60 Minutes’ clean tech bash-fest: hardly a moment of journalism, not a second of climate reality

January 7, 2014

“I’m not afraid to fail because the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing” – Clean tech investor Vinod Khosla, on 60 Minutes

Most of the blowback to the 60 Minutes mugging of the clean tech industry this week focuses on the shockingly bad reporting.  The segment, “Clean Tech Crash,” makes no mention of the explosive growth in key clean energy technologies like solar, LED lights, and electric vehicles; the 97% success rate of the DOE clean energy loan program; or historic and continuing subsidies for fossil fuels.

Andy Rooney time for broadcast journalism?

Andy Rooney time for broadcast TV journalism?

“Clean tech is dead.  What killed it?”  That’s the first “question” correspondent Leslie Stahl reportedly asked Robert Rapier, chief technology officer at Merica International, in her interview.  So it’s not surprising that much of the buzz has been about how 60 minutes, the citadel of broadcast journalism for decades, managed to plunge further from its post-Benghazi low to this new nadir of hackery.

But the show was more than a case of sloppy journalism.

It was laced with anti-government rhetoric…

“The [LG Chem] plant was built with $151 million from the stimulus to make batteries for electric cars that people never bought.  So the plant went idle and workers were paid tax dollars to sit around and do nothing.”

…and spiced with mild (if incoherent) Sinophobia:

“And so the irony: that taxpayer money for Cleantech and jobs ended up with a Chinese company creating Cleantech and Jobs… in America.[sic]”

This drumbeat of government ineptitude and collective impotence is one of the most potent meta-barriers to climate action.  Surely a government that pays people to sit around doing nothing while throwing taxpayer money to rapacious Chinese can’t be trusted to do anything meaningful about a problem as formidable as climate disruption.

But futility in the face of the climate challenge was only an unspoken subtext of the story.  Because, most disturbing of all, the segment contained not a single reference to climate, carbon, emissions, fossil fuel dependence….you know, that whole existential crisis.

Doing a story about a “clean tech crash” without mentioning climate is symptomatic of a form of denial that may be more destructive than straight-over-tackle lying about climate science.  Denial is a remarkably resilient ecosystem, and this kind of silence is the essential host condition in which it continues to thrive.

Simply not talking about climate disruption in the context of a story about government-supported clean energy technology development is startling – almost aggressive – in its deliberate avoidance of the thing that matters most about the topic.

In the context of climate, the failures and successes of federal support for clean tech is a salient, relevant, vital subject.  But without that context, all we get is a snide, petty exercise in gotcha journalism, complete with radical distortion of the available evidence in order to achieve its pre-determined conclusion.

When Khosla says “the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing,” we are left to wonder:  What’s so bad about that?  Is there something we’re supposed to be doing?

State of the Union: pushing forward and backward on climate

February 13, 2013

“They deserve a vote.  They deserve a vote.”

President Obama repeated the phrase over and over, in a powerful appeal to Congress to curb gun violence at the end of last night’s State of the Union address.

His approach to climate and energy was different.  Senator McCain’s pained grin said it all, as the President gently chided Congress for its unwillingness to consider the kind of climate legislation that presidential candidate McCain had proposed – back before fossil-fueled denialism consumed his party.sotu 2 2013

The President went on to offer the rough outlines of an agenda for climate action through the use of existing executive authorities.   He slammed climate denialism and spoke frankly about the reality of climate impacts.  He spoke in broad terms of research and development investments and endorsed accelerated deployment of renewable energy.  He issued a “new goal for America” to cut energy wasted in our homes and businesses by half, and offered federal support for states that lead the way.  And he proposed to use oil and gas revenues to fund “an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”  That’s good:  “for good.”

And yet even as he suggested some meaningful actions to advance climate solutions, he stepped all over the message – as he has for several years – by focusing heavily on increased oil and gas development.  And he certainly did not elevate the issue to the level where he was willing to challenge Congress to do its job and adopt a national climate policy.  The victims of Sandy Hook surely do “deserve a vote,” but apparently the victims of Sandy do not.

The President is on the right track in terms of using existing executive authority to reduce climate pollution and accelerate investment in energy efficiency and clean energy.  (And the Northwest is in an ideal position to lead that national effort by leveraging our existing federal power infrastructure to drive the next wave of clean energy development.)

But he’s also stuck on the wrong track at the same time – expanding domestic fossil fuel production, waffling on the Keystone pipeline permit, and essentially giving away billions of tons of coal on public lands to support development of fossil fuel infrastructure around the world.

Simultaneously moving in the wrong direction and the right direction won’t do the job.  Business-as-usual investments that “lock in” emissions growth – even if they are combined with near-term investments in efficiency and clean energy – will result in catastrophic climate disruption, with unthinkable consequences for humanity.

The President’s right – we do know how to respond to the climate challenge while sustaining prosperity.  We can look at the victims of Sandy – and our kids, the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters – and say “we know how to make this better, and we will.”  But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse.

The President – and America – can no longer go backward AND forward on climate.  We don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough money.  We have to choose.

That message will be delivered to the White House loud and clear, this week.   You can amplify it at Forward on Climate.

And today, some of our most courageous leaders will be risking arrest at the White House.  Hear them, support them here.

“Rethinking wedges”: R.I.P. “BAU”

January 14, 2013

KC WedgeheadWedges speak to me.

I bought the original stabilization wedge format for presenting climate solutions hook, line and sinker.  At the slightest provocation, I will administer a “wedgie” – or as my co-workers call it, a “napkin-point presentation” – using the famous wedge schematic to illustrate this or that point about emission trajectories or the effect of a particular energy policy on emissions over time.  A giant wedge banner hanging from a building on the central square in Copenhagen filled me with nerdy pride.BAU no can do

But something always bothered me about wedges, and now I know what it is.  While we were busy getting our wedges on – passing good policies and implementing solutions – we were also busy investing in new infrastructure that locked in emission increases.  We’ve been betting on solutions and the problem simultaneously.  The net result is somewhere short of treading water, which means getting further away from a safe stabilization path.  You can review the non-progress in “Rethinking Wedges,” published recently in Environmental Research Letters.

The problem is “Business As Usual” (BAU) — the upward-sloping emissions curve at the top of the wedges — and everything it represents about our climate denial.  Among its many objectionable qualities, it is imaginary, implausible, immoral, BS.  Yes, it’s what we’re doing.  But it’s delusional to project what we’re doing out for 50 years.  It’s kind of like the economist flying in a 4 engine plane that loses power in one engine, then another, then a third – each time cutting the plane’s speed in half – who said: “At this rate, we’ll be up here almost forever!”

“Business as usual” is not possible; global temperature increases that would result from sustained emission growth over 50 years would be “incompatible with organized global community,” without which we wouldn’t keep generating emissions at ever-increasing rates.  It is hard to imagine business as usual, say, amid the “tornadoes of fire” engulfing Australia right now.

Tom Friedman recently said we need to begin “tapping on the brakes” to avoid “the climate cliff” by passing a carbon tax.  But the brakes don’t work very well when we’ve got the other foot on the BAU accelerator.

Business as usual medleyIs it possible to conceive of some bizarre dystopia in which civilization falls apart but we nevertheless manage to keep increasing our emissions?  Oh, gosh, maybe, but do we have to?  It doesn’t seem very analytically sound to me.  And it’s certainly a moral disaster – to imagine that we just keep stoking the fire as it burns up everything dear.  Calling this “business as usual” is both intellectually weak and ethically numb.

We smacked our head into the folly of indefinitely increasing consumption curves in the Northwest, when we bought off on the ill-fated “WPPSS” nuclear power program – which touched off the largest municipal bond default in history at the time.  And of course we’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about bubbles in recent years.

“Business as usual” is a lie.  It’s a form of climate denial.  So why do we use it as our baseline?  Sure, it’s “the path we’re on” so in some sense it’s what we have to divert from.  But it can’t go where it appears to be headed.  It leads inexorably to some kind of forced drop off.  We’ll never get anywhere good until we flatly reject it.

No, let me rephrase: We’ll never get anywhere good unless we reject it now, because after a few more years of BAU, stabilization at tolerable levels will be impossible.  This is the bottom line of the IEA World Energy Outlook.   We don’t have enough time (or money) to keep investing in the problem as we invest in solutions.

There are plenty of grey areas – questions about timing and economics and technology – in the climate solutions game.  But this one is black and white, the clear moral line in the shifting sands of climate politics:

We cannot in good conscience continue to make long-term investments that make it worse.

Or, if you will, we should make today’s emission levels the new BAU, smacking down anything that drives emissions higher.  And by “smacking down,” of course, we’re not primarily talking about a change in our analytic assumptions.  It’s a political change.  It’s a moral shift.  It’s taking a stance — a hopeful and unyielding one.  (But that doesn’t mean we can’t graph it!:)New BAU 2

THis is what Keystone’s about.  It’s what Power Past Coal is about.  It’s what Do the Math is about.  Climate solutions just isn’t a credible proposition until we swear off additional aggravation of the climate crisis – until we declare that the old business as usual is dead.


(One hates to introduce ambiguity when one is drawing lines in the sand, but it must be said that our standards for rejecting fossil fuel infrastructure investment should in fairness be different for rich and poor countries.  The Prime Minister of India once proposed that their emissions-per-capita should rise and ours should fall until they reach the same level; then we can all move toward stabilization together.  You can see the justice in this.   Thing is, then we’d all be toast.  [Just toast though – more equitably burnt.]  Whatever minimal fossil fuel investment is possible between now and blowing our global emissions budget – maybe four years’ worth at current rates, according to the IEA – surely “belongs” to the least developed countries.  But for us:  no more, period.  In fact, if we accept a flat global BAU as a baseline, rich country BAUs would have to be downward sloping.  And then of course, we need to set sail for the stabilization pathway immediately, abandoning the new BAU at the same moment that we re-imagined it.)

Blazing a Path Ahead (BPA) for the next 75

November 17, 2012

.. originally published in Clearing Up

I drove through Eastern Washington last June, when the Columbia ran high.  I remember rounding a corner to a vista of Bonneville Dam, with water pouring over the spillways and mist rising on a bright windy day.  It took my breath away.  I remember how my 19-year-old son stood quiet and tall when he caught sight of Grand Coulee from the overlook.  “Damn!” I heard myself say, not intending the pun. “Look at that!”

Now, I’m a former river guide and an avid nature lover, so dams are a mixed bag for me.  But however you tally their costs and benefits, those bad boys are impressive.  I think what hit me was the sheer scale of ambition and collective human determination they represent.  They speak of a time and an ethos when we did big, great things together. 

That spirit seems sadly remote now.  We spend more time quibbling about how to divvy up the big juicy pie our grandparents baked than figuring out how to bake more, for our kids and grandkids.

You have to wonder, if we had to do something big and great together now, could we do it?  Turns out, it’s not a hypothetical question.

We actually do have a defining, existential challenge on our hands:  building a clean energy economy to stabilize the climate before we trigger catastrophic disruption.  These words sound edgy, “extreme” in relation to the political dialogue about these issues.  Yet they accurately represent our best scientific understanding of our actual circumstances…and the reality on the ground in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in the Farm Belt and Texas after this summer’s epic drought, in the dying forests of the Eastern Cascades.

Imagine that climate disruption presented itself not as a political football, but as the crisis that it is – the way Pearl Harbor turned a vague global threat into a national emergency overnight (or the way Sandy slammed into the East Coast).  Suppose we stop all the politicking and yapping and just deal with it.  Now what?

As we gather ourselves for the challenge, we’ll discover that one place has a uniquely powerful set of attributes that make it a natural proving ground for the transition to a clean energy era.  That place already has a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy.   It is blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played pioneering roles in the aviation, software, and internet revolutions.  It has a distant but still powerful memory of how ambitious collective investment in energy infrastructure cleared the path to broadly-shared prosperity.  That place is here.

Starting with these huge advantages, what could the Northwest do to lead the transition to a fossil fuel-free energy era, and how could BPA help us do it?  How can these assets be deployed to facilitate replacement of our aging coal plants with clean energy (and very little gas as a bridge) – effectively ending the use of fossil fuels to serve regional power needs in time for BPA’s 100th anniversary?  How can BPA help the region squeeze more work out of our low-cost power – meeting ALL foreseeable load growth by wasting less of the valuable resources we already have?  How could BPA accelerate deployment of new technologies that store energy, manage loads, and integrate more intermittent renewables? How could BPA help create a table where we end the perpetual cycle of litigation and hammer out a durable, comprehensive salmon recovery strategy?

I pose these as questions.   I’m not proposing a blueprint.  I’m suggesting we take this opportunity to step back and think hard about what’s right, what’s necessary, what’s possible.  What’s our job, in the big picture, and how can we use our assets and our history to help us step up and do it?

Think even bigger – as big as the climate challenge:  How could we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity infrastructure to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system?  How could BPA anchor a regional strategy to capture the economic advantages of global leadership in clean energy technologies and systems?     How could BPA empower and assist local communities in implementing the clean energy and carbon reduction initiatives that work for them?

These questions may seem to stray outside BPA’s current scope – but not nearly as far as building tanks was outside the scope of the auto industry on December 6, 1941.  And if we are to have any hope of preventing catastrophic climate disruption, we’ll have to get into a December 7 state of mind.  It’s a state of mind and a spirit that’s radically out of step with the cynical, sniping, “can’t do” politics of the moment.  But it’s a spirit that represents the best of BPA’s legacy – the ambition, the collective will, the profound commitment to a better future – that built the nation’s best power system.

Let’s renew it.

Going to town for climate solutions: Powering the new energy future from the ground up

July 18, 2012

“Global warming” is like a general anesthetic.  Yes, it accurately describes the trend in the global average temperature.  But nobody lives in the global average temperature.  Nobody works or plays in the global average temperature.  Nobody gets anything done in the global average temperature.

(Is “global warming” better than “climate change”[i]?  Enough already.  See footnote.)

The warming may be global, but the action is local.

The impacts – the flooding, the extreme weather, the fires – hit home, not the “globe.”  We cause the problem locally, primarily with our energy and transportation investments and choices.  And most importantly, when you roll up your sleeves and get real about solutions, many of the key decisions are local:  infrastructure investments, transportation options, energy choices.

I don’t mean to say for a minute that we don’t need state and national policy and international agreements; we desperately do.  But while we’re clearing the path to those policies – and after we succeed – we can and must put shoulder to wheel in our lives and communities.

We must be, you might say, Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up.

And in communities across America and the world, we are.    The successes and challenges of 22 of these communities are profiled in a terrific new report from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Climate Solutions’ New Energy Cities program, available here.

These stories aren’t from the big, well-known leadership cities like Portland, Seattle, and New York.  They’re from small and medium-sized communities.  Many of them emerged from individuals and grassroots collaborations among community organizations.  They employ local regulation and voluntary action.  They feature broad local partnerships with utilities, businesses, workforce organizations, schools, and non-profits.  They got a boost from federal recovery investments, and are developing their own funding models.  They started with low-hanging fruit, and are building toward long-term energy transformation strategies.

They are – geographically and substantively – all over the map.  That’s a good thing.  Not all of them are motivated by climate.   These cities, and thousands of others, are demonstrating that the clean energy transition is a solid foundation for building healthier communities and stronger local economies.   Living, breathing local examples of that proposition can take us a long way toward embracing the imperative for climate solutions.

Check ‘em out.

[i] In a “secret” 2003 polling memo, conservative pollster Frank Luntz advised Republicans to use “climate change” instead of “global warming.”  Clever (kinda) climate communicators, said “aha, then ‘global warming’ it is!”  Frank Luntz knows that nothing like that stays secret.  He’s had a decade of laughs watching us argue over which is better, knowing full well that they are both profoundly useless – abstract, disengaging, completely outside the psychological scope of human agency.  Both terms work splendidly, if your goal is to avert action.  I’m going with “climate disruption.”

MORE sex is better with energy efficiency

July 9, 2012

My first foray into this topic, “Sex is better with energy efficiency,” was warmly – aye, steamingly – received.  (We are a simple people, no?)  So let’s dive deeper…

First, for the record:  Jimmy Carter is a great man, a courageous humanitarian, and a vastly underappreciated former President.  It’s not his fault.  But one of the founding myths of the modern energy efficiency “movement”, if we can call it that, is that his “moral equivalent of war” speech and his fireside chats on energy were a huge cultural setback for conservation.

By framing energy conservation as a moral proposition (goes the myth) he made it somehow trivial, sentimental, insubstantial.  In order to elevate energy efficiency to its proper place as a big manly energy alternative, we must think of it not as a lecture, not as a lifestyle admonition, but as an energy resource — just like a power plant.   We must never, ever call it “conservation,” because that smacks of moralism; we must call it “efficiency” in order to underscore its practical, effective, hard-nosed utility as an energy option.

I wish to explode this myth.

The problem wasn’t that Jimmy Carter framed conservation as a moral issue.  It IS a moral issue (AND our largest, cheapest, most important energy resource). The problem, in a nutshell, was The Sweater.

To observe that The Sweater was profoundly unattractive is to dwell on the obvious.  But the issue goes well beyond the butt-ugliness.  The problem was that The Sweater, and its wearer, came to symbolize national impotence, and the weakness rubbed off on energy conservation.  Look at that damned cardigan; a bald eagle wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing!  It’s fuzzy and pathetic and yella!

Once again, Jimmy Carter is a great man and it wasn’t his fault, but his Presidency occupies a place of doubt and deprecation in an American myth that celebrates exceptionalism and virility.  That he was followed by the strapping, ruddy, anti-ambivalent  Ronald Reagan was no accident.  “Morning in America” was the light at the end of the dark tunnel of national tentativeness for which the Carter era is (inaccurately) remembered.  The cardigan became a pathetic symbol of that, and the “malaise” oozed out all over energy conservation.

Which is why, inspired by a great upwelling of national pride, or something, I googled up these images.  I think you will agree that they illustrate a keen grasp of marketing on my part.

(Important preliminary research finding:  Penelope Cruz apparently does not wear sweaters.)

It may take another blog post to get to it, but there is actually a point to all this.  And it’s not just that we need to make energy efficiency sexier.

It’s that the clean energy transition must be enormous and robust.  And it must be accelerated in an era when large public institutions are increasingly prevented from doing much of anything, let alone enormous, robust things.

We can’t give up on large institutions – we must redemocratize them.  But we also need to drive the clean energy revolution up from the bottom.  Powered by distributed technology, connected by interactive media, and affirmed by new cultural norms and rewards (including but not limited to sex; but hey, might as well start with sex), the clean energy revolution is gaining inexorable momentum, even though it remains formally undeclared.  And we have to lean into that cultural transition, not run away from it.

Moral imperatives and psychosocial rewards CAN go together….just not in a yellow cardigan.

We’ll shoot to get more GRIP on that down the road.

Clean energy efficacy: “Can’t” meets its match.

June 28, 2012

Climate solutions are not tweaks.  They’re a revolution.

Bob Doppelt at the Resource Innovation Group argues persuasively that big changes – fundamental shifts in beliefs, practices, goals, and results – require 1) dissonance (“this isn’t working”) 2) efficacy (“yes we can”), and 3) benefits (“hey, this is profitable/fun/sexy”).   These are necessary preconditions for the transition from an ecosystem of denial to a culture of responsibility.

There’s work to do on all three points.  But efficacy might be our biggest collective challenge.  Without it, we suppress dissonance and get mired in skepticism about benefits.

It’s hard to imagine how we tackle climate disruption without collective action on an unprecedented scale.  But the traditional vehicles of collective action at the national and international levels seem locked up, captured, kaput.  Congress’ epic failure to deliver a national climate policy was only partly about climate; the bigger factor was the wheels popping off the institution.  Cynicism is rampant (and justified, but useless).

Systemic collective dysfunction is a boon to defenders of fossil fuel dependence, since the clean energy revolution requires loads of collective efficacy.  They’ll never convince us that their way is better, so they have to demoralize us into believing that there is no other way.  That’s why they’re working overtime to undermine confidence in the clean energy revolution and the government’s ability to accelerate it.

Call in the efficacy brigade, intrepidly spearheaded by Climate Solutions co-founder Rhys Roth!  It’s no coincidence that he shares his initials with Rosie the Riveter.   Dude oozes efficacy.  And for the last few months, he’s been pummeling skepticism about the clean energy revolution.  Check out his review of the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study.

“You ever talk with someone who thinks you’re starry-eyed and gullible because you think a renewable energy future can work? I’ve got your answer….”  Read the rest at the Climate Solutions Journal.