The Age of (small) Tradeoffs

[JR:  I have added the “(small)” here, since it will become increasingly clear that the impacts of global warming on our current emissions path are so catastrophic that they trump all other concerns and we must pay any price, bear any burden to stop them.]

Are green energy industries about to ruin the environment and undermine national security? Are they engaged in the ecological equivalent of mountaintop removal? Are they the new Big Oil, making us dangerously dependent on imported strategic resources?

Those questions are implied in “Clean Energy’s Dirty Little Secret“, a provocative article in the current issue of The Atlantic. Author Lisa Margonelli points out that wind turbines, hybrid cars and some other green technologies carry “their own hefty environmental price tag”, including the use of rare-earth minerals extracted from open-pit mines or imported from places like China.

I’ve encountered similar concerns among members of the U.S. intelligence community: In the pursuit of green energy, will we trade our dependence on one imported strategic resource – oil – for dependence on other imported strategic resources?

Margonelli’s piece offers some solutions. Our research on renewable energy resources should include substitutes for rare-earth minerals, particularly those that are imported or require harmful extraction techniques. We should require that strategic minerals be recycled.

But a larger question lurks between the lines: Should green technologies and products be held to the same environmental standards as other industries? Is a company that mines neodymium for Prius motors any less responsible than Peabody Coal for good environmental stewardship?

And behind that question lies another: When does a green end justify not-so-green means? When if ever do the multiple benefits of solar, wind, biomass or geothermal energy, for example, justify some environmental damage during their life cycles?

One of the objections to “clean coal” is that even if we could capture and store its carbon, it wouldn’t be clean – not so long as coal companies blow up mountain tops, dump wastes into streams, pollute aquifers and haul their product to power plants in freight trains powered with carbon-rich fuels. Coal is like an immature blood diamond – valuable in its end use, but awful in production. Can renewables be called green if making them produces caustic chemicals or carbon emissions or open-pit mines?

To Margonelli’s small list of reforms, we can add a few more. We need to analyze the full, life-cycle costs and benefits of a technology or industry before we give it public money. We need to require that life-cycle climate impacts be included in environmental impact statements for federally funded projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.

But do what we will, some trade-offs are inevitable even for green technologies. Indeed, we have entered the Age of (small) Tradeoffs in which environmental purity must give way sometimes to eco-pragmatism.

Renewable energy production is an example. In March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar created a task force to identify renewable energy zones on federal lands. Lands managed by the Department of Interior constitute one-fifth of the U.S. land mass and include 1.7 billion offshore acres. They contain significant renewable energy resources important to reducing the nation’s carbon emissions.

According to experts at Interior and the Department of Energy, good wind energy potential can be found on 21 million acres of public land in the 11 western states; six southwestern states have 29 million acres with good solar energy potential; good geothermal potential exits on 140 million acres of public land in western states and Alaska; 1,000 gigawatts of good wind potential can be found off the Atlantic coast; and more than 900 gigawatts off the Pacific Coast have good wind resources.

Salazar’s plan is to expedite environmental reviews and permits necessary to “connect the sun of the deserts and the wind of the plains with the places where people live.” That is a welcome departure from the Bush Administration’s helter-skelter leasing of public lands for oil and gas production with little environmental review, while holding up permits for solar and wind.

It wasn’t long after Salazar’s announcement, however, that the New York Times reported “a rupture among environmentalists”. As the Times put it, “the environmental movement finds itself torn between fighting climate change and a passion for saving special places.” To their credit, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Google Earth are trying to make the impending trade-off more responsible by mapping where renewable energy should and should not be developed.

Then there is the controversy over siting wind turbines off the East Coast, where Not in My Backyard has become Not in My Ocean. Expect NIMBY, NIMO and internecine dust-ups to continue as we prepare to build high-speed rail and the new transmission lines needed to move renewable power around the country. Both are high priorities of the Obama Administration, and rightly so. Intelligent siting will resolve some conflicts, for example locating new transmission lines along existing grid and highway corridors. But there will be trade-offs. They are inevitable.

In other cases, the trade-offs are not so easy to justify or accept. An example is the ever-exciting field of geo-engineering. Early in April during his first interview since confirmation, President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, became the victim of a blogosphere firestorm when he was misquoted in the New York Times as saying that geo-engineering schemes are being considered by the White House to help mitigate global warming.

According to the Times: “Tinkering with Earth’s climate to chill runaway global warming “” a radical idea once dismissed out of hand “” is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option.” Holdren reportedly gave the example of shooting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to screen out sunlight, a process called aerosol loading.

Aerosol loading is an example of trade-offs at global scale. In an article in the March issue of Environmental Science and Technology, NOAA scientist Dan Murphy reported that injecting particles into the upper atmosphere would significantly reduce the performance of solar energy systems here on Earth – for example, passive solar systems, photovoltaic panels and concentrated solar power plants. In one scenario analyzed by Murphy, power production from solar electric systems would drop 20 percent with the biggest losses occurring during peak power hours.

In other words, we would reject solar energy rather than collect it. The result is a monumental trade-off that would affect not only solar economics, but everything from suntans to photosynthesis. Still unstudied, as far as I know, are the impacts on food crops, energy crops and the plants we count on as carbon sinks.

We are experiencing a gradually expanding circle of acceptability as we become more desperate for solutions to global climate change. Nuclear power, “clean coal” and geo-engineering research are supported today by environmental leaders who would not have given any of those options serious consideration a few short years ago. Today’s crazy idea becomes tomorrow’s salvation as we continue pumping gases into the atmosphere.

The Age of (small) Tradeoffs has been made much more difficult by its immediate and still evident predecessor, the Age of Stupid (apologies to the new movie of that title). Despite decades of warnings about global warming, despite our rich tradition of energy crises, we have not even begun to tap the full potential of energy efficiency and renewable energy. We haven’t even really tried. We paid far more attention to Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater than his insight that our energy problems were the moral equivalent of war.

We humans, with the possible exception of certain members of Congress, are endowed with the unique ability to see consequences and to learn from mistakes — the intellectual equivalent of opposable thumbs. It’s time to use that ability before it atrophies. Let’s make the necessary trade-offs; reject the really bad ones; recognize stupidity as the real weapon of mass destruction; pass a game-changing climate bill; completely rewire national energy policy; stop the taxpayer subsidies that have us paying one another to produce greenhouse gases; trade in our carbon-spewing national transportation policy before it’s as obsolete as General Motors; assemble a rescue package for our children; and get on with the job of building a new economy before we become Darwin’s biggest dropouts – the species that had all the tools to survive a changing world but made itself extinct by refusing to use them.

— Bill Becker


13 Responses to The Age of (small) Tradeoffs

  1. Joel says:

    While I can accept the need for small trade-offs, there needs to be a distinction made between some trade-offs that are not socially inequitable (the use of Southwest land for massive concentrated solar plants, which may have some ecological ‘wildlands’ costs but can provide social opportunity to marginalized communities) and those that are (theoretical open-pit ‘renewable mines’ whose waste poisons the drinking water of communities of color and low-income communities). In the fossil fuel economy it has been our most vulnerable communities who have overwhelmingly borne the burden of carbon-related pollution, they are also the ones in this country most likely to be affected by catastrophic global warming.

    An environmental justice perspective and truly equitable distribution of burdens can ensure that the trade-offs really are as small as possible, and that we’re not hiding large, inequitable trade-offs in communities that don’t have the resources to defend themselves. They’ve already shouldered the costs (with few of the benefits) of the previous economy. It is unsustainable to make them do so again.

  2. Ruth Brandt says:

    One thing that struck me here – being cut off from rare-earth minerals because of international politics or something of that sort. is not quite the same as being cut off from petrol, when that is the main source of energy in the economy.

    So it’s not quite that the US will “trade dependence on one imported strategic resource for dependence on other imported strategic resources”. I hope the intelligence community realises that…

  3. Greg N says:

    Joe, your piece seems to be missing an element – how long the damage lasts.

    For example, an offshore wind farm can be dismantled. Maybe in 50 years it won’t be needed and the ocean views can be restored. A solar installation can be removed and the desert allowed to return.

    But the CO2 damage remains in the atmosphere for centuries.

    Temporary loss of pretty views, or a part of a desert, isn’t as bad as permanent loss of a habitable climate. I can’t understand why environmentalist don’t seem to grasp the difference when they object to wind turbines on a hillside.

    I’m happy to leave a bunch of environmental problems to the grandkids – they’ll inherit a damaged planet, whatever – so long as it’s not unsolvable problems like 1,000 ppm CO2.

  4. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Greg N

    I’m happy to leave a bunch of environmental problems to the grandkids – they’ll inherit a damaged planet, whatever – so long as it’s not unsolvable problems like 1,000 ppm CO2.

    Yeah, we have really only one problem – how do we keep the climate system of the earth from going out of control.

    Everything else, every economic and geopolitical consideration is secondary, and will not be remembered in history.

    Our future history, if there is one, will only remember what we do about the climate crisis.

    Our future history, if there is one, might also have a footnote or two about how we got our financial elites and controlled corporate media off of our backs, and overthrew a system that seems intent on destroying the self regulating properties of the biosphere for personal profit.

  5. Joe says:

    Ruth, it is Bill Becker’s piece.
    The point is well taken, tho.

  6. Ronald says:

    I agree that it’s good thinking that human caused Global Warming is the problem. Kindof goes to the US Senator who wants to close off all or most of the desserts to CSP. Consider Iowa, where 98 percent of the land has been plowed. CSP would not require anywhere near 98 percent of the dessert, quite a bit less than that. But to use some of the dessert for CSP is a very small price to pay.

  7. hapa says:

    this is why we need a USA Green Blueprint or something, with some “unofficial” scenarios.

    imagine the ruckus as the scale of the effort keeps growing and growing and the targets keep changing. imagine the difficulty of realigning town budgets and goals every year with new information. if we’re not willing to set high standards in DC, we need better harmonization or people will go nuts.

    we need some unified targets so that forward-thinking organizations and areas can align themselves without having to repeat the work. strong and useful frameworks that the feds would have to have a really good reason not to fit their new plans to, when they get around to the inevitable.

    getting out some scenarios (“zero by 2030,” for instance) and maybe a thumbnail guide to tech (“LEED gold would need retrofits under this schedule”) would be really helpful.

    this is a bigger operation than anything we’ve ever done. i don’t like the piecemeal feeling. it doesn’t fill me with confidence.

  8. hapa says:

    for instance. let’s say one state — “west virjersey” — decides rationally and in an open process that it’s going to aim for a complete overhaul, and “louisizona” is thinking more “aspirationally” about getting footprint down a little bit by mid-century, if someone hands them a few billion dollars, does all the work for free, and personally shines their shoes — or whatever’s the current federal minimum.

    west virjersians will need to make some very big planning and equipment changes! louisizonans not as much. almost none, in fact, if you really looked, but they’re thinking about it hard, particularly about how much federal money they can get. ok fine.

    fact: eventually louisizona will have to harmonize with west virjersey.

    fact: west virjersians will be very upset if their investments are incompatible with the new arrangements.

    fact: whatever changes louisizonans do make, if they’re incompatible with the changes west virjersians made, not only will there be a mess down the road when tight standards are the norm, but also louisizona won’t be able to draft off the other state’s concerted effort.

    fact: not every state will agree on every part of every possible standard. it’s important to leave open the possibility of aiming higher later. the question, in cases of disagreement, is: is there an upgrade path? if so how do you leave it open? if not how do you make one? if you can’t, what’s the justification for straggling?

  9. Robert says:

    Industrial society is like standing in front of an avalanche – you have choices:

    1. Stay where you are and get flattened
    2. Dodge to one side and get buried alive
    3. Ski madly downhill and crash into a tree

    Our way of life relies on mining stuff (fossil fuels, minerals) from deep within the earth’s crust and dumping it into the relatively thin and fragile biosphere. It is not sustainable and I can only see it ending in tears.

    Labelling certain variants of this way of life “green” does not fix the problem.

  10. Bill,
    Excellent piece and well-thought out. We have had a difficulty as a nation in accepting tradeoffs because every issue gets stamped as either “good” or “bad” and becomes a polarized political conflict. Some of this may be necessary, but as we emerge from the “Age of Stupid”, we are going to have to start to see more nuance and understand that there are small evils and big evils. There is going to be some disagreement about what is a small and what is a big evil but we need to find room to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of given technologies and programs in a careful manner that doesn’t assume that a perfect solution can be arrived at. Too often people are clamoring for the perfect, when the good is sitting there right in front of them.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Bill Becker — Well stated!

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    Certainly, there are tradeoffs, and certainly, Joe’s point that these tradeoffs are small seems correct.

    As the original article pointed out, rare earths like neodymium are not particularly rare, and we do have mines in this country that can be reopened. Practically all mineral problems can be easily resolved by substitution or a price increase which makes marginal mines profitable. Any impending neodymium shortage will likely be transient.

    Geoengineering tradeoffs are huge, which is probably why geoengineering is a bad idea.

    I think that carbon negative energy ideas are the most likely solution for the climate crisis, and the tradeoffs in biomass/carbon capture and storage are huge.

    Nobody wants to see forests invaded, but we need to realize that forests have already been invaded by CO2 and the insect and climate changes stemming from global warming, for example.

    Nobody likes carbon sequestration, either, although turning the corner on this climate change problem is essentially impossible without CCS.

    In 10 years, the tradeoffs we will be willing to accept to cool the planet will likely be greater than those we are willing to accept now. And in 10 years it may be too late to do anything about renaway global warming

  13. Bill Becker says:

    Good and helpful dialogue, everyone. Ruth, I agree with Joe. Good point.