Monday, July 28, 2008

Changing the Current

The Old Order Amish of Pennsylvania, who live a life poor in appliances but rich in community, had a depression rate about one-tenth that of their neighbors. ... We don't need to become Amish, but we do need to start building an economy that works for our current needs, rather than constantly readjusting our lives to serve the growth of the economy. -- Bill McKibben, Deep Economy

In this Week's Sift:

  • How Reasonable is Gore's Challenge? It's easy to find opinions about Al Gore's speech challenging the U.S. to get all its electricity from renewable sources in ten years. But it's much harder to pull together credible information about how ready renewable energy sources are to meet that challenge.
  • Media Bias: In Whose Favor? The networks cover Obama more than McCain, but they say more bad things about Obama while ignoring McCain's mistakes. The "liberal media" may be the biggest myth the conservative media ever sold us.
  • Short Notes. The length of the Gore article has pushed this Sift up to my self-imposed length limit. Short Notes will be back next week.

How Reasonable is Gore's Challenge?
Last week I promised an article about Al Gore's challenge to produce 100% of our electricity from renewable sources in ten years.

Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down. Feeding Al Gore's name into Google News gets you a wide range of opinion and analysis. Penn & Teller did an episode of their TV show "Bullshit" on Gore, global warming, and the idea of buying carbon credits. (My reaction: They ridicule some sources and give an uncritical platform to others for no apparent reason beyond what they seem to want to believe.) Real Clear Politics' Jack Kelly is also a skeptic. And Mark Davis in the Dallas Morning News asks: "Who are we to assert that we know the planet's ideal temperature?"

If you want to read upbeat reviews of Gore's speech, check out the Toledo Blade, the Hartford Courant (which also published this critical reader response), or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

That's the kind of stuff I was finding last week: people who agree or disagree, but nobody who was telling me anything to help me make up my mind. That's why I punted to this week's Sift, so that I could dig a little deeper.

Framing the message. In terms of political strategy, I think Gore has it exactly right. There are two main ways to push policy in a more environmentally sound direction. One is a "Repent, sinners!" approach that emphasizes the wasteful and extravagant nature of the American lifestyle. This case is easy to make -- we use something like 1/4th of the world's oil with less than 1/20th of the world's population -- but it's not a very effective political message. Ronald Reagan once summed up conservation as being hot in the summer and cold in the winter. That's not a campaign promise anybody can run on.

Gore, on the other hand, is saying that a new era is coming and the United States can lead the world into it. That's an optimistic, patriotic message. It asks people to be willing to sacrifice to achieve a greater goal, but loses completely the dour, preachy implication that comfort is bad and suffering is good. The parallels with JFK and the space program help a lot. If the national debate gets framed as the environmentalists' futuristic vision versus the desire of conservatives to keep the old oil economy going just a little bit longer, the environmentalists win.

Gore is also on the mark that ten years is the right time frame:
a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.
Ten years also is long enough to get us past a course that Gore criticizes as "incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction."

So yes, I'm totally on board with the shape of Gore's proposal: A bold goal to be achieved in ten years.

Now, what goal should that be?

Other Plans. In 2003 Howard Dean proposed to generate 20% of America's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But he wasn't trying to be radical, he just wanted to bring the U.S. up to the standard already being set by Denmark and Holland. (Two weeks ago I linked to this New Yorker article about an island in Denmark that already generates all its own power from wind.) It was a stop-falling-behind vision, not a lead-the-world vision. That it seemed bold at the time says something about the state of American politics.

Last December's issue of Scientific American published a plan that its authors clearly considered bold. It called for massive solar arrays in the Southwest, storing excess daytime energy as compressed air in underground caverns for use at night, and a long-haul DC transmission network to get power from the Southwest to the rest of the country. (The power would be converted to AC before use; they're not talking about rewiring the whole country. DC power travels better for reasons I don't understand.) The authors estimate their plan would generate 69% of America's electricity by 2050. They call for $420 billion in government subsidies during 2011-2020 to get things rolling, with the program paying for itself thereafter. By 2020 (about the time frame of Gore's plan) they foresee the DC transmission backbone in place and 84 gigawatts of solar generating capacity, compared to the 3,000 GW they foresee by 2050.

Those numbers are purely solar, and mainly the gigantic array in the Southwest. So the total national renewable-energy capacity, including residential solar panels and wind turbines, would be higher.

If you have a more vigorous imagination, picture putting solar arrays in space, where cloudy days are never an issue. Then you beam the power down to receiving stations on Earth in microwaves that are also not blocked by clouds. The government could launch the first power arrays by 2016, and then hope for private industry to take over, producing 10% of our electrical needs by 2050. The president of the Space Power Association says, "The challenge is one of perception," which is my nominee for Understatement of the Year. The paranoia potential is immense -- "Death Rays From Space" and so forth. Political practicality aside, former NASA executive O. Glenn Smith promoted the idea this week in the New York Times. A detailed report from the Pentagon's National Security Space Office is here.

Israel is a natural place to look for leadership in renewable energy. They have a concentrated population, a high-tech research infrastructure, a sun-soaked desert, and a national security interest in ending the Age of Oil as fast as possible. And sure enough, they are planning the world's largest solar plant to be built in the Negev desert by 2012. It's supposed to supply 500 megawatts of power, or about 5% of Israel's needs. The director of Ben Gurion University's Solar Center has predicted that Israel could go totally solar by 2036. I'm not sure whether or not those calculations include the power necessary to convert Israel to electric cars, which is also on the drawing board.

And what could you do if you had infinite amounts of money to play with and could build a city from scratch? The United Arab Emirates intend to find out. They're planning a zero-carbon-emission city of 50,000 just outside of Abu Dhabi.

Maybe you've seen T. Boone Pickens' recent TV commercials. The clearest explanation of Pickens' plan is a five-minute video of Pickens in front of a white board; he does a great job, with a little extra help from patched-in graphics. The difference between Pickens and Gore is that Pickens worries only about the impact of imported oil on the U.S. economy, and apparently not at all about global warming or any other environmental issue. For Pickens, the problem is that $700 billion is leaving America each year, "the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind." His solution: Instead of using our domestic natural gas to run power plants, use it to run vehicles, replacing gasoline from foreign oil. Then use wind power to replace the 22% of our electricity that currently comes from natural gas. Like Gore, he sees his plan as a ten-year vision. (Also like Gore, he invests in companies that are doing the stuff he says needs to be done. For some reason I can't grasp, this supposedly makes Gore a hypocrite, but not Pickens.)

From a global environmental perspective rather than a national economic one, Pickens' plan is kind of wacky -- as explained by Grist's Joseph Ramm. The craziest environmental thing we currently do is generate half our electricy from coal. Pickens' plan leaves that intact, because coal is a domestic fuel. (Foreign = Bad; Dirty = OK.) As fossil fuels go, natural gas is our cleanest way to generate electricity. And an electricity-generating plant can burn natural gas at 60% efficiency, while a natural-gas-burning car operates at 15-20% efficiency. So Pickens has us do this massive turn-over of our infrastructure (cars that burn natural gas; stations that distribute it) and the result is that we wind up still burning fossil fuels in our cars and generating our electricity with coal. Ramm says: Build the wind farms, and use the electricity either to phase out coal or to fuel plug-in hybrid cars.

I did learn one important thing from Pickens' video: The best place for wind farms is in the Great Plains, in a north-south strip that sits just to the east of the prime solar territory. Politically, this is huge. Local special interests could get middle-of-the-country senators from Arizona to North Dakota -- mostly Republicans currently -- to back an alternative energy plan.

That's what currently happens with ethanol, which (along with other biofuels) gets a mixed review from National Geographic:
Biofuels as currently rendered in the U.S. are doing great things for some farmers and for agricultural giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, but little for the environment. Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop. And producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces. Biodiesel from soybeans fares only slightly better.
But the same article claims ethanol from sugar cane (the way Brazil does it) has an 8-to-1 energy payoff, compared to 1.3-to-1 for corn ethanol. So biofuel is not a total chimera. And energy from bio-byproducts makes a lot of local sense. You'd never start raising cows just to get methane from their manure, but if you already have a dairy it's an obvious win. Ditto for running vehicles on used cooking oil, as my local fried-chicken-delivery place does. Ditto for co-generation, where the waste heat of some industrial process is captured. What kind of national impact idiosyncratic projects like these can make is hard to estimate, but I'll bet the current estimates are too low.

Summing Up. So what have I concluded from my week of alternative-energy web-browsing? I think the most important thing Gore (with independent help from Pickens) has done is move the Overton Window, the range of ideas that Serious People are willing to talk about. Getting up to 20% renewable power by 2020 seemed pie-in-the-sky when Dean proposed it in 2003. But Pickens is proposing that much power from wind alone, and nobody is laughing. If President Obama's inaugural address contains a proposal for 50% renewable power by 2020 and 100% by 2050, it will sound reasonable. Building a political coalition behind it will be easier than most people think. There's a culture clash to overcome, but a skillful president could get Pickens-style nationalists working with Gore-style environmentalists.

Second, there are some common elements in everybody's plans. For example, an upgraded electricity transmission grid, with some kind of DC long-haul capability. We need it, and a lot of corporations stand to make money building it, so the politics should work. (I just bought stock in General Cable Corporation, which should profit from such a plan. Does that make me a hypocrite like Gore or a patriot like Pickens?)

Right now, if you're somewhere with a prevailing wind, wind power works. Solar is at an earlier stage, but it works if you're in a sunny place and can use the power immediately not too far away. (I noticed this week that those portable signs announcing road construction are solar-powered now.) The main economic problem with each is the up-front money; once you've got the wind turbine or the solar panel in place, you don't have to pay for the wind or sun. But that's the kind of financing problem governments have been solving since the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos subsidized olive tree planting in 500-something BC. (The trees wouldn't be productive for 15 years. That's why the olive branch became a sign of peace: there's no point planting olive trees unless you think you can go 15 years without having your fields burned.) It's mainly a question of political will, not technology.

But do I believe that Gore's goal is feasible as stated? Not yet. Maybe a Kennedy-like man-on-the-Moon research project would yield some startling breakthrough like near-perfect-efficiency batteries or large-scale economically-viable superconductors. But things like that are hard to predict and can't be counted on. And if we go to plug-in cars, that moves the goal posts for the electricity-generating problem.

But even though I don't expect to see the result Gore called for, I'm glad he did it. That such an idea is out there and being talked about changes the political dynamic for the next proposal.

Media Bias: In Whose Favor?
All three network anchors decided to accompany Obama on his recent foreign tour, and the result was predictable: numerous statements-of-fact that the mainstream media is "in the tank" for Obama. (See a collage of Fox News repeating this talking point here.) A blog called the Tyndall Report got a lot of press when it appeared to make this point quantitative:
In the seven weeks since the primary season ended (04jun08-23jul08), John McCain has logged 67 minutes on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts, Barack Obama 166.
But (and this wasn't mentioned by most of the folks who quoted Tyndall) that same Tyndall post doesn't say the media is biased in Obama's favor. Instead, it makes a case for obsession, not favoritism:
Obama gets more positive coverage, more negative coverage and more trivial coverage. Who else has stories filed about them on how he shakes hands with his wife?
Think about that three weeks of non-stop Jeremiah Wright coverage in the spring: Obama certainly dominated the news, but hardly because the media was trying to get him elected. The Center for Media and Public Affairs did the math and found that in fact it's John McCain who gets the advantage from media bias:
when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative. Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative
I think even that understates matters, because the most important measure of bias is whose talking points get repeated. And there I think McCain is the clear winner. I don't have numbers, but you can probably verify this from your own experience: Compare how many times Obama is asked whether he was wrong about the Surge to the number of times McCain is asked whether he was wrong to want to invade Iraq in the first place. The link in the last sentence is the first time I've heard anyone ask McCain that question, while I've heard Obama confronted with the Surge countless times, starting at least back in January.

A second measure of media bias is what happens to candidate gaffes. Compare the coverage of Obama's "bitter" remark to any of a number of more serious McCain gaffes -- including the one where he describes the way Social Security has run since FDR set it up as "an absolute disgrace". And McCain made a huge mistake during a recent interview with Katie Couric: He said the Surge caused the Anbar Awakening, when the proven chronology runs the other way. This isn't a minor flub like when he says "Czechoslovakia" instead of "the Czech Republic", it's evidence that even on the issues that he builds his campaign around McCain doesn't know what he's talking about. So what did CBS News do with this major gaffe? They edited it out of the interview. Keith Olbermann's people unearthed it from the unedited transcript on the CBS News web site.

McCain's screw-ups, according to the mainstream media, just aren't news. Obama's are. The NYT's Bob Herbert finally gets this point into his supposedly liberal newspaper. And one other Herbert point: Negative coverage of Obama is supposedly justified by the excuse that the voters don't know him well enough yet. But how well do we know McCain? All we know is what he wants to tell us: "The mythical John McCain is an affable, straight-talking, moderately conservative war hero who is an expert on foreign policy." Is that true? Does he have views on other issues? Does he tell the same views to every audience? Nobody wants to poke at that story too hard.

I'll give two other people the last words. RKA on DailyKos:
But isn't it kind of cynical that the media gives Obama's trip a lot of coverage and simultaneously talks incessantly about how they are giving Obama too much coverage? If the media were truly in Obama's tank, there would be no navel gazing about their own coverage decisions. They would just slant the coverage and get on with it. But they don't. They offer themselves up as whipping boy to help John McCain turn lemons into lemonade.
Drew Westen:
But it's easy to confuse biased reporting with accurate reporting about a candidate who inspires voters. Reporting on that inspiration, or simply showing crowd response, is no less "objective" than reporting on voters who aren't convinced that he shares their values or is enough like them to vote for him ... [P]eople connect with Barack Obama in a way they don't with John McCain. He draws crowds that dwarf McCain's, and he excites enthusiasm both at home and abroad that McCain simply can't excite. And that's the news.

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