Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Florida Caves on Climate Change

Not long ago, Florida Republican Charlie Crist was known across the country as "the environmental governor." As his first major initiative, he brought in fellow moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger to headline a Summit on Global Climate Change. He created a climate "action team" that issued reports that could have come out of the Sierra Club. And he signed green executive orders and pledged support for cap and trade. Florida, after all, is set to be inundated by rising sea levels and hammered by stronger hurricanes. In 2007, Crist said "global climate change is one of the most important issues we face this century."

That was then. Now, as Crist prepares to enter the state's Republican Senate primary, he's starting to sound less like climatologist James Hansen than Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe. Last week, his administration told other states that Florida would not join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the East Coast's cap and trade scheme, or present a proposed cap and trade rule to the Florida legislature. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection said the decision was prompted by "the strong liklihood of federal action on climate policy."

Environmental groups aren't buying that explanation. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said the move was a major blow to the 10-state RGGI effort; Florida's participation would have increased the size of the program by 75 percent and likely raised the price of emissions permits. It also would have helped build a bipartisan case for federal legislation. "Gov. Crist’s retreat signifies that it is becoming increasing difficult for environmentally concerned citizens to advance in today’s Republican Party," said Florida PEER directory Jerry Phillips, "and that is a real shame."

A column in Tuesday's Orlando Sentinel notes that the 2009 legislative session in Florida was "a disaster for greenies." The House killed climate change legislation, and along with it, mandates for renewable energy. Crist says there may be no climate change summit this year. "Simply do the political calculation," writes Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas. "He would easily beat any Democrat in the Senate race. . .So environmentalists are of little use to him now. . .And when it comes to climate change, there is nothing in it for Crist anymore."

 

Cell phone carrier Verizon Wireless has prompted an online uproar and calls for a boycott over its sponsorship of the "Friends of America Rally," a Labor Day gathering in Logan, West Virginia organized by mountaintop-removal coal mining company Massey Energy that appears intended to rile up the troops against climate change legislation.

Under similar political pressure, Verizon has already dumped its ads on Glenn Beck's Fox News show as of last week, citing Beck's "controversial track record." Another Fox blowhard, Sean Hannity, is set to appear at the Logan rally along with global warming skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton and the inimitable Ted Nugent. The sponsorships seem out of character for Verizon, which, on its website, touts efforts to address "the entire global emissions problem" through measures like fuels cells, solar panels, and energy efficient technology.

Verizon spokesperson Laura Merritt told me the sponsorship of the rally was "a local decision that was intended to support the immediate community." She added that more than 100 companies had signed on to the event (though most are small businesses or part of the mining industry). "I insure you that this is not a statement of our policy on any public issue."

Merritt declined to say what kind of events Verizon would not sponsor. When I asked if there are people in West Virginia who oppose mountaintop removal mining and support a climate bill, she demurred. "All I can tell you is that this decision was based on support of that immediate, small community there," she said. "Beyond that, I really don't know."

It's perhaps unfair to be too hard on Verizon when 3 million businesses belong to the US Chamber of Commerce, a brutal foe of cap and trade. Still, the company comes off as duplicitous and amoral when it panders to local audiences in opposition to its stated values. Fortunately, many consumers know that there are phone companies that actually put the planet ahead of profits. That's what I'd call a true Friend of America.

UPDATE: Courtesty of Think Progress, here's Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship inviting people to attend the rally, where they'll learn about how "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs."

Chamber Backs off "Scopes" Comment

A few days after I made fun of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for saying it wants a hearing on climate change that would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century," the group has backed off the comment. Chamber vice president Bill Kovacs blogs on the National Journal website:

My "Scopes monkey" analogy was inappropriate and detracted from my ability to effectively convey the Chamber's position on this important issue.

What is the Chamber's position on this important issue? According to Kovacs, the Chamber is not one of the business lobby's "Climate 'deniers,'" but is simply against an "endangerment finding" by the EPA--a conclusion that greenhouse gasses are a threat and should therefore be regulated as pollutants. As I stressed yesterday, the endangerment finding serves as a powerful political club for the Obama administration in pushing the cap and trade bill that the Chamber opposes.  "[O]ne can be against an endangerment finding and still supportive of strong, effective action to reduce carbon emissions," Kovacs writes. "Indeed, the Chamber's platform of technology, efficiency, and a global approach would actually do more to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions than a finding by EPA ever could."

Assuming that's true--and there's no real evidence it is--when did "technology, efficiency, and a global approach" and an endangerment finding become mutually exclusive?

I continue to be appalled that the Chamber, which represents 3 million businesses, some of whom disagree with its stance on cap and trade, is run by people as short-sighted and blatantly dishonest as Kovacs. Even as he distanced himself from the "Scopes" comment and the "climate denier" label, he rolled out a list of "uncertainties" about human-generated climate change, ending in a mention of "the saga of Alan Carlin, the EPA whistleblower whose internal report criticizing the data behind the endangerment finding was ignored." As has been thoroughly addressed here and elsewhere, Carlin is an economist, not a climate scientist, and his report was read and discounted--"ignored," if you will--because it was based on false assumptions and flawed data. That the nation's largest business lobby is really that stupid doesn't bode well for the future of American commerce.

 

Is Peak Oil a Waste of Energy?

That's the thesis of Michael Lynch, a former MIT energy expert turned consultant, in a lengthy New York Times op-ed published last week. "Like many Malthusian beliefs," he writes, "peak oil theory has been promoted by motivated groups of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material." Lynch concludes that oil will come down to $30 a barrel as new supplies come online in the deep waters off Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and "perhaps the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota."

Setting aside the pitfalls of oil shale, it's probably worth noting that Lynch is not your average oil supply forecaster. He's a frequent guest on talk shows who is famed for attacking Peak Oil with the same zeal that proponents defend it. Lynch is one of many disparate voices quoted in a 2005 Times piece, "On Oil Supply, Opinions Aren't Scarce."  And way back in 1998, he wrote "Crying Wolf: Warnings About Oil Supply," where he made some of the same points as he did last week.

It's worth noting that 1998 marked the birth of the modern Peak Oil movement with the publication, that same month, of "The End of Cheap Oil," a Scientific American piece by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, two oil industry veterans every bit as qualified as Lynch. Campbell was Amoco's former chief geologist for Ecuador, who spent a decade studying global oil production trends.  Laherrere supervised production techniques worldwide for Total. All of this is to say that the Peak Oil theory is not just a bunch of blog chatter, as Lynch would have us believe.

Still, sometimes those bloggers manage to shed some light on this arcane debate, as Kevin Rietmann, aka The Dude, did on the Oil Drum, the main online gathering place for the peak oilers, last Thursday. Rietmann broke down a graph comparing the accuracy 2008 oil supply predictions made by Campbell and Lynch in the mid-90s (see below). The result? Campbell underestimated 2008 production, which was just shy of 74 million barrels per day, by 4.79 million barrels per day. But Lynch was even further off, overestimating production by more than 12 million barrels per day.

Of course, as your stockbroker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future profit. Wars, hurricanes, and botched geological assumptions can quickly throw off forecasts, or not. That's why the safest approach is often to consider a wide range of projections from multiple experts. And when you do that with the global supply of conventional oil, one thing is clear: we are running out fast.

Obama Rethinking US Foreign Aid

Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to conduct a broad reassessment of its global development policies. Revamping the government's approach to foreign aid has been a longtime goal of progressives, who see a smarter approach to development projects as a major non-military solution to global insecurity and environmental problems. The liberal Center for American progress cheered that the move begins to put "development alongside diplomacy and defense as a crucial instrument of US foreign policy."

In May, CAP released its "National Strategy for Global Development," a lengthy report that calls for reworking the federal government's balkanized approach to global assistance. The resources for foreign aid "are now spread across 24 government agencies, offices, and departments," it notes, "and are neither centrally coordinated nor guided by clear goals or a national strategy." Among other things, the report suggests appointing a single person to oversee global development policy, focusing on building strong government institutions abroad, and reinvigorating US AID, which had a staff of 15,000 during the Vietnam War but has languished to 3,000 today.

 Obama's executive order asks the National Security Council and National Economic Council to submit a joint report on US development policies by January. Any shakeup that results would come none too soon. CAP has found major flaws in how the US has provisioned aid in Afghanistan, which, along with other hotspots, may ultimately succeed or fail on the effectiveness of roads and schools as much as IEDs and smart bombs.

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