Thursday, August 11, 2011


After 1,850 posts on TommyWonk over the last six and a half years, it's time for me to turn my attention elsewhere.

Next week I start a job with the State of Delaware in the area of renewable energy. Having argued that renewable energy can and does make economic sense, I want to help make that happen. It’s work worth doing, and worth doing well.

Because the job involves many of the issues I have been writing about, I am taking a hiatus from blogging. I will also be stepping away from most of my other advocacy efforts. I plan to keep TommyWonk up to maintain a record of what I have written since 2005. I may return to blogging down the road, though I won’t make any promises.

I have been gratified by the many kind words I have heard from my readers along the way. Thank you all for your interest and encouragement.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Personal Piety and Public Policy

When it comes to environmental advocacy, I’m not interested in personal virtue. For me, this is not a moral crusade. Yes people may install solar panels or drive a hybrid car out of a sense of moral obligation to the planet, a commendable sentiment when coupled with effective action to reduce one's impact on the planet. But I don’t think we will make the changes we need by trying to instill greater piety in people. I think we make the changes in our energy economy by working to reach the tipping point where the economic advantages of renewable energy are too compelling for us to turn back. I prefer to think about changing economic systems rather than nudging people to live more virtuous lives.

The fallacy that this is about piety permeates the discussion about energy. Dick Cheney said ten years ago, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

Cheney’s first fallacy is confusing conservation and efficiency. Conservation is driving less or turning down the thermostat. Efficiency is using less energy to provide the same benefit.

His second fallacy is confusing inputs with outputs. Energy use is not perfectly correlated with economic output. The amount of energy required to support a dollar of GDP has fallen by half since World War II.

This leads to his third fallacy: thinking that using less energy requires deprivation. I am not as interested in instilling personal virtue in others as I am in creating a cleaner and more efficient energy economy. It’s the idea that environmentalists are scolds who want to deprive their neighbors of a warm (or cool), brightly lit home at a reasonable cost that creates so much of the resistance to renewable energy policies.

This is the basis of much of the criticism of Al Gore for not living frugally enough. When Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I predicted that his critics “will probably point out his hypocrisy when he flies to Stockholm to receive his award instead of traveling by kayak.” Similar criticism has been leveled at Michelle Obama for eating an occasional burger and fries. This kind of carping just doesn't belong in a serious discussion about problems affecting millions of lives.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Record High Temperatures Across the Country

Data geeks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took the reports of record high temperatures across the country and plotted them on a map:
 The data map shows that record high temperatures were not confined to just one region:
How hot was the month of July in 2011? So hot that just by plotting the location of each daily heat record that was broken, a nearly complete image of the contiguous United States is visible. Almost 9,000 daily records were broken or tied last month, including 2,755 highest maximum temperatures and 6,171 highest minimum temperatures (i.e., nighttime records). It should be noted that the tally of records collected so far is not complete – more are expected to come in as station data from across the U.S. is mailed to the National Climatic Data Center. 
Hot weather in one location doesn't necessarily mean the entire earth is getting warmer. But the appearance of record highs in every region suggests that something unusual is going on.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Glaciers Melting in Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park has some spectacular sights: Going-to-the-Run Road, Saint Mary Lake, and for now at least some glaciers. According to this story in the travel section of the New York Times reports, you might want to make your reservations sooner rather than later:
I was in northwest Montana for the hikes and the huckleberries, but most of all to experience the namesake glaciers, which, I had recently learned, might be around for only another decade or so. Given that a century and a half ago there were 150 and now there are 25, the trip makes me an enlistee in the practice known by a somewhat prickly term: last-chance tourism.
Glaciers are a pretty good indicator of the earth’s thermal equilibrium. They are big enough to not be affected by a single summer’s heat wave or a winter’s cold snap. Changes in glaciers indicate long term trends. If the atmosphere is getting cooler, glaciers grow; if it’s getting warmer, glaciers shrink.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sea Level Rise and Delaware Infrastructure

The costs of sea level rise from global warming will not be limited to beachfront property and wetlands. A look at DNREC's sea level rise maps reveals significant impacts for the infrastructure serving Wilmington and northern New Castle County. DNREC's interactive maps show the effects of 0.5 meters, 1.0 meter and 1.5 meters:
The maps show that even a modest rise in sea level would undermine or flood much of the major infrastructure in and around Wilmington.

I-95 would be flooded at several points between Rt. 141 and Wilmington. I-495 would be undermined near Edgemoor, under the bridge over the Christina River, at the interchange with Rt. 13, and at the interchange with I-95 and I-295. The S. Market Street, S. Walnut Street and 4th Street Bridges across the Christina River would be inundated. The Port of Wilmington would be partially underwater. Erosion along the banks of the Cherry Island Landfill and the Wilmington Wastewater Treatment Plant would threaten the structural integrity of these facilities that serve most of New Castle County. Amtrak lines would be flooded at several points, including the maintenance facility along I-495.

DNREC's Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee is looking at the potential costs associated with inundated or flooded infrastructure. One current project provides a useful benchmark:
Market Street Safety Project - Wilmington: This project would elevate the roadway out of the floodplain; reducing the impact flooding has on residents and businesses. The contract will also add the following streetscaping: sidewalks, pedestrian lighting and trees. Improvements also include undergrounding utilities. The limits are Market Street from "A" Street to just north of the Market/Walnut Street intersection. Bid opening date was Tuesday, June 8. The contract was awarded to Mumford & Miller Concrete, Inc., on July 9, 2010 with a bid amount of $4,430,809.05. The construction began on September 6, 2010. 684 Calendar Day Project.
That’s $4.4 million for less than a mile of roadway and associated infrastructure. I expect that the total infrastructure costs associated with sea level rise will be very large indeed. And what would the cost be if we decide that shoring up or replacing these transportation lines is just too expensive? Wilmington would be cut off from the highways and rail lines that connect New York and Washington.

When I discussed this at a meeting of environmental advocates with then Senator Ted Kaufman, he responded with the words, "Buffalo, New York." I sat there puzzled for a moment, and he explained that Buffalo's economic relevance began to decline when the Erie Canal was replaced by rail lines and highways as the country's main commercial arteries.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Brink of Default

In a way I am reminded of the Civil War. The South chose to break away from our national government rather than accept limits on slavery. Today, the Republican Party is threatening to break our government rather than compromise on efforts to control the debt.

Minority obstruction has become a way of life in Congress, with the proliferation of filibusters and secret holds of nominations to federal office. Now this obstructionism has metastasized, with the entire government being marched inexorably to the brink of default.

This is not just about the budget or the size of our federal government. Congress has argued about appropriations for more than two centuries. This is about whether one faction can force the government to stop operating unless that faction gets its way. The essence of majority rule is that all citizens and parties accept the legitimacy of the government, even when those with opposing views hold power. The House Republicans do not acknowledge limits to their power in a divided government, and are holding up the machinery of government unless they get their way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Downplaying the Risk of Default

Republicans are downplaying the consequences of default if Congress fails to authorize more debt. The News Journal reports that Glen Urquhart thinks the U.S. government can get by without raising the debt ceiling:
Glen Urquhart, a Republican who lost the 2010 U.S. House race, said Democrats like Markell, Coons and Obama are trying to scare the public in order to secure higher taxes to pay down the debt.

"Those are great DNC talking points, but they're just not the truth," said Urquhart, a businessman from Rehoboth Beach. "The United States is still the safest place to invest. Nothing is going to happen."

Urquhart suggested the U.S. Treasury sell bonds on the proceeds of the Social Security Trust Fund to get by until a resolution can be reached on the debt ceiling.
Urquhart should go back to school for remedial finance. Selling bonds is the way the government finances debt. Bonds cannot be sold unless and until Congress authorizes the government to borrow the money.