationwide audience.  We also need to address the practical challenges to worker retraining.  It won’t happen with this current administration, but it shouldn’t stop individual states and local leaders from acting now.

What’s The Future Of Coal? Tune In To AirTalk On KPCC Radio At 11am

The coal industry is hoping that the Trump administration will revive its sagging fortunes.  I’ll be on AirTalk on KPCC radio (89.3 FM) in Los Angeles today at 11:20am PT to discuss the industry’s future.  As the AirTalk page describes:

It’s no secret that environmentalists and the coal mining industry have long been at odds.  But more fuel has been added to the fire, so to speak, as the Trump Administration’s Interior Department has moved to lift a moratorium on coal leases in public lands. The temporary ban was enacted under the Obama Administration, which quickly drew opposition from major mining companies.

As reported by the New York Times, about 85 percent of coal is mined from federal lands in the West, from the Powder River Basin. The basin, which includes lands in Wyoming and Montana, produces a small amount of exported coal. Trump has accused the Obama Administration of trying to stifle exports, a market which has become increasingly competitive in sales to power plants in Asia, particularly China. In the West, Vancouver has the most accessible export terminal, but more capacity is needed to stay competitive in the growing global market. And environmentalists have blocked any new developments for a terminal in the U.S.

Joining me on the panel will be:

  • Mark Mills, physicist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute where his focus includes energy and energy technology, and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Engineering School; he tweets @MarkPMills
  • Daniel Schrag, geochemist and professor of geology, environmental science and engineering; he is also the director at Harvard University Center for the Environment and served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (2009 to 2016)

For those out of the area, you can stream it live.

With Switch To EVs, Will Lithium Countries Become The Next OPEC?

As the world switches from petroleum fuels to lithium batteries in electric vehicles, do we need to worry about creating a new Middle East-type cartel that can once again hold the world’s energy supply hostage?  The concern might have some justification, as just four countries have the largest reserves of lithium (Australia, Chile, Argentina and China). Chile, in particular, is thought to have more than 50% of known economic reserves.

The Conversation describes where battery raw materials come from, and concludes somewhat positively:

The supply of major materials for lithium batteries is not under threat any time soon, but demand is likely to open up new areas for extraction, bringing new risks.

The political situations of countries with large reserve shares and large shares in the processing of these metals can quickly become uncertain. Will countries like Bolivia allow unrestricted export of lithium? Will Democratic Republic of Congo or China restrict cobalt supply?

Environmentally, the lithium-ion battery’s future is also worrying. The production of electrode materials may become more environmentally damaging. On the other hand, the impact of the lithium supply itself is likely to improve.

Ultimately, recycling lithium should play a part in mitigating political, environmental and economic risks in the future, but high rates of lithium battery recycling are yet to be seen.

It’s always a risk once we become overly dependent on one source of energy (or in this case, energy storage) that it will lead to national security issues with foreign control over those resources.

But it’s worth noting that the U.S. has its own supply of lithium, and also that current estimates from the U.S government at least indicate an adequate worldwide supply to meet demand (although Greentech Media raises some alarm bells on this question).

Ultimately, this is a long-term potential problem that can likely be addressed with further innovation in manufacturing, battery development, and recycling and reuse of existing batteries.  And it’s certainly not a reason to avoid investing in battery electrification of transportation.

But at the same time, if I was working in national security, it would be an issue to track going forward.

The Lost Smart Phone Generation

Smart phones are now ubiquitous and have revolutionized almost every aspect of our lives in barely less than a decade. The power of digital connectedness, convenience, and information is at our fingertips.

Yet these devices are powerfully addictive. They intrude on our in-person relationships and time spent together, as well as on our attention spans and sense of calm. They provide unrelenting access to stimulation and diversion that conditions us to a heightened mental state.

And now research is beginning to show just how detrimental all this screen time is for the generation of kids that only knows a world with smart phones.

Jean M. Twenge is a psychologist who has been researching generational differences for 25 years. While most changes among generations tend to happen somewhat gradually, she noticed an abrupt shift around 2012, right as smart phones passed the threshold of ubiquity. As she writes in a fascinating and disturbing article in the Atlantic:

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

And these alarming results are traced clearly to this new technology:

The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that increasing physical isolation leads children to unhappiness, combined with the mental blur of interacting via a screen with so much information and social communities. We are basically conducting a massive psychological experiment on today’s children to see how they’ll react to the technology of this brave new world.

To be sure, there are plenty of obvious positives with smart phone usage. As the article points out, kids are safer and engaging in less risky behavior. They also have the opportunity to use the technology to benefit their intellectual and social development.

But these technologies need to be viewed with skepticism. As Twenge concludes, the best advice for a happy adolescence is straightforward:

“Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”

How Would The Solar Industry Adapt To New U.S. Tariffs?

As I’ve blogged about before, two U.S. solar manufacturers are petitioning the Trump Administration to levy steep tariffs on foreign solar panels.  The solar industry is rightfully scared that the administration will approve them, given Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric and efforts to privilege coal over clean renewables.

The Solar Energy Industries Association recently estimated that the industry would lose 88,000 jobs, a third of the total, if the government approved the two U.S. manufacturers’ petition to levy a 78 cent floor on the price of solar modules and a 40 cent tariff on solar cells.

As E&E news reported [paywalled]:

The module price floor would slash solar demand by half over the next five years, from a cumulative 72 gigawatts to 36 GW. Add the tariff on cells, the report said, and demand would drop further, to 25 GW.

The biggest impact would be to utility-scale solar. Recently, and remarkably, big solar projects have been growing fastest in states that aren’t requiring their utilities to buy it through a policy known as the renewable energy portfolio.

Almost three-quarters of the project pipeline is in these states that are buying on economics alone, the report said. With tariffs, the report said, “most of that is at risk of cancellation unless PPA [power purchase agreement] prices are renegotiated.”

The impact on residential rooftop solar would be dramatic but less severe.

There’s no doubt that the tariffs would cause economic harm to the industry.  But could manufacturers adapt to avoid the most cataclysmic price impacts?

I’ve heard anecdotally that Chinese manufacturers would respond to the tariffs by locating their plants in the U.S. to avoid them.  While some U.S. protectionists might cheer this move for creating domestic jobs, the manufacturers claim that most of their plants are essentially fully automated anyway, so it would not result in any significant jobs benefits in the U.S.

And ultimately, there will be cost increases that will be passed onto consumers, which would not only depress the industry, it would hurt all the people employed in selling, installing and maintaining solar panels here.  And these individuals vastly outnumber coal miners.

So we should still hope that the tariff case is rejected.  But if the Trump administration goes the other way, we may have some hope that the industry can limit the damage.

 

Replacing Coal With Solar In Tribal Lands

As coal-fired power plants shut down, many Native American tribes are facing the brunt.  I wrote earlier this year about the challenges facing the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, in particular, with the closure of a nearby plant.

As in many areas around the country, environmental advocates tout the jobs and economic prospects of solar PV as a replacement for lost coal jobs.  To put that to the test, the Farmington Daily Times reported on the Navajo Nation’s first large-scale solar energy facility on the reservation. The 27.3-megawatt Kayenta Solar Project opened in June.  The electricity is sold to the Salt River Project for distribution, with revenues funding local tribal programs.

The project has had some immediate jobs and economic benefits:

[Navajo utility spokesperson Deenise] Becenti said at the height of construction, there were 250 personnel with 195 Navajo workers.

The $60 million facility was built using a construction loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.

Revenue from the solar project will help NTUA extend electricity to several communities on the reservation, according to an October 2016 press release from the tribal enterprise.

Last year, NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority] finalized an agreement with the tribe’s Community Development Block Grant program to increase electrical services to 92 residences.

The tribal enterprise will use revenues from the solar project as matching funds for the grant, the release states.

[NTUA General Manager Walter] Haase said in an email this will be the first time most families will have electricity in their homes.

“Using revenue generated from the solar project gives us the ability to bring electric service to these communities and help dramatically raise the standard of living for our Navajo families,” he said.

Overall, it seems like a success story for a rural community transitioning from coal to renewables. And it’s only the start, as the article indicates there’s potential for expanding the solar farm.

While the bulk of the jobs here are probably temporary construction ones, further study could be useful to examine the full impact of the new facility. For example, the tribal programs funded by the solar revenue presumably create their own jobs and economic impacts, which could further offset the loss of coal jobs and revenue. Either way, this is a story worth keeping an eye on for advocates of transitioning to renewables in rural areas everywhere.

New Study: California Climate Policies Bringing Over $9 Billion And 41,000 Jobs To Southern California’s Inland Empire

With the legislature just passing a landmark extension of cap-and-trade through 2030 by a supermajority vote, attention now turns to implementing the state’s major climate programs to achieve the ambitious climate goals for that year and beyond.

Critics frequently argue that efforts to fight climate change hurt the economy and cost jobs.  Yet as I blogged about a few weeks ago, research on California’s San Joaquin Valley and then-forthcoming from the Inland Empire show net positive results.

The Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) at UC Berkeley Law and UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, working with the nonpartisan nonprofit Next 10, just released the first comprehensive cost/benefit study of climate policies in Southern California’s Inland Empire, one of California’s most environmentally vulnerable regions.

The Net Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs in the Inland Empire: Analysis of 2010-2016 and Beyond examines the impact of four climate programs in the region, defined here as San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.  We chose these counties as a follow-up to our San Joaquin Valley report due to the region’s environmental and economic challenges and because elected leaders from the area have asked questions about the impact of climate policies on their constituents.

The report analyzed not only the benefits of California’s climate and clean energy policies, but also compliance expenditures, investment expenses, and other costs.

After examining the data and using advanced modeling software, we found that the four key California climate and clean energy policies, including cap and trade, the renewables portfolio standard, distributed solar policies and energy efficiency programs (among the most important in California’s suite of climate policies) brought a net benefit of $9.1 billion in direct economic activity and 41,000 net direct jobs from 2010 to 2016 in the region, some of which are permanent and ongoing and many of which resulted from one-time construction investments.

We found that the overall benefits to the Inland Empire are likely to continue and grow through 2030, as the state strives to meet its newly legislated climate goals for that year, via SB 32 (Pavley, 2016), SB 350 (De Leon, 2015), and now AB 398 (Eduardo Garcia, 2017). Those efforts will require at least 50% renewables by 2030, a doubling of energy efficiency in existing buildings, and a robust cap-and-trade program through 2030.

Based on the findings in the Inland Empire, we suggest that policy makers wishing to continue these benefits focus on policies that reward cleaner transportation in this region, help disburse cap-and-trade auction proceeds in a timely and predictable manner, and create robust transition programs for workers and communities affected by the decline of the Inland Empire’s greenhouse gas-emitting industries, including re-training and job placement programs, bridges to retirement, and regional economic development initiatives.

You can access the full report via CLEE or Next 10’s websites and check out media coverage in Southern California’s Press-Enterprise and on KPCC, KFI, and KVCR radio.

Reducing Food Waste — Tonight On City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM

Most of us throw out old food all the time. But combined with the food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses, it’s become a serious economic, environmental, and even moral problem. Astonishingly, researchers tell us that 40% of all food grown in the United States each year winds up in the trash.

This waste occurs while nearly 1 in 5 children in California goes to bed hungry each night.  The economic losses are significant, and the waste also creates an environmental problem, as the decaying food emits potent greenhouse gases.

So what can we do differently on farms and in restaurants, grocery stores and our own homes to reduce the amount of food wasted? Join us tonight on City Visions when we explore the topic of food waste and find out what several Bay Area organizations are doing about it.

Guests will include:

  • JoAnne Berkenkamp, Senior Advocate in the Food and Agriculture Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Chris Cochran, Executive Director of ReFED
  • Mary Risley, Founder of Food Runners

You can tune in live at 7pm on 91.7 FM in San Francisco or stream it on the City Visions website. Feel free to send me your questions for the panel directly. Hope you can join the conversation!

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