Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some climate ideas to save

I originally wrote this as a letter to Revkin, for possible publication as a "Your Dot" post on his NYT blog DotEarth, a response requested by Andy to this article here. It wasn't published, so I'm saving it here in case I want it again.

(Responding to "Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question."

It’s an interesting read, and I agree with much of the gist, although I’m somewhat more more gung-ho on the prospects for solar, wind, and related tech like control systems and batteries, including those needed to run fossil fuel vehicles. I’m professionally closer to and more aware of the emerging technology and economics than the author is, so I can easily quibble with some of his points.

But where Mr. Lindberg and I can agree is that denial is on both sides. In fact, I don’t think the piece comes even close to enumerating and specifying all the kinds and levels of denial I think exist in the climate debate. And some of these other areas have yet more insurmountable difficulties associated with them than the ones he mentions (most of which can be overcome by technology).

For instance, there is incredible denial right now on the interactions and “feedback” systems we’re currently building, possibly quite permanently, into our political system. Imagine what happens if things continue as they are, in ten or fifteen years' time, and the Republican Party becomes irretrievably the party of climate denial and untrammeled fossil fuel usage, to the point where the GOP must effectively crash and bottom out as a party before they are willing to compromise on climate economics; while the Democrats become similarly irretrievably the party of renewables and efficiency? I see this as the kind of scenario that led to the Civil War. One party, the South, was so existentially challenged by the economic proposals of the other (i.e., give up all that capital value you have tied up in slaves), that they couldn’t begin to countenance them politically. They preferred to try physical aggression than to continue to try to argue it out further politically, especially when they began to lose politically (after Lincoln was elected). The North tried its level best to paint them into this particular corner, led in large part by activists (in denial?).

I’m not blaming the North for the Civil War, nor the abolitionists. I just don’t see any other solution at the time for the elite leaders of the South at the time than economic ruin.

If I’m right about this partial parallel, then we’re in bigger trouble than we think. I think a much higher level of political stress, perhaps leading to street violence if not civil war, is certainly a possible outcome if current trends continue. Simply put, climate change requires that important elite individuals that own fossil fuels and related capital give up on, say, eighty percent or more of the potential capital value in those investments. That isn’t quite economic ruin, considering how rich most such individuals are, but it’s close.

Right now these individuals are just fighting back with politics, albeit fairly dirty politics, and the GOP is only somewhat wittingly their main agent, and this is working for them. But eventually, after a few more extreme weather events, say, that kind of resistance won’t work anymore. What then? Will the GOP peel away from the Koch brothers and their ilk to save itself? Will these “fossil elites” resort to sponsoring violent protests? Will this remain a populist issue in particularly heavily fossil-powered states, so that elite holders of fossil capital can maintain a populist "army” of resistance (similar to the poor, non-slave-holding whites in the CSA?). Could Texas try to secede, so it can continue burning oil at high levels?

It’s all worth thinking about, particularly as those of us who want to see change make more and more investments and commitments politically. I think these are fairly obviously predictable possibilities. We should be strategic and careful about those commitments. We could easily paint our opponents into a corner this way.

I hate to write such a jeremiad without offering some solutions to the difficulties I raise. One is more democracy — more power to ordinary people and less to the fossil elites. That way we could begin to pass, for instance, more regional climate bills like RGGI here in New England, or AB32 in California. There’s an inherent socio-economic feedback loop in this,  in that investments in renewables have intrinsic local and regional economic multipliers. They help grow the local and regional economy simply because they stem the export of money for fossil fuels. This is something we can begin to document and track. Success in California and New England ought to begin to begat success. I also like divestment as a strategy, but then I’m biased, working at Unity College.

Another kind of denial that I think about a lot occurs in both liberal and conservative views of international climate policy. The recently announced agreement with China was very helpful, but a similar agreement with the major fossil-fuel owning countries, many of which are not at all democratic, is probably going to be beyond our reach for the foreseeable. A similar gang of global "fossil elites" has effective ownership of many international fossil assets. Putin’s Russia is one example, the members of OPEC comprise several others. Neither liberals nor conservatives wish these international fossil elites particularly well. We have a shared interest in weakening them. These powers also have to be defeated politically before a real climate solution can be achieved.

Most climate advocates concentrate on trying to convince their national governments to reduce emissions, but what we really need in the long run is a kind of "League of Democracies against Climate Change", so we can begin to garner to ourselves enough political power to enforce an international climate settlement. This takes a very different kind of strategy, one that would see an effective climate endgame as resulting from strengthening democratic governance in the US and its democratic allies, not from weakening it by what could easily be called penny-ante attacks on relatively minor national-level emissions regulations.

Again, the solution I offer is more democracy — more information, for instance, has to reach the citizens of Putin’s putative New Russian Empire than currently is. More power to ordinary Russians, less to Putin’s fossil elites. But again, there’s an inherent and helpful socio-economic feedback. The more for instance, that the EU invests in renewables and efficiency (and nukes), the less they need Putin’s gas.

Putin’s fossil-based strategy for power is currently collapsing quite nicely, so we can see where to go on this. Not for the right reasons, unfortunately. Mostly he seems to be getting punished by the Sunni members of OPEC for Syria, among other defaults, and one consequence of lower oil prices will be that increased consumption will cancel out the benefits of recent emissions reduction in the EU and USA. But the West should double down if it can and bring him or preferably his successors to the table, on Ukraine, Syria, and eventually on climate emissions. Climate advocates should be in the vanguard of these developments, strengthening Obama’s hand in this domestically, if we can. If we think we can get to a global climate settlement without defeating Putin politically, then we’re in denial. But we’re also in denial if we think we can defeat Putin politically without giving the national aspirations of ordinary Russians someplace to go, in other words, if we paint them into a corner at the same time.

I don’t think there are many climate advocates that entertain these kinds of concerns very much at all. And that, as Mr. Lindberg points out for other similar issues, is clearly a problem of denial. But bottom line, when you begin to realize that the people, the fossil elites, who really benefit from the status quo are quite few, then the problem seems somewhat more surmountable.

All this assumes that you feel, as I do, relatively positive about the prospects for renewable energy, efficiency, and related technology like electric vehicles, and you see it as inherently less centralized and thus more democratic. (It’s inherently more libertarian too — a furrow we could plow more! Here’s an example.).

Mr. Lindberg, presumably is less than convinced right now about the effectiveness and economic power of renewables. I can’t say I blame him, given the situations he describes (and does so, I think, quite accurately), but I tend to want to believe that I’m closer to the truth on this. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

(But if I remember right, it was at least seven or eight years ago I was telling you that domestic, “behind the meter” solar power would soon be close to grid parity, and now it clearly is beyond that in most states.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Advice to a mature student

(I sometimes post some of my correspondence on my blogs, if it's interesting or useful to other people. This seemed to fit the bill.)


Hey Mick,

As my adviser, I was hoping you could advise me :)

I am struggling with the increase in tuition and what is needed for rent. I've been applying for scholarships and trying to find a job. I want to stay in school and accomplish something in life. I have family and friends that tell me to quit and get a "real" job, but that is why I am in school, to better myself, to help others who want to succeed and encourage people to make a change to preserve the world instead of depleting it.

I need direction because I have none, not many people I know have graduated a four-year program, let alone are doing something to preserve the environment.

It is a dream to graduate from Unity College and I'm now wondering if its even a possibility. I'm not afraid to work for it, I just don't what to do.

thank you for your time,




Good. We’re ready to think things through properly.

First up, one purpose of a four-year degree is to train leaders to solve complicated, convoluted problems. You seem to have a private personal complicated convoluted problem that is something like “WTF do I do with my life?” Am I right? Is there a better way to put it? Try to nail it for me. I’m serious here. Get to the bottom of things. Don’t hold back. Be a good critical thinker.

If that’s the root problem, “WTF do I do with my life?”, or something like it, then one solution to the problem is “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career.” There are other equally good solutions, like, “Drop out and become a lotus-eating Zen master” or “Join the marines and see the world.” As a college professor of long experience advising undergraduates, I am agnostic on which solutions are best. It’s your life, after all. Who am I to say what you should do? What I want out of the deal are willing students who are motivated to learn, so your choices must be freely made.

It’s important to also note that some of these other solutions are WAY cheaper than a four-year college degree. Like, the marines will actually pay you to see the world. In the interest of full and fair disclosure, I also have to say that it’s possible to have a great career without even getting a college degree. If you’re Steve Jobs, that is, or someone creative and driven like he was. Most people aren’t, so they take a degree to make up for it.

If you put your thinking cap on and work from the “WFT.?” question and eventually do get to the solution of “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career,” then it naturally follows that another decision must then be made: “Where to go to school?”

Unity College is one place to go to school, but only one of many, and middle-of-the-road expensive. Why pick Unity?

One answer is that Unity College is an acknowledged leader in a thing called the "sustainability movement” and has been for over a decade now, since the late 1990s, in fact. This is a very broad and hard-to-define movement, but it exists, and can certainly be an environment where a person can have a serious interesting career helping to solve some very difficult problems like climate change or biodiversity loss. So coming to Unity can definitely help you join the sustainability movement, if that is what you really, really want to do.

Note that these environmental problems are not very well understood by the majority of people. The average person, even someone who had a decent education, if given the exhortation “join the sustainability movement to help solve climate change” would be very confused, and one response they might have to that confusion would be that this is bad advice and they might then tell you so. This is I think where many students' friends and families who tell them to go to a “real” college and to get a “real job” are coming from. They simply don’t understand that thousands and thousands of people have interesting, well-paid, real jobs solving climate change in the sustainability movement or working with biodiversity protection. But they do.

Me, for instance. I have one such job. So does my wife. And we’re not doing too badly.

However, at this point it’s important to note that you could have a very good and even socially redeeming carer going to some other college and becoming, say, a lawyer, an accountant, or a business professional. Or “join the marines and see the world.” See, we’re back to square one.

And it’s certainly possible to go to a four-year second tier state-run college and get a degree in accounting or business for much less than the Unity College degree. To make it yet more complicated, you could even go get that degree and graduate and join the sustainability movement. There’s no law to say you can’t. So, for instance, you could get a plain Jane four-year accounting degree for less than $40 K from East Overshoe State College in upstate New Guernsey, and then go to work for a solar PV installation firm organizing finance for household solar installations, and in a lifetime’s work making several hundred such installations happen, getting paid pretty well for this service, and when all is said and done, who would be able to say say that you wouldn’t have contributed as much if not more to solving climate change than, say, a fat old professor of Sustainable Energy?

No-one, that’s who.

The only thing that would be required to go down this other road is that you find your own ways to think about the sustainability movement and climate change. This is because they aren’t going to cover that in the curriculum at East Overshoe State. Not in any organized way. They may have the classes on the books, but they won’t be "joined up” in any way that makes sense. Not right now, at least. In twenty years they will be, and all boring old accountants graduating East Overshoe and all the hundreds if not thousands of other places like it will be made to take courses in climate change and renewable energy technology. That’s what society will need, and so that’s what will happen. But not right now, not right away.

Whereas at Unity College they will be joined up and they would make sense. (Not necessarily right away, but eventually, after a semester or two or three.) This is probably what we mean by “interdisciplinary" or “transdisciplinary” sustainability studies: that the ideas with which we work are joined-up, organized and connected and function across the traditional disciplines, which are rapidly being made obsolete by the demands of the marketplace for ideas. This is what we do at Unity College and we do it particularly well if you’re willing to pay attention.

(Note that not all of the students in all of the classes you’ve been in so far are paying attention. If they’re lazy students, or drunk, or smoking weed, they probably don’t know what a good sustainability education they’re getting, and so some UC students will add to the confusion by not being aware of their own situation. Don’t be like them. You can’t afford it, for one. But for another, it’s a very silly way to be in this world. Education is often wasted on the young.)

More complications and convolutions: If you went to Flagship State University instead, it’s possible and even likely that you could get a half-way decent joined-upsustainability education for about the same price as UC, or even a bit less. Most of the big state colleges, like UMaine Orono, by now have such programs. I’d like to think that they aren’t quite as thought-out and joined up as the Unity degree, but I’m a little biased, and some of them probably are pretty well organized by this point.

So, to summarize: If, after doing all this thinking you decide that you want a career solving climate change or biodiversity loss, then you’ll almost certainly need a four-year degree, and by all means Unity College is a good choice, but not the only choice at this point. If you decide you want to go someplace else, just tell me and we’ll think it through and find you a place to go.

Now the housing problem. I’m going to say right off the bat without even looking at things properly that most housing problems are in fact budget problems. If they were not, all students would be living in ten-thousand square foot MacMansions with poolside bars, right?

Budget problems are always solvable. They require some accounting skill, and, when they’re college budget problems they require some knowledge of the federal financial aid system. But they are solvable. The way to begin is to list all the expenses and income. I would go monthly since that’s the way bills tend to appear in the mail: list all the monthly expenses required. (Some annual expenses or annual income will need to be divided by 12 to make them monthly.)

Make a two column list “Monthly Expenses for my College Degree.” You could use Excel or paper and pencil. Here’s an example.

Item/Monthly Cost
Rent  $500
Electric bill $100
Food $150
Car payment $150
Car insurance $50

Etc, etc. Leave tuition out, for now.

When you get to the bottom of the list and have listed everything and added it up, make another list: "Monthly Income for my College Degree.”

This second list should look like something this:

Item/Monthly Income
Student loan $1000
(divided by 12)
Part-time job $800
Summer full time job  $700
(divided by 12)

Etc, etc.

This will be likely a much shorter list. Unfortunately.

If after you do both lists, income is greater than expenses, then you are probably OK, at least for now.

If expenses are greater than income, then we have to add income or reduce expenses. More likely, we reduce expenses. Break it down and work on one item at a time, but don’t forget that some items are joined together. So rent might be more expensive in Unity, Maine, but you wouldn’t perhaps need to have a nice car if you could walk or bike to school until the snow flies. An old beater might do. Or you might find cheaper rent in Waterville, but need a better and more fuel-efficient car to exploit this. Remember, nothing on the expenses list is sacred, not if you’re serious about your goal. (Except maybe food.) Do you really need a $100/month cell phone when a $14 one would do? And so on. More than likely your real list has different items and problems than the examples I’m using, but you get the idea.

You may need to up your loans. We can talk at more length when you come back to school about student loan repayment plans and forgiveness programs and whether or not loans are worth it, but bottom line is, they’re much more generous than they were five-six years ago. This is one really useful nation-building thing Congress has done in the last few years, that most folks don’t know about.

Think of student loans as an investment, as if you were starting a business. If you were starting a business, like a bakery or an auto shop, you’d probably get a bank loan of several tens of thousands of dollars to buy equipment, but you’d need to show the bank your business plan. In this case we’re starting a business called “XXX’s Career,” and making a similar investment. The investment needs to pay off in the sense that you can afford to pay the student loan when you get done, and still have money left over for other goals like a nice life, a house, or retirement, so this also has to be a very well-planned investment. That’s not as hard as it sounds with the new lower interest rates, pay as you earn, forgiveness and wotnot.

And people in the sustainable energy business are hiring. To properly plan, we need to start looking at some of these jobs, think about which kinds of jobs you’d like to do, and see how much they pay. We can talk more when you get back. If you’re a serious student, and plan, student loans shouldn’t be a problem.

One thing: Never, ever take out a private student loan. Make sure all your loans are federal.

Never eat at a place called “Moms," never play poker with a guy called “Doc,” never take out anything but a fixed interest mortgage, and never, ever take out a private student loan. (That’s all the fatherly advice I have, I’m afraid, and even this is partly stolen from an environmental writer called Ed Abbey.)

Hope this helps,