Some Powerful Words and Thoughts About Global Warming

Jun 15, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

These are dark days on the climate front.  Daily, we get new news about the impacts of global warming like a megabloom of tiny plants under Arctic sea ice, the first news of observations of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere passing the 400 parts per million mark, blowing past the “safe” level of 350 and taking greenhouse gases to levels not seen in 800,000 years.

And the policy front – where solutions are crafted and implemented – is a painful vacuum, especially at the level of the U.S. Federal government.

But there are glimmers of hope in the form of folks who tell the truth and frame a path forward.  One of them is U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor yesterday about the urgent need for action.  The other is author, activist and movement leader Bill McKibben, who was interviewed on stage last night during a live taping of the OnPoint radio show.

. . . and we need all the hope we can get.

When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.

Nature is tapping us on the shoulder too, but her pockets are empty. Is that why the Senate isn’t listening?

Oct 14, 2011 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took the Senate floor yesterday in defense of science and reason – two topics that seldom seem to influence the decisionmaking of the Senate lawmakers these days when it comes to climate change.  Speaking out against the two big lies permeating the halls of congress: 1) environmental regulations are a burden to the economy; and 2) the jury is still out on climate change, Senator Whitehouse convincingly argued why both claims are false.  “The jury isn’t out,” he said, “the verdict is in!”  “More than 97% of publishing scientists accept that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it,” the Senator said in a twenty-four minute floor speech in which he cautioned his colleagues that the Senate is failing, “earning the scorn and condemnation of history” because while it considers repealing laws designed to prevent pollution, it cannot repeal the laws of nature.  “The dark hand of polluters can tap so many shoulders and there is a lot of power and money behind that dark hand, but nature is also tapping us on the shoulder, and we ignore that tapping at our own grave peril,” said Senator Whitehouse.  I must admit, I don’t have a lot of confidence that nature’s hand will win the contest in Washington, D.C., but my confidence is a bit restored when a Senator has the courage to speak the truth to his colleagues … giving nature’s tap a fighting chance.  Senator Whitehouse (RI) Floor speech on climate change