For California Electricity Regulator: “Safety Is Not a Glamorous Thing”

(p. A1) PG&E’s collapse has exposed the California Public Utilities Commission’s failure to hold the utility accountable on safety. The CPUC (p. A12) for years focused attention elsewhere, on setting rates and pushing for cleaner power.

Now, the agency tasked with regulating utility safety is struggling to refocus on the issue while also grappling with its failure to prevent the state’s second electricity crisis in two decades.

. . .

From the early 2000s, the commission’s focus was on setting rates and implementing Sacramento’s renewable-energy goals. Starting in 2002, three consecutive governors, two Democrats and a Republican, signed bills ratcheting up the percentage of wind and solar power utilities had to buy.

These mandates required investor-owned utilities such as PG&E to change their mix of generation, effectively phasing out burning coal and lowering reliance on natural gas while signing contracts to buy electricity from new solar and wind farms. The CPUC oversaw these deals, as well as figuring out how to integrate thousands of new rooftop solar installations.

“Was there a considerable amount of resources placed on policy? Yeah, there was,” says Timothy Alan Simon, a commissioner between 2007 and 2012 and now a utilities consultant. “It’s a challenge to balance between the safety aspects and the need for policy deliberation.”

Michael Peevey, a former Southern California Edison president, and CPUC president between 2002 and 2014, was a vocal champion of renewable-energy policies. Now retired, he says the regulator was large enough to focus on safety and renewables simultaneously but that it was tough to get Sacramento lawmakers excited about funding safety.

When compared with eliminating coal and adding solar energy, he says, “Safety is not a glamorous thing.”

For the full story, see:

Ruth Simon. “PG&E Regulators Failed to Stop Crisis.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 9, 2019): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 8, 2019, and has the title “‘Safety Is Not a Glamorous Thing’: How PG&E Regulators Failed to Stop Wildfire Crisis.”)

Ranchers Will Protect and Invest in Brazilian Forest Land That They Own

(p. A1) POMBAL, Brazil—For the past 15 years, Carlos Pacheco has raised cattle in what was once virgin forest. When pastures went bad, he would simply cut deeper into the Amazon, one of millions of farmers who have helped strip away about a fifth of the world’s greatest rainforest.

Because he expanded into land he doesn’t own, he can’t use it as collateral for a loan to buy equipment and fertilizer, nor can he tap the expertise of a government agronomist. The upshot is that he uses more land to raise each cow than do legal farmers in the breadbasket of southern Brazil.

It may sound counterintuitive, but Brazilian authorities think giving Mr. Pacheco a deed to the land he farms might curtail deforestation. The idea is it could help him become a more efficient farmer, able to produce more on less land, and also make him hesitate to just walk away from depleted pastures and carve new ones. In short, it might discourage him and squatters like him from cutting ever deeper into the jungle.

“If this doesn’t happen, we will continue to deforest,” said the 49-year-old rancher, the leader of a tightknit group of several hundred settlers on the forest frontier.

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wants to see if he is right. In February [2020], it plans to start handing out deeds to some 300,000 Amazon squatters, with a plan that might help but has raised a howl of disapproval for re-(p. A12)warding bad behavior.

. . .

Over the decades, 73-year-old cattleman João Bueno cut into the forest in Pará state to build a network of ranches totaling 45,000 acres, with 28,000 head of cattle.

He has a special document that allows him to produce and sell cattle to a slaughterhouse, but it isn’t a title, so it doesn’t allow him to use the land as loan collateral. Mr. Bueno said tapping credit would permit him to modernize his operation with fertilizer and techniques common elsewhere, raising three times as many head of cattle on the same acreage.

“Land without documentation is nobody’s land, so people take advantage of it to clear forest for pastures,” Mr. Bueno said.

For the full story, see:

Paulo Trevisani and Juan Forero. “Brazil’s Unusual Bid to Curb Deforestation.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, February 1, 2020): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 31, 2020, and has the title “Squatters Cut Down the Rainforest. Brazil Wants to Give Them the Land.”)

Bikini Atoll Is “Best Example of the Earth’s Resilience”

(p. A13) . . . “The Age of Nature” is not just a beautifully made series, it’s also a surprisingly joyful one. It’s about rehabilitation—how humans are correcting environmental outrages from Panama to Mozambique to Central China to Yellowstone Park—and how forgiving Mother Nature can be if we just pay her some affectionate attention.  . . .

The best example of the Earth’s resilience might be the first location visited, Bikini Atoll—or, rather, the crater left by the 23 nuclear detonations the U.S. set off there from 1946-58. More than 60 years later, humans still can’t live in the immediate area, but under the South Pacific’s surface, anemones, polyps, sharks and wrasses flourish in and around the coral reefs that have somehow clung or sprung back to life.  . . .

Elsewhere around the globe, similar acts of restoration and reparation are taking place, or already have: In the ’90s, China’s Loess Plateau, a vast expanse of arable but powdery soil, had been all but ruined by deforestation and grazing, until a massive effort was undertaken to terrace the land and reforest it. Similarly, the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which once suffered the multiple threats of warfare, poaching, and poaching to finance warfare, had to be restocked with certain animals—200 buffalo, for instance, and 180 wildebeest—but other species, such as lions, have re-emerged on their own.

For the full review, see:

John Anderson. “TELEVISION REVIEW; ‘The Age of Nature’: Back From the Brink.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, October 15, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 14, 2020, and has the title “TELEVISION REVIEW; ‘The Age of Nature’ Review: Back From the Brink.”)

Invading Mussels Gave Lake Michigan Sparkling Clarity

(p. 12) Having just moved back to Chicago from Mexico, she had seen Lake Michigan with fresh eyes. “Have you noticed how blue the lake is now?” she asked me one day. I had not. “It’s, like, Caribbean blue,” she said. The next time I went down to the lakeside I noticed what she meant. The lake of my childhood had always vacillated somewhere between a slate blue and the gray found in the seams of an old tennis ball. But suddenly it had taken on a kind of hyperclarity; it sparkled. The lake was so clean, I read online, that passing airplanes could see shipwrecks resting on the lake bottom. Thanks to climate change, the lake was approaching Caribbean temperatures, as well; it hit 80 degrees one recent July, when it would normally be in the high 50s. I remember feeling pleased by this change, but also slightly unsettled, the same way we feel on an unseasonably warm winter’s day. It was too good to be good.

And so it came as a revelation to me to read Dan Egan’s deeply researched and sharply written “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” Dipping into this book was like opening the secret diary of a mercurial and mysterious parent. I learned that the reason the lake had become so clear was that it had been invaded by a dastardly pair of bivalves — the zebra and quagga mussels — which had hitched a ride on a shipping barge from either the Black or Caspian Seas and then quietly but ceaselessly colonized the lake. They set about cleaning up the water with hyperactive single-mindedness, eventually sucking up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton. The water is now three times clearer than it was in the 1980s.

For the full review, see:

Robert Moor. “Five Alive.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 28, 2017): 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 23, 2017, and has the title “April’s Book Club Pick: ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,’ by Dan Egan.”)

The book under review is:

Egan, Dan. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

“Plastics Are Highly Functional”

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(p. B5) Before being elbowed aside by plastic after World War II, paper was the dominant packaging material for many consumer-goods products.

. . .

But paper comes with major drawbacks. It doesn’t have the protective properties that keep food fresh, making it unsuitable to replace some of the hardest-to-recycle plastics used for chip packets, baby-food pouches and produce bags.

“Plastics are highly functional. They’re water-resistant, grease-resistant, easy to seal,” said Patrick Lindner, chief innovation officer at WestRock Co. WRK +2.31% , a paper-packaging maker based in Atlanta. “Getting paper to behave like plastic is a tremendous technological challenge.”

For the full story, see:

Saabira Chaudhuri. “Ecology-Conscious Brands Try To Make Paper Mimic Plastic.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Oct 7, 2020): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 6, 2020, and has the title “Consumer Brands Seek Ways to Make Paper Mimic Plastic.”)

California Energy Shortage Partly Due to Government Mandated Price Ceiling on Energy Imported from Out-of-State

(p. B9) As California keeps facing electricity shortages, the discussion around its grid often veers to extremes.

. . .

Should California . . . have shut down less natural gas and nuclear power? That is definitely part of the issue, and future shutdowns might need to slow.

. . .

. . . at least some of the shortage is addressable through market rules.

For example, California has a hard import bid cap of $1,000 per megawatt hour. Christopher DaCosta, regional director of western power markets at Wood Mackenzie, says that surrounding areas have a softer cap and are able to pay more. During this summer, that meant power plants often rerouted electricity to higher bidders than California.

For the full commentary, see:

Jinjoo Lee. “To Keep Lights On, California Needs Power Play.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, September 17, 2020): B9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sep. 16, 2020, and has the title “How to Keep the Lights On in California.”)

California Government Allowed “Buildup” of “Fuel for Future Blazes”

(p. A1) California is one of America’s marvels. By moving vast quantities of water and suppressing wildfires for decades, the state has transformed its arid and mountainous landscape into the richest, most populous and bounteous place in the nation.

. . .

(p. A16) The intensity of the fires . . . reflects decades of policy decisions that altered those forests, according to Robert Bonnie, who oversaw the United States Forest Service under President Barack Obama. And the cost of those decisions is now coming due.

In an effort to protect homes and encourage new building, governments for decades focused on suppressing fires that occurred naturally, allowing the buildup of vegetation that would provide fuel for future blazes. Even after the drawbacks of that approach became clear, officials remained reluctant to reduce that vegetation through prescribed burns, wary of upsetting residents with smoke or starting a fire that might burn out of control.

That approach made California’s forests more comfortable for the estimated 11 million people who now live in and around them. But it has also made them more susceptible to catastrophic fires. “We’ve sort of built up this fire debt,” Mr. Bonnie said. “People are going to have to tolerate smoke and risk.”

For the full story, see:

Christopher Flavelle. “Mankind’s Feats Place California At Climate Risk.” The New York Times (Monday, September 21, 2020): A1 & A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 20, 2020, and has the title “How California Became Ground Zero for Climate Disasters.”)

Plastic Bag Bans Are Reversed Because Covid-19 Clings to Reusable Bags

(p. 8A) PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America.

What a difference a pandemic makes.

In a matter of weeks, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the U.S. have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.

Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages.

For the full story, see:

AP. “Virus Deals a Blow to Bans on Plastic Bags.” Omaha World-Herald (Monday, April 20, 2020): 8A.

2,000-Year-Old Seeds Sprout “Long-Lost Judean Dates”

(p. A8) KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness.

. . .

These were the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates, and the harvest this month was hailed as a modern miracle of science.

. . .

. . ., to bring something back to life from dormancy is so symbolic,” Dr. Sallon said. “To pollinate and produce these incredible dates is like a beam of light in a dark time.”

. . .

The research was peer reviewed and detailed in a paper published in February this year in Science Advances, a leading scientific journal.

For the full story, see:

Isabel Kershner. “Israel Dispatch: After 2,000 Years in the Wilderness, It’s a Date. And It’s Delicious.” The New York Times (Monday, September 7, 2020): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Israel Dispatch: Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates.”)

The paper in Science Advances mentioned above is:

Sallon, Sarah, Emira Cherif, Nathalie Chabrillange, Elaine Solowey, Muriel Gros-Balthazard, Sarah Ivorra, Jean-Frédéric Terral, Markus Egli, and Frédérique Aberlenc. “Origins and Insights into the Historic Judean Date Palm Based on Genetic Analysis of Germinated Ancient Seeds and Morphometric Studies.” Science Advances 6, no. 6 (Feb. 5, 2020), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0384.

Net-Zero Emissions Costs 16% of GDP Per Year; Climate Change at Most Costs 4% of GDP Per Year

(p. C1) For decades, climate activists have exhorted people in the wealthy West to change their personal behavior to cut carbon emissions. We have been told to drive less, to stop flying and, in general, to reduce consumption—all in the name of saving the planet from ever higher temperatures.

The Covid-19 pandemic has now achieved these goals, at least temporarily. With the enormous reduction in global economic activity, it has been as if people around the world suddenly decided to heed the activists and curtail their travel and consumption. Largely as a result of the crisis, the International Energy Agency recently concluded, “global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8% in 2020, or almost 2.6 [billion tons], to levels of 10 years ago.”

It’s an unprecedented and impressive drop in emissions—by far the biggest year-to-year reduction since World War II. Unfortunately, it will have almost no discernible impact on climate change. Glen Peters, the research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway, estimates that by 2100, this year’s enormous reduction will bring down global temperatures by less than one five-hundredth of a degree Fahrenheit.

. . .

(p. C4) Sadly, the vast majority of the actions that individuals can take in the service of reducing emissions—and certainly all of those that are achievable without entirely disrupting everyday life—make little practical difference. That’s true even if all of us do them.

. . .

Achieving global “net zero” emissions in three decades, as a growing number of activists and politicians advocate, would require the equivalent of a series of ongoing and ever-tightening lockdowns until 2050.

. . .

William Nordhaus of Yale, who in 2018 was awarded the first Nobel Prize for work in climate economics, has tabulated all of the estimates of climate-related economic damages from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and peer-reviewed studies to determine the total impact of different levels of global temperature increases. He found that, by 2050, the net negative impact of unmitigated climate change—that is, with current emissions trends unabated—is equivalent to losing about 1% of global GDP every year. By 2100 the loss will be about 4% of global GDP a year.

For comparison, what would it cost to reach net-zero by 2050, through cutting emissions and mandating new energy sources? So far, only one country, New Zealand, has commissioned an independent estimate. It turns out the optimistic cost is a whopping 16% of GDP each year by 2050. That projected figure exceeds what New Zealand spends today on social security, welfare, health, education, police, courts, defense, environment and every other part of government combined.

As this simple comparison suggests, suffering a 16% loss of GDP to reduce a problem estimated to cost 1% or even 4% of GDP is a bad way to help. That is especially true for the many parts of the world that are still in the early stages of economic development and desperately need growth to improve the lives of their impoverished populations.

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Lockdowns Highlight The Climate Challenge.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 11, 2020): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the title “The Lockdown’s Lessons for Climate Activism.” Where there are slight differences in wording between the versions in the passages quoted, the online version appears above. The online version does not list an author. I cite James Barron, who is listed as the author in the print version.)

Lomborg’s commentary, quoted above, is related to his book:

Lomborg, Bjørn. False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Environmentalism Is a “Substitute Religion” Offering “Purpose and Transcendence”

(p. A13) There is a recurring puzzle in the history of the environmental movement: Why do green activists keep promoting policies that are harmful not only to humans but also to the environment? Michael Shellenberger is determined to solve this problem, and he is singularly well qualified.

He understands activists because he has been one himself since high school, when he raised money for the Rainforest Action Network. Early in his adult career, he campaigned to protect redwood trees, promote renewable energy, stop global warming, and improve the lives of farmers and factory workers in the Third World. But the more he traveled, the more he questioned what Westerners’ activism was accomplishing for people or for nature.

He became a different kind of activist by helping start a movement called ecomodernism, the subject of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.” He still wants to help the poor and preserve ecosystems, but through industrialization instead of “sustainable development.” He’s still worried about climate change, but he doesn’t consider it the most important problem today, much less a threat to humanity’s survival—and he sees that greens’ favorite solutions are making the problem worse.

. . .

Mr. Shellenberger makes a persuasive case, lucidly blending research data and policy analysis with a history of the green movement and vignettes of people in poor countries suffering the consequences of “environmental colonialism.” He realizes, though, that rational arguments alone won’t convince devout environmentalists. “I was drawn toward the apocalyptic view of climate change twenty years ago,” he writes. “I can see now that my heightened anxiety about climate reflected underlying anxiety and unhappiness in my own life that had little to do with climate change or the state of the natural environment.”

For him and so many others, environmentalism offered emotional relief and spiritual satisfaction, giving them a sense of purpose and transcendence. It has become a substitute religion for those who have abandoned traditional faiths, as he explains in his concluding chapter, “False Gods for Lost Souls.” Its priests have been warning for half a century that humanity is about to be punished for its sins against nature, and no matter how often the doomsday forecasts fail, the faithful still thrill to each new one.

For the full review, see:

John Tierney. “BOOKSHELF; False Gods for Lost Souls.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 22, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 21, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Apocalypse Never’ Review: False Gods for Lost Souls.”)

The book under review is:

Shellenberger, Michael. Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. New York: HarperCollins Books, 2020.