How I (Almost) Saved the Earth

No one said it would be easy to build the greenest house on the block. Scott Adams on perplexing energy bills, ugly lawns and the true meaning of ‘green’

Let’s say you love the Earth. You see an article in a magazine about a guy who built a “green” house using mostly twigs, pinecones and abandoned bird nests. You want to build a green home, too. So you find an architect, show him the magazine and say, “Give me one just like this.”

Good luck with that.

Your architect only knows how to design homes using materials that his local planning commission is likely to approve. But he wants the job, so he tries hard to talk you out of using twigs, pinecones and abandoned bird nests. He tells you that no builder will build it. He tells you it won’t get approved by the city. He tells you it won’t stand up to earthquakes, hurricanes or termites. But you persist. You’re saving the Earth, damn it. No one said it would be easy.

So the architect—and later your building engineer, too—each asks you to sign a document saying you won’t sue them when beavers eat a load-bearing wall and your entire family is crushed by forest debris. You make the mistake of mentioning this arrangement to your family, and they leave you. But you are not deterred because you’re saving the planet, damn it. You’ll get a new family. A greener one.

Your next hurdle is the local planning commission. They like to approve things that are similar to things they’ve approved before. To do otherwise is to risk unemployment. And the neighbors don’t want to live next to a house that looks like a compost pile. But let’s say, for the sake of this fascinating story, that everyone in the planning commission is heavily medicated with medical marijuana and they approve your project over the objections of all of your neighbors, except for the beavers, who are suspiciously flexible. Now you need a contractor who is willing to risk his career to build this cutting-edge structure.

Good luck with that.

No builder wants a risky project that could end his career. And how would he price it? He’d have to learn a whole new building method and find subcontractors willing to take on the risk. Amazingly, after a long search, you find a builder who is willing to tackle the project for about 25% more than the cost of a traditional house frame, which is reasonable given the extra business uncertainties. You’re OK with the extra costs because you’re saving the Earth, damn it.

Against all odds, you get the house built. But you can’t figure out why your monthly energy bill is the same as your neighbor’s. That magazine article assured you that twigs, pinecones and bird nests are excellent insulators. Where did you go wrong?

One day you run into an engineer who, unlike yourself, actually knows something. He listens to your whining about your energy bill and speculates that perhaps the walls weren’t packed densely enough. Or maybe there was too much moisture in the mix. Or maybe magazine articles are a bad way to learn about the science of insulation. Or perhaps, he speculates, while choosing his words carefully, you were too ignorant to realize that the majority of your energy loss is through your windows and roof.

My point is that being green is hard. My wife and I recently built what is arguably the greenest home for miles around. OK, stop. This is a good time to define “green.”

The greenest home is the one you don’t build. If you really want to save the Earth, move in with another family and share a house that’s already built. Better yet, live in the forest and eat whatever the squirrels don’t want. Don’t brag to me about riding your bicycle to work; a lot of energy went into building that bicycle. Stop being a hypocrite like me.

I prefer a more pragmatic definition of green. I think of it as living the life you want, with as much Earth-wise efficiency as your time and budget reasonably allow. Now back to our story.

When I started researching the field of green building, as part of the planning for our own home, I learned that, in many cases, you can’t get there from here. Allow me to share some of the things we learned. It’s California-centric, but I think you can generalize from my experience.

As a rule, the greener the home, the uglier it will be. I went into the process thinking that green homes were ugly because hippies have bad taste. That turns out to be nothing but a coincidence. The problem is deeper. For example, the greenest sort of roof in a warm climate would be white to reflect the sun. If you want a beautiful home, a white roof won’t get you there. Sure, you could put a lovely garden on your roof, because you heard someone did that. But don’t try telling me a garden roof wouldn’t be a maintenance nightmare. And where do you find the expert who knows how to do that sort of thing?

Second, the greenest sort of home would have few windows because windows bleed heat. In particular, if your lot has a view to the west, forget putting windows on that side because your family members will heat up like ants under a magnifying glass. Try telling your architect that you don’t want a lot of windows on the view side. He’ll quit.

Remember to skip the water-wasting lawn. White pebbles are the way to go if you want to save the Earth. I was born with almost no sense of style whatsoever, and even I hate looking at pebble lawns, although I do respect the choice.

Realistically, you’ll need to find a middle ground between green design and aesthetics. We chose roof tiles that are lighter colored than a typical roof, but nowhere near white. We used artificial grass in the side and back of the house, which is great for playing, while leaving a small patch of natural grass in the front for appearance. We have relatively few windows on the hot west side facing the street and most are shaded. The greenest number of west-facing windows would have been zero, but that would poop all over the curb appeal.

The next problem you discover when trying to build green is that there is no way to model the entire home’s energy efficiency before it is built. It’s as much guessing as engineering. Every home is unique. You can’t be sure if, let’s say, a whole house fan in the attic is worth the extra expense, assuming you do everything else right. We opted for the fan, which is designed to efficiently draw in the cool evening air. In practice, we don’t use it because it makes a hum that I barely notice but my wife doesn’t want to hear. I did not see that coming.

We have a photovoltaic system for generating electricity. That’s the most visible sign of a green home, and probably the dumbest. I expect the system to pay for itself in nominal dollars, perhaps in 15 years. But if I compare it with the most obvious alternative, it makes no economic sense. The smart alternative would have been to wait until the costs for systems like this drop by 50%, which will probably happen in a few years.

I confess that we put in the photovoltaic system partly for psychological reasons. I heard great stories of energy meters “spinning backwards” and I wanted in on that. But thanks to our local power company, PG&E, I’ve been unable to determine if the system is working at all. I know for sure that during the first four months I generated power for PG&E, gave it to them for free and then bought it back at full price. It had something to do with a delay in PG&E getting the right kind of meter installed.

Now we have the right meter, but no backward-spinning anything that I can detect. And I think I’m getting billed full price, but I can’t decipher the impenetrable documents they send me.

The biggest energy drain in a home is for heating and cooling. We opted to heat our home with a system that runs warm water through all of the floors. The system is energy efficient, I’m told, and wonderfully comfortable, but it’s powered by gas. So while our photovoltaic system will someday help during the summer, it will never help much in the cold months when the sun is wimpy and we’re burning gas to heat the floors. Worse yet, the heated floors are so pleasant that we probably overuse them compared with a forced air system. That’s a classic unintended consequence.

Conclusion: Photovoltaic systems are a waste of money. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because I love the Earth, damn it. In my defense, the price of your future photovoltaic system will never come down unless idiots like me pay too much today. You’re welcome.

Throughout the building process I picked as many expert brains as I could to figure out what energy-related aspects of the house would be the most bang for the buck. Opinions sometimes varied, but here’s what came out at the top.

Heating and cooling are the biggest energy thieves. And roofs and windows matter the most for heat transfer. Focus your research and budget there. Most of the information you find will come from manufacturers who have a financial interest in misleading you, and also of course from cartoonists who write opinion pieces after being misled by those same manufacturers. Good luck with your research.

If your local building code doesn’t already require a radiant barrier—a type of insulator for the roof—then look into it. I’m told that should be on the top of your list, at least for warm climates. This would be a good time to point out that nothing you learn about green building materials will be supported by relevant data that is in the proper context for your particular home. But the rest of your life is probably a mess too, so you’ll get used to it fast.

If you’re thinking of buying a home that has lots of windows on the wrong side for your climate, you should pass. Few things make a home less liveable, and more of an energy hog, than improper orientation to the sun. I’ve lived in two homes with that issue, and it causes a variety of problems. For example, all of my dreams involved trying to extinguish fires using nothing but my ingenuity and a full bladder.

A classic energy mistake is to put in an oversized heating and cooling system. Consider hiring an independent engineer to recommend a system size. That way you can elevate your problem from not knowing what size your furnace should be to not knowing if you hired the right independent engineer. You’ll be surprised how good that feels.

Attic fans, and whole house fans (which are different), get good reviews for homes that are not otherwise well designed. If you do everything else right, the fans might not make that much of a difference. But from experience I can tell you that everyone who knows a little bit about green building will ask if you have a fan system. A low-cost alternative is to simply tell people that you have a whole house fan that somehow makes your energy meter spin backwards.

If your budget allows, it’s good to include a lot of stonework in the interior. The thermal mass of the stones is a natural regulator of temperature. The same goes for a solid slab foundation. And obviously when you build your own home, your entire body will become tense and calcified from the process, which probably helps keep your couch at a good temperature year round. A lot of this is just common sense.

Kidding aside, I do love the Earth, damn it. And if my only contribution to its well-being is joining the early adopters (OK, idiots) so that those who follow have better information and lower costs for green building, I’m OK with that. I just hope it’s enough to make up for the squirrel I ran over this morning with the minivan.

Scott Adams is the creator of ‘Dilbert.’


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A Food Chain Crisis in the World’s Oceans

It is the starting point for our oceans’ food chain. But stocks of phytoplankton have decreased by 40 percent since 1950, potentially as a result of global warming. It is an astonishing collapse, say researchers, and may have dramatic consequences for both the oceans and for humans.

A whale shark swims with its huge mouth open near the surface of the plankton-rich waters of Donsol, a town in the Phillippines. Like many sea creatures, the whale shark nourishes itself with plankton.

The forms that marine flora and fauna come in are varied and spectacular. From bizarre deep sea creatures to elegant predators and giant marine mammals, the diversity in our planet’s oceans is astounding.

But it is the microscopic organisms like diatoms, green algae, dinoflagellates and cayanobacteria that make it all possible. Phytoplankton is the first link in the oceanic food chain. It is eaten by zooplankton which is in turn eaten by other animals, which are then consumed by yet further sea creatures. Sometimes that chain can be quite short — the only thing that separates whales from phytoplankton in the food chain, for example, are the krill that come in between.

But it appears that humans may be in the process of destroying this fundamental link in the oceanic food chain. Temperatures on the surface of our oceans are rising because of climate change, resulting in a reduction of the stock of phytoplankton. Just how severe that reduction is, however, has long been a mystery.

Now, a frightening new study reveals the shocking degree of the die-off. Since 1899, the average global mass of phytoplankton has shrunk by 1 percent each year, an international research team reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature. Since 1950, phytoplankton has declined globally by about 40 percent.

“We had suspected this for a long time,” Boris Worm, the author of the study for Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But these figures still surprised us.” At this point, he said, one can only speculate as to what the repercussions might be. “In principal, though, we should assume that such a massive decline is already having tangible consequences,” said Worm. He said that the lack of research on the food chain between phytoplankton and larger fish in the open ocean is a hindrance to knowing the extent of the damage.

‘The Entire Food Chain Will Contract’

In other words, it could be that humans have not yet been affected. But Worm fears that will not remain the case for long. If the trend continues and the phytoplankton mass continues to shrink at a rate of 1 percent per year, the “entire food chain will contract,” he predicts.

Worm’s research has found that the problem is not merely limited to certain areas of the world’s oceans. “This is global phenomenon that cannot be combatted regionally,” Worm said.

The data show that the decline is happening in eight of the 10 regions studied. In one of the other two, the phytoplankton is disappearing even more quickly, while one region showed an increase. Both of the two exceptions are in the Indian Ocean. “We suspect other factors are influencing (developments) there,” Worm says.

The situation in some coastal waters is different. In the North and Baltic Seas in Europe, for example, mass quantities of nutrients flow from land into the ocean. An enormous algae bloom in the Baltic has been the result this summer, but other microscopic organisms benefit as well. Still, coastal waters make up only a fraction of the total ocean.

Worm and his colleagues Daniel Boyce and Marion Lewis believe climate change is responsible for the disappearance of phytoplankton. In contrast to coastal areas, waters in the open sea are deeply stratified. Phytoplankton is found near the surface and gets its nourishment when cold and nutrient-rich water rises from the depths. “But when water on the upper surface gets warmer as a result of climate change, then it makes this mixing difficult,” Worm explained. As a result, the phytoplankton can no longer get sufficient nutrients.

‘So Serious It Is almost Unbelievable’

Other experts have also said they were struck by the sheer scale of the development. “A retreat of 40 percent in 60 years, that is so serious that it is almost unbelievable,” says Heinz-Dieter Franke of the Biological Institute Helgoland, part of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. He warned, however, against attributing the decline in phytoplankton solely to temperature increases. Higher temperatures, after all, could also result in more nutrients being delivered by air, he said. Other influences, like changes in cloud composition — and thus changes in sunlight on the oceans’ surface — complicate the situation.

The negative effect warmer surface temperatures have had on phytoplankton has long been well-documented, says Worm, just not over extended time periods. Continuous satellite measurements have only been available for the last 12 years or so. The researchers had to collect multiple data sets, including those taken by Pietro Angelo Secchi in the 19th century. The Italian researcher and Jesuit priest was ordered by the Papal fleet to measure the translucency of the Mediterranean Sea.

The so-called Secchi disk is still used today to measure water transparency, and the old data he collected remains enormously valuable for marine biologists. “There is a direct corollary between the transparency of water and the density of phytoplankton,” said Worm. The scientists also included measurements of micro-organisms as well as data about the ocean’s chlorophyll content. All phytoplankton organisms create chlorophyll and it is possible to draw conclusions about the biomass using that data. In total, the team of researchers evaluated close to 450,000 data from measurements taken between 1899 and 2008.

Phytoplankton’s Contribution to Global Warming

That humans have done serious damage to the world’s oceans is hardly a new finding. Over-fishing is an acute problem for several species with beloved types like blue fin tuna being threatened with extinction. Already, experts are warning that the world’s fisheries could collapse by 2050. But the decline in phytoplankton could make the situation even worse.

Franke of the Alfred Wegener Institute said he fears the decline in phytoplankton will make itself particularly apparent in fisheries. “If the oceans’ total productivity declines by 40 percent, then the yields of the fisheries must also retreat by the same amount,” Franke told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The loss of the oceans as a source of nutrients isn’t the only threat to humans. Half of the oxygen produced by plants comes from phytoplankton. For a long time, scientists have been measuring an extremely small, but also constant decline in the oxygen content of the atmosphere. “So far, the use of fossil fuels has been discussed as a reason,” said Worm. But it’s possible that the loss of phytoplankton could also be a factor.

In addition, phytoplankton absorbs a huge amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. The disappearance of the microscopic organisms could further accelerate warming.


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The other carbon-dioxide problem

Acidification threatens the world’s oceans, but quantifying the risks is hard

IN THE waters of Kongsfjord, an inlet on the coast of Spitsbergen, sit nine contraptions that bring nothing to mind as much as monster condoms. Each is a transparent sheath of plastic 17-metres long, mostly underwater, held in place by a floating collar. The seawater sealed within them is being mixed with different levels of carbon dioxide to see what will happen to the ecology of the Arctic waters.

As carbon dioxide levels go up, pH levels come down. Acidity depends on the presence of hydrogen ions (the H in pH) and more hydrogen ions mean, counterintuitively, a lower pH. Expose the surface of the ocean to an atmosphere with ever more carbon dioxide, and the gas and waters will produce carbonic acid, lowering pH on a planetary scale. The declining pH does not actually make the waters acidic (they started off mildly alkaline). But it makes them more acidic, just as turning up the light makes a dark room brighter.

Ocean acidification has further chemical implications: more hydrogen ions mean more bicarbonate ions, and fewer carbonate ions. Carbonate is what corals, the shells of shellfish and the outer layers of many photosynthesising plankton and other microbes are made of. If the level of carbonate ions falls too low the shells can dissolve or might never be made at all. There is evidence that the amount of carbonate in the shells of foraminifera, micro-plankton that are crucial to ocean ecology, has recently dropped by as much as a third.

Since becoming a topic of widespread worry about five years ago, the changing pH of the oceans has been added to the litany of environmental woes. Richard Feely, a researcher at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, provided a gift to headline writers when he dubbed acidification “global warming’s evil twin”. Nowadays Dr Feely prefers to call it “the other carbon-dioxide problem”.

But for all this concern, how bad the change in pH will be for oceans is not yet clear. Indeed, such are the complexities of studying ocean life that the true risk may become apparent only in retrospect.

There is no doubt that a pH drop is under way. For example, as the atmospheric carbon-dioxide level in Hawaii goes up, the pH at a mid-ocean mooring about 450km to the north-west goes down (see chart). But the decline is a lot bumpier than the rise: the pH difference from one year to the next is frequently greater than the change in average pH levels over 20 years.

This is because the atmosphere does not have an iron grip on the carbon-dioxide level in surface waters. Increased photosynthesis will use up carbon dioxide; increased respiration produces more of it. Water coming up from below will often have a lower pH than the surface water, because at depth there is no photosynthesis but plenty of respiration. In many places, natural variations in pH will be larger than long-term changes in its mean.

This is not to say that such changes have no effect. If peak acidities rather than long-term averages are what matters most, natural variability could make things worse. But it does suggest that the effects will be far from uniform.

So, too, does research on how organisms respond to lower pH. Iris Hendriks of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies recently analysed data from a wide sample of research into how individual organisms respond to increased carbon dioxide in their seawater. She found that the range of responses was wide, with some seeming to prefer the lowered pH. She also found that the effects to be expected in the 21st century were on average comparatively modest.

Some researchers feel the way her study lumps things together plays down the more damaging effects. Even if that is so, there is a fair chance that the literature surveyed was biased the other way. Data showing a deleterious effect might well be more likely to be written up and published than data showing nothing much.

If some creatures can tolerate lower pHs and others cannot, you might expect things to average out: the tolerant and adaptable prosper, the more pernickety perish. For the “primary producers” in the ocean—the mostly single-celled creatures that photosynthesise—this will probably be the case. But changes in the relative prevalence of different photosynthesisers could still matter. The ecology of the oceans is all about who eats what, and small changes in the population of certain creatures near the bottom of the web could have large effects on larger ones that eat them. Some creatures may be double-whammied by having less of what they like to eat and by the pH itself, amplifying the disruption. And adaptation is not without costs: dealing with lower pH may divert a creature’s resources from other ends.

This is where the condoms—or mesocosms, as their scientific caretakers would prefer it—come in. They are part of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), an initiative employing over 100 researchers, more than 30 currently in the Arctic. EPOCA is the most thorough investigation so far attempted of the effect of pH changes at the level of a whole ecology.

By looking at which creatures flourish in their mesocosms, Ulf Riebesell of the Leibniz Institute for Marine Studies in Kiel and his colleagues hope to see changes as they take place by keeping an eye on the water chemistry and nutrient levels. Dr Riebesell is particularly interested in the ecosystem role of pteropods, also called sea butterflies. These elegant micro-molluscs are a vital food for some fish. In the first year of their life, pink salmon eat more pteropods than anything else.

If reshaping food webs marginalises the pteropods, the salmon will have to adapt or die. But though the mesocosms may shed light on the fate of the pteropods, the outlook for the salmon will remain conjectural. Though EPOCA is ambitious, and expensive, the mesocosms are too small to contain fish, and the experiments far too short to show what sort of adaptation might be possible over many years, and what its costs might be.

This is one of the reasons why the fate of coral reefs may be more easily assessed than open-water ecosystems. The thing that provides structure in open-water ecosystems is the food-web, which is hard to observe and malleable. In reefs, the structure is big lumps of calcium carbonate on which things grow and around which they graze and hunt. Studies of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef show that levels of calcification are down, though it is not yet possible to say changes in chemistry are a reason for this. Current research comparing chemical data taken in the 1960s and 1970s with the situation today may clarify things.

But singling out the role of acidification will be hard. Ocean ecosystems are beset by changes in nutrient levels due to run off near the coasts and by overfishing, which plays havoc with food webs nearly everywhere. And the effects of global warming need to be included, too. Surface waters are expected to form more stable layers as the oceans warm, which will affect the availability of nutrients and, it is increasingly feared, of oxygen. Some, including Dr Riebesell, suspect that these physical and chemical effects of warming may prove a greater driver of productivity change in the ocean than altered pH. Wherever you look, there is always another other problem.


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Obama vs. BP (and You)

The government holds a company’s stock price hostage.

BP’s share price collapse, at least until its renewed slide this week, was not the worst inflicted on a major international company lately because of government action. Australia’s big ore miners didn’t spill anything but their share prices were slammed overnight when their government floated a new windfall tax on minerals.

In this country too, you might have gotten a neck sprain watching the share prices of health insurers, pharmaceutical makers and medical device companies yo-yo during the health-care debate.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable politicians would find an occasion to use this power deliberately, calculatedly. In BP’s case this week, the company’s stock price hasn’t just been taken hostage by Washington, it has been wrapped around management’s neck and progressively tightened. The sight hasn’t been an edifying one, not least because the target isn’t just BP.

President Obama may not be instinctively a man of the market, but he does understand its vulnerability to the manipulation of symbols. He called last year’s bull market, remember, saying in March of 2009, “What you’re now seeing is profit-and-earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal,” whereupon stocks promptly embarked on one of the great rallies in history.

Mr. Obama is no Warren Buffett. Punters recognized a sign that the president wanted higher stock prices, that his foot (to borrow a phrase) wasn’t on the neck of business.

The foot is now on the neck of BP, whose share price is down by half, costing shareholders $90 billion in lost wealth.

In choosing to address the nation last night before today’s meeting with BP execs, Mr. Obama signalled plainly that he’s not interested in anything they have to say. The inverted two-step was a pure show of power. BP Chief Tony Hayward will testify tomorrow under oath in front of Henry Waxman’s committee, with ransom note already in hand. Three days earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic colleagues presented a letter demanding that BP cough up an astounding $20 billion and give it, no strings attached, to a body under control of politicians to dole out as they see fit.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Waxman, the senators—none were so gauche as actually to have a ticker of BP’s stock price running in the background. That would have been overkill. The message got through.

BP has authored one of the country’s great industrial accidents and expects fully to pay through the nose. You could wish, in this light, Washington’s politicians didn’t seem quite so much like muggers standing on a street corner waiting for a vulnerable passerby. For one thing, it doesn’t benefit the victims, who will continue to line up for years to come, if BP can’t reinvest to sustain and grow its business.

Even more so because the $20 billion is rapidly becoming secondary. Notice that this week’s passion play began with all the major oil execs (not just BP’s) hauled before Ed Markey’s House subcommittee, in a guilt-by-association exercise designed to advance the cause of anticarbon legislation. From trying to distance itself from the spill the White House is turning on a dime to hype the Gulf disaster beyond its already alarming proportions. The goal: to steamroll into law a new climate-and-energy bill the public has said again and again it doesn’t want.

Government is the greatest of blessings, without which many other blessings are not possible, such as freedom from fraud and extortion and violence. The problem, and irony, is that government, in clearing the field of other fraudsters and extortionists, is ever tempted by those roles itself.

A policeman kicks out your taillight and then writes you a ticket for a faulty taillight. A president announces a moratorium on offshore drilling as a sop to a section of his public that always opposes drilling, and to be seen “doing something.” Then he turns around and demands that BP compensate those injured by the president’s own careless action.

Mr. Obama may not quite have committed the miracle of converting Tony Hayward into a sympathetic character, but voters who aren’t keen on higher energy prices should be watching closely. Their taillight is ripe to be kicked out next.

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., Wall Street Journal


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Drilling in Deep Water

A ban on offshore production won’t mean fewer oil spills.

It could be months before we know what caused the explosion and oil spill below the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. But as we add up the economic costs and environmental damage (and mourn the 11 oil workers who died), we should also put the disaster in some perspective.

Washington is, as usual, showing no such restraint. As the oil in the Gulf of Mexico moves toward the Louisiana and Florida coasts, the left is already demanding that President Obama reverse his baby steps toward more offshore drilling. The Administration has partly obliged, declaring a moratorium pending an investigation. The President has raised the political temperature himself, declaring yesterday that the spill is a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”

The harm will be considerable, which is why it is fortunate that such spills are so rare. The most recent spill of this magnitude was the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in 1989. The largest before that was the Santa Barbara offshore oil well leak in 1969.

Workers load oil booms onto a crew boat to assist in the containment of oil from a leaking pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico.

The infrequency of big spills is extraordinary considering the size of the offshore oil industry that provides Americans with affordable energy. According to the Interior Department’s most recent data, in 2002 the Outer Continental Shelf had 4,000 oil and gas facilities, 80,000 workers in offshore and support activities, and 33,000 miles of pipeline. Between 1985 and 2001, these offshore facilities produced seven billion barrels of oil. The spill rate was a minuscule 0.001%.

According to the National Academy of Sciences—which in 2002 completed the third version of its “Oil in the Sea” report—only 1% of oil discharges in North Americas are related to petroleum extraction. Some 62% of oil in U.S. waters is due to natural seepage from the ocean floor, putting 47 million gallons of crude oil into North American water every year. The Gulf leak is estimated to have leaked between two million and three million gallons in two weeks.

Such an accident is still unacceptable, which is why the drilling industry has invested heavily to prevent them. The BP well had a blowout preventer, which contains several mechanisms designed to seal pipes in the event of a problem. These protections have worked in the past, and the reason for the failure this time is unknown. This was no routine safety failure but a surprising first.

One reason the industry has a good track record is precisely because of the financial consequences of accidents. The Exxon Valdez dumped 260,000 barrels of oil, and Exxon spent $3.14 billion on cleanup. Do the math, and Exxon spent nearly 600 times more on cleanup and litigation than what the oil was worth at that time.

As for the environmental damage in the Gulf, much will depend on the weather that has made it more difficult to plug the leak and contain the spill before it reaches shore. The winds could push oil over the emergency containment barriers, or they could keep the oil swirling offshore, where it may sink and thus do less damage.

It is worth noting that this could have been worse. The Exxon Valdez caused so much damage in part because the state of Alaska dithered over an emergency spill response. Congress then passed the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that mandated more safety measures, and it gave the Coast Guard new powers during spill emergencies. We have seen the benefits in the last two weeks as the Coast Guard has deployed several containment techniques—from burning and chemical dispersants to physical barriers. America sometimes learns from its mistakes.

On the other hand, Washington’s aversion to drilling closer to shore has pushed the industry into deeper, more difficult, waters farther out to sea. BP’s well is 5,000 feet down, at a depth and pressure that test the most advanced engineering and technology. The depth complicates containment efforts when there is a disaster.

As for a drilling moratorium, it is no guarantee against oil spills. It may even lead to more of them. Political fantasies about ending our oil addiction notwithstanding, the U.S. economy will need oil and other fossil fuels for decades to come. If we don’t drill for it at home, the oil will have to arrive by tanker and barges. Tankers are responsible for more spills than offshore wells, and those spills tend to be bigger and closer to shore—which usually means more environmental harm.

The larger reality is that energy production is never going to be accident free. No difficult human endeavor is, whether space travel or using giant cranes to build skyscrapers. The rest of the world is working to exploit its offshore oil and gas reserves despite the risk of spills. We need to be mindful of such risks, and to include prevention and clean up in the cost of doing business, but a modern economy can’t run without oil.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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A place in the sun

Climate science and its discontents

RON OXBURGH, breezily pushing his bicycle through a clot of journalists outside the press briefing he had just given, is a busy man happy to hurry. Critics of his investigation into the scientific probity of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia will hold that haste against him. In his time Lord Oxburgh has been head of the earth sciences department at Cambridge, chief scientific adviser to Britain’s defence ministry and, briefly, chairman of Shell. In March he was asked to lead an inquiry into the CRU’s key scientific findings, a matter of much debate ever since hacked e-mails from the unit were made public less than five months ago. That he has reported so soon, and in a way that supports the CRU researchers, will be seen by many critics as de facto evidence of a whitewash.

Lord Oxburgh and his colleagues were not concerned with whether CRU’s scientific findings, which are based on records of temperature change from instruments and natural proxies, were correct. They were looking to see if the analysis had been biased and manipulated.

The inquiry panel looked at 11 CRU publications from the past 20 years, spent days talking to the researchers and looking at other documentation, and concluded that if there was any malpractice at CRU they would have detected it. They found no such thing. Instead they found “dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers ill-prepared for public attention”.

The panel did express considerable surprise at the fact that the unit did not collaborate closely with professional statisticians. This is despite the fact that their work was “basically all statistics”, as one member of the panel, David Hand, of Imperial College, London, put it. The report found that the CRU scientists would, had they been more comfortable with statistics, have done some things differently. But the panel doubted that using better methods would have materially changed their results.

Bloggers and others, mostly outside academia, who criticise CRU’s work and other climate science tend to lay much stress on statistical shortcomings. Dr Hand, who has a particular interest in scientific and financial fraud, has read a lot of this work. Dr Hand admires the meticulous work of Steve Mcintyre, a mining consultant and blogger, who unearthed statistical problems in another climate analysis. This was a 1998 paper, not produced by CRU, that is now known as “the hockey stick”. Those problems served to enhance the prominence of recent warming in a thousand-year reconstruction of the northern hemisphere’s temperature, and have become a cause celebre among sceptics.

When the report refers to the possibility of “inappropriate statistical tools producing misleading results”, it is the hockey stick that it has in mind. But Dr Hand said he had seen no evidence of anything that worrying in the CRU work. His concerns centred mostly on questions about the selection of data sets and the need for studies that showed how sensitive the results were to different selections of data. These are, in effect, what some critics are offering (though with what the report calls “a rather selective and uncharitable approach”. This antagonism irritates Dr Hand, since he thinks proper statistical scrutiny would have improved the work with little fuss. “What I want to do”, he says, “is bang their heads together and say sit down together and work out what’s going on.”

The panel expressed concern that, although the CRU scientists were careful with caveats, people who subsequently made use of their results, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sometimes oversimplified the issues, underplaying possible errors. It also noted that the CRU should have archived data and algorithms better, but that this was a conclusion more easily drawn in hindsight. Having been in both academia and industry, Lord Oxburgh said he has no doubt that in industry, where companies, not researchers, own the data, the record-keeping would have been looked after better, but that the team would have done much less good research. And looking back on his own academic work he showed a certain solidarity with his own subject’s sloppiness. He says he is “very grateful that the isotopic composition of helium has not become a key matter of public interest.”


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What’s the Next ‘Global Warming’?

Herewith I propose a contest to invent the next panic.

So global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time. Which means that pretty soon we’re going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place.

As recently as October, the Guardian reported that scientists at Cambridge had “concluded that the Arctic is now melting at such a rate that it will be largely ice free within ten years.” This was supposedly due to global warming. It brought with it the usual lamentations for the grandchildren.

But in March came another report in the Guardian, this time based on the research of Japanese scientists, that “much of the record breaking loss of ice in the Arctic ocean in recent years is [due] to the region’s swirling winds and is not a direct result of global warming.” It also turns out that the extent of Arctic sea ice in March was around the recorded average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The difference between the two stories has little to do with science: There were plenty of reasons back in October to suspect that the Arctic ice panic—based on data that only goes back to 1979—was as implausible as the now debunked claim about disappearing Himalayan glaciers. But thanks to Climategate and the Copenhagen fiasco, the media are now picking up the kinds of stories they previously thought it easier and wiser to ignore.

This image provided by NASA shows QuikScat interannual observations of sea ice over the Arctic.

This is happening internationally. In France, a book titled “L’imposture climatique” is a runaway bestseller: Its author, Claude Allègre, is one of the country’s most acclaimed scientists and a former minister of education in a Socialist government. In Britain, environmentalist patron saint James Lovelock now tells the BBC he suspects climate scientists have “[fudged] the data” and that if the planet is going to be saved, “it will save itself, as it always has done.” In Germany, the leftish Der Spiegel devotes 15 pages to a deliciously detailed account of “scientists who want to be politicians,” the “curious inconsistencies” in the temperature record, the “sloppy work” of the U.N.’s climate-change panel and sundry other sins of modern climatology.

As for the United States, Gallup reports that global warming now ranks sixth on the list of Americans’ top 10 environmental concerns. My wager is that within a few years “climate change” will exercise global nerves about as much as overpopulation, toxic tampons, nuclear winters, ozone holes, killer bees, low sperm counts, genetically modified foods and mad cows do today.

Something is going to have to take its place.

The world is now several decades into the era of environmental panic. The subject of the panic changes every few years, but the basic ingredients tend to remain fairly constant. A trend, a hypothesis, an invention or a discovery disturbs the sense of global equilibrium. Often the agent of distress is undetectable to the senses, like a malign spirit. A villain—invariably corporate and right-wing—is identified.

Then money begins to flow toward grant-seeking institutions and bureaucracies, which have an interest in raising the level of alarm. Environmentalists counsel their version of virtue, typically some quasi-totalitarian demands on the pattern of human behavior. Politicians assemble expert panels and propose sweeping and expensive legislation. Eventually, the problem vanishes. Few people stop to consider that perhaps it wasn’t such a crisis in the first place.

This is what’s called eschatology—a belief, or psychology, that we are approaching the End Time. Religions have always found a way to take account of those beliefs, but today’s secular panics are unmoored by spiritual consolations or valid moral injunctions. Instead, we have the modern-day equivalent of the old Catholic indulgence in the form of carbon credits. It’s how Al Gore justifies his utility bills.

Given the inescapability of weather, it’s no wonder global warming gripped the public mind as long as it did. And there’s always some extreme-weather event happening somewhere to be offered as further evidence of impending catastrophe. But even weather gets boring, and so do the people who natter about it incessantly. What this decade requires is a new and better panic.

Herewith, then, I propose a readers’ contest to invent the next panic. It must involve something ubiquitous, invisible to the naked eye, and preferably mass-produced. And the solution must require taxes, regulation, and other changes to civilization as we know it. The winner gets a beer and a burger, on me, at the 47th street Pig N’ Whistle in New York City. (Nachos for vegetarians.) Happy panicking!

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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