Historic Hazel O'Leary, Bezos' moon shot, and the climate infrastructure bill

The newsletter for people "woke" on carbon and climate

Issue No. 69

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

The $2T climate infrastructure bill is coming.

With the new round of COVID stimulus signed into law by President Biden, White House officials are turning their attention to climate infrastructure policy.

According to the White House, senior staffers and Cabinet members are strategizing a path forward for advancing infrastructure resilience “against the impacts of climate change, and promoting the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.”

President Biden campaigned for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that would focus on climate change, energy reform, and expanding middle class jobs. But according to Politico, some Democrats are already privately discussing going as high as $4 trillion. It's a price tag that has the tentative support of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a critical swing vote in an evenly-divided Senate.

The Washington Post reported that only three House Republicans supported an infrastructure proposal worth $1.5 trillion, legislation that would significantly augment spending on roads and bridges; water projects; and broadband among others.

Yet Biden could run into trouble collecting GOP votes. Not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package Congress passed last week. Stay tuned.

Each week, we hope to share something new or thoughtful on carbon and climate. Let us know if you feel inspired or compelled by any of our content.

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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NOW, LET’S GO DEEP!


QUOTES

Energy and climate quotes to ponder

1 “Bitcoin uses more electricity per transaction than any other method known to mankind, and so it’s not a great climate thing.” ~ Bill Gates

Depending on which study you read, the annual carbon emissions from the electricity required to mine Bitcoin and process its transactions are equal to the amount emitted by all of New Zealand. Or Argentina. How will public companies that invest in Bitcoin (e.g., Tesla) score on ESG ratings? Food for thought.

2 "I took this job understanding that I was never going to win a popularity contest," she said. "There have got to be lots of people who resent me and resent the changes here. The attacks earlier on were on my Senior Aides. Then the attacks were on the Department of Energy. When we overcame those attacks, there wasn't anybody left except me." ~ Hazel O’Leary

Hazel O’Leary served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1993 to 1997. She was the first woman and first African American to hold the position. She later served as president of Fisk University, a historically black college and her alma mater, from 2004 to 2013. As Secretary of Energy, O'Leary declassified documents detailing how the United States had previously conducted secret testing on the effects of radiation on unsuspecting American citizens. 

3 “The day Detroit automakers all shift to Battery-Electric cars, I wonder if the (NBA) basketball team will feel compelled to change their name?” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

What about Detroit Motors? Or Lithium Ions = Detroit Lions (isn’t that taken?). Maybe you just keep the name and change the logo.


BOOKS

Invent and Wander

By Jeff Bezos

It is quite strange, whether or not you’ve stopped to consider it, that Jeff Bezos has never published a book.

Invent and Wander represents a partial attempt to fill that publishing vacuum by offering Bezos’s “collected writings.” Specifically, the book consists of all the annual letters Bezos sent to Amazon shareholders from 1997 to 2019 (Part 1), plus excerpts from interviews and speeches he has given in recent years (Part 2). There is also a lengthy introduction from Walter Isaacson, who argues that Bezos’s personal character resembles that of some of Isaacson’s biographical subjects, such as Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs.

There are 48 chapters in this book, but the one I enjoyed the most was entitled “The Purpose of Going into Space.” It is a revealing explanation of Bezos obsession with space exploration, and connects it to his $10B Earth Fund - the historic, philanthropic commitment to fund research and nonprofit efforts to mitigate climate change.

So, I’ve decided to share a pared down version of that speech here. You can either read it or listen to Bezos present the full version via the YouTube link below.

Now, Jeff Bezos in his own words. Enjoy

The Purpose of Going into Space

Blue Origin is the most important work I’m doing. I have great conviction about it, based on a simple argument: Earth is the best planet.

The big question we need to ponder is: Why do we need to go to space? My answer is different from the common “plan B” argument: The Earth gets destroyed and you want to be somewhere else. It’s unmotivating and doesn’t work for me. When I was in high school I wrote, “The earth is finite, and if the world economy and population are to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.” I still believe this.

The question “What’s the best planet in this solar system” is easy to answer because we have sent robotic probes to all the other ones. Some inspections have been flybys, but we’ve examined them all. Earth is the best planet—it is not close. This one is really good. My friends who want to move to Mars? I say, “Do me a favor. Go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first and see if you like it—because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.” Don’t even get me started on Venus.

Look at Earth. It is incredible. Jim Lovell, one of my real heroes, while he was circling around the moon on the Apollo 8 mission, did something amazing. He put out his thumb and realized that, with it at arm’s length, he could cover the whole Earth. Everything he’d ever known, he could cover with his thumb, and he said something amazing. You know the old saying “I hope I go to heaven when I die.” He said, “I realized at that moment, you go to heaven when you’re born.” Earth is heaven.

The astronomer Carl Sagan was so poetic: “On that blue dot, that’s where everyone you know, and everyone you ever heard of, and every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. A very small stage in a great cosmic arena.” For all of human history the Earth has felt big to us, and actually in a really correct sense, it has been big. Humanity has been small. That’s not true anymore. The Earth is no longer big. Humanity is big. Earth seems big to us, but it’s finite. We have to realize that there are immediate problems, things that we need to work on, and we are working on those things. They’re urgent. I’m talking about poverty, hunger, homelessness, pollution, overfishing in the oceans. The list of immediate problems is very long, and we need to work on those things urgently, in the here and now. But there are also long-range problems: We need to work on them too, and they take a long time to solve. You can’t wait until the long-range problems are urgent to work on them. We can do both. We can work on the problems in the here and now, and we can get started on the long-range problems.

OUR ENERGY USAGE IS UNSUSTAINABLE

A very fundamental long-range problem is that we will run out of energy on Earth. This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen. As animals, humans use ninety-seven watts of power—that’s our metabolic rate as animals—but as members of the developed world, we use ten thousand watts of power. And we get a lot of benefit from it. We live in an era of dynamism and growth. You live a better life than your grandparents did, and your grandparents lived better lives than their grandparents did, and a big part of that is the abundance of energy we have been able to harvest and use to our benefit. There are many good things that happen when we use energy. When you go to the hospital, you’re using a lot of energy. Medical equipment, transportation, the kinds of entertainments that we enjoy, the medications we use—all these things require a tremendous amount of energy. We don’t want to stop using energy. But our use levels are unsustainable.

The historic compounding rate of global energy usage is 3 percent a year. It doesn’t sound like very much, but over many years the compounding becomes extreme. Three percent compounded annually is the equivalent of doubling human energy use every twenty-five years. If you take global energy use today, you can power everything by covering Nevada in solar cells. Now, that seems challenging, but it also seems possible, and it is mostly desert anyway. But in just a couple hundred years, at that 3 percent historic compounding rate, we’ll need to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. Now, that’s not going to happen. That’s a very impractical solution, and we can be sure it won’t work. So what can we do?

Well, one thing we can do is focus on efficiency, and that is a good idea. The problem, though, is that it’s already assumed. As we’ve been growing our energy usage 3 percent a year for centuries, we have always focused on efficiency. Let me give you some examples. Two hundred years ago you had to work eighty-four hours to afford one hour of artificial light. Today you have to work 1.5 seconds to afford an hour of artificial light. We’ve moved from candles to oil lamps to incandescent bulbs to LEDs and gotten tremendous efficiency gains. Another example is air transportation. In the half-century of commercial aviation, we’ve seen a fourfold efficiency gain. Half a century ago it took 109 gallons of fuel to fly one person across the country. Today, in a modern 787, it takes only 24. It’s an incredible improvement. It’s very dramatic.

How about computation? Computational efficiency has increased one trillion times. The Univac could do fifteen calculations with one kilowatt second of energy. A modern processor can do seventeen trillion calculations with one kilowatt second of energy. Now, what happens when we get very efficient? We use more of these things. Artificial light has gotten very inexpensive, so we use a lot of it. Air transport has gotten very inexpensive, so we use a lot of it. Computation has gotten very inexpensive, so we even have SnapChat.

We have an ever-increasing demand for energy. And even in the face of increasing efficiency, we will be using more and more energy. That 3 percent compound growth rate already assumes great efficiency gains in the future. What happens when unlimited demand meets finite resources? The answer is incredibly simple: rationing. That’s the path we would find ourselves on, and that path would lead, for the first time, to your grandchildren and their grandchildren having worse lives than you. That’s a bad path.

We must have a future of dynamism for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We cannot let them fall prey to stasis and rationing, and it’s this generation’s job to build that road to space so that the future generations can unleash their creativity. When that is possible, when the infrastructure is in place for future space entrepreneurs, just as it was for me in 1994 to start Amazon, you will see amazing things happen, and it will happen fast. I guarantee it. People are so creative once they’re unleashed. If this generation builds the road to space, builds that infrastructure, we will get to see thousands of future entrepreneurs building a real space industry, and I want to inspire them. This vision sounds very big, and it is. None of this is easy. All of it is hard, but I want to inspire you. So think about this: Big things start small.

[Excerpted from Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos. Fast Company]

Creed Comments: This speech makes one thing clear - Jeff Bezos is going to blow our minds building out the space infrastructure needed for humans to explore and settle the moon and near space.

I have long given Bezos the benefit of the doubt on his climate pledges and philanthropy, and now I feel completely justified. I also give credit to the amazing Amazon workers who pushed for climate justice and have transformed the company into a clean energy leader.

Although I focus this review on the earth-space chapter, I do urge you to read the entire book to understand Bezos’ life story - the humble beginnings, family and cultural influences and raw determination to make Amazon into an epic company.

While this book offers many insights on Amazon, there remains lots of room for a great Bezos book. There are many chapters yet to be written about his work on climate change and Blue Origin. If Bezos doesn’t write it himself, Isaacson seems to be the obvious choice.


POLICY

(source: Fiscal Times)

Climate change is central to the infrastructure debate

The congressional pivot from covid to climate has begun. Noting recent failures to the power grid in Texas, as well as powerful hurricanes and major floods, Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) called on colleagues to focus their priorities on resilience when considering an expected infrastructure policy bill this year.

For emphasis, Carper argued provisions that would facilitate the rebuilding of projects and structures capable of withstanding the impact of severe-weather events at coastal regions and rural corridors likely would guide Democrats’ legislative strategy this year. He welcomes plans for achieving net-zero emissions economywide over the next 30 years.

Consideration of either an infrastructure funding bill or a highway policy reauthorization measure is on the committee’s radar. The panel is likely to consider a major transportation bill before fall. A national law central to surface transportation policy expires in September.

For proof of the impact severe-weather events are having on mobility grids and energy infrastructure, Carper pointed to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. Specifically, the government watchdog determined: “Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission and distribution to demand for electricity.”

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans say they agree to proceeding on infrastructure and highway policy legislation designed to streamline environmental permitting rules and address roadway projects, respectively.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), EPW ranking member, said she would endorse policies that promote the completion of big-ticket projects.

“Unless we can get these things permitted in a much shorter time frame in terms of transmission and pipelines and other things,” she said, “I don’t know how we get to this aspirational goal of zero emissions in the power sector by 2035.

Creed Comments: Infrastructure policy has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. The Biden administration needs to garner a few republicans to support this legislation, which will kickstart the process of healing of our legislative branch. The trick is going to be how we pay for the spending.

I have long advocated carbon pricing as central to any effective climate policy. The Biden administration is signaling its support for the same. Last week, Columbia economist Noah Kaufman was named to the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Kaufman was the lead author of a Columbia study that gave a favorable assessment of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.

Kaufman, joins several other administration officials who back carbon pricing, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. I believe we are finally, after many years of advocacy, going to pass carbon pricing legislation.


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