The Guardian has a fairly frightening story today with “climate science maverick” James Lovelock arguing that we shouldn’t even bother with the feel-good green gimmicks — carbon offsetting, recycling, alternative fuels (other than nuclear, which he favors) are a deluded fantasy, he says– because it’s already too late and disaster is inevitable. “Enjoy life while you can,” is his advice. It makes one wonder whether we should be devoting resources, then, to disaster preparation — especially food, Lovelock argues — over carbon taxes and such.
Posts about environment
The other day, I live-blogged the Google Foundation conversation about its work in energy and other areas. What fascinated me was seeing a world as run by engineers. YouTube put up the full video:
I’m at a surprise session with Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the Google Foundation’s Larry Brilliant, moderated by Tom Friedman. Liveblogging:
The key difference between this and the Gore-Bono panel prior to this is that Gore concentrated on the things we must stop doing — as the movement does — while the Google team concentrates on what we can start doing, thanks to technology.
Brilliant says after the Bono and Gore session earlier: “It’s true that climate change takes the oxygen out of the room.” In other words, it takes attention and effort away from poverty and development. He says we have to get over our cultural ADD and handle more than one crisis at a time.
He outlines the Google Foundation’s priorities. They believe that people don’t know what services their governments offer and so they help inform them and help governments get that message out. Another priority is job creation. Less than 15 percent of jobs in the developing world are from small and medium enterprises and they are targeting growth there. In health, they are concentrating on diseases that jump from animal to human, such as AIDS, and become pandemics. They are funding early-warning systems. They concentrate on climate change: making ecological power cheaper than coal-fired power. And they believe electric cars plugged into a green grid will take care of much of our problems.
Larry Page talks about the renewable-power-cheaper-than-coal initiative. Buying a lot of electricity, Google knows that the cheapest came from coal. The cost of electricity as a percentage is going up, he says, and is approaching the cost of the computers themselves. So they want to get it cheaply and get it green. Startups can work selling green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour because there is a demand for renewable energy, he says, but that does not bring real change. “Our primary goal is not to fix the world,” he says, but they do have the power to drive things forward, to get to three cents.
Sergey Brin says the are concentrating on three energy sources: solar-thermal, deep geothermal, and high-altitude wind; if he had to add one, it would be photovoltaic. He says that windmills are on a par with coal but are intermittent and they think it can be even cheaper by using high-altitude wind, through kites, which are cheaper to make that metal windmills. They’ve invested in this and solar-thermal. Deep geothermal is a bit farther off because it requires more fundamental research to get to scale.
What’s the reaction of the energy companies? “They’re pretty good at pushing things into the future and you guys want to claim the future now,” Friedman says. Brin says some of these companies such as BP are invested but Google has an advantage because it does not have a legacy business to cannibalize. Indeed, Google can benefit its core business. “There’s a big bet at some point that you need to make that’s going to take capital.” And Google, he says, in a good position to take that risk.
Asked about the reaction of shareholders, Page says the investment is moderate and there is potential for payoff.
Friedman asks whether they can succeed in this space without taking more of a political position. Brilliant says very few of the people fighting against the climate change movement are bad people: “the have children, they have grandchildren.” He says that the movement has not done a good enough job to communicate. “You can’t separate the quest for dignity and fight poverty from climate change…. We have failed to get that degree of awareness in Congress.”
Friedman quotes Al Gore’s complaint that 3,000 questions asked in Sunday morning programs during the campaign included just three on global warming — equal to the three on UFOs. (Anyone have a citation for that?) “What are we doing, what is Google doing, to reframe the debate?” Friedman asks. Brilliant likens this to the second-hand smoking debate in achieving awareness.
Asked what the next president should do to help their cause, Page responds as an engineer and complains that there has been no research on transmission — which adds to costs — and so he wants a priority on that work from government — an interstate highway system for power, Friedman says. Brin’s answer: Renewable energy is not on a level playing field because of the costs of old energy: health and coal, politics and oil, tariffs on commodities for ethanol, regulation on electric-care development. Brin says they are generating 1.6 megawatts of solar power on their campus. “It’s been great. It produced shade. It reduced cost.” But he says that regulation, federal to local, adds cost. “There’s just all these barriers to clean energy that don’t exist for dirty energy.”
Dirty energy. That’s a nice phrase. As good as death tax.
Page says they are spreading the idea of holding business-plan contests: having events, giving out a little bit of money, helping winners get funding. “In Silicon Valley, they do that for breakfast.” To do that in Ghana, he says, would establish a community to keep this going.
Asked from the floor, by Time’s Michael Elliott, about the theme of the day — environment versus poverty, emphasis on versus — Page says that he gets irritated when people do not realize that the way out of these problems is technology.
I think he’s right: the discussion is too much about what we should not do rather than what we can do.
“You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” Brilliant explains. “Find a way to make electricity — not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.”
I say from the floor that I see a cultural difference between the movement and Google on this. Google has the positive message of the potential for change through technology. I ask about how they are going to get this message out to encourage investment from government and the public. Are they using lobbying, PR, education? Friedman adds that Exxon Mobil has “done a number” on the debate with PR. Brilliant says that their role is to get information to people, as much information as they can. Page says that success is the best message — that is, if they had three-cent power, everyone would come.
Gore, from the audience, takes issue with Brilliant, saying that getting information out is no longer sufficient. “That’s the way the world used to work. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. The reason that the tobacco industry was able to continue killing people for 40 years ater the surger General’s report…. they understood the power of strategic persuasion. They went about it in a very careful, organized, and well-funded way.” He says we are “vulnerable to strategic persuasion campaigns if the other side assumes that we should just get the information out there.” He says Exxon Mobil has funded 40 front groups to “in their own words position global warming as theory rather than fact.” He concludes: “We need to take them on, Goddamnit.”
Brilliant responds, saying he agrees with Gore but adds: “Each of us needs to play the role we are uniquely positioned to play.”
The other unspoken divide is about economics: Gore and Friedman favor raising the cost of carbon. Page and Brin see a victory in reducing the price of the clean energy. Tax versus investment.
Breakfast with Bono and Al with two plates on the table: environment and poverty.
Bono: “If anyone sees my band would you please not tell them that I was up this early.”
Moderator Tom Friedman asks how we’re doing and Gore summarizes in a paragraph, warning about a polar ice cap gone in five years and demanding urgent global action.
“Everybody should be clear this is a planetary emergency,” he declares. “There has been nothing remotely like it in history. We are putting at risk all of civilization. It is difficult to summon the moral imagination to understand the degree of responsibility.”
He says the agenda of poverty and the environment must be tied together. This becomes his chorus for the morning. It is the meeting of agendas.
“We don’t have the good news yet but we have the basis for writing it in the future.”
Bono gives good news about debt cancellation, which he was talking about when he first came to Davos. He says new figures from the World Bank and OECD confirm that “there are 29 million children going to school because of debt cancellation in Africa.”
He then talks about AIDS drugs for Africa and fighting down the attitude of officials who said Africans don’t have wristwatches and couldn’t take a complex regimen. But it does work and he says “there are now 2 million Africans on retrovirals and that’s pretty astonishing.”
But then he laments lack of progress on the Millennium Development Goals and G8 goals to bring the lowest countries up the ladder.
“The good news makes the bad news even worse. We’ve proved that aid can be effective…. And yet, the G8 are not making good largely on their commitments. About half, I would say, is where we’ve got…. It looks like we were taken on a dance.”
Gore says the Millennium Development Goals can be met only if the environmental goals are wrapped in because current agricultural goals will work, but with a two-degree rise in temperature, he says, they will fail.
Bono criticizes media and our attention to poverty. “We have noticed that the interest from the media, which has been so accute on the issue of extreme poverty, is not accute now with the climate crisis at home. These people live a long way from us.” If you said that 10 million children were going to die from the environment, he says, it would get aggressive coverage. But 10 million children will die from poverty.
He talks about his relationship with Gore, who has visited his home. He riffs: “Here’s the recycler, Al. I’ve got a posh car but it runs on ethanol, Al… My wife, it’s like living with Al Gore…. He’s sort of rabbinical or like an Irish priest, you meet him in the supermarket and you confess your sins. Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a diesel sucking… rock star…. I’m trying, Father Al, but to be honest, oil has been very good to me…. Hair gel.”
Gore says it’s important that we move away from the idea that personal action will solve the climate crisis. “In addition to changing the light bulbs, it’s far more important to change the laws…. The one simple thing that will solve the climate crisis is to put a price on carbon.”
Friedman says: “It is far more important to change leaders than light bulbs.” He asks whether “any Democrat will be fine, will put a price on carbon,” or whether “this current economic crisis is coming at exactly the wrong time.” Gore says the three Demcrats “have responsible positions that don’t go far enough. John McCain on the Republican side has a responsible position that doesn’t go far enough.”
Gore says “no change” will be made in the price of carbon “until the people ask for it.”
Friedman later says that environmental movements normally tell governments what not to do but to get a price on carbon, this would require the first popular movement demanding a tax.
Bono says good action comes from popular movements of reform. He also admits that at first, his job was to go to politicians and act as if he had a movement and then wait for that movement to catch up. “It is justice, not charity, that we have always argued.”
Bono says we need a coherent policy on “the three extremes — extreme poverty, extreme climate change, and extreme ideologies.”
“Normally when the world is being reimagined and there’s a new world order — that’s a loaded thing to say around here — it comes after a catastrophe.” He asks that we come to the change before the catastrophe.
Gore praises Bono for getting the presidential candidates to go on the record on the agenda he is pushing..
An aside: “He, by the way, is one of the best politicians I’ve ever run into.”
“I take that as an insult,” says Bono.
“As Groucho Marx said, I resemble that remark.” (Gore never has been the friend of a punch line.)
Indeed, Bono is better at telling his story and making his point. Gore spent too many years trying to get sound bites on TV. For example: “The single thing that reminds us that we are all in this together is the planet.” (to which Friedman nods enthusiastically and seriously, as if this were profound). Gore hits the same points with different words again and again, not knowing which will stick so he keeps throwing. Bono, instead, tells a story.
: Here are Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s impressions.
After the last session on the problems facing the economy and world, a few of us were stunned that terrorism did not even come up. The talk was about markets.
Now Hamid Karzai reminds us of this forgotten priority. He calls it the war on terrorism. “The terrorism we are fighting is an existential force,” he says. “It has nothing to do with religion because if it had anything to do with religion it would not go to kill people in a mosque.” He urges us to eliminate all sanctuaries for terrorism. “The law can only be won if local populations are empowered to confront it.”
Now Rajendra Pachauri, head of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reminds the group at this official opening ceremony about his issue. It is a stultifying laundry list of their standard talking points. Oh, for some PowerPoint.