Clim-Ergy – It’s About Time

2007/12/09

Clim-Ergy:  The combined manifestation of two phenomena – Climate Change and Constrained Energy – into a unified paradigm of impacts, and requiring a unified human response. 

I just made up that definition.  But the term and its meaning have been fermenting in my mind for about nine months since I gave a presentation on Climate Change impacts to the Joint Environmental Committee of the Connecticut Legislature, and subsequently testified on behalf of a bill to study the impacts of Climate Change as they might pertain to Connecticut.   The bill got stalled to death by the end of the legislative session, but the experience of attempting to navigate the bizarre bazaar of the state Legislature (and I’m sure that Connecticut is by no means unusual, our specific quirks notwithstanding) was instructive of why we are, and will be for the foreseeable future, in ‘deep twinkies’ regarding progress on either Climate Change or Constrained Energy. 

When I gave my presentation to the Joint Environmental Committee, I was one of a dozen people presenting during a three hour period.  The Joint Committee consists of about thirty three legislators.  At any time during the hearing, three to six of them were in the hearing room receiving the testimony.  Not the same three to six throughout, mind you.  I gave my presentation and left with the understanding that legislation would be developed and presented for testimony at a later date. 

The next day (Wednesday) the voices in my head suggested that I contact the Committee liaison to find out when specifically the evolving legislation would be presented for testimony.  It would be two days later.  Thanks for the heads-up!

I attended the hearing that day, hoping to get in my last shot at getting state government off its apathy and begin formally addressing the issue of Climate Change impacts. Again, the Joint Committee was present for three hours of testimony in numbers ranging from six to ten at any point in time, and not the same members throughout.  So imagine, if you will, the prospect of thirty three blind men (and women, because we have evolved somewhat) trying to relate to this elephant with informed votes. 

One of the reasons that so few legislators were present during the Climate Change presentations was that they were bobbing in and out of a parallel session on energy legislation.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide how well informed they became on that issue.  The resulting legislation showed some progress on narrow issues, but was appropriately piece-meal to their level of understanding of the issue.  Both energy and climate legislation show a cafeteria style approach to the subjects, driven more by squeaky wheels than wisdom and a well grounded understanding of the context of each issue.  There is little evidence in either case of a systemic strategy.  There is a simple reason for that.  The two issues are inherently connected, but we tend to deal with them as separate from, or subordinate to each other.

I have studied the issue of Climate Change for three years now.  About a year into that process, I became aware that the issue of constrained energy was emerging on a parallel track with Climate Change, but the two paradigms and their respective constituencies were not really talking to each other.  Energy is the main driver of the human contribution to Climate Change.  As such, it is an independent variable within the context of climate change.  Not the sole driver, but an important one.   

Many in the environmental movement tend to look at energy as a variable that must conform to environmental requirements for managing Climate Change.  Having agreed to this underlying premise among themselves, they are often oblivious to the political reality  that far more people today will tolerate a warming planet as long as the air conditioning goes on, and sufficient energy of any kind is there to make that happen. 

Then there’s the Constrained Energy Crowd.  They’re less concerned about the impact of energy options on Climate Change than they are about the  diminishing availability of supply relative to rapidly escalating demand, and ultimately the diminishing supply of energy in absolute quantitative terms without sufficient deployable technological alternatives on the near-to-intermediate term horizon.  They’ grudgingly accept the reality that Climate Change will constrain their options to some degree, but they remain convinced, and probably with some validity, that the net political consensus at this time will favor expedient solutions to an energy dilemma before long term solutions (and they are inherently long term )to the climate dilemma. 

This latter point was illustrated for me in a quote I cited in my last blog,  The True Price of Energy  , from noted energy expert Matt Simmons:

    "  ‘Peak oil is
likely already a crisis that we don’t know about. At the furthest out,
it will be a crisis in         2008 to 2012. Global warming, if real, will not
be a problem for 50 to 100 years,’ he says."

This quote is somewhat curious coming from one who is well aware that the Poles are melting to a point that his own industry is lusting over the possibilities of exploration and production.  He is acutely aware of the time constraints for deploying the most exotic technologies now available to squeeze the last attainable drops of crude out of our terrestial sponge.  Yet he believes that coal is a feasible alternative to diminishing oil.  I cannot believe that he is ignorant or even as indifferent to the climatic impacts of such a choice as his remark above would suggest.  Rather, I infer that he is speaking to his internal calculation that the consequences of energy shortage in the short to intermediate term will trump the longer term dramatic  consequences of Climate Change,  even as  Climate Change  begins to unfold itself before us in small but growing ways today.

On the Climate Change side of the coin are people who are far more informed and concerned about Climate Change than Mr. Simmons, but utterly clueless or arrogantly indifferent to the realities of transforming our technological and energy dependent society in ways that are environmentally sustainable AND deployable to meaningful effect in time to avert the more severe projections of Climate Change.  Andrew Revkin’s New York Times column of Dec. 8, Hydrogen Car Is Here, But Where Is the Hydrogen Economy, illustrates the problems in translating a hypothetical solution into a silver bullet.

Inevitably, these two paradigms – Climate Change and Constrained Energy, are traveling down the same Time-Space continuum.  They will continue to interact with each other as equals.  If we fail to recognize this and if we continue to contemplate them in separate legislative agendas, or political/economic agendas, they will ultimately come to a point where they no longer proceed in parallel, but collide. 

*  *   * 

And that gets us to the second critical issue of Clim-Ergy:  Time.  Time can be our best friend, or worst enemy.  It’s all a matter of how we use it.  You are no doubt familiar with the concept of compounding interest and the ‘time value of money’. A dollar saved today earns interest which, left invested, compounds over time to significant benefit.   Well, there is a parallel but less recognized concept: the ‘time value of time’.  Some actions taken early provide us the opportunity to explore options or refine strategies.  Failing to take these actions, we will face down the road fewer and more costly options. 

Imagine if we had addressed New Orleans’ levy situation ten years earlier.  History might have been significantly different.  Is California’s Sacramento Valley heeding the lesson?

This is the common issue in Matt Simmon’s observation on Climate Change and Andrew Revkin’s observation on the hydrogen economy.  Both evidence perceptions of the ‘time value of time’.  Mr. Simmons fails to recognize that the worst events in 50 to 100 years will build on a foundation created today.  He is totally aware of time in relation to Constrained Energy, and oblivious to it in Climate Change.   Mr. Revkin’s article recognizes that our current carbon economy has evolved over 100 years; it is unlikely to be replaced in a fraction of that time.

My own take on time as it pertains to Climate Change Impacts and Constrained Energy is simply this:  We are wasting it.  We are not being sufficiently proactive at strategic issues of policy making and social consensus building to avoid significant impacts from both paradigms.  We are therefore compelled to plan for impacts because we are consciously avoiding the actions necessary to avoid them.

All indications are that the current US administration will waste the
remainder of its term with respect to policy on Clim-Ergy.  There is no
guarantee that its successor will be any more  effective, good
intentions notwithstanding.

We tend to forget it, if we realize it at all, but it took us thirty to
forty years to build the bomb, to get to the moon, and to evolve the
Internet from its crudest beginnings to the Web we know today.  We tend
to overlook the long lead times of conception and experimentation, and
parallel, serendipitous evolution of necessary enabling technologies
and abilities into a coherent platform to fulfill a specific
objective.  Clim-Ergy will require us to accomplish multiple feats of
this magnitude in unison.

We cannot save or store time for future use; we can only use it wisely, or lose it.  And we cannot buy time.  Project management critical path methodologies recognize that time lines can be compressed for certain functions by brute force allocation of resources to certain processes that can be done in parallel.  But not all actions in a strategy sequence can lend themselves to compression or parallel processing.  Some must inevitably follow in sequence.  Learning curves for new technologies can be painfully slow.  Social adoption of new policies and products can be exasperatingly unpredictable, except under conditions of abject emergency.

So where do we go from here?  The only thing I know for certain is this…the clock is ticking.

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