"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Things change

Texas 1805 (as played by Wyoming)

Texas 1905

Texas 2005

Texas 2105

(A similarly motivated set of images due to R. Crumb is worth a look.)


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texas School Board and Creationism

So I finally got the scoop about the impact of the election cycle from my colleague Paul Murray, an exploration geophysicist at the Bureau of Economic Geology.

Essentially nothing happened in the election. The Texas Board of Education is status quo, split 7 modestly liberal Democrats, 7 fundamentalists and one conservative not entirely fundamentalist. It could have been worse, but it's still pretty bad. Note that the district boundaires are tragically gerrymandered; note the bizarre boundaries tending to slice the urban areas into shreds.

A great deal of strum and dang (Texas for sturm und drang) is going into affecting the swing vote in setting educational standards in biology in Texas. Of course the pseudo-rational fundamentalists are trying to "teach the controversy". Paul attended a meeting of the board last week and he will keep me posted about the next one. Hopefully I will be able to take the day off and act like a good reporter, since this is one of the biggest science/public policy issues around and it's happening locally. Paul is not satisfied with the local reporting, but this editorial in the Statesman, I think , gives the flavor of the situation.

Standards are revisited in Texas on a decadal basis. Whatever these people decide is going to be the truth in Texas schools for ten years.

(Note: Texas has 8998 public schools serving 4.5 million students according to this site. De facto Texas strongly influences the textbooks for much of the country, i.e., most of the red states.)

Unfortunately these meetings do go on. Paul tells me the last one started at 9 AM and lasted until 11 PM. True journalism requires a strong stomach; putting up with fourteen hours of fundamentalist jive talk...


Monday, November 24, 2008

The peridotite solution

Here's a remarkable sequestration mechanism that seems ideal for our needs. A single wedge, even a single site solution.
The researchers have shown that rock formations called peridotite, which are found in Oman and several other places worldwide, including California and New Guinea, produce calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate rock when they come into contact with carbon dioxide. The scientists found that such formations in Oman naturally sequester hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide a year. Based on those findings, the researchers, writing in the current early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calculate that the carbon-sequestration rate in rock formations in Oman could be increased to billions of tons a year--more than the carbon emissions in the United States from coal-burning power plants, which come to 1.5 billion tons per year.


The researchers found that the natural peridotite formations in Oman captured carbon dioxide in a network of underground veins. Peridotite contains large amounts of olivine, a mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As groundwater reacts with the olivine, the water becomes rich in dissolved magnesium and bicarbonate, with the latter effectively increasing the carbon concentration in the water by about 10 times. As this water seeps deeper into the rock and stops reacting with the air, the magnesium, carbon, and oxygen precipitate out of solution and form magnesium carbonate, also called magnesite. Dolomite, which contains calcium, magnesium, carbon, and oxygen, also forms. As the magnesite and dolomite form, they increase the total volume of the rock by about 44 percent, causing cracks to appear throughout it, which creates a network of fractures as small as 50 micrometers across. This opens up the rock and allows water to penetrate further. "It's a little bit like setting a coal seam on fire," says Peter Kelemen, a professor of earth and environmental studies at Columbia University. "You're taking rocks that haven't been exposed to the atmosphere, and you're oxidizing them very fast."

Many a slip twixt cup and lip of course, but (to scramble metaphors) maybe there is a silver bullet after all. I'd love to see this work at scale. Most of the commenters on the linked Technology Review so far tend to disagree, choosing to worry about the local ecosystem. How do In It readers feel, I wonder?

Update: Here's the peer-reviewed article that Tech Review ought to have cited, with thanks to David Benson.

Update: Here's a similar article at Popular Mechanics.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ozone Treaty and Secondary GHG Protocols

Hey, I can be a lazy journalist too! I'm pasting a press release (minus contact info) here in case anybody finds it interesting.

Basically it seems to amount to good news on the non-CO2 emissions front. (Besides, it says "Montreal" several times, which is always a good thing.)
Ozone Treaty Parties Agree to Start Cutting More Climate Emissions

Doha, Qatar, 20 November 2008 – Today the 193 Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer—representing virtually all countries of the world—agreed for the second year in a row to strengthen their treaty to provide additional protection for both the ozone layer and the climate system.

The Parties will start collecting and destroying ozone-depleting substance from stockpiles and from discarded products and equipment that are the easiest to reach. These "reachable" substances will be emitted by 2015 without action through the Montreal Protocol. Destroying them will speed recovery of the ozone layer by up to two years, and avoid up to 6 billion tonnes or more of CO2-eq. in climate emissions. An additional 14 or more billion tonnes of CO2-eq. could be emitted later from these sources unless further action is taken.

Argentina first proposed destroying the stockpiles and "banks" of substances in discarded products and equipment. Micronesia and Mauritius also proposed collecting and destroying banks because this can provide fast climate mitigation and help avoid passing thresholds for abrupt climate changes, including the disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which would lead to many meters of sea level rise and threaten all low-lying island and coastal countries.

Romina Picolotti, Argentina's Minister of Environment, stated, "We recognize the importance of near term climate mitigation, as well as long term mitigation, and believe the 6 billion tonnes of CO2-eq. in banks that will otherwise be emitted by 2015 is a critical target we can address today." She praised the Montreal Protocol Parties for their "cooperative spirit and their ability to act fast" and stated that "the Montreal Protocol is a model for the world." (For comparison, Parties to the Kyoto climate treaty are trying to reduce their climate emissions by 1 billion tonnes per year below 1990 levels during the treaty's initial commitment period from 2008 to 2012.)

The developed country Parties to the Montreal Protocol also agreed to provide $490 million in additional funding over three years to assist developing country Parties meet their treaty obligations. This includes initial funding to immediately begin pilot projects for collection and destruction of the "reachable" banks. The Parties directed the treaty secretariat to explore co-financing, including the carbon markets.

The Parties also agreed to begin discussions on whether to move hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, from the climate treaty to the stricter Montreal Protocol, where HFCs with a high global warming potential could be phased-out. HFCs are substitutes for substances that are being phased-out by the Montreal Protocol, and are projected to grow at an alarming rate.

Moving HFCs to the Montreal Protocol could pave the way for moving the four other non-CO2 gases in the climate treaty to separate protocols, where they could be more strictly controlled. "Removing the five non-CO2 gases would still leave the climate treaty to do the lion's share of climate mitigation," said Durwood Zaelke, the President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. Zaelke added that, "the advantage of 'disaggregating' the climate problem this way would be to allow separate governance structures that could strictly regulate each of the non-CO2 gases."

Antonio Oposa, representing Micronesia, stated, "This could provide faster climate mitigation in many cases, which is what the island countries need to survive." He added, "There is a clear and present danger of abrupt and catastrophic climate changes in the near future. In the face of these threats, we must act not only with a sense of urgency, but a sense of emergency."

The Montreal Protocol has successfully phased out more than 95 percent of 97 ozone-depleting substances since it began in 1987. Because many substances that deplete ozone also warm the climate, the Montreal Protocol has delayed climate change by up to 12 years through the mitigation of 135 billion tonnes of CO2-eq between 1990 and 2010. Last September, the Parties took their first step towards becoming a more explicit climate treaty, in a decision praised by Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, as "perhaps the most important breakthrough in an international environmental negotiation process for at least five or six years."

In July 2008, the 17 Major Economies recognized the need for urgent action under the Montreal Protocol for the benefit of the global climate system and committed to take such action. Today's decisions follow through on this commitment to climate protection.

Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development
INECE Secretariat
2300 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 300B
Washington, DC 20007

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Worst Noel: Celebrating Recession

One thing that's always disappointed me about the growth imperative is how the Christmas season is described based on gross sales. OK, that's sad enough in itself but consider that a season is described as "disappointing" if it grows less than the average growth rate. As far as I know, none of the recent "disappointing" Christmases has actually amounted to a decrease in economic activity over the previous year. As far as I know, there has been positive growth in US Christmastime sales for as long as the growth imperative has been in place.

Maybe I will be the first to say this publicly, but probably this Christmas will be different.

Because the growth imperative flies in the face of reality, the time will come when the "disappointing" Christmas will actually amount to a retreat. Likely we are entering that time at this very moment. It will be interesting to see badly we cope; how badly we are dependent on our growth addiction. Oil addiction is just a symptom; we have blundered into a situation where the unsustainable is a core of our social organization.

Maybe the stupidity of the financial sector has done us a service by hastening the day of reckoning. We need to cope with sustainability. This is not that big a deal for most individuals (I think we'll still have individual competition and individual wealth) but its a radical change for the society as a whole.

Will anybody be talking about this if the first "terrible" Christmas is upon us?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

McCain Rediscovers his Menschlichkeit

A little more electoral politics, which is off topic for this blog; apologies to regular readers. This stuff will end forthwith, but in addition to celebrating the Obama victory, I thought it might be worthwhile to acknowledge the beautiful, gracious concession speech from John McCain, trying to rediscover his inner mensch. In fact his speech, to my great surprise. moved me more than did Obama's excellent victory speech.

If only McCain the Mensch had been in the campaign, instead of the weird snarky sleepy angry guy and his comedy-horrorshow of a running mate, if only they had not resorted to tactics of fear, distortion and last-minute juvenile pranks, perhaps his supporters might have been in more of a mood to hear these stirring words. (On the other hand, we might have been plunged into yet another nightmare tie-game. Until the actual nuts and bolts of voting are updated into something sensible, America is better off when its elections are decisive.)

So, while it's impossible to be grateful to McCain for the disgraceful way he conducted himself during the campaign, we can at least temper our memories of him with gratitude for his gesture at the end:

I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit -- to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now -- (cheers, applause) -- let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth. (Cheers, applause.)

Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer in my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day, though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

I urge all Americans -- (applause) -- I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that. ...

I would not -- I would not be an -- an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it. (Cheers, applause.)

Tonight -- tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama -- whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.

And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history, we make history.

Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all very much.

If I have the ear of any McCain voters I urge them to take the senator's words to heart.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Blogger ate my pompous posting in a very weird way. I swear it was made up of complete sentences when I saw it last. I even thought it might be coherent. This happened when I tried to move the images around! Here is what is left of three complete paragraphs, fished from an HTML image tag. (I added the last word, "promise" back in manually.)

Maybe it's better this way. Anyway I am happy tonight.

" good="" thing="" when="" actually="" loves="" makes="" things="" possible="" otherwise="" child="" last="" much="" america="" truly="" loved="" anyone="" might="" consider="" deserving="" john="" had="" privilege="" living="" such="" myself="" few="" later="" montreal="" during="" trudeau="" very="" happy="" saw="" see="" was="" canada="" its="" subsequent="" years="" my="" native="" land="" borne="" mostly="" all="" charismatic="" leadership="" pierre="" elliott="" unlike="" does="" rise="" power="" auspicious="" knows="" taking="" on="" huge="" will="" succeed="" without="" every="" ounce="" goodwill="" country="" world="" muster="" those="" that="" find="" meaning="" in="" prayer="" praying="" the="" rest="" us="" at="" least="" fervently="" wish="" him="" though="" can="" as="" piet="" hein="" pointed="" should="" hope="" it="" time="" get="" past="" petty="" jealousies="" pull="" together="" for="" barack="" obama="" has="" yet="" shown="" himself="" be="" he="" obviously="" not="" only="" brilliant="" but="" i="" think="" an="" ability="" to="" inspire="" young="" people="" rare="" and="" precious="" we="" have="" reached="" is="" a="" moment="" of="" great="" promise

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the streets
Dancing in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
In New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
They'll be swinging, swaying, records playing,
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there
So come on, every guy, grab a girl, everywhere, around the world
They'll be dancing, dancing in the street

It's an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet
They'll be laughing and singing and music swinging
Dancing in the street

Philadelphia, PA
Baltimore and DC now
Don't forget that motor city
On the streets of Brazil
Back in the USSR
No matter where you are

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
They'll be swinging, swaying, records playing
Dancing in the street, oh

It doesn't matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
So come on every guy, grab a girl, everywhere, around the world
They'll be dancing, dancing in the streets

Way down in L.A., everyday
Dancing in the streets
Cross in China too
Me and you
Dancing in the street

Don't you know
They'll be dancing
Dancing in the street (repeat)

Update: Although I have come to appreciate Texas, there are times now and again when I deeply miss Chicago, presently the greatest city in the Western hemisphere. Election night was especially bittersweet.

More wonderful victory images at Huffington's here and here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Several Inconvenient Truths: Ethics of CO2

The following is the text of a talk I gave, or strictly speaking intended to give at the Ethical Society of Austin. It turned out that I extemporized much more than read, but the general outlines were the same. I hit the same points in the same order, in other words. So this is not only the talk I intended to give but a pretty good proxy for what I actually said.

The parable, which accessibly presents a crucial idea that needs to get into people's understanding about the situation, is taken from Paul Baer's essay "Equity, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Global Common Resources".

The audience was a group of Texans with progressive inclinations but like most Texans I would guess not entirely friendly to centralized decision-making. To some extent, I am trying here to make a case as an unapologetic liberal for a certain amount of government in the classic big-government liberal (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson) vein.
SEVERAL INCONVENIENT TRUTHS: The Ethics of Carbon Emissions

If the world's civilization were built on ethical principles, which as I understand it we think it ought to be, how much would we owe the future, and even the distant future?

Last time I talked to this group, I tried to make the case that the future of the world was in our hands. Neither God nor Nature controls the future. We have become so powerful that what people used to call Providence is no longer a guarantee. We have nobody and nothing but our own ingenuity to promise us that the world will support us as well in the future as it did in the past. What the world will look like in a century or a millennium or possibly even longer depends very much on what we do now.

Today I will contend, first, that behaviors we do every day have consequences in the very far future, and second, that while addressing these problems begins at home, it doesn’t end at home, or even at our national boundaries. We have world problems that the whole world needs to solve collectively. 
We don't really know how to do that, but we have no choice but to try to figure it out.

I’m going to talk a bit about carbon dioxide, but I don't want this to be a science lecture, or a science discussion. I have nothing against the vanishing tradition of public lectures but I don’t think that’s why we meet here.

I am aiming for a discussion of ethics and global citizenship. The carbon problem presents us with an important example. There are other places where the same sorts of issue come up.


The point of view I’m advocating here is explicitly liberal; it has little traction in Texas on the left or on the right. I believe that in the end, collective action is necessary and so involvement of government is inevitable. So we might as well take the trouble to do it right rather than pretend we can minimize it. 
I grew up in Montreal, a city that has always been explicitly liberal, that celebrates government more than resenting it. So I realize the point of view I’m pushing here is a bit alien. From the point of view of the world, though, it’s not me who is the outlier. In a democracy, the people should feel that the government is their servant, not their master. Of course, if you can imagine how to get out of this mess without government and treaties, it certainly would be interesting to hear about it.

You've heard a lot about climate change lately. I have lived most of my life in cold icy places, and around this time of year I don't miss them a bit. On balance, though I complain about the heat, I prefer the southern climate to the northern. 
Yet we are all worried about a global temperature change of just a few degrees, even though I personally have been through changes of about twenty degrees without it bothering me too much. And in fact, it is the colder places that warm up most in global warming, so some people argue that there’s little basis for concern.

Well, for one thing, it’s me that moved to the new weather, it wasn’t the place I lived in that changed. That’s a very big difference. I had to adapt. The trees and grasses and animals didn’t.

More to the point, in the extreme where we continue to do little or nothing to prevent it, the changes eventually become very large.

What changes?

a) Weather patterns. The main ideas are that severe storms become more severe, and droughts more common. Essentially, rainfall becomes more bursty.

b) People and infrastructure are in the wrong place. Borders prevent migration, and some nations, especially smaller and/or drier ones become overpopulated without any fault of their own; migration stresses increase.

c) Huge additional stresses on ecosystems. Widespread forest decline. Increase in invasive species, decline in biodiversity, increased extinctions. This adds to existing stresses.

d) Large sea level rise, probably on a longer time scale. It may take centuries between the time that the ice sheets are destabilized and the time they collapse. It’s possible this has already started

e) While the ocean can adjust to a very slow increase of CO2 to very high levels, its adjustment time is thousands of years. If it encounters a carbon spike on a faster time scale, it becomes acidified. Dissolving CO2 in seawater also increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean, and thus decreases ocean pH. As ocean pH falls, so does the concentration of the carbonate ion, and when it becomes undersaturated, structures made of calcium carbonate dissolve. In short, too much CO2 in the atmosphere will kill the ocean, even if there is no global warming at all. Like sea level rise, the peak of this effect occurs hundreds of years after the peak in atmospheric CO2. Even if climate change effects are more modest than we think, it appears we are committing subsequent generations to a crisis in the viability of the entire ocean.

How bad these effects are depends very much on how long it takes us to stop adding more carbon to the system. At what level of CO2 do these consequences become catastrophic? Nobody knows, but most agree that eventually they do.

Renowned climatologist Andrew Weaver of UBC recently said that

"People have simply no idea how serious this issue is."

“It's so serious, he said, that unless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world's species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

"Climate scientists who grapple with this every day ... we see where it's headed. We understand it very well.

"I think the public needs to know, straight in their face, that you can give up on civilization as we know it. "

Notice the difference in time scales between actions and consequences. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime (roughly speaking) of a century or so. So when you drive to Taco Cabana to avoid cooking at home, the benefits accrue immediately, but the consequences are spread over an entire century. Every day for the next hundred years, that carbon you emitted will contribute to changing the world's climate. The moment we are committed to a catastrophe occurs long before the catastrophe itself does.

To summarize; we know qualitatively what is happening, but when these events really get kicked off is unknown. In some cases the event becomes inevitable long before it occurs. We aren’t really wired to deal with things like this. At least in an old-fashioned train wreck you could see the train coming.

That’s hard enough; perhaps you had already heard most of it.

There are still more complications I’d like to call your attention to.

First, to avoid disaster, we must stabilize carbon in the air long before it is all used up. The sooner we do so the less risk we take. In order to do this we must either stop burning the stuff altogether or else catch all the CO2 and put it someplace.

Yes, emissions must go to near zero and the sooner the better. "Soon" means starting to take serious steps now, to achieve near-zero emissions in the next few decades. Until we get to near zero emissions, the disruption in climate will continue to get worse. This can’t be achieved by any one country. It has to be achieved everywhere in the world.

Second, at just about this time we are running out of petroleum. Let's be clear. We are not running out of fossil fuel, just out of petroleum. For those of us in car-oriented cultures this is very daunting.

If it weren't for the other problems I just mentioned, though, I wouldn't worry much. There are potential processes for obtaining liquid fuels from shale, or from coal. These are highly energy-intensive, but still yield more energy than they withdraw so it would seem to constitute a setback for prosperity but not a killing blow. This will be exacerbated by companies exagerrating their reserves to keep their stock values high, some say. The end of oil may come sooner than we have planned for, so the readjustment may be painful.

With climate change in the picture, though, matters get much worse, because those alternatives are much worse for the CO2 accumulation problem than petroleum is. We simply can't allow them to proceed, and we can't afford not to have them proceed either. What a tangle!

Other ways of achieving personal mobility involve either external power supplies or other portable fuels like hydrogen. It's important to understand that these keep our cars moving but don't provide power themselves.

In short, the decline of petroleum puts ever greater demands on our other energy systems just as we need to be setting up massive changes. Of course, other recent bad news, especially on the financial front, greatly constrains what we can easily afford at this time.

Finally, I have one more piece of bad news to add to the mix. I'm not much of a story-teller, but I do have a parable about this last point that I inherited from my friend Paul Baer, a principal at the non-profit EcoEquity, which tries to draw the world's attention to this next point. It's crucially an ethical point rather than a scientific one.

Imagine a small island shared by two farming families, say the Norths and the Souths. For the purposes of this story, let's assume the island is equally divided; it doesn't really affect the argument. Now this island has a shared aquifer, and for a long time both families got by with subsistence farming, supported by this well water. But some years ago, the Norths scripmed and saved, and managed to acquire a modern new pumping system that greatly improved their ability to get water, hence their farming yields, hence their wealth. They renovated their house, installed new HVAC, terraced their vegetable garden, and so on. Unselfishly, the Norths urged the Souths to follow in their footsteps, and sure enough, the Souths have been saving up and are about to install a pump of their own.

At about this time the Norths start to worry about draw-down of the aquifer. They inform the Souths and try to come to some agreement about which family should pump how much. Eventually they realize they will have to match the average recharge rate of the aquifer, but the Norths have been pumping far above this rate. What is the ethical balance?

Should the Souths and the Norths continue at their current ratio, meaning that new pump or not, the Souths will actually get less water than previously? Should the Norths and the Souths split the water equally? The Norths argue that they have a culture that "requires" more water and so the balance should lie somewhere in between. The Souths, however, argue that the Norths have already received the benefits of the earlier pumping, and that the South's share should be more than half on an annual basis until the total draw to date has been equalized.

You can think of putting carbon into the atmosphere as like taking water out of the reservoir. The analogy is a pretty good one, and this is the core of the struggle at meetings like Kyoto. The gap between the advanced countries and the developing countries on how to allocate emissions is vast. How should it be resolved?

If every individual gets the same allocation of tradeable emission rights, the rich country will buy up emissions rights on the open market, leaving the poor country only slightly less poor and the rich country still consuming a lot. The poor country would see such an arrangement as making the wealth differential permanent. The less developed countries argue for at least taking into account cumulative emissions. On that basis, though, the right of the highest consuming countries like the US to further emissions is zero!

There have been several rounds of global negotiations on these matters. Most famous was the Kyoto accord, a nonstarter in the US Senate because it eschewed any limits on developing countries. Note however, that it was signed by all significant nations besides the US and Australia, but was only actually put into effect by very few nations, notably the Netherlands.

The recent followup meeting at Bali last year left the US terribly isolated. Eventually the US made capitulatory statements at the meeting, but no serious policy changes were implemented.

Leaving aside the minutiae of international treaty negotiations, it’s worthwhile to consider

In our new circumstances, the idea that everyone can get richer and richer forever is no longer especially credible. It’s hard to see a world in which the rich stay rich at the cost of the poor staying poor as fair or sustainable. The emergence of limits to global growth leads to serious issues about global equity that in the past could be ignored. Some sort of agreement is necessary, and a purely competitive stance by wealthy nations, especially the US, will continue to prevent it.


It’s often argued, including by Irene and me, that much of our wealth in the rich countries is not wealth but "illth". If we come to recognize this, it will help a lot.

In many ways we'd be better off with less energy intensive, more collaborative systems. And a great deal can be achieved in this direction by individual and small group effort. This just conceivably could leave a little room for growth in the poorer countries. While I'd love to see us less energy intensive and more social, though, I don't think it will be enough, and it probably won’t catch on soon enough.

As communities, we can work on restructuring our lives. We can make more alliances, share capital-intensive tools, share housing and adapt existing buildings rather than wantonly building new ones. As citizens of cities, and states, we can support less energy intensive infrastructure (light rail, bicycle paths, local markets) and identify ways to increase our resilience to climate change. All of this is necessary and still not sufficient.

That’s why it’s equally important is the fact that there are technological solutions to our problems.

We have to find ways to organize ourselves so as to support development of carbon neutral energy (like wind, solar, and nuclear energy) and possibly of carbon sequestration. We also need to cope with the post-petroleum needs of transportation and freight, which will put still greater demands on other energy systems. We need careful and rational decision making about complex infrastructure issues. We collectively will need the sorts of things that always get local opposition: transmission lines, power plants, nuclear waste facilities, CO2 pipelines and so on.

They will not implement themselves, though. The changeover will be expensive no matter what we do. This will require huge decisions about and huge investments in infrastructure and technology both here and elsewhere. This is the hard part at the national level. It will require a spirit of cooperation and a respect for competence over political expedience.

The international level may be even harder. Avoiding disastrous consequences requires at least a modicum of global agreement on who gets to do what.

What I am saying, basically, is that personal and community responsibility is not enough. Commitments at the national and global level are needed, that amount to more than just lip service. As individuals we have little role in negotiating them, but we have a huge role in whether they have enough support to be passed.

These measures must be supported; it’s an ethical obligation. We have to see our task as getting the whole earth through the mess, not just ourselves, and not even just our own countries. Anything less has the flavor of rearranging deck chairs. As individuals, we need to work within our commuities and social connections to explain the necessity of these sorts of uncomfortable changes and pave the way for people to put up with them. The alternatives are much worse.

The important thing is that like fishing, using fuel is no longer a private affair. A fish you catch is a fish I don't catch. A gallon of gasoline you use is a gallon I never see. What was best viewed as an open, unbounded system suddenly becomes a zero-sum game, and a global one. And yet, there can in the end be no losers. We are in the unaccustomed position of being ahead and needing to play for a tie.


Before I open this up for discussion, there’s one more thing I’d like to point out.

As we all know, Texas is special. Texas has a special role to play in this issue in the world for a few reasons. For one thing, just as our geographic fate, we have been a nexus for oil and stand a good chance of being so for wind, solar, and carbon sequestration. For another, our culture has been a standout in individualism even within the US, and the US has been a major problem in the process of the world agreeing to any carbon treaties with teeth. So I think there is both a special opportunity and a special obligation to change the worldview of Texans, particularly on this point.

I’d also like to express a bit of disappointment. Often Austin is mentioned as a leader, at least within the US context, in sustainability and energy conservation, but as we moved here Irene and I went from a one-car family (where we’d have to remember, on some cold days, to start the car up and drive around the block a few times to recharge the battery) to a two-car family. I have always managed to commute on foot, by bicycle, or by train. Austin provides a much more convenient climate for biking or walking, but the city is laid out to discourage it. Again, this is a problem we can’t solve as individuals.

On the other hand, I’ve found democracy in this town to be alive and well. My impression, and this was unexpected, is that people participate in local, city and state issues with interest and vigor, with considerable wisdom, and perhaps even with a decency that is on retreat elsewhere in the country. But on the left and on the right, there is a suspicion of big projects and big decisions. I am sure there are reasons for this, but it is a problem. Do you think I’m right that this needs to change? If I am, is there a way to change it? What Texas does is important to the whole world.


Again, I’d like not to discuss the science today. I am open to organizing a meeting to do that some evening if there’s interest. For now, let’s take the situation at face value, and discuss it as a hypothetical.

1) What are ethical responsibilities to future generations, if any? Specifically how should this affect our behavior with respect to the earth as a whole system? How far into the future does our responsibility stretch? Should we care about the seventh generation? The seventieth?

2) Is there any hope of getting enough Americans, or specifically enough Texans, to understand the point of view of the developing countries? Is it reasonable to tie the future of energy to the past of development? Does past behavior of a country matter?

3) Are global environmental ethical questions appropriate for the Ethical Society of Austin and the American Ethical Union to take on? If not, what other organizing principles are available to grapple with these issues?
I guess especially points 1 and 2 are open for discussion here if anyone out there has something to say. (I am told that the AEU is going to have the environment as a key organizing concept at next year's annual assembly in Missouri.)