Colonizing Mars, Under a White Sky, & the social cost of carbon

The newsletter for people "woke" on carbon and climate

(source: NASA)

Issue No. 67

Welcome to the latest issue of Carbon Creed - a curated newsletter for people “woke” on carbon and climate. 

NASA successfully landed a new rover on Mars this week.

Like most, I was enthralled by the stunning high definition videos of the red planet. We heard our first recording of Martian wind. It seemed so - familiar. Almost earth-like.

But it’s not. Mars is not Earth. The atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide. That’s right, CO2, the compound that threatens human life on this planet. The average temperature is -81 degrees F. Gravity is only 0.375 that of earth. Wrap your heads around that.

Now I must admit, the thought of humans becoming an interplanetary species amazes me. But we must learn the lessons of stewardship and sustainability here on earth first. Otherwise, human colonization of other worlds could be ruinous.

Tread lightly humans - Space really is the FINAL frontier.


How Serious are Biden and the Democrats About Fighting Climate Change?


President Biden hit the ground running with a tsunami of symbolic actions on climate early into his Administration - sweeping executive orders, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, and halting the keystone pipeline permit, to name a few. But now it’s time to make the sausage - you need legislation and congressional funding to have true, transformative impacts. This is where things get tougher.

Making the transition to a low-carbon economy will require saying yes to new things, not just no to bad things. That includes not just nuclear energy and carbon capture but projects like long-distance transmission lines for wind and solar energy, pipelines and storage for captured carbon, hydrogen and low-carbon fuels, rail lines, new housing in urban areas and much else.

This is going to be a challenge for the young Administration, but not impossible. The Biden path to success on climate requires wise leadership and strategic alliances with industry, finance and labor. Putting a price on carbon will be part of the solution.

If you have an opinion on any topic covered in this newsletter, please feel free to send me an email at mcleodwl@carboncreed.com. 

Thank you for your viewpoint and the value of your time.

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QUOTES

Climate quotes that will inspire you

1 “Climate change does not respect border; it does not respect who you are — rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity.” ~ Ban Ki-moon

When will people understand that the more we divide ourselves, the harder it will be to combat this crisis? As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argues in this quote, there is no way to fight climate change without setting aside our differences and coming together as a species.

(source: Vancouver Observer)

2 "Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse." ~ Desmond Tutu

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, one of our most important levers in overcoming apartheid was the support of global corporations that heeded the call to divest. Apartheid became a global enemy; now it is climate change’s turn.

3 “The corona virus doesn’t change who your friends are, it reveals who your friends are.”
~ Naval

There are many parallels between the covid pandemic and climate change. Science is a prime example - with covid and climate, some people believe the science while others don’t. What does climate change reveal about who your friends are?


BOOKS

(source: Amazon)

Under a White Sky

Written by Elizabeth Kolbert

That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it’s said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. 

Decades into what is appropriately called "the climate crisis," humans are now facing down a planet that has been profoundly changed by our collective activities. In our struggle to find a response, and hopefully save ourselves, the relationship between humans and nature is being reconstructed.

That ongoing reconstruction is the focus of Elizabeth Kolbert's new book Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. And, as she shows us, it's a project that's neither clear, clean or certain.

Kolbert is well-known as the best-selling author of The Sixth Extinction. Her reporting brought the ongoing mass-extinction event that we're inadvertently causing now from talk in scientific literature to common knowledge. In this new book, Kolbert once again looks down the barrel of the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch where human activity represents the most powerful force shaping the machinery of Earth's planetary evolution.

The consequence of the extraordinary power we're exerting on the Earth is that the planet is changing. It's sliding out of the state we found it in 10,000 years ago when the last ice age ended. But this new planet seems like it's going to be a lot less hospitable to our "project of civilization" than the one we've started with. In response to this sobering fact, communities across the world are trying to shift from inadvertent impacts on the natural world to conscious and intentional control. Kolbert's book is, essentially, reporting from the front lines of these frenzied efforts.

What makes Under A White Sky so valuable and such a compelling read is Kolbert tells by showing. Without beating the reader over the head, she makes it clear how far we already are from a world of undisturbed, perfectly balanced nature — and how far we must still go to find a new balance for the planet's future that still has us humans in it.

[This post was adapted from the original by Adam Frank, which was featured on National Public Radio.]

Creed Comments: Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the climate challenges we face as a species. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new planet we are creating.

According to Kolbert, one way to look at human civilization is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation.

Our regular readers understand the real message Kolbert is imparting in her latest work. She is asking us to choose a path - Wizard or Prophet? Can we innovate our way out of climate change? Do we need to rethink growth and free markets? These are some of the questions we’ll be debating over the next 4 years. Read this book and join the discussion.


INSIGHTS & POLICY

(source: Annelise Capossela/Axios)

A tale of two carbon prices:

Calculating the social cost of carbon

Imagine a $50 price per ton of carbon dioxide this year. Exxon Mobil Corp. has joined BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and others in support of just such a price. It would rise at an annual rate of 5%, plus inflation. In exchange, these companies expect that “all current and future federal stationary source carbon regulations, would be displaced or preempted,” according to the Climate Leadership Council.

Now imagine a $125 price per ton of CO₂ emitted today. It would be considered in every rule, regulation and policy enacted as part of President Joe Biden’s “whole-of-government” approach to tackling climate change. Exxon and others with lots at stake have done that, too, and it’s precisely this scenario those supporting the $50 price hope to avoid.

The Biden administration has opened up enormous opportunities to push forward an ambitious climate agenda by updating this one number: the social cost of carbon, or SCC. It has the potential to be the unifying force behind everything from power plant regulations to efficiency standards for cars and household appliances.

The SCC is the sum of all climate damages caused by an additional ton of CO₂ emitted right now, in today’s dollars. While economists have been thinking about this question for decades, its origin story in formal U.S. rulemaking is instructive. In 2007, a federal appeals court threw out a Department of Transportation decision not to monetize the benefits of CO₂  reductions. “While the record shows that there is a range of values, the value of carbon emissions reduction is certainly not zero,” the ruling declared.

The Obama administration took that missive to heart, and three years later it published its first SCC.

The number calculated back then was around $30 per ton of CO₂ emitted today, in today’s dollars. The Obama administration’s main contribution was not so much the number itself but establishing the formal process. A significant update to the social cost of carbon in 2013 raised the central value to around $50 per ton.

It’s easy to argue that this number is so conservative as to not be a good guide for policy. That’s the position of Lord Nicholas Stern and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who published a 75-page report this week arguing that the U.S. should do away with the SCC altogether, and instead use a price calculated by a different formula. Their argument: If you work backward from the climate target of limiting global average warming to 1.5°C and net-zero emissions by mid-century, then you get a much higher dollar value. The number “would be closer to $100 per ton by 2030 than the $50 per ton estimated by the Obama administration.”

More important than the specific number is re-establishing a scientifically and economically credible process. That includes seeking broad input, updating estimates of climate damages, reappraising climate risks and addressing environmental justice issues head on.

Together with a group of colleagues, I have written a set of eight priorities for calculating the SCC, published today in Nature. The emphasis is on process, not on the resulting number. As boring as it sounds, bringing the best science and economics to the process is indeed the most important step.

The fact that the resulting number might be well above even the $125 is important for climate action. More important is the resulting durability of policy that withstands legal scrutiny, potentially up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court. Doing so can help re-establish science-based policymaking and create a durable U.S. climate policy that goes well beyond the next four years.

[This post was adapted from the original by Gernot Wagner , who writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green.]

Creed Comments: I believe pricing carbon is a top policy priority for any strategy to tame climate change. Apparently, the new President agrees.

On his first day in office, President Biden re-created an interagency working group on the social cost of carbon (as well as other warming gases like methane) that Mr. Trump had disbanded, and he ordered it to update the figure within 30 days.

While there appears to be bipartisan support for SCC, the two sides are not yet congruent. For example, on Tuesday last week, 11 business groups from the manufacturing and energy sectors — which would bear much of the economic burden of a higher carbon cost — sent a letter to the White House urging "stakeholder input" on the new SCC estimate. Let the games begin.

The bottom line: where the U.S. sets the social cost of carbon will signal to the world how serious we are about the climate crisis, and if we’re willing to change our economy to ensure a sustainable future.


RESOURCES


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