Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Defining the Problem

What caused the Gulf oil spill? To describe how it happened is easy enough. Most people generally agree with the following series of events. On April 20, 2010, a huge fire erupted on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 and injuring 17 others. The fire was most likely caused when a large pocket of methane gas came up the pipes from the underwater well and exploded on the rig. After burning uncontrollably for a day and a half, the rig sank into the ocean. Oil soon started flowing out of the uncapped well in large but undetermined amounts. To date, British Petroleum and its subsidiaries have been unable to stop the flow of oil despite several attempts.

This description of events does not, however, explain what went wrong deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Was the spill caused by a failed blowout preventer? Are regulators or oil companies to blame? Is this an inevitable outcome of a society dependent on fossil fuel energy? Which explanation we choose will have vital consequences for our response to the crisis. More than any other factor, how we come to understand the Gulf oil spill will structure how we attempt to solve it.

We are accustomed to thinking of problem-solving as a two-stage process where a situation is investigated first and solutions are developed afterwards. However, these two steps are not independent: the way that a problem is defined creates a particular view of what the proper solutions are and who is responsible for implementing them. Problems and solutions are mutually constitutive.

We can already see several possible explanations for the Gulf oil spill circulating through society. Here I lay out four problem framings with their accompanying solutions.

First, this could be considered a failure of technology: the blowout preventer is to blame. On this view, the safety device installed by BP and its subsidiaries to close the well in the case of an accident did not work correctly. If we understand the problem to be a failed blowout preventer, the solution is straightforward: design better safety devices and pass regulations requiring their use. The responsible parties would then be the oil companies (to develop the better technologies) and the relevant regulatory agencies (to develop stronger regulations).

Second, the situation could be explained as a result of capture: the cozy relationships between industry and regulators that lead to weak regulations and lax enforcement. The fact that the Mineral Management Service (MMS) was responsible for both regulating off-shore drilling companies and collecting revenue payments from them created a financial incentive against effective regulation. MMS officials encouraged drilling to increase revenues instead of enforcing strict safety regulations. The solution on this view is an independent regulatory structure, a reform that is already underway (on May 20, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a secretarial order breaking MMS into separate divisions for energy development, enforcement, and revenue collection). This reading of the problem requires actions by government regulators.

Third, the oil spill can be seen as the result of corporate hubris: a rapacious company acting to maximize its profits at any cost. On this view, BP, in its ongoing quest to maximize shareholder value, rushed into deepwater drilling without adequate understanding of the potential risks. Moreover, the company cut costs by minimizing investment in safety equipment and overlooked the reports of engineers who raised warning bells. The proper solution under this framing is a series of punitive measures against BP and its subsidiaries including lawsuits to recoup the costs of cleanup, the revoking of off-shore drilling licenses, increased taxes, and boycotts of BP fueling stations. Most of these actions would be taken by Congress and regulators; consumers would be responsible for the boycotts.

Fourth, the oil spill can be seen as the result of excessive social dependence on fossil fuel energy. Given the world’s insatiable demand for oil, big spills can be seen as an inevitable outcome. No amount of safety equipment or measures can prevent some form of accident from happening when complex technological systems, unpredictable environments, and capitalism interact. On this reading, the proper response is to wean society from fossil fuel energy. Practically all members of society would be called to action: government agencies to fund renewable energy development, put a fair price on carbon, and require renewable energy use; corporations to develop new energy technologies; and consumers to alter modes of consumption.

If American history is any guide, it is fair to assume that policymakers will favor the technological fix. Americans have long been captivated by the potential of technology to fix problems. Moreover, such a solution has two substantial benefits. First, it deflects blame away from human actors, and second, it is easy to accept because it places responsibility on a relatively narrow set of actors to solve a clearly defined problem. If such a reading of the problem becomes commonly accepted, we can expect that the oil spill will play out similarly to the investigations of the NASA Challenger disaster in 1986. A defective o-ring was identified as the culprit, setting the stage for a set of technological fixes such as redesigning the rocket boosters. Although some investigations pointed out flaws in the organizational culture, NASA created a band-aid solution to these critiques by setting up a few oversight boards. The problem, and therefore the solution, was assumed to be technological in nature.

For those who believe there are deep interconnections between energy and society, a technical fix to the current crisis is clearly inadequate. As many critics pointed out, NASA’s failure to address deeper and more systemic organizational problems contributed to the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The current crisis is an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the interactions between their personal consumption decisions, several decades of neoliberal deregulation of energy markets, a pervasive ideology of economic growth, and the environment in which we live. Such an approach has the potential to lead to meaningful changes in the ways we produce, transport, and consume energy. However, this can only happen if society comes to accept that more went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico than a broken blowout preventer.

For better or worse, the solutions to the Gulf oil spill disaster will largely be a product of the way the problem is defined. If we care to get the solutions right, then we should pay close attention to how we define what went wrong.

(Note: this column was originally posted on H-Energy on July 7, 2010 as part of a roundtable on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill).

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Seduction of Innovation

Innovation is the watchword of our day. Listen to pundits on radios and televisions and you’ll hear a consistent message. We need innovative responses to urban poverty, the U.S. economy, and medical care. Name a hot topic, and you can find prominent spokespeople advocating the value of more innovation. Innovation has become our society’s default response to addressing social problems.

This is particularly true for our energy systems. Contemporary energy debates are littered with calls for more innovation. We need innovation because the United States is falling behind China in clean technology. We need innovation, we are told, in our collaborations between industry, government, and universities. We need innovation in small businesses, think tanks, and research institutions to generate the next generation of clean energy solutions.

On the surface, there seems to be little wrong with such claims. What is the problem with inventing better solutions, developing new technologies, or doing more with less? To take a position against innovation seems rather like being against puppies and apple pies. Well, to take this analogy further, puppies can pee on the floor and pie can make us fat, so perhaps such observations enable us to examine innovation more critically.

To put it bluntly, innovation is problematic because it has become a limiting perspective on the world around us. If you are a hammer, the world tends to look like a nail. Innovation has become our society’s hammer, and we are forgetting that we have other tools.

For example, appeals to innovation imply that we lack the knowledge, technologies, or skills to solve our problems. In today’s world, this is not always the case. We already know a great deal about how to address our energy problems. There are a wide variety of solutions we could implement today that require no innovation. We could pass a carbon tax, implement energy efficiency programs with existing technologies, and expand the distribution of renewable energy systems. None of these actions require innovation to implement. If we already know many things to do, then calls for innovation are problematic because they distract us from acting immediately on solutions already at our fingertips.

Another problem with innovation is that it advocates a particular set of relationships between government, the private sector, and the free market. In short, innovation is remarkably consistent with free-market principles, limited government, and a belief that the private sector will solve our problems. Innovation and neoliberalism complement each other to a surprising degree. However, this might not be the only set of relationships between government, markets, and industries that is beneficial. For example, many people have called for the U.S. to engage in a Manhattan or Apollo Project for renewable energy. The creation of the atomic bomb and the lunar mission, it should be remembered, were accomplished under a very different set of relationships between public and private than is popular in today’s rhetoric. Government officials directed large sources of capital, organized projects, and actively shaped the activities of hundreds of subcontractors. Centralized planning, rather than innovation, characterized these projects. Broadly speaking, such efforts succeeded and might work again. But the key point is that these projects were based on a different set of ideas about the right relations between public and private than are implicit in calls for innovation. An exclusive focus on innovation, therefore, diminishes the potential of other management approaches such as central planning to aid us in our efforts.

In sum, innovation is not a bad thing, but we need to use it more critically. In our current age, it is all too common to treat innovation as the solution to any problem. We would do much better if we retained a full set of tools and approaches for addressing issues. When the world calls for a hammer, we should use a hammer. But let’s not love the hammer so much that we turn the world into a nail.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Getting to the Heart of Climate Science Debates

The public release of a series of emails between climate scientists in November of 2009 created a widespread controversy. In and of itself, this is quite fascinating. In our anti-intellectual age, the fact that the correspondence of a small group of nerds became a topic of widespread debate is surprising, to say the least. For several weeks, the personal lives of climate scientists were discussed alongside the vacations, romances, and indiscretions of celebrities. In an unexpected twist, the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and Paris Hilton suddenly had common ground on which to commiserate.

Climategate, as the scandal became known, provides no end of opportunities to reflect on the interconnections between science and society. Does the fact that scientists are not always nice people influence the ways we understand their knowledge claims? Why has there been so little media attention dedicated to the illegal hacking of private servers? When will society began to recognize more broadly that scientific knowledge production is a messy process and that deviations from the ideals of the scientific method are the norm, rather than the exception?

Here I want to focus on one particular aspect of climate science skepticism more generally: the curious focus by broad groups of people on the epistemological correctness of scientific claims. In most domains, the claims of scientists are largely ignored. When was the last time you overheard people talking heatedly about the protein folding patterns? In climate science, such claims are at the forefront. Why are people so animated about the alleged massaging of statistical data, the accuracy of tree ring evidence, and the soundness of Himalayan glacier melting estimates? Does this represent a sudden uptick of interest in science across broad segments of the public?

I doubt it. Instead, I think it is more useful to understand the debates over climate data as a proxy for deeper questions about the proper role of science in a democratic society.

Science is not simply a method for asking and answering questions about the natural world we live in. Our views about what science should be performed, who should fund it, and what we should do with the results reflect broader notions about what type of world we should live in. When we hear someone ask “how accurate are the models?” we should realize that they may be asking “who has the right to make policy-relevant knowledge?” as well. “Do predictions of glacial melting incorporate the latest findings?” can also mean “what type of local, national, and international governance is appropriate for addressing climate change?”

Let me spell out these distinctions with two hypothetical examples of how a climate scientist and a climate skeptic might approach the role of science in society. According to our imagined climate scientist, the following claims make sense: knowledge should be made by the best and the brightest; policy makers should base their actions on scientific facts; international government agencies are best capable of addressing a problem that is global in scale; society should act aggressively when scientists report risks; governments should impose whatever tax burden on society is deemed necessary to address the risk.

Our hypothetical climate skeptic adheres to a different view of the relationships between science and society: knowledge that can only be created and understood by a few is elitist and therefore untrustworthy; scientific evidence is one among a broad set of criteria for determining policy; actions taken by international governmental agencies may undercut local autonomy and self-rule; a conservative policy agenda will address the wide range of social problems better over time than knee-jerk reactions; the social costs of policies must be weighed against any potential benefits.

Clearly, there are many actors in climate science debates and they hold a wide variety of opinions not captured by this simple schematic. However, the point of this example is to show that how people understand facts is intimately linked to their conception of a good world. In other words, facts are normative. As a result, when we hear debates over the facts, we should be listening for the underlying conversations.

With these thoughts in mind, one of the unfortunate aspects of our current climate debates is that because the discussion is about scientific facts, we are missing chances to have broader discussions about a shared future. While humans have rarely managed to reach consensus about the best ways to live together in the world, such dialogue is all too rare in this day and age. If we were to discuss the relations between science and the state, our commitments to ourselves and future generations, and the best ways to achieve these goals, we might come a lot closer to addressing climate change than by focusing narrowly on the accuracy of scientific facts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Weightier Analogy

Americans, we are being told, are energy addicts. Even George Bush has declared that Americans are addicted to oil. With the surge of interest in energy resulting from high gasoline prices, the energy addiction analogy is all over the newspapers, television, and Internet.

Analogies are important. They help us make sense of a complex world. By framing issues in familiar ways, they tell us what is wrong and how we might go about fixing them. However, this is where we need to be careful. Because analogies shape how we think about problems, we need to be sure their suggested solutions will actually work.

At first glance, the energy-dependence-as-drug-addiction analogy makes sense.  It evokes a sense of crisis. It also implies irrational dependence. Just as drug addicts know the dangers of using yet feel unable to stop, we continue to pump gas into SUVs, overcool shopping malls, and leave the lights on, even though we know we shouldn’t.

The analogy breaks down, however, when we try to solve the problem. The solution to drug addiction is to kick drugs completely, but this won’t work for energy. Human life depends on it. Without a minimum amount of energy for heating, cooking, and growing food, we’d all be dead. Instead, we need an analogy that distinguishes between uses of energy that are essential and those that are wasteful.

A better analogy is that Americans are “energy obese.” It’s as if Americans are consuming the energy equivalent of an 8,000-calorie diet every day. Our energy bingeing is leading to all kinds of problems, such as high grocery bills (economic problems), less food for others (geopolitical tensions), and damaged bodies (environmental pollution). But, now that we are used to 8,000 calories a day, we have trouble imagining how to live with less.

The solution for an energy-obese nation is not going cold turkey: it’s starting a healthy and sustainable diet. What would this mean?

First, we need to get rid of the excessive energy we consume every day. No more energy junk food-—goodbye large SUVs, air-conditioned stores that leave their doors open and inefficient appliances. Just as a doctor would tell us to grab an apple in the afternoon instead of a donut, we need to take advantage of all the energy-saving activities we can, such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents and turning down the thermostat in the wintertime. And we’ll need to exercise. We can replace some of our demand for fossil fuel with muscle power by biking to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking to the store. This may have the extra benefit of reducing both physical and energy love handles.

Learning to live without all these extra calories will not be easy. It may require the political equivalent of stomach stapling. We’ll need laws that encourage energy-efficient behaviors and align the price of fossil fuels with the costs of global warming and foreign wars. Strategies could include placing caps on carbon emissions, developing renewable energy resources and enhancing public transportation systems. Such measures would be difficult and expensive.  However, in the richest nation in the world, we have the resources to do this.

Second, we need to figure out a sustainable supply of energy that would provide people with the energy equivalent of a 2,000-calorie diet. As in nutrition, not all calories are alike. Right now, almost all our calories come from fossil fuels, which are the energy equivalents of trans fats. Only 7 percent of our energy comes from healthy and sustainable renewable energy sources. We need to change this ratio by planting and eating more energy vegetables (wind), whole grains (solar) and fresh fruit (hydropower). As with food, we should get as much of our energy from local sources as possible. We can do this by
increasing government support for research into emerging technologies, providing incentives for renewable energy entrepreneurs and making conscious decisions to live with less.

Although calling Americans “energy obese” doesn’t suggest the same sense of crisis as “energy addicted,” it better captures how we should treat the problem. We don’t need a detox program; we need a healthier relationship with energy consumption. A new energy diet is just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Holiday from Sanity

We should call recent proposals for a “gas tax holiday” what they are: a holiday from sound thinking, responsible governance, and any tenable solution to our widespread energy problems. Or, as Thomas Friedman has recently written, it is just plain “dumb.”

It may not have been a great surprise when John McCain recommended that the government suspend its tax on gasoline (18.4 cents per gallon) for the summer driving season. Hillary Clinton’s recent decision to join him is much more deplorable, given her history of working with, rather than against, policy experts (those experts largely suggest the gains to individuals will be quite minimal). Now several states are joining in the discussion as well.

In explaining their support for this measure, various politicians claim to care about the negative consequences high gas prices have for many Americans (a cynic would note they likely care more about their poll numbers than regular people, but that is another matter). Their claim of caring for people is powerful politically, but we need to look at it more closely if we want to actually address the roots of suffering.

There are a lot of things we should care about. We should care that the increasing cost of gasoline is negatively impacting the lives of millions of Americans who need their cars to drive to work, drop children off at school, and run errands. For these people, the increasing price of gas impacts their ability to work, seek medical care, and support their families. Moreover, these impacts are often felt most acutely by the poorest members of society, who often have the longest commutes and lowest levels of savings.

We should care about other issues as well. We should care that our dependence on oil has led us into a disastrous war in Iraq. We should care that the transportation sector is one of the major contributors to global warming. We should care that Americans drive more than anyone else. We should care that America is addicted to oil and that these types of problems will only get worse unless we address this dependence.

In other words, we cannot separate caring about people from caring about solving the issues that are causing the problems. Our caring must extend beyond the short term. This can only be done by connecting relief efforts with long-range policies designed to alleviate the structural conditions that created the problems in the first place. Bottom line: if we are offering short-term relief, it had better include long-term answers.

Along this line, here are some alternative proposals that make a lot more sense:

First, if we are committed to a gas tax holiday, it should be linked with one or more of the following conditions: a) an increased tax on the purchase of vehicles getting less than 25 miles per gallon; b) every dollar saved by the gas tax holiday is matched by a dollar-for-dollar investment in renewable energy technologies; and/or c) a significant increase in the fuel economy standards for all classes of vehicles.

A second set of policy considerations would look at why Americans drive so much. One of the reasons is that real estate developers and corporations have been establishing living and working spaces that are increasingly far apart. To counter this trend, we should provide incentives for developers and companies to create houses and offices that are centrally located to one another and to public transportation hubs. By contrast, we should discourage suburban sprawl through measures that penalize such developments. Call this the “McMansion tax.”

Third, we can begin work to revitalize public transportation systems so that Americans have alternatives to driving. Given that it is extraordinarily unlikely the price of gas is ever going to return to its low levels of a decade ago, the economics of public transportation are looking better and better. However, these systems require significant public investment to develop the infrastructure that makes their smooth operations possible. We should begin these investments now.

None of these policies will solve our energy problems alone. However, they will go a lot further than the chicanery of a gas tax holiday. We should use the present crisis as motivation to solve our problems, not just wave a populist flag at them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Nuclear Lesson

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine just announced an ambitious new energy plan designed to reduce the state’s carbon dioxide emissions. Many are supportive of New Jersey’s efforts, in particular its goals to derive 20% of its power from renewable sources and to decrease overall consumption. However, one part of the plan has caused considerable consternation: the recommendation that New Jersey build a new nuclear plant.

The fact that nuclear power is being counted on to improve the health of the planet should give us pause. For several decades, environmentalists identified nuclear energy as one of earth's greatest dangers due to the handling and storing of radioactive waste and the possibility of plant meltdowns. In addition to its environmental risks, nuclear power has never been competitive economically. No nuclear power plant has been built in the United States since 1973, largely because public utilities have chosen to invest in cheaper options.

Even though nothing has been done to alleviate these environmental and economic concerns, nuclear energy is poised for a resurgence, as exemplified by New Jersey’s energy plan. The obvious explanation is global warming. Fears of a warming planet have reframed the environmental and economic worries of nuclear energy. The industry has been given new life because of the ability of nuclear energy to produce large quantities of electricity with comparably few greenhouse gas emissions (provisions in recent energy bills promising subsidies for nuclear power plants have helped as well).  

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that nuclear energy is only attractive because it is the lesser of several evils. This is not the same thing as being a good option. We need to ask ourselves how we got into a situation where our energy options are so limited that building an incredibly expensive and environmentally risky nuclear power plant makes sense.

How did we get here? Three sets of historical decisions have shaped our present position: heavy government subsidy of nuclear energy, a failure to make proactive decisions surrounding climate change, and a lack of investment in renewable energy technologies.

First and foremost, the only reason nuclear power can enter contemporary energy debates is that the industry has received tens of billions of dollars of investment from the U.S. government over the last sixty years. Much of this funding was political in nature: after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government was eager to show that the most destructive technology ever constructed could also help society. The idea of a nuclear “swords to ploughshares” program justified the investment of billions of dollars in nuclear energy programs to elite policymakers. Even though the results rarely matched the hype, the continued government support of nuclear power ultimately enabled the industry to become relatively well-developed, if not fully financially solvent. The critical point to keep in mind is that without huge quantities of government funding, nuclear power would not be an option today.

The second historical thread is the failure of the United States and other industrialized nations to proactively address global warming. By the 1970s, and certainly by the beginning of the 1990s, there was an emerging scientific consensus that the atmospheric effects of burning fossil fuels were leading to a warming of the planet. The United States has paid almost no heed to these warnings (some nations, such as Europe and Japan have taken more aggressive steps towards reducing emissions, although rhetoric has exceeded reality most of the time). The failure to begin taking proactive steps despite clear scientific evidence has exacerbated the present situation, forcing us to investigate all options for reducing greenhouse gases, even nuclear power.

Third, and related to the above point, one of the most effective interventions would have been to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies to lessen dependence on fossil fuels. The ability of the government to invest heavily in developing energy technologies is proven by the example of nuclear energy. If some of those billions of dollars over the past sixty years had been invested in developing solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, and other renewable technologies, these technologies would be much more commercially developed. As a result, we could be in a position to derive a much greater part of our energy requirements from renewable technologies. Such investments would likely have made a goal of achieving 20% of New Jersey’s energy from renewables seem as pathetic as Bush’s latest climate policy.

These past decisions have shaped today’s reality. Since we cannot go back and change the past, the best we can do is to learn from it. The nuclear lesson is that whatever we do today will structure the options available to our children, for better or for worse. If we choose to continue on our present course, our children will inherit a world of resource scarcity and a considerably warmer planet. Hopefully we can do better. If we invest heavily in renewable energy technologies that have minimal environmental risks (and not all renewable energy technologies are equal in this regard—see my post on the problems of ethanol, for example) we have a chance to give the next generation a legacy of solutions to accompany the challenges we will undoubtedly leave them as well.

The past dealt the present a bad hand for dealing with climate change. It’s up to us to take proactive steps to stack the deck in favor of the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Return of the King

King Coal ruled the nineteenth century.  Marx and Engels were on to something when they identified the dark and satanic mills of England as emblematic of a new era.  The ability of coal to provide heat, power steam engines, and forge iron enabled the rise of an industrial society that would forever change the world. 

Coal disappeared from the popular imagination during the twentieth century.  Oil and nuclear power took its place as both the automobile and the atom became symbols of a new world.  However, it is a mistake to regard coal as a relic of the past.  When historians look back at the twenty-first century, a major theme is likely to be the return of coal to its status as king of energy sources.

Of course, coal never went away in the twentieth century.  In absolute terms, its consumption steadily increased.  However, people have much less direct contact with coal these days, and as a result, its visibility has diminished.  The main reason is that most coal in industrialized nations is burnt in electric power plants far away from consumers.  It is easy to forget that coal provides over half the power used in electric devices like laptops, refrigerators, and television sets.

While coal has been a crucial part of the twentieth century, its importance is likely to increase during the twenty-first as a result of two related trends.  The first is the ratio of coal reserves relative to other hydrocarbons.  The second is China and India.  

The first major factor encouraging the rise of coal is supply.  Simply put, there is a lot more coal out there than anything else.  Estimates of global reserves vary from source to source, but are consistent in emphasizing that coal reserves exceed those for oil and natural gas.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that there are 164 years of coal remaining as opposed to 65 years for natural gas.  There is greater controversy in citing oil reserves, but virtually all cite a figure of less than 100 years at current rates of consumption.  Barring unprecedented gains in non-hydrocarbon resources, by the latter half of the twenty-first century, coal will once again be the most widely available and used energy source.

The second factor is China and India.  These countries have three important things in common: huge populations, booming economies, and large coal reserves.  The consequences of this are pretty straightforward.  China and India will consume massive quantities of energy in the twenty-first century, largely through burning coal.  As these nations begin to represent an increasing percentage of global energy use, it will cause a corresponding shift in the make-up of the world's energy mix towards coal.

The increasing use of coal will not be good for the environment.  Most coal in its natural state contains many more impurities, such as sulfur, than oil or natural gas.  Increasing our consumption of coal will mean more carbon dioxide and more particulates in the air.  More than just our mills may be dark and satanic.  

What should we do about this?  First, we need to recognize the trends so that we can act accordingly.  One approach is to invest in clean coal technology.  While "clean coal" may be an oxymoron, there is no doubt that technologies such as stack scrubbers have significantly lessened the environmental impacts of coal-burning power plants.  Whether it is carbon sequestration or other approaches to reducing the environmental impacts of coal burning, we should be investing in them now.  At the same time, we should increase our investments in renewable energy resources to lower the demand for coal.

Once these technologies are developed, it is important that developing nations like China and India get free access to them.  Global warming can only be addressed from an international perspective.  However, many of these technologies, at least initially, are likely to be expensive and beyond the reach of developing nations.  Industrialized nations like the United States must realize that much of their wealth has been derived by burning hydrocarbons and accept a disproportionate role in paying for solutions.

King Coal will return.  It's up to us to be prepared.