Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day

Most 'focusing events'--singular and easily-understood occurrences that help to shift public sentiment and spark policy action--happen by accident (think mass shootings and gun control). Earth Day, started in 1970, was entirely engineered by activists and has been amazingly successful at bringing attention to environmentalism and its policy platform. Here are five interesting things about energy and the environment that I learned recently:

1. The Earth's nitrogen cycle is in bad shape. Climate change, pollution, peak oil, and even biodiversity loss are all issues that get much more coverage than the dangerous inundation of Earth's life support system with technologically-procured nitrogen. While the agricultural efficiency gains have been immense, solutions are needed and the nitrogen issue should start being included in environmentalists' public rhetoric.

2. The Cradle-To-Cradle guys have a new book. It's called The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Their first book helped popularized the 'zero-waste', ecological approach to economic networks (any outputs by a firm are used as inputs by another firm), and took a novel tack by blending everything with the culture and language of architecture and design. The idea of 'upcycling' versus recycling (adding value with used goods rather than simply minimizing the value lost) is a powerful insight and reveals half of an important symmetry that's been mostly neglected. Can't wait.

3. Climate change refugees are beginning to appear. Author Paolo Bacigalupi calls them "yellow card men" in his stories: people forced by worsening environmental circumstances to leave their homes. Although shocking, in a deeper sense this vision of the future where individuals adapt to better themselves reveals how mundane and boring climate change actually is. Poor people living in environmentally marginal locations will face pain, suffering, and dislocation. Rich people will have the resources and capability to adapt without much ill-effect. This is hardly a new social dynamic. Whether climate change requires a qualitatively distinct ethical obligation, versus merely being subsumed within some general moral framework, is an important question. No doubt fewer immigration restrictions between countries would dramatically reduce the suffering caused by climate change.

4. The proposed nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain is dead dead dead. Congress basically screwed Nevada thirty years ago by picking Yucca Mountain as the only candidate for a long-term geologic repository. Nevada's population and political power have grown tremendously since then (Harry Reid plus Nevada's early spot in the Presidential nominating process) and it appears Yucca is finally finished. The more data researchers compiled on the mountain's physical attributes, the less safe the location seemed to be. Proponents of Yucca responded by showing that technological add-ons like drip shields could prevent containment failure in the long-run, but ironically this undercut the original justification for Yucca--namely that its geologic qualities made it a good choice. Nuclear energy producers have been paying taxes for decades to fund a long-term fix for their spent fuel problem, but the federal government has nothing on the horizon (waste is currently stored in "temporary" pools on-site). This terrible status quo is quietly accumulating accident risk.

5. This is by far the smartest environmentalist strategy yet. The green movement, bless its heart, has't always employed the best methods designed to achieve environmentalist goals. Eschewing the analytical tools of economics, for example, has lead to the perverse battle over Keystone XL: successfully blocking the pipeline would merely redirect supply along a different (and likely more costly) route while demand remains high. But this news about environmentalists teaming up with insurers to leverage their political and economic clout to enhance resilience and adaptive capacity in the face of climate change horror is brilliant. Unlike some other terrible projects that try and wish business and environmental incentives together, insurers are already on-board.

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