Joseph Romm

New House Science Committee Chair Ralph Hall Threatens to Subpoena Climate Scientists

As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out – all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week – that was tremendous to me. That we could deliver that kind of energy out there – even on an explosion.

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Why You Should Come to the Largest Climate Rally Ever on the DC Mall April 25

Earth Day Network is organizing a huge event on the Mall in Washington DC on April 25. The goal is to demand tough, effective climate legislation and a swift transition away from 19th century energy sources.

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Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?

We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking that got us into this bind will not get us out. When Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, asked energy guru Amory Lovins about thinking outside the box, Lovins responded: "There is no box."

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Why Do Conservatives Hate Your Children?

Fundamentally, anti-science conservatives are now the cement shoes on the American people, pulling us down into the hot, acidic dead zone. If that wasn't clear before (see "Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh"), House Republicans codified their opposition to climate action this week.

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Why the Global Economy Is a Ponzi Scheme and We Are All Bernie Madoffs

Yes, homo “sapiens” sapiens have constructed the grandest of Ponzi schemes, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations. Yes, we are all in essence Madoffs (many wittingly, most not) or at least his most credulous clients. What comes next will be the subject of a multipart series.

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Top 5 Reasons Steven Chu is a Great Energy Pick

Obama will formally name Steven Chu his nominee for energy secretary at a press conference this afternoon. Here's the top 5 reasons he is one of the best cabinet picks in recent memory:

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Is Australia Making Its Drought Worse by Turning to Desalination Plants for Water?

Our never-ending quest to identify all the amplifying climate feedbacks takes us back to Australia:

THE worst drought in a century, especially in Australia's most populated and fastest growing regions, has forced state governments to make expensive, and in some quarters unpopular, decisions to secure water supply.

As rainfall dwindles, new dams are a less-than-promising prospect, so governments have looked to the boundless resource surrounding us -- the sea -- for an answer. Their solution: desalination....

The Bureau of Meteorology, in its annual climate statement for 2007, "warns of a drying trend in the decades ahead." I noted last year that one Australian newspaper reported

... drought will become a redundant term as Australia plans for a permanently drier future, according to the nation's urban water industries chief.... "The urban water industry has decided the inflows of the past will never return," Water Services Association of Australia executive director Ross Young said.

People, however, need water. And even though many Australian kids now "use timers to take two minute showers, and collect the water in buckets so it can be re-used in the garden"(see "What climate change drives behavior change"), conservation is not enough for some:

Four states -- Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and NSW -- either have working desalination plants or are planning to build them. Opponents say that producing the large amount of electricity required to run a desalination plant hastens climate change, which may be the culprit behind Australia's drying trend. The scientific jury is still out.

Actually, I don't think you'll actually find very many climate scientists who believe the jury is out on whether human-caused climate change is a major contributor to Australia's drying trend -- since the expansion of the subtropical deserts is in fact a major prediction of climate change (see here, page 10-11).

THE FEEDBACK: Greenhouse gases cause climate change that increases drought and water shortages, which in turn drives countries to desalination, which in turn generates more greenhouse gases -- a classic amplifying feedback. A classic amplifying feedback unless, of course, you do the desalination with renewable power:

Some governments have countered or appeased those arguments by building wind farms to offset the power needs of their desalination plants. In Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh has challenged energy companies to come up with the best way to power a planned desal plant at Tugun on the Gold Coast using only renewable sources.

She said recently: "I want industry to come to us with their best ideas -- it could be solar or wind-generated power for example, it could be carbon offsetting, or it could be a combination. Making the plant carbon neutral will save 207,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year -- which is equivalent to emissions from 46,000 cars."

Western Australia was first off the mark with a large-scale plant. Its Kwinana plant opened in November 2007. Now it provides about 45 gigalitres of water per year, about 17 per cent of Perth' s needs. It is powered by a wind farm at Emu Downs, although the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently found that statements by the Perth Water Corporation that the plant was carbon neutral were misleading, and told it not to make similar claims in the future. The corporation is now calling for tenders for a new plant at Binningup, 155km south of Perth.

Gosh, claims of carbon neutrality that were misleading -- who ever would have guessed? (see "CCX sells rip-offsets: "It seemed a little suspicious that we could get money for doing nothing"")

Victoria is building a plant at Wonthaggi in Gippsland which will supply about 150 billion litres a year, roughly one third of Melbourne's water. The Victorian Government says it has already included the price of using renewable energy into the cost of the project.

Sydney's desalination plant is being built at Kurnell on Botany Bay. The state government hopes to have it pumping 90 gigalitres of potable water per year from late 2009. To offset the power needs the state is building, with a private partner, a wind farm at Bungendore, east of Canberra. The 63-turbine farm is projected to have a capacity of 132 megawatts, about eight times greater than NSW's existing installed and accredited wind power.

Stung by public criticism of the plant's power needs, the state government says that renewable energy certificates earned from the wind farm will provide clear public evidence that the desalination plant is powered by 100 per cent renewable energy.

Running desalination plants on wind power is a start. But the future is using concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) for desal, see for instance, here and here. Given that Australia is one of the leaders in solar baseload, I suspect this will be their strategy once CSP becomes standardized over the next few years -- assuming people figure out what to do with the "super-salty brine" left over from desal:

Not everyone is happy with desalination. Community groups have sprung up in each state where a plant is planned to oppose them on environmental and finance grounds.

In South Australia, the Save Our Gulf Coalition says the planned plant at Port Stanvac presents many problems. Coalition chairman Peter Laffan says for one, the site is a contaminated former oil refinery.

"Our chief concern is the brine in the Gulf St Vincent because it is very slow moving water and we have unusual phenomena in dodge tides; every two weeks there is no tidal movements for a day or so."

That, together with the fact that flushing takes three to six months, means there is a significant threat that the brine will not disperse. Laffan says brine builds up in low-oxygen slugs that can create "dead" zones.

That's all we need -- more hot, acidic, and now salty coastal dead zones in a globally warmed future (see "The Dead Zone"). Such are the pitfalls of adaptation/desalination.

Maybe we should focus harder on prevention -- after all, it's going to take all the wind and solar (and other forms of carbon free energy) we can imagine just to avert mass desertification in the first place (see "Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution").

Why Bail Out the Car Companies When They Bailed Out on Us?

I have a new Salon article, "Is Detroit worth saving?" It is built around my Monday piece here, but I have expanded on the sad story of the Big Three Medium Two walking away from the development of hybrid gas-electric vehicles in the 1990s.

I've been asked why I think they did give up on hybrids. The answer, I believe, is a very cynical one. If they had successfully demonstrated hybrids were practical, heck even desirable, cars, as Toyota later did, then they would no longer be able to lobby against fuel economy standards by claiming CAFE would drive Americans into smaller, foreign-made, fuel-efficient cars. Ironically and inevitably, of course, $4 gasoline did that anyway.

But Detroit has not only been suicidally lobbying against its own inescapable future of highly fuel-efficient cars -- it has been lobbying against the future of all Americans who want to end our oil addiction, and against the future of all humans who want to preserve the health and well-being of our planet for future generations.

If you want to take a step to help ensure that the bailout has real restrictions and doesn't just shovel money to greedy, myopic companies who will continue their four-year-long assault on regulations of CO2 tailpipe emissions by California and other states, then go to to send an email urging that the bailout restrictions be supported by their members of Congress and the transition team of President-Elect Barack Obama.

The press release of the new group explains what is at stake:

A total of 15 states have adopted regulations requiring automobile manufacturers to reduce significantly the greenhouse gas emissions of their cars and lights trucks. Under the uniform set of regulations adopted by these states, automobile manufacturers must reduce new vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by thirty percent over 2002 levels. The reductions are phased in over model years 2009 through 2016.

The regulations now under legal assault are all authorized by the "Pavley law," a California state law enacted in 2002. The Pavley law authorizes the California Air Resources Board to regulate greenhouse gases from passenger vehicles. Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is entitled to set more stringent pollution regulations on motor vehicles than the federal Environmental Protection Agency so long as California receives a waiver from EPA. The federal law also allows any other state to adopt California's more stringent motor vehicle regulations. This regime ensures that there can only be two kinds of cars: federal cars and California cars, thus easing the burden on manufacturers.

The U.S. automobile industry has been waging a four-year legal battle against state emission standards. They prevailed upon the Bush EPA to deny California a Clean Air Act waiver in a decision that was contradicted by the analysis of EPA's own staff. This denial will be reversed one way or another: California has sued EPA to obtain the waiver and, like other states, is faring well in court. President-Elect Obama also has promised to reverse the EPA waiver denial.

California has adopted regulations under the Pavley law requiring significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions from new cars. At total of 14 other states have now adopted a set of identical rules for their states. It is estimated that 45 percent of the U.S. population lives in these 15 states. In 2016, when the regulations are fully phased in, the state regulations will avoid over 22 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year. A next phase of regulations is already in the works that will increase this savings to more than 36 million metric tons per year by 2020. These greenhouse gas emissions reductions are over and above the incidental greenhouse gas benefits expected from fuel economy law enacted last year requiring 35 mpg by 2020.

Make no mistake. The Pavley targets would be tough for the auto companies to met, primarily because they have fought the Law for four years rather than aggressively developing the necessary hybrid vehicles to meet it across their model line. So if the Medium Two actually use the $25 billion Congress authorized in September for retooling their factories to make fuel-efficient cars, then that money will be going to good use.
The combination of much higher gasoline prices and growing desperation about global warming mean the cars that will be selling here and around the globe in 2015 and beyond will be much more fuel-efficient than the existing fleet.

If the car companies won't build the cars themselves and won't be pushed by Congress, then bankruptcy may be the best alternative. After all, the potential risks the bankruptcy of Detroit poses pale in comparison with the all-but-certain risks of continuing on our path of ever greater oil consumption and ever greater greenhouse gas emissions.

Hill Dems Blow It for Obama with Energy Bill

Both The Hill and have reported that a bipartisan "gang" of 20 Senators will not introduce a compromise energy bill before the election. You can read details of the original compromise here: The Gang-of-10 drilling deal is something for nothing.

This is a huge triumph for McCain and major political blunder by Congressional Democrats. The original energy compromise was, I argued, "the best chance -- indeed, the only chance -- the Dems will have to simultaneously give the lie to McCain's faux bipartisanship and to expose the Big Energy Lie, the absurd notion that McCain and the Republicans believe in an all-of-the-above energy for dealing with our energy crises" (see "Gang-of-10 deal is a must for Dems").

Frankly, it was bewildering that Lindsey Graham was part of the original Gang in the first place, given how much a genuine compromise that benefited the entire nation was against the narrow political interests of his close friend from Arizona. It was even more bewildering that House and Senate Dems didn't immediately pick up this bill and vote on it given that it contained the least amount of coastal drilling imaginable while at the same time providing more long-term support for renewables than the House Dems just voted for. You can find details on the House bill here.

Now, whatever energy bill Senate Democrats come up with, McCain and his allies can claim that it is just a partisan Democratic bill, just as the House GOP stood on the House floor and bitterly opposed Pelosi's bill (see "How is the House GOP's behavior last night different from my 19-month-old daughter's"). got duped into pushing what will no doubt be the standard GOP line, that ...

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Why Biden Is Such an Important Pick for the Climate

Catastrophic climate change is the primary preventable threat to the health and well-being of all Americans -- as readers of this blog already understand and as pretty much everyone else will figure out in the coming years. Keeping total planetary warming as low as possible -- ideally below 2 degrees C, which it turn requires keeping atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 ppm -- will become the central organizing principle for all US energy, environmental, economic, and international policy over the next two decades, and will almost certainly remain so for the next two centuries.

While this is a long-term problem, "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment," as IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri warned last fall. Beating 450 ppm is certainly not politically possible now, as I have argued in a long ongoing series (see "Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution" for all the links). Indeed, the recent climate debate in the Senate makes it painfully clear that conservatives are prepared to go down with the climate ship (see "Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us"). The current oil drilling 'debate' only underscores how hopeless the climate situation is until progressives occupy the White House (see "Will the GOP's cynical lies destroy the chance for serious energy and climate policy?"

That said, the next president is almost certainly going to pass some sort of climate legislation establishing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that kicks in around 2015. Again, it won't be easy to pass a serious bill -- certainly McCain can't possibly do it (see "No climate for old men: Why John McCain isn't the candidate to stop global warming"). But if we had a president who was capable of truly inspiring people and who actually believes in government-led clean energy policies, then I think it will happen.

But -- and this is where Biden comes in -- even if that legislation is strong enough to put this country on the path towards rapid and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the entire U.S. effort will certainly fall apart if the next president is not able to negotiate a serious international treaty that encompasses all major emitters. Yet it has become increasingly clear in recent months that achieving a serious, binding international treaty is even more politically implausible a task than passing serious, binding domestic legislation. And that is because Russia has emerged as a country that is likely to be every bit as much an obstacle as China and the United States currently are.

The Chinese Challenge

I have written about China extensively already, and no one should underestimate the difficulty of getting them to embrace the necessary reductions in projected emissions and then in absolute emissions [see "The immorality of China's coal policy is breathtaking (literally)" and "China sells its soul for liquid coal" and "The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate"]

But everyone I know who knows the country tells me that the Chinese leaders understand that global warming will be catastrophic for them -- even if those leaders mistakenly believe they can "go back and solve climate change after they get rich," which has been the standard procedure for how Western countries dealt with traditional environmental problems. Sadly, that approach won't work with climate because the climate system almost certainly has tipping points (see, for instance, "Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return").

Also, the Chinese are capitalists and are already poised to become the leading producer of both solar PV and wind turbines. And they could run their entire country on baseload solar, if they figure out fast enough that it is the renewable with the biggest potential as a primary power source (see "Concentrated solar thermal power -- a core climate solution") and if they return to their strong energy efficiency policies from decades past (see "China's immoral energy policy -- Part II: The efficient alternative").

I cling to the view that Chinese could be brought around if their customers all applied enough pressure to them -- assuming of course that those customers, including us, are all prepared to take the necessary measures themselves, which is far from obvious (see Hansen's trip report finds "sobering degree of self-deception" in Germany, UK, Japan).

Russian Recalcitrance

But Russia may be even more problematic, and not just because they are more self-destructively nationalistic than China (or us). Russia does not have a good solar resource. But they do have a lot of coal and oil -- and they very much want to stake a claim to the rich oil resources in the Arctic.

Moreover, they may (mistakenly) think global warming is good for them. Since it will create a navigable Arctic and open up "currently inaccessible energy resources," no less an authority than The Economist has written, "warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer." Sad -- but quite untrue, especially since we are on path to far overshoot any degree of warming that could possibly be beneficial to Russia (see "Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity's self-destruction").

Perhaps the most important climatic tipping point is in Russia -- the Siberian tundra. If that defrosts, then avoiding the equivalent of 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will be all but impossible. After all the tundra contains more carbon than the atmosphere does, and much of it would likely be released as methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Indeed, we have some evidence that may have already started.

Russia does have a staggering amount of wind potential, but it tends to be in the sparsely populated areas. Russia will need to be convinced that some combination of nuclear, wind, and natural gas can provide all the power it needs -- but the even harder task will be convincing them not to use all that oil and coal they have.

Indeed, the great challenge for the world in the next three decades is not so much aggressively deploying low carbon technology -- although that would not be easy it would certainly be straightforward both technologically and economically. The great challenge for the world is political -- convincing countries (and states) to leave a lot of the cheap fossil fuel resources they have, especially coal, in the ground, and to agree to import low-carbon electricity from other countries (or states).

That will require not merely strong domestic action by the world's richest country, the one that has admitted by far the most cumulative amount of carbon dioxide. It will also require global leadership by us, the ability to negotiate one-on-one and collectively with every major country in the world. The Democratic team now has onboard someone who not only gets global warming, but who is certainly one of the most qualified people in the country to help lead that effort from the White House, which is where it must be lead from.

And that makes Biden a great Vice Presidential choice for Obama, the nation, and the world -- that and the fact that picking him signals the Democrats might finally put up a strong fight in the face of the hailstorm of lies and disinformation they face every four years.

Did McCain Just Lose Colorado?

What epic gaffe could unite Colorado's Democratic Senator Ken Salazar -- "over my dead body" -- and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer - "Over my cold, dead, political carcass"?

That would be Arizona Senator John McCain telling The Pueblo Chieftan on Thursady that he wants to renegotiate the famous 1922 Colorado River compact to take water from the so-called upper basin states, including CO and NM, where the river originates and give it to lower basin states like his home state of AZ:

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Obama Gets High Marks for New Energy Plan

Senator Barack Obama has fulfilled the promise of his earlier climate plan with a detailed and comprehensive "New Energy for America" plan.

This is easily the best energy plan ever put forward by a nominee of either party. By comparison, the plan of John "Nothing but Nukes" McCain is a joke, with nothing on energy efficiency and a pointless $300 million battery prize and long-standing opposition to renewable energy.

In contrast, Obama's plan has real depth and breath:

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Peak Oil Is a Problem We Can Solve Now

I have a new article in Salon on perhaps the most misunderstood subject in energy -- peak oil.

Here is the short version:

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Internet Boosting Energy Efficiency

The emerging new economy created by the Internet is producing more than just a business revolution -- it is also generating enormous environmental benefits. The Internet can turn buildings into websites, and replace warehouses with supply-chain software. It can turn paper and CDs into electrons, and replace trucks with fiberoptic cable. This means significant energy savings, and perhaps a very different type of economic growth than we have seen in the past.

By reducing the amount of energy and materials consumed by business, often dramatically, and by increasing overall productivity, the Internet stands to revolutionize the relationship between economic growth and the environment, according to a new report we've produced at the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. There's already evidence of a sudden shift in the American energy diet. While the nation's economy grew by more than 9 percent in 1997 and 1998, energy demand stayed almost flat in spite of very low energy prices, marking a major departure from recent historical patterns.

Part of this trend can be attributed to the growth of information technology and e-commerce. For example, for each book sold, the online retailer uses just one-sixteenth the energy to operate its buildings that a traditional bookseller uses. Internet shopping also uses less energy to get a package to your house. Shipping a 10-pound package by overnight air -- the most energy-intensive delivery mode -- uses 40 percent less fuel than the average roundtrip drive to the mall. Ground shipping by truck uses just one-tenth the energy of a trip by car to the store.

In fact, each minute spent driving to the mall uses more than 20 times the energy of a minute spent shopping on the Internet. Online shopping eliminates the need for car trips and reduces congestion. Already, nearly 40 percent of people with Internet access say they go to the store or the mall less often.

Many Americans are familiar with consumer e-commerce giants like, eBay, and But the lesser-known names doing business-to-business e-commerce, such as supply-chain management, dwarf the consumer sector. While consumer e-commerce is expected to grow from $7.8 billion in 1998 to $108 billion in 2003, business e-commerce is expected to rise from $43 billion to more than $1 trillion, according to Forrester Research. As of mid-1999, General Electric alone was doing more than $1 billion worth of web-based business annually, including online procurement of goods and materials.

.Com and Get It

By 2007, e-commerce could eliminate the need for about 5 percent of commercial building space, including up to 1 billion square feet of warehouse space, 1.5 billion square feet of retail space, and 2 billion square feet of commercial office space, the equivalent of almost 450 Sears Towers. Avoiding construction of these buildings could prevent the release of 40 million metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And by eliminating the need for operations and maintenance of these buildings, we could save the output of 20 average power plants and 67 trillion BTUs of natural gas.

The Internet could also save 2.7 million tons of paper every year by 2003, as it reduces the need to print newspapers, catalogs, direct mail, and the like. Because paper manufacturing is one of the most energy- and resource-intensive processes in the economy, such a reduction in paper consumption could cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by some 10 million tons -- the equivalent of taking about 2 million cars off the road. These figures could more than double by 2008.

The Internet itself is not a major energy user, largely because it draws heavily on existing communications and computing infrastructure. The average PC and monitor use just 150 watts of power. Today's new computers are more than twice as efficient as those they are replacing. For example, new flat-panel displays use one quarter the energy of traditional monitors. And, overall, the fast-growing information technology sector is far less energy-intensive than most conventional industries.

Net Gains

Remarkable statistics published this fall by the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA) suggest that a giant shift in the U.S. energy economy is already underway. Despite historically low energy prices, energy intensity -- the amount of energy consumed for every dollar of economic output -- fell 4 percent in 1997, and another 4 percent in 1998, the biggest two-year drop in half a century. The EIA projects that 1999 figures will continue to show large efficiency gains. By contrast, the average yearly improvement from 1987 to 1996 was less than 1 percent.

About a third of the gain over the last two years is attributable to expansion in sectors with relatively modest energy needs -- especially the double-digit growth in information technology. The rest is due to increased efficiency throughout the economy. If the new pattern holds, energy intensity gains from 1997 to 2007 could double the annual gains of the previous decade.

Under the unratified Kyoto global warming treaty, the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Current business-as-usual projections indicate that we're dramatically off course, likely by 2010 to have emissions 33 percent above 1990 levels. But a recent EPA analysis concluded that the new structural shifts in our economy mean that standard emissions estimates for the U.S. for 2010 may be overstated by the equivalent of 175 power plants and 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. It may be that the rise of the Internet economy could help significantly reduce both the difficulty and the cost of hitting our Kyoto targets.

Joseph Romm is executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and author of the recent book Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

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