David Roberts

The 14 Fossil-Fuel Projects Poised to F*ck up the Climate

This story first appeared on Grist.

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Welcome to The Anthropocene

 One of the primary psychic barriers to accepting the fact of climate change is the notion that human beings can reshape something as large and complex as the earth itself. On an intuitive level, it seems incredible. Presumptuous, even. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) put it this way: “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

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Innovative Solar Power Outfit eSolar Signs First Deal for Utility-Scale Solar Plants


In the transition to a clean, green economy, one milestone promises to be the most symbolically powerful. It's the one adopted as an official target by Google: renewable energy cheaper than coal, or RE<C. When it announced its campaign, Google also announced the recipients of its initial investments.

One was eSolar, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company spun off from business incubator Idealab. "Our view of what it takes to make solar power viable and a widespread technology," says Robert Rogan, eSolar's executive VP of corporate development, "is to be able to compete with fossil fuel energy prices in an unsubsidized way." Cheaper than coal per-kwh, without subsidies, by 2012: that's the aspiration.

How will they do it? The company has designed a new kind of utility-scale solar power plant. Solar thermal plants are huge arrays of mirrors that harness the sun's heat to drive steam turbines and create electricity. New solar thermal companies are thick on the ground in the California desert, but eSolar claims some distinct advantages.

eSolar's plants are designed to overcome some of the primary hurdles facing the solar sector, namely price, speed, and scalability. The core strategy is, as the company puts it, to replace "expensive steel, concrete, and brute force with inexpensive computing power and elegant algorithms." Rather than large, complex heliostats that must be precision-engineered on site by specialized laborers and equipment, they designed heliostats made of small, simple, prefabricated parts that can be cheaply shipped and quickly assembled, with minimal skilled labor. (Think Ikea.)

Because the heliostats are low to the ground, using lots of small, flat mirrors rather than a few large parabolic mirrors, they require far less steel and concrete to anchor them. Solar thermal heliostats can be up to 100 square meters, but eSolar's "are closer to a square meter," Rogan says. "They're really human-sized."

The Biggest Environmental Stories of the Year

Wow. That was something else. Green has gone from "dead" to ubiquitous in just a few short years, and it peaked with the crazy buzz of 2007, which kept us busy as bees -- ironically without the actual bees (see No. 15). Here you'll find a selection of the year's top 15 stories, biased toward the U.S. and ranked by a process about as scientific as a James Inhofe press release.

15. Bees buzz off

This year, bees started disappearing, and nobody could figure out why. If so-called "colony collapse disorder" doesn't freak you out, you aren't paying attention: every fruit, nut, and vegetable you've ever eaten traces its origin back to a little bee's tentacles. Is it a coincidence that small-scale, organic-minded beekeepers had better luck? Food writer extraordinaire Michael Pollan doesn't think so. When he Pollanated the story for The New York Times (ha ha! we know!), he pointed out that the bee disappearance is just one manifestation of the increasing industrialization of the food system. There will be others. [Ominous music swells.]

14. Climate skeptics step on rakes

Believe it or not, the hardy band of climate skeptics -- those who flat-out don't believe anthropocentric climate change is real -- is still out there, showing all the resilience of cockroaches. Led by their congressional champion Jumpin' James Inhofe, they fell on their faces over and over again this year, hyping statistically insignificant changes in temperature records, flogging long-discredited quasi-scientific theories, uncritically accepting random non-peer-reviewed studies from "medical researchers," grossly misrepresenting the ruling of a British judge, falling for painfully obvious hoax studies, demanding debate and then dodging it when it's offered, and on and on (and on). What once seemed such a threat to the republic now plays more like a Three Stooges routine. (Psst, guys, the new denial is delay, arguing that climate policy is too expensive. Catch up with your ideological buddies!)

13. Lead-tainted toys scare parents

Lead poisoning can damage reproductive and nervous systems, affect blood pressure, and diminish learning ability. In short, it can eff your kids up something fierce. So parents freaked out when millions of lead-tainted playthings were recalled in the fall. Everybody pointed fingers at China. Consumer advocates and the U.S. House pointed fingers at the shoddy safety standards of the U.S. Nobody pointed fingers at parents determined to buy the cheapest possible plastic gee-gaws at Wal-Mart (oops, except us, just then).

12. Ethanol bubbles with contradictions

On one hand, the ethanol hype ramped up to dizzying new heights this year, driven by subsidy-hungry agribiz, agribiz-friendly Midwest legislators, and, lamentably, credulous environmentalists. It crescendoed with the passage of the energy bill in December, which mandates 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, much like a little boy might close his eyes, furrow his brow, and mandate a rocketship for Christmas. On the other hand, the ethanol backlash gained momentum, as new research and skeptical greens revealed the limitations and unintended consequences of feeding our carbon sinks to our cars. Expect this to be the cat fight of 2008.

11. Courts thwart Bush

While everyone else stood around checking their watches to see if Bush was gone yet, the U.S. judicial system took to smacking his administration about the head and shoulders, ruling against it on greenhouse gases, power-plant pollution controls, endangered fish, hydroelectric dams [pauses for breath], forest management, "Healthy Forests," and Navy sonar. It's almost like judges believed the Bush administration was doing illegal stuff. Have they told Congress?

10. CFLs are all the rage

Energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs were a big, bright spot in 2007. They've been stuffed onto store shelves, made cheaper, given away for free, and, of course, adopted in homes around the world in place of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. The CFL has even been proposed as the official light bulb of Texas.

9. Local food gets hip

Just when you thought you had a handle on the organic thing, along comes local food, the newest savior of our sinning food system. Is it the key to sustainability or just the latest hype? All we know is you can't swing a dead cat in Brooklyn without hitting a new bistro that flaunts its locally grown ingredients -- and likely as not you'll hit a locavore too.

8. The year of Gore

In February, Al Gore won an Oscar (well, his movie did, anyway). In March, he testified to Congress about climate change. In May, he released a new book that became a New York Times bestseller. In July, he helped organize the biggest benefit concert ever to raise awareness of climate change. In September, he won an Emmy. In October, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In November, he won another Emmy and joined an esteemed venture-capital firm to advise it on green investments. And in December, he got LEED Gold green-building certification for his Tennessee home and played a key role in reviving international climate talks in Bali. Whew!

7. Scientists speak loud and clear

Climate scientists stepped out of the ivory tower this year and into the thick of the debate over what to do about global warming. More than 200 top climate scientists from around the world signed a petition demanding swift and decisive action against global warming, warning that "there is no time to lose." Pioneering climate sci-guy James Hansen began formally petitioning world leaders to place a moratorium on new coal plants. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel-winning IPCC, stated forthrightly that "I am not going to rest easy until I have articulated in every possible forum the need to bring about major structural changes in economic growth and development." When temperamentally cautious nerdlinger scientists start panicking in public, well, maybe it's time for the rest of us to start paying attention.

6. Green is the new green

While the coal and nuclear industries spent the year petitioning the government for handouts, people with their own money on the line flocked to the hottest investment since the internet: green tech. Where 2006 saw $1.2 billion dumped into the clean-tech sector, 2007 saw $2.6 billion in the first nine months alone. And speaking of the internet, the brains in Silicon Valley often led the way, with Yahoo! going carbon neutral and Google upping the ante by vowing to directly invest in making renewable energy cheaper than coal. You can tell where a culture is going by watching what its best and brightest gravitate toward -- and friends, it ain't coal.

5. Weather gets wacky

Who got hit with the worst weather of 2007? It's a tough contest. The Southeast, with its crippling drought? Southern California, with its wildfires? The Northwest, with its floods? The plains states, with their ice storms? Wow, when it rains it pours. It's almost like there's something shifting in the background, making extreme weather events more frequent ...

4. Media goes green

Green was the Britney Spears of the media universe in 2007: ubiquitous, occasionally ridiculous. Reams of glossy magazines did "green issues." NPR launched an in-depth, ongoing climate series. CNN did a big green documentary. NBC did a green week. Fox went green (really!). Sundance launched a green channel and so did Discovery, which also bought the green blog Treehugger for an estimated $10 million. A gazillion other eco-focused blogs and websites -- "newbies," as we call them -- came online, all seemingly offering the same Top Ten Tips for Greening Your Life With No Effort or Guilt At All, We Promise. Even Grist, laboring away in this space since 1999, got its moment in the sun, with features in Time, Newsweek, and on the Today show. Hell, we even wrote a book. Thanks for catching up, y'all!

3. A movement gets moving

This year, allegedly dead environmentalism rose like a phoenix from the ashes -- broader, more diverse, more entrepreneurial, more savvy, more passionate. Step It Up inspired more than 1,500 citizen climate protests all across the U.S. The Power Shift conference brought together and riled up more than 5,500 youth climate activists. Leaders like Van Jones and Majora Carter brought poverty, jobs, and justice groups into the clean-energy fold. Business and religious constituencies joined in. A new coalition called the Climate Action Network was formed to synchronize NGO lobbying and another called 1Sky sought to aggregate hundreds of voices and ideas into one coherent platform of solutions. For the first time, if you squinted just right, you saw not just a special-interest group but a bona fide movement -- a generation awakened.

2. U.S. politicians wake up

All of the major Democratic presidential candidates have hatched bold plans for fighting climate change -- Hillary Clinton and John Edwards even appeared at the first-ever forum entirely focused on the issue. Republican presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and John McCain emphasize the need to cut planet-warming emissions, while Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida are taking aggressive action to do just that. In the U.S. Senate, a climate bill sponsored by a Republican and an independent is moving forward, and Congress and President Bush just OK'd a law that will mandate higher efficiency in vehicles and buildings. The train is just barely nosing its way out of the station, but it appears that the American political class is finally on board.

1. A backlash against coal

Even as the power industry ramped up its lobbying efforts -- even deploying a squadron of Santas -- the tide began turning against coal. In February, the energy world was stunned by the massive leveraged buyout of TXU Corp. by a group of investors that pledged to scrap eight of 11 proposed coal-fired power plants in Texas. In October, the Kansas state government denied permits to two proposed coal plants, explicitly on the basis of their CO2 emissions -- a first. High-profile coal plants were also rejected in Florida, Washington, and at least eight other states. California told its utilities they can no longer sign or renew contracts for dirty coal power. Power giant PacifiCorp threw up its hands and said it was giving up on coal entirely. Guess word is spreading that coal is the enemy of the human race.

How Green Is Your Candidate?

All of the Democratic presidential candidates put energy independence and climate change among their top-tier issues. They all support carbon cap-and-trade systems of varying strengths. They all at least gesture at renewable energy and hybrid cars. Most support ethanol and "clean coal." The aggressiveness of their climate and energy plans rises inversely with their chances of winning -- the better the chances, the weaker the plan.

Here's a quick and dirty rundown of some of the Democratic contenders' stances. We'll add descriptions of Republicans and additional Democrats and make any updates as needed as the campaign season progresses. These descriptions of candidates' positions are not and should not be perceived as endorsements. Grist does not endorse political candidates.

Hillary Clinton dutifully toes the Democratic line on climate change and energy independence, seeing the former as a way to reach young people and the latter as a way to sound tough. She's been somewhat vague on the details. Her distinctive contribution is the notion of a "Strategic Energy Fund" financed by repealed tax breaks and royalties from oil companies. Where she mentions specific solutions, she tends to focus on "clean coal" and ethanol. She signed on to the Sanders-Boxer climate bill, the most ambitious climate bill in the Senate, but only in May, after Edwards had endorsed bold emissions targets. On these issues, Clinton is studious and solid, but not out front.

Barack Obama's take on energy and climate is, well, Obaman: the rhetoric is soaring and high-minded, the policy proposals consensus-seeking and incremental. With the exception of showy gimmicks like his "Healthcare for Hybrids" bill, he's largely been a follower, signing on to multiple cap-and-trade bills and copping Schwarzenegger's low-carbon fuel standard. His main splash in the energy world happened when he came out cheerleading for liquified coal, which coal barons (especially in his home state of Illinois) loved but plenty of other folks hated; he later "clarified" his way back to safety. On these issues, Obama is largely platitudinous and reserved.

John Edwards is running left. What mixture of genuine sentiment and political calculation is behind that strategy only he and Elizabeth know, but it's translated into far and away the strongest, most comprehensive climate and energy plan among the three front-runners. He's stumping for 80 percent cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, and fleshing that goal out with detailed proposals for a renewable portfolio standard, big boosts in fuel efficiency, changes to the energy grid and efficiency standards (the only front-runner to emphasize these), a green-jobs program, and more. On these issues, Edwards has done his homework and he's not trimming his sails.

Bill Richardson wants to be the "energy president" and the plan he's put forward is a humdinger. He wants to cut oil demand 50 percent by 2020, cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2040, and generate 50 percent of U.S. energy from renewables by 2040. Though he kisses ethanol butt in speeches, like all the candidates, there's nothing specifically about ethanol in his plan, nor about nuclear power (a subject with which he has a complicated history). At least on paper, his plan calls for straight-up renewables and efficiency, aggressively pursued. On these issues, Richardson has an appropriate sense of urgency.

Chris Dodd's climate and energy plan has largely been overlooked, much like, um, Chris Dodd. But if anything, it's more ambitious than even Richardson's. It's got similar aggressive targets, plus an item only Dodd has had the stones (or lack of anything to lose) to endorse: a corporate carbon tax. The revenue from the tax would be put in a fund devoted to renewables and efficiency. There's also a ban on new coal plants with no carbon sequestration (a bold plank he shares with Edwards), good stuff about public transit, hybrid cars, and green buildings, and much more. On these issues, Dodd is forward-thinking and aggressive.

Dennis Kucinich has long supported restructuring the electric power industry, and he backs instituting a 20-percent-by-2020 renewable portfolio standard. He would institute a Global Green Deal to share cheap renewable-energy technology with developing countries, cut off subsidies to dirty energy companies, vastly increase public investment in clean energy, and institute a Works Green Administration (modeled on FDR's WPA) that would put young people to work retrofitting buildings for wind, solar, and efficiency. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- these ambitious plans, he is not taken seriously as a viable presidential candidate by anyone but his core band of supporters, who take him very, very seriously indeed.

Joe Biden has a fairly reliable Democratic voting record on environmental issues, but hasn't shown much indication that climate and energy are animating passions. His tough talk on energy security manifests, for the most part, in lamentably enthusiastic support for biofuels. Like Clinton and Obama, he signed on to the Sanders-Boxer cap-and-trade bill when it became the safe thing to do. He also supports a new round of international negotiations on climate change. He's not an obstruction on climate and energy, but he's not particularly distinguished either.

The Revolution Will Be Solarized

Solar power has been the Next Big Thing for decades now, yet it remains a niche player in the energy world. The problem of intermittency is unsolved, up-front capital costs remain high, and surging demand for polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, has recently outstripped supply, stifling production.

So when someone claims that within decades solar photovoltaic technology will come to dominate the world's energy portfolio -- with or without subsidies, with or without rising fossil-fuel prices, with or without new environmental legislation -- one could be forgiven a degree of skepticism.

But Travis Bradford is no hippie idealist. The author of Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry spent the early years of his career in corporate acquisitions and private equity funds -- not fields that reward irrational exuberance. His book is based on research and analyses done at his Massachusetts think tank, the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, working from what he claims are conservative assumptions about market and capital trends.

Those trends, he says, are inexorable: Just as revolutions have transformed the information and communication sectors, solar power will break the hold of sclerotic, centralized power companies.

Roberts: Your book's central claim is pretty bold.

Bradford: Thanks for recognizing that.

It's not just that we're moving toward alternatives, it's that we're moving toward distributed [power generation] as well. If both of those are true, solar is the only viable option.

Solar is different from other energy technologies in that it delivers energy at the point of use, directly to the end user. That allows it to circumvent the entire supply chain. It's not another option for a utility, it's a competitor to a utility -- the first time utilities have really had a competitor.

The best way to describe it is with an anecdote about cell phones. We used to have these monopoly telephone infrastructure players. They controlled everything, and they had all the processing power at central switching stations. You had these dummy terminals that you just picked up; you had a connection, but no brains. All the brains were in the center of the network. And then these cell-phone producers came along and, in the Telecommunications Act of '96, were given access to the telephone grid. They began to go completely around the supply chain and offer competing services to the same customers, wireless and easier. The telephone utilities ... first they ignored it, then they tried to fight it legislatively, and when they lost that they tried to fight it economically. Eventually they just decided, screw it, we're going to buy them. Today those are the most profitable parts of their business. That's the transformation.

This also happened in computers. We went from large, centralized mainframes with dummy terminals to a distributed hybrid architecture.

Solar is slowly going to begin to unwind the existing utility economics, to the point where utilities decide they have to get in or they risk losing their core business -- exactly the transformations we've lived through in the last 20 years.

The solar revolution does not require new breakthroughs in technology. You could do it with the technology we have, scaling it up and learning how to do it incrementally better every year -- which is what naturally happens with scale.

Roberts: Solar is mainly used for electricity, which represents just over a third of energy use. How do you account for transportation fuels?

Bradford: We'll never solve the problem of transportation until we reconnect the transportation and electricity infrastructures. There's not enough liquid fuels.

I'm not a big fan of biofuels -- on close examination their environmental impact is wretched. What it does is export part of our energy price for transportation through the grocery store, right? We end up subsidizing the cost of our transportation infrastructure in the price of food stocks. Biofuels will solve some problems, but at the end of the day there's not enough land in the entire Mississippi River Valley to meet our transportation needs. And then where would we get food from? There's cellulosic, but that's only another 10 percent.

There are real capacity constraints in any transportation-fuel option until we reconnect it with the electricity infrastructure. You do that either with plug-in hybrids or with electrolyzed hydrogen. My guess is that batteries will be better for transportation purposes, and electrolyzed hydrogen for stationary applications, because fuel cells on site are much easier to make than fuel cells with the thrust needed in automobiles.

Other than industrial processes, we use thermal applications in heating and hot water. There are electric analogs to both of them. We can have electric hot water heaters just as easily as gas hot water heaters. We can have electric home heating. Historically it was believed that thermal applications were about a third the price of electricity-based heating applications, but that was based on $2 per thousand cubic-foot natural gas and whatever the prevailing price of electricity was. These have come a whole lot more in parity, and in a lot of places in the world, electric heat's the way they go.

Everything has to reconnect. The infrastructures that separated -- first at the beginning of the century, and again in the middle of the century for natural-gas infrastructure -- have to reconnect. And we'll need a lot more electricity to drive that.

Roberts: A lot more. What do you do about coal?

Bradford: Coal is the enemy of the human race.

Roberts: There's my pull quote. Do you think solar's going to beat coal?

Bradford: Solar's going to change the electricity infrastructure in a way that will make coal unnecessary. This distributed architecture is going to get to the point where wind and geothermal, where available, take over a lot of the baseload needs; solar will meet a lot of the peak needs, and some of the base needs during the day. The combination of these portfolios will make coal irrelevant. Wind and thermal are nearly as cheap as coal, if not cheaper, and coal still enjoys tremendous subsidies. Under certain circumstances nuclear power would be OK, but I highly doubt those circumstances can be met.

Solar is a universal system available inversely with the wealth of the nation. The richest countries have less and the poorest countries have more.

Roberts: What about areas that get little sunlight -- like, say, Seattle?

Bradford: The sun is shining, just not as brightly here as it is in the desert. Seattle gets about half the sun of Los Angeles, for instance.

Historically, the cost of solar drops about 5 to 6 percent per annum, just based on the volume of growth and natural learning. If that continues -- and I use even more conservative estimates than that, showing the learning rates slow down a little bit -- you get to the point that solar in Seattle is cost-effective 10 years later than solar in Los Angeles. Ten years is not a very long time in terms of energy infrastructure. It's the blink of an eye, when you're thinking about planning and zoning.

Solar's taking off right now in Germany and Japan, which have as little sun as Seattle. It's taken off because of some good political will; they've ended up subsidizing renewables as much as they've subsidized existing fossil-fuels infrastructure. They've leveled the playing field a little bit better than we have.

Solar's not going to be the only solution. It's going to be part -- a surprisingly large part -- of a portfolio of solutions. Its limits are not a problem we're going to have to deal with for at least two or three decades. By the time we reach a point where solar's problems might be binding, we'll already have a set of options to deal with them -- storage solutions will be three decades ahead. By that time we're generating a quarter of our energy on solar anyway.

Roberts: A good problem to have.

Bradford: Exactly.

Roberts: It's always the supply side that gets press and attention, but utilities and utility regulations are a bottleneck. What's going to happen grid-wise?

Bradford: Deregulation has allowed utilities to squeeze their spare capacity. They've been able to reconfigure assets and put off upgrading their infrastructure. The grid today is deeply underinvested in. So it's getting frailer -- that's what the blackout in Brooklyn this summer was all about. The upgrades are too expensive; they can't afford it under the current rate structures.

The grid infrastructure is problematic, but distributed solutions help solve that. The utilities have already been moving toward distributed natural-gas plants. Solar provides a great alternative for utilities that don't want to invest in line extensions and upgrades. Ultimately utility providers are going to figure out that they want this hybrid infrastructure. They'll get to a point where they're participating in and pushing the process rather than ignoring or resisting it.

I've talked to a number of senior managers and board members at utilities around the country. One of them -- a board member of a Northeastern utility -- said to me, "We don't know what to do, but the writing's on the wall, and the conversation is occurring at the board level at every utility around the country: How do we migrate our systems to a renewable, distributed system?" The conversations are being had, but these are slow-moving entities.

Roberts: Bush's Asia-Pacific climate pact is a trade deal to facilitate U.S. nuclear and coal industries selling their older technologies in the developing world. There's a rush to build up traditional electricity infrastructure in the developing world. Will it succeed?

Bradford: They're going to be successful in some places. But the reality is that grid infrastructures are not economic in low-density, low-income nations. If they were anywhere close to economic they would have been built already. You'll have integrated policy environments like China, where they've got 96 percent grid electrification and lots of coal. But in the vast majority of the under-electrified or non-electrified countries, solar's already the cheapest option.

Roberts: It's frequently said that the U.S. is falling behind in 21st-century energy industries. Is it true?

Bradford: I often claim that we are in danger of trading our addiction to Middle Eastern oil and Russian natural gas for an addiction to Chinese polysilicon and solar cells. That is a risk.

But if you look at where the materials come from for the solar industry today, while a lot of the cells are made in Germany and Japan and a few in China, a majority of the silicon they use comes from the United States. We're shipping them the feed stocks, and we're making a tremendous amount of money doing it. That's where all the profit is in the supply chain right now, because of the shortage.

The U.S. has lost the glamorous parts of the supply chain. But the profitable and the potentially path-breaking parts like thin-film solar are still here. If we don't get in the game, those will go away, too. We are at risk of losing those, but right now we actually have a pretty strong position, at least in solar.

Roberts: Are you a "crash and contraction are inevitable" environmentalist or an Amory Lovins-style techno-optimist?

Bradford: I am definitely in the latter family. The way I characterize those two schools of thought are the defense school and the offense school. The defense school is filling the sandbags -- they think we have passed the point of no return, so their strategies to cope are defense-based strategies. My deepest concern is that the defense crowd is right. But I'm not ready to play defense yet.

If we're going to solve the problem, the solar revolution is a necessary and significant component of the solution.

Roberts: If.

Bradford: We all live with what we believe to be true and what we fear to be true.

Roberts: Will the decentralization of power production be accompanied by a decentralization of political power?

Bradford: Solar power is empowering. All things being equal, people like to control the resources upon which they rely. That's why I spend time thinking about solar technologies rather than centralized, easily controlled technologies. At the end of the day, sustainability includes distributed power and democratization.

Field of Nightmares

Over the past year, a perfect storm of scientific studies, dire weather events, and media coverage lifted global warming onto the mainstream national agenda. No writing had more impact than a series of closely observed pieces in The New Yorker by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, which have now been collected and expanded into a book: Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.

While most writing on climate change has relied on dry data and statistics, Kolbert's is vivid, technicolor reportage. She went on expeditions with some of the world's top climate scientists to Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska to witness the ongoing devastation firsthand. And she ventured to Washington, D.C. -- one place that's not changing quickly.

Though her writing is never hectoring or overtly ideological, what she found left her deeply alarmed. The book ends with these chilling words: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

I met with Kolbert just before she gave a presentation on climate change to several hundred people at Seattle's Town Hall. She professed an aversion to public speaking, and with her wiry, nervous energy, she did seem more suited to on-the-ground reporting. But as we talked, it was easy to see the passion and concern that has pushed this New York City journalist into the unlikely role of global-warming evangelist.

David Roberts: Tell me about your experiences with the scientific community. Why has the one group of people that's really taken climate change to heart not been able to break through the public's apathy?

Elizabeth Kolbert: The norms of science are such that they work against communicating alarm to the public. If you read [scientific] papers on global warming, or generally just talk to these guys, they will tell you, for instance, that discharge of ice into the Atlantic has doubled; but they will never say what the implications of this are -- why this is, you know, horrifyingly dangerous. Scientists speak a certain language, they tend to speak mainly to each other, and the norms are such that you're never supposed to go beyond the data. Their attitude is that the data speaks for itself.

Unfortunately, most people don't find those data very compelling. They don't know what the implications are. So you have one community speaking to itself and getting increasingly alarmed, and the rest of the world saying, well, the scientists haven't really figured it out yet.

And I would add that the norms of journalism also work against communicating this. So when you add those two together, you're in deep doo-doo.

DR: Complaints about the "he-said, she-said" school of climate journalism are common. As someone who's seen the inside of The New York Times and The New Yorker, can you explain where it comes from? Surely reporters hear this constant litany of complaints about it. What enforces it?

EK: On one hand there is a very, very clever campaign to turn this into a political issue, as opposed to a purely scientific issue. And I suppose there were once enough halfway credible people making the case against warming that journalists felt they had to go to them.

My hope is that you'll see that less and less. I think the message is getting out there that this is not a two-sided issue. Naomi Oreskes did a paper looking at the scientific literature, and there just is no debate. I hope that phenomenon will taper off, but it hasn't ended. I read the papers like everyone else, and I still see quotes from these thoroughly discredited people, and I honestly don't understand it myself at this point.

DR: Why do you think there's this immense disconnect between the information available and the level of public outrage?

EK: I grappled with that question, and I still do. Eventually I came to think there are three major reasons.

One is catastrophe overload. The end of the world has been going to come several times, and we're all still here. So it's: "Wake me up when the real end of the world is coming."

Then there's: "If this were really as bad as you say, I would feel it by now. There'd be water lapping at my first-floor windows." The problem is that the climate operates on a very long time lag, so if you wait until there's water lapping at your first-floor windows, you can be sure there's going to be water lapping at your second-floor windows. I don't think the message has gotten out: changes 30 or 40 years from now are already inevitable. There is warming in the pipeline already.

And then there is this question of what to do. People don't like to confront problems they don't have a clear answer to. And the answers here -- to the extent there are answers -- are very, very complicated. They're very hard. We know what causes people to be overweight, and we can't even stop that! And with global warming it's not as simple as "eat less, lose weight." It's "do a million things." As the mayor of Burlington, Vt., said to me, there's not one thing we have to do; there are hundreds and hundreds of things we have to do. And we have to do them on a global scale.

So that's pretty daunting to people. It's very much easier to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

DR: Do you think a Kerry/Edwards administration would have done substantially different things?

EK: The frightening thing is that we're in such a bad situation now, so many people in Congress have dug in their heels, I don't think anyone could say a Kerry/Edwards victory would have radically altered our path.

On the contrary, some people take a sort of "Nixon goes to China" attitude: if there's one person who could do something about this, it's George W. Bush.

DR: What did you think of the energy section of the State of the Union speech -- the "oil addiction" phrase? Not exactly "Nixon goes to China," but perhaps "Nixon acknowledges China's existence."

EK: "Nixon goes to Chinatown."

DR: [Laughs.]

EK: I thought they were nothing. It's nice to say we're addicted to foreign oil -- and we are -- but oil's only part of the problem. We're addicted to coal, too.

It's one thing to point out the problem, but it's a totally different one to find a solution. People were looking for it; he could have easily done it. He could have said, "We need to conserve, and we need to find new carbon-free sources of energy, and here's 20 or 30 billion dollars to start doing it." He didn't do that. Since he didn't put any money behind it, I don't think anyone can take it terribly seriously. That's how Washington works: No money, no commitment.

DR: Do you think hard carbon-emission limits are inevitable? Are they the only real sign we're taking it seriously?

EK: I do think they're inevitable. George Bush, in his heart of hearts, probably thinks they're inevitable. Christie Whitman told me they're inevitable. Everybody knows they're inevitable. The only question is how much damage we do between now and then. Unfortunately, the answer could be a tremendous amount.

Is that the only sign of commitment? Yes. Reducing "greenhouse-gas intensity," which is what we're doing now ... you know, the atmosphere doesn't care about greenhouse-gas intensity. It only cares about aggregate emissions.

DR: There's some feeling on the right that the left is using global warming to achieve ulterior ends: slowing economic progress, redistributing wealth, etc.

EK: You do find people who say the whole thing is a big lefty plot to destroy our way of life. I don't know how you respond to that.

It's very striking: When I went to Europe, I talked to the Dutch minister for the environment. In this country he would have been considered far left. He was a member of the Center Right party. His views were: obviously the industrialized world is going to have to cut its carbon emissions way, way down. The developing world is going to be using a lot more carbon, and how could we say they can't? After all, our own wealth is based on that.

You thought you were talking to a member of Greenpeace, but you were talking to a member of the Center Right ruling party in the Netherlands.

The politics are just so different over there. We have a level of political discourse here that's considered by a lot of the world to be just ... wacky.

DR: Hard to argue with that. Do you think international pressure is having any effect on this government? Or that it might be having the opposite of the intended effect?

EK: I think it's having no effect. The one moment you thought they might have to throw a little bone was the G8 last year, where Tony Blair, who had risked so much for this crew, was asking them to do something. And they did nothing.

On the other hand, I think the inverse is true as well: The fact that the U.S. has been so absurd on this issue -- so criminally negligent -- has made the Europeans ... there are a lot of people who say if George Bush hadn't withdrawn from Kyoto, Kyoto never would have been ratified. The Europeans were content to shuffle along indefinitely, but when he actually pulled the plug and said, "We're not participating," they stepped up to the plate and said, "We're going to do it." So in a weird sort of way his recalcitrance has unified them, and now they're committed to that path.

DR: On the flip side, do you think the bottom-up pressure that seems to be building is going to do the trick?

EK: I do think it's having an effect. There are some bills supposed to surface in Congress, and there's a sense that some Republicans who had opposed them might sign on to them. They're very watered-down things, but there's some movement. I think it's a combination of having taken 10 or 15 minutes to actually look at the science, and hearing from constituents.

Some of the religious groups are in there now; some of the business groups are in there now -- really, business is ahead of the Congress at this point. People these guys trust, and rely on, and who have always been supportive, are telling them we've got to do something. There might be something percolating up.

DR: What's your assessment of the state of the climate-contrarian industry?

EK: It's in deep, deep trouble. Even companies like Exxon, who had been big contributors, don't want to be seen anymore financing these things. They're all running ads about reducing their carbon emissions. They don't want the money trail to be traced to some of these wackos anymore.

DR: So you think overt, socially acceptable climate denial is dead?

EK: It's been reduced to guys you can count on one hand.

DR: One of your recent New Yorker pieces was about the evolution of contrarian arguments. What's the 2006 model?

EK: If you read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you know where things are headed.

The new argument is: yes, there's more CO2 in the atmosphere, maybe it's global warming maybe it's not, but it really doesn't matter, because all these problems -- drought, flooding, hunger, starvation -- are the same old problems of poverty and natural disaster. We should just address those directly; we shouldn't spend all this money trying to reduce carbon emissions, because we could just funnel the money directly to the latest flood victims.

That argument sounds good in the very, very short term perhaps, but [global warming] doesn't stop. You're going to have a perpetually changing climate. It's actually kind of surprising to me, given the close nexus between this administration and the defense community: this has the potential to be so geopolitically destabilizing, you would think some of those guys would latch onto it as the next source of real turmoil in the world.

DR: Climate change is such a distant, abstract issue, so slow-moving, with such a time lag, it's hard even for people who have an intellectual grasp of it to feel it viscerally. Has it gotten to your gut yet?

EK: It has. It takes over your life, and it's not a happy development.

DR: You have kids, right?

EK: I have kids. And I have a hard time imagining their futures. That is very painful.

But even for me, do I imagine absolute disaster for the world during the course of their lifetimes? I'm not sure I do. I hold out hope we will avert that.

It's a heavy number as a parent. And it's a heavy number for kids. Kids are increasingly aware of it; my kids certainly are. It hangs over them. Of course, when I was growing up the threat of nuclear war hung over us. I suppose it's been a while since kids have grown up in a carefree world.

DR: There's a dilemma of sorts: scientists feel uncomfortable with advocacy, journalists feel uncomfortable with advocacy, and advocates are ignored. Environmental groups have been marginalized, stereotyped as Chicken Littles.

EK: We are absolutely crying out for political leadership.

But look at John McCain, somebody who has been pretty upfront on this issue. You can't say he's really been listened to. Arnold Schwarzenegger is out there sounding the alarm.

So what do we need? I really don't know. We need someone in a position of national leadership, [Sen.] James Inhofe [R-Okla.] or somebody, to stand up and say, "I have seen the light, I am convinced we need to do something." As I say, George Bush could have been that person.

DR: One often hears -- at least inside environmentalism -- that things won't change on global warming until there is a something like a spiritual change, recapturing the values of mutual care and so on. I can't decide whether that's more or less depressing than the lack of a technical solution.

EK: [Laughs.] I completely agree.

One guy in the book who I admire, he's very smart and sober-minded -- Dave Hawkins at NRDC -- gets up every day and thinks he's going to convince the Chinese and the Americans not to emit CO2. And you have to admire that. Is he kidding himself? I don't know. But thank God someone is doing that.

A Not-So-Fond Farewell

Lee, we barely knew ye.

Oh, wait, yes we did.

"You either retire or die and I'd just as soon not die," you said recently, and then yesterday announced your imminent exit as chair and CEO of ExxonMobil after more than 40 years with the oil behemoth.

We'd just as soon not die either, Mr. Raymond, but anticipate we all will, so on the occasion of your retirement we offer this modest encomium to your many accomplishments.

What impresses above all is your consistency. You joined Exxon in 1963, and no matter what challenges you faced -- being promoted to president in 1987, chair/CEO in 1993, and chair/CEO of the merged ExxonMobil in 1999; presiding over record-high oil prices and company profits; being compensated to the tune of $42 million in 2005 -- you remained true-blue to the company that took you in as a homeless young chemical engineer with nothing to your name but the clothes on your back and a dream of world domination.

You have remained like unto a mighty rock, unswayed by passing fads and fashions.

When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker dumped around 11 million gallons of crude on Prince William Sound, then-CEO Lawrence Rawl said he was "too busy" to visit the site.

But not you! You, then president, took over the company's response. When a court demanded Exxon pay $4.5 billion to the Valdez victims bellyachers, you put money aside while you fought the judgment in court. Meanwhile, that money makes on the order of $800 million a year in interest. That's serious ROI! Sixteen years later you still haven't double hulled your Alaskan tankers, and really, why would you?

When fair-weather friends BP and ConocoPhillips dropped out of Arctic Power, the lobbying group you spearheaded to push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife, ahem, the "Opportunity Refuge" -- perhaps swayed by radical lefty arguments that extracting oil from the refuge would involve a barely recoupable investment and have negligible impact on U.S. foreign-oil dependence -- you stood fast.

Let other corporations kowtow to overwhelming public sentiment; you understand that the continued existence of a piece of undrilled land is an offense to America. Is drilling what we do or is it not? Exactly.

Consistency has also guided you on the subject of global warming; snuggling up to the global fire with a nice cup of cocoa. One by one, your inferiors have fled to the alleged mainstream scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are causing atmospheric havoc.

But as you said, "the mainstream of some so-called environmentalists or politically correct Europeans isn't the mainstream of all scientists or the White House."

Oh, wait, we're getting a bulletin ... one sec ... OK, looks like you lost the White House.

But you're right about "all scientists" -- there are some scientists certain that rising carbon-dioxide levels are peachy. You probably recognize them from your payroll (and speaking of your payroll -- a big welcome to Philip Cooney!).

Finally, of course, your integrity on the subject of clean renewable li'l energy technologies is impeccable. While competitors like BP plow money into solar and wind research, you rely on wisdom that's had some time to ferment: "We're resting our views on the conclusions we came to in 1980, that they're uneconomic."

You've had to weather some rough treatment from the little people here and there, but you've made ExxonMobil the world's largest company, in 2000 posting the highest one-year profit ever by a corporation. In that position of great symbolic significance, it's doubly admirable that you've maintained strict discipline on the Giving Back side of the ledger.

"We don't invest to make social statements at the expense of shareholder return," you said.

Well goodness no. That would be inconsistent.

So here's to you, Mr. Raymond! Or rather, here's to your retirement. Huzzah.

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