Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Geoengineering is the ultimate business as usual

You may have read Naomi Klein’s recent Salon interview in which she posits that "Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers", and Joe Romm’s noticeably shrill response on ClimateProgress. In my view Romm was honor-bound to give the critique he gave. The one thing he can’t allow Klein or anyone else to say is that the fix is in, i.e. that fossil fuel corporations have captured government, because that would make his chirpy "better living through green technology" spiel irrelevant, if not duplicitous. Yet the latest IEA numbers clearly show that the global plan is to extract and burn more fossil fuel, not less, while simultaneously testing and deploying a mixed bag of geoengineering methods ("all of the above"). Research into both CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) and SRM (Solar Radiation Management) is already well underway in many countries, thanks to major funding from the usual suspects.

The remaining fossil fuels and their corresponding infrastructure are the most valuable assets ever to exist in human history, by far, but they’re also the largest sunk costs ever to exist. In economic theory, sunk costs aren’t supposed to influence decisions, but observed behavior is frequently less than ideal. To suppose that fossil fuel corporations and their equivalent state actors would willingly abandon such monumental investments, by writing them off as stranded assets, is naive. On the contrary, their business model assumes that the remaining fossil fuels will not only be sold, but sold at ever-increasing prices, i.e. their plan is to profit from scarcity. Geoengineering is seen as just another cost of doing business, its risks quantifiable and subject to standard depreciation.

Between now and 2040, humanity will emit another teraton of CO2, because the alternative is collapse of the ultimate scam, AKA the global economy, which operates by looting posterity. China is already the world’s largest consumer of automobiles, and is busily constructing an interstate highway system three times the size of America’s. We’re reduced to helping them: the Alberta tar sands are destined for them, not us. This is not only because the fossil fuel dynasties seek to preserve their advantages, but more deeply because geoengineering epitomizes humanity’s exceptionalist narrative, which claims that our success flows directly from our specialness, heroism, and ingenuity. The possibility that our success was merely a predictable consequence of the fossil fuel windfall, and therefore temporary and doomed from the start, is as unthinkable as comparing humanity to yeast in a bottle (cf. William R. Catton and many others).

Klein might argue that a sufficiently militant and widespread popular revolution could delay or even prevent this grim development, but I wouldn’t count on it. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a religious person, but if I were, I would pray that geoengineering works.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The go-go years: wallowing in solvents

Boston is encircled by a ring road called Route 128, along which you can occasionally see signs that say "America's Technology Highway." The road earned its title during the rapid development of the post-WWII boom, which particularly affected the emerging electronics industry. Old-timers nostalgically refer to this period as the "go-go years" because everything seemed possible. Job-creators rolled off brand-new exit ramps into towns like Burlington, Massachusetts, carrying briefcases full of money, and town officials cut red tape and issued permits without asking too many questions.

Northwest Park is a woodsy office park in the town of Burlington, perched on a hill near the highway, and packed with low concrete buildings. During the go-go years, most of the tenants were fabricating semiconductors, and in the process routinely using highly toxic solvents. Thousands of barrels of spent solvents--frequently contaminated with other hazardous materials--were casually emptied into unlined gravel pits near the buildings, or in one case literally poured into a hole in the floor. The solvents gradually flowed downhill, under a nearby road and into the town's well field. When the storm sewers along Middlesex Turnpike failed, a Public Works employee was sent down a manhole to take a look, and reported back that the sewer pipes were gone, dissolved away. That's how Burlington officials learned--years too late--that they had a problem.

Thousands of monitoring wells were drilled to map the solvent plumes and track their inexorable spread. Some of the drinking water wells had to be permanently retired, and a huge industrial facility was built next to the well field, designed to pump groundwater up, through filters, and back into the ground. Smaller filtration stations were installed in the office park, carefully concealed in rustic wooden sheds. After the filters failed to achieve the desired result, vast quantities of potassium permanganate were injected into the ground, in an attempt to neutralize the solvents, which tend to pool beneath rocks. Arsenic and PCB were also found in some locations, and new surprises turn up regularly. It's not unusual to see contractors pressure-washing rocks, or trucking away a whole hillside, at state expense of course. There are hundreds of documents on Northwest Park in the state environmental department's database, spanning forty years, and totaling tens of thousands of pages.

And that's just one office park in one small suburb of Boston. And that's a success story, in the sense that some of the perpetrators ("responsible parties" in the jargon) could be identified, were still in business, and were eventually forced via interminable litigation to cough up some money. But such happy endings are rare. Many Massachusetts sites were so severely contaminated that remediation would bankrupt the state, and since in most of those cases the responsible parties are unknown or long defunct, the federal government ends up holding the bag. Those cases are Superfund sites, and they also form a ring around Boston, roughly following America's Technology Highway.

Multiply Boston's example times hundreds of other American cities--some facing much worse contamination--and you can begin to reckon the true costs of the go-go years, not just in terms of monumental waste of public funds, but in terms of illness, deformity, and untimely death. It would have been far cheaper to avoid dumping hazardous waste in the first place. Nonetheless job-creators consistently chose to maximize short-term profits, gambling that future costs would be borne by faceless others. Economists call such costs externalities, and steeply discount them. Externalities are for victims.

Northwest Park hazardous waste - Google Maps

Superfund sites in Middlesex County, Massachusetts - Google Maps

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Time to wake up indeed

To the Honorable Michael Capuano:

Dear Sir,

The Honorable Sheldon Whitehouse's "Time to Wake Up" speech exemplifies the bold leadership that must prevail to give future generations a fighting chance of survival. He showed tremendous courage today, and your constituents expect nothing less from you. Why haven't you used your time on the floor to denounce the GOP's sociopathic climate science denial, as he claims to have done thirty-three times? His speech should have been front-page news, and still could be with support from his fellow Democrats. The world's richest and most powerful people have declared war on the future, and they're winning. Will you be remembered for standing by helplessly while we surrendered to our most pathologically self-destructive impulses? Or will you be remembered for rising to the occasion, and fighting to the bitter end, not merely for our biological survival, but for a humane, civilized future worthy of our extraordinary accomplishments and potential?

Sincerely yours,

Chris Korda

PS I enclose a link to the speech for your convenience:
Time to Wake Up: GOP Opposition to Climate Science

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Heroic drinking

Oregon man spends $27,000 on a single bottle of Scotch

I find it fascinating that criticism of selfishness is consistently interpreted as envy. Why should we envy selfishness? It's nothing to be proud of. If anything it's proof of social failure. A society that values accumulation of wealth above all else isn't a society at all, it's a corporation.

Inequality of wealth hasn't been this extreme in the United States since before the Gilded Age (the "Robber Baron" period gives the best fit) and yet everyone's busy defending it. It's as though CNN's forums were populated entirely by the 1%, but of course that's impossible: the 1% are busy quaffing their overpriced liquor.

Are we supposed to worship the most conspicuous consumers, as if selfishness was heroic? Is that what civilization has been reduced to? I would expect to hear this type of rhetoric at a John Birch society meeting circa 1950. That I'm hearing it in the 21st century, on the forum of one the world's most powerful corporations, as climate change barrels down on us all like a geological-scale freight train, does not bode well for the longevity of homo sapiens.