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Monday, April 22, 2013

Overlooked Earth Day

Solar panels
Given the awful week we just went through, it might be easy to overlook Earth Day. After all, terrorist bombings and exploding fertilizer plants and a congress more interested in saving gun manufacturers' profits than in saving American lives aren't problems to be solved by reducing carbon emissions. But the truth is that we need to remember Earth Day now more than ever. If we don't have a survivable environment, none of these other problems will matter. Earth Day comes at a perfect time -- just when we start to lose sight of the importance of the environment, we're reminded that all other problems are of secondary importance.

Fortunately, we're able to walk and chew gum at the same time -- i.e., we don't have to solve problems one at a time, in order of importance. We can deal with terrorism and corporate anarchy and gun fetishism and the environment at once. It's really not that hard. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. But our media makes it more difficult. It's not that the media can't walk and chew gum at the same time -- newspapers prove the opposite. We don't get a big log of paper devoted to one, single subject  on our doorsteps every day. But the electronic media; now there's an example of a one-track mind. The explosion in West, Texas proves that. In any normal circumstance, it would be the story of the year -- but it was unfortunately overshadowed by another tragedy.

Now, I want you to consider how TV coverage of the Boston bomb attacks went. Think back. When you tuned into your favorite cable news network, you spent one helluva lot of time watching talking heads say nothing. They'd learn something new, take the few minutes it took to report that, then yack and yack and yack about nothing. In fact, if you remember correctly, you'll remember that TV media mostly talked about their own coverage; "We're hearing a lot of conflicting reports, so we'll keep you up-to-date when things get clearer." It's an oddity that cable news won't cut away from a story -- even when they have nothing to say -- but the purpose of that is to keep eyes on screens. If you turn on CNN to get news about The Big Story and they're talking about something else, you're switching over to MSNBC. Ratings bias kicks in and we all wind up watching big piles of nothing.


If the media can't take a moment to celebrate Earth Day, if other news stories are "too big" to even spare a moment of air-time, we can do it here. Meet the "carbon bubble":

International Herald Tribune: On Monday many people are celebrating Earth Day by admiring the beauty of our planet and by calling attention to the environmental dangers it faces.

While the focus is on the planet, economists are warning that carbon emissions could cause grave damage to something else green and dear.

The value of carbon-based investments — many traded publicly — could implode once governments start seriously curbing emissions, bursting what some have dubbed “the carbon bubble.”
The carbon bubble is a pretty simple concept; as it becomes clearer that excess carbon is a problem that must be solved, fossil fuels that release carbon become less attractive and, therefore, have less value. Oil, gas, and coal reserves are increasingly being seen as "unburnable," which reduces demand and reduces price. The result is a bubble; a situation where investors see more value in something than reality does. When reality catches up to the investors, the market forces the price to crash as it falls down to real world levels.

But a carbon bubble is not unavoidable. Unwise commodities traders might take a bath, but investors wouldn't have to -- and probably won't. Energy companies are diversifying their energy production, increasing investment in green energy. According to the US Energy Information Association, renewables are the fastest growing chunk of US energy consumption. Energy companies that ignore this trend would be asking for trouble. Part of the reason for this rise is simple; superior marketing. The green energy movement sells renewables for energy companies -- at no cost. And they've been tremendously successful. People will go out of their way to buy a portion of their electricity from green production -- i.e., people will specifically look for ways to buy green energy, but no one goes out of their way to make sure their electricity was generated with coal. Since only so much generating capacity is needed and people are demanding more and more renewable production, dirtier methods are increasingly being pushed out of the market.

Fossil fuel producers may squawk about this, but it's just capitalism. Technologies get dumped in favor of better tech all the time -- it's called progress. Just as cars put the buggy whip industry out of business, so renewables will eventually bury fossil fuels. And we don't notice market crashes and collapsing bubbles when this process of replacement happens over and over and over, because the jobs and market share of the new technology replaces those of the old. Will coal miners and natural gas drillers find themselves out of jobs? Eventually, sure. But new markets and new jobs will be opening up in the renewables sector to replace them. When people say that dealing with climate change will be bad for the economy, what they really mean is that it will be bad for them -- the economy and labor will actually be fine. And it will only be bad for energy companies who refuse to diversify. In other words, it won't be green energy that harms these companies, it'll be bad business management.

It may seem like progress stops occasionally, as these big news stories suck up all the oxygen. But the fact is that the world chugs along whether or not anyone's watching and the rest of the news unfolds just like always. "The world holds its breath" is a metaphor only. Other news develops whether it's covered or not. And long-term stories like climate and the environment get pushed to the farthest back burner, where they simmer nonetheless. This Earth Day may not get much coverage, because of boredom and shinier baubles, but this Earth Day is happening all the same.

And progress is being made every day, whether the cameras are there or not.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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