Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social engineering before geoengineering

The scientists at RealClimate have some very interesting reports from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting. I haven't had time to read through all of them, but one in particular caught my attention (#7 posted by Ray Pierrehumbert ). Pierrehumbert attended a session on geoengineering as a response to global warming.

The specific geoengineering activity the session focused upon was injecting chemicals into the stratosphere that would form sulfate aerosols to block some of the sun's radiation and effect cooling. This is "analogous to the natural effects of volcanoes" as discussed in an earlier RealClimate post "Geo-engineering in vogue...". Several of the papers from the AGU session discussed by Pierrehumbert evaluate the potential effects of such geoengineering, raising a number of scientific concerns, among them:
  • that geoengineered cooling would not be distributed around the earth in the same way that the CO2 warming is distributed (thus while average earth termperatures might be reduced, it the cooling effects would be greatest in the tropics and smallest in the Artic and would not save Artic sea ice, the polar bear, or even the Greenland ice sheet).

  • that a geoengineered atmosphere would be a drier atmosphere, and there would be less rainfall.

Other entries on RealClimate discuss geoengineering, and raise substantial scientific concerns about the effectiveness of geo-engineering as as a primary response to anthropogenic climate change (CO2 climate forcings). Ray Pierrehumbert's conclusion about geo-engineering:

"I continue to think that geoengineering is a big and unfortunate distraction,
but since the cat is out of the bag, it is good that some people are doing the
work to head off rosy and over-optimistic projections of sulfate geoengineering
as a magic bullet that could substitute for the hard but necessary work of
mitigation of CO2 emissions." (Dispatch #7)

I am not able to judge the scientific arguments surrounding geoengineering, which is why I rely on the expertise of acknowledged climate scientists like those who contribute to RealClimate. However, as a sociologist, I am competent to make judgments about the cultural, social, political and economic ramifications of geoengineering. My professional sociological opinion is that discussions of geoengineering [regardless of their grounding in research] distract us from focusing on necessary social changes.

As serious as the climate change issue is (and it is very serious), it is only one of a myriad environmental and economic justice issues that need to be addressed through social, economic and political changes.

I could (if I had endless time, and no need to write 10 more lectures for an on-line course before January 7) discuss dozens of examples of areas that while connected to global warming have many other reasons why change is needed. I will just give a couple of examples, and refer you to several terrific books -- Meadows, Randers, Meadows The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004 and Lester Brown Plan B 2.0 Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W. W. Norton, 2006.

Example # 1 -- electricity generated by burning coal. As a resident of eastern Kentucky coalfields, I can tell you unequivocally that even if some one were to scientifically demonstrate beyond a doubt tomorrow (ain't going to happen) that CO2 has absolutely nothing to do with global warming, we should still move as quickly as possible to drastically cut our use of coal to generate electricity. Coal mining is an exceptionally destructive extractive activity. It destroys not only "the environment," it destroys people, their lives, health, homes, and families as well.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for coal miners. I live next door to them, I teach their children, and when they become disabled and go to college to find a new way of earning a living I teach former coal miners also. In the twenty-first century, human beings should not have to put themselves in path of life and health endangering work, simply because there is no other alternative for a decent wage in their communities. Underground coal mining is by far the most dangerous occupation in America. As for surface mining, nothing is so destructive to the face of the earth, dislocating all kinds of plant and animal species -- including the human species -- from their homes.

Each time that I have to drive over the pass from Kentucky to Virginia and back again, I look out (in either direction) at what was once uninterrupted forested hills, into what is quickly becoming a nightmare Mars-scape. This is not happening "out there" some where in some isolated wilderness (not that I want it to happen there either). It is happening within feet of people's homes, churches, stores, and businesses. It's causing some water sources to dry up, and others to become raging floods at the slightest rain.

Then there are all the environmental and health consequence of the burning of coal, totally aside from the issue of CO2. There is the acid rain (from the sulfate aerosols) that turns lakes sterile, destroys forests, and eats away at human buildings and vehicles. There's the mercury that enters the atmosphere with every ton of coal burned, to land in water and soil, creating a hazardous legacy for our children and children's children.

The fact that on top of all these other reasons for reducing coal use, there is global warming and all the best science says that humanly produced CO2 (with coal burning be #1 culprit) is responsible for a significant portion of the climate forcing, makes it all the more imperative to reduce reliance on coal for electricity. We need to dramatically reduce our use of energy -- more efficiency, smaller homes, less gadgets. This is technically easy -- far easier than ramping up the use of wind, solar, geo-thermal or wave power to generate electricity -- but socially and economically very hard.

Sure changing light bulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs will help, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. All the life style habits that we have developed over the last fifty years need to be reversed. We need lives that are simpler and less energy intensive. We need to remove ourselves from the thrall of advertising and consumption. This is not a simple matter of will power. Entire communities, regions, industries depend upon our consumption of electrical energy and the products that use electrical energy. Nonetheless, individuals and families would benefit hugely, in reduced costs and reduced stress (financial and psychological), from making these changes.

Example #2 -- oil in the form of gasoline for powering private vehicular transportation. Again, utterly aside from the roll that burning gasoline plays in producing CO2 and global warming, there are substantial reasons to dramatically rethink and redesign our transportation system.

Let's begin with the finite nature of the supply of oil. Whether the "peak" of oil production has already occurred, is occurring, will occur in the next 10 years, the next 30 years, or even the next 40 years (the most optimistic prediction I've seen comes from the USGS, and it calls for about 30 years), the fact of the matter is that in less than two generations oil production will decline, but unless there are drastic changes in the U.S., China, and many other nations the demand for oil will continue to climb higher and higher.

When supply decreases and demand increases, prices go through the roof (even without considering the geo-political issues like war). I've already discussed the outrageous costs of using private automotive transportation today. These costs will only increase, becoming more and more onerous especially in rural areas like where I currently live, where there are no public transportation alternatives. We have to create those alternatives. It is the only decent thing to do for those who care about people, about the conditions under which they live and work, and the quality of life that they have.

Then there are the geo-political issues about WHERE oil is. I don't care how much posturing our politicians (of whatever party) make about national security, terrorism, democracy, or weapons of mass destruction. We are embroiled in Iraq because it has oil, and some people (who should be struck dumb for this) are talking about attacking Iran -- because it has oil. We've made alliance with Saudi Arabia (one of the most politically repressive nations) because it has oil. Oil may not be the only cause of war and violence, but it is sure one of the big ones. Support the troops, give less money to supporters of terrorism -- use less oil!

Then there are the environmental issues of oil apart from the whole global warming issue -- the ozone and smog produced by millions of gasoline engines charging over urban freeways; the spills from pipelines, tankers, drilling platforms and refineries that pollute water, and kill wildlife.

While there are technical challenges to overcome in transportation, the even bigger obstacles are cultural attitudes, social habits, and economic and political institutions that are all built around the private auto. We have enshrined the auto in this country. The old "Mr. Goodwrench" commercial said "It's not just your car, it's your freedom," and we've bought this nonsense hook-line and sinker.

The level of transformation required involves the location of places of work and shopping, the organization of streets and homes, patterns of residence, education, entertainment, and many, many more. These changes will not only deal with environmental issues, they will deal with human issues. Making public transportation supported by taxes and fares available to all, creating safe ways for walking and biking, and redesigning communities around foot and bike traffic will not only benefit "the environment," they will benefit the health and well-being of people. Road rage will be replaced by cardiovascular fitness.

In sum, discussions of geoengineering to reduce global temperature, even if these plans are not fraught with technical and environmental problems, distract us from focusing on changing the way we live, so that we can all have decent lives, in a healthier, more efficient society.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Costs of Owning a Car?

A regular reader and astute commenter, e.r. dunhill, on Sociological Stew posted a series of responses to the "Politics of the damned?" that I've decided require a follow-up post.

We were discussing what kind of changes might be needed to allow modern societies to survive up-coming climatic shifts, and create modern, livable, sustainable societies. erd sited several writers who "advocate a shift toward producers providing services, not selling products. From a design and material-cycling standpoint, this makes excellent sense. But, it means that the end-consumer does not enjoy the economic benefit of ownership; the consumer simply pays ad infinitum."

I questioning the "economic benefit of ownership," using the automobile as an example, suggesting that owners of automobiles still pay "ad infinitum.," and that the value of the automobile was a use value not an economic value. By this I mean that private auto ownership gives an individual control over their movement and schedule and provides a sense of freedom, but does not provide an economic asset. Nonetheless, erd countered that "economic benefit of owner ship is that the first costs ultimately provide the owner with an asset. At the end of making car payments, the owner still enjoys the benefit of using the car. Moreover, the owner may ultimately recover some portion of that first cost by selling the vehicle."

This got me to thinking, and as often happens when I start thinking I do some research. What does it really cost to own a car? I took my research and made a few simplifying assumptions to come up with the following.

Suppose a man, let’s call him Charlie, bought a 2004 model year Toyota Camry LE 4 door sedan in December 2003, with payments to begin January 1, 2004. The Camry is one of the most popular cars made in the last 20 years so that’s a reasonable choice to make. It’s a reliable car, with decent gas mileage – EPA estimate of 30 miles per gallon.

The manufacturers suggested retail price on Camry in 2004 was between $15,900 and $28,500. So let’s take the median between those two prices, and assume a fairly well “loaded” vehicle at $22,200 original price. Let’s say Charlie put $2,000 down, and financed $20,200 at 6 percent over 60 months – this would be a monthly payment of $405. The total amount Charlie would have paid out on this purchase as of December 1, 2007 would be $2,000 plus $19,440.00 = $ 21,440.00. [Click here to see my spreadsheet for interest calculations and payments].

We’re going to assume that Charlie is a normal driver and averages 1,000 miles a month, or 12,000 miles a year, and 48,000 miles for the four years between Jan 2004 and December 2007. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy, the exact average price of regular gasoline for all the months between January 1, 2004 and December 1, 2007 is $2.32 per gallon. [You can calculate it yourself from the DOE's Excel spreadsheet -data series 1]. We’re going to use the EPA estimated miles per gallon of 30 mpg (even though this is probably a significant underestimation because most car owners do not drive their cars at the optimum speeds for the highest gas mileage performance). So the cost of gasoline for the four years from January 2004 through December 2007 is $3,712.00.

Charlie is a good car owner has his car serviced every 3,000 miles. The cost of regular service varies around the country, so I’ve made a simplifying assumption that service every 3,000 miles or 3 months, will cost $30. That’s higher than where I live, but much less than urban areas where most people live – Charlie lives in the greater Boston Metropolitan area [yes, gentle readers "Boston Charlie"]. And, I did not include any higher charges as might be made for the 30,000 mile check. So I’ve allowed $450 for regular servicing over the four year period.

Of course there is also insurance to pay on the automobile. Here I’m going to have to do a little guessing (because I can’t get the Progressive site to work for me, and it would only give me the cost right now). We own a 2005 Chevy Cavalier (a substantially less expensive, and less popular car than the Toyota Camry) and pay $78 a month for full coverage insurance. Since we live in an area that has high insurance rates, I’m going to be very cautious and allot $80 a month of insurance coverage for Charlie’s Camry. That’s $3,840.00 for four years of car insurance.

So the total expenditures of our car owner, after four years of ownership are:

Down payment and payments$21,440.00
Gasoline$ 3,712.00
Maintenance/Service$ 450.00
Insurance$ 3,840.00

Notice, that I have not even bothered to include other important costs of car ownership, such as property taxes, registration and licensing costs, which vary considerably from place to place. Then there are also the costs of bridge and road tolls. So this exercise underestimates the true total cost of car ownership.

Suppose Charlie wishes to sell his car right now (December 2007). He has put $29,442 into the car, and still owes, $3,754.00 on the principle of the loan. The current Blue Book value of the 2004 Toyota Camry LE sedan modestly loaded with 48,000 miles – for sales between two private parties (the best deal) is $12,625 on a 2004 Toyota Camry fairly well “loaded” in good condition. If Charlie is successful in getting the full $12,625, and pays off the remaining loan of $3,754, he will have a “profit” of $8,871 to deduct from the $29,442 that they have paid into the car. The net COST of the car to our owner over the period of four years was: $20,571.

As we said earlier our Charlie lives in the greater Boston area -- let's say the town of Lexington (I choose this because I actually have a friend named Charlie who lives in Lexington, MA), and has access to a well developed public transportation system (one of my personal favorites) -- two bus routes #62 and #76 connect Lexington with the MBTA. The MBTA offers monthly bus passes in a range of prices depending upon location. Although I suspect that our Charlie, in Lexington, could suffice with one of the less expensive passes, for the sake of argument let's say he needs the most expensive pass -- the Outer Express Bus, which costs $129/month, and provides "unlimited travel on Outer Express Bus PLUS all Inner Express Bus, Local Bus, Subway, Inner Harbor Ferry, and Commuter Rail Zone 1A." If Charlie purchased the Outer Express Bus pass, and used it for the majority of his work and pleasure travel, over the course of the same four years he would pay $6,192.

Compare $6,192 to the net COST of car owning of $20,571 for the same period, and you can see that Charlie could easily have afforded to rent a car for a weekend or a week, several times, for vacations, weekend trips, etc. He might even have purchased a "share" in a cooperatively owned vehicle by several individuals that would cost less than the occasional car rental.

It might be that Charlie does not live alone (my actual friend Charlie has a wife and two teenage children). While we would need to consider the costs of public transportation passes for all the members of the family, we also have to recognize that nearly all middle class families have more than one vehicle, with teenagers, perhaps three or more vehicles. I recently saw a statistic (sorry can't remember where) that said for every 100 Americans of driving age there were 102 private vehicles on the road. From a strictly economic standpoint, given the figures discussed here, a family of four would save money, by having one automobile, and several public transportation passes.

erd is probably thinking about now, that I didn't address one of his major points -- that one does finally pay off the car loan, and then has an "asset." In my example, I stopped short of paying off the loan (largely because it was easier to get reliable data on 2004 models). The cost of paying off the loan would be another $ 3,853.90 (plus maintenance, insurance and gasoline for another year). Once the loan is paid off, there is still monthly costs of insurance, gasoline and maintenance. The cost of gasoline is now averaging $3.07 and rising, and not the 2.32 average of the past four years, so that will be a increasing cost. The costs of maintenance will rise as more and more things need to be replaced and repaired. The costs of insurance will likely decline. But all-in-all given the costs we've been discussing the monthly upkeep costs of the automobile will continue to be greater than the costs of the monthly public transportation costs. At the same time, the Blue Book value of that car, an the amount of money Charlie could recoup by selling it, will be declining. The Camry keeps its value better than most cars, but even that will decline in value over time.

"Not every one's from Boston, John" [nod to "1776"], and most Americans do not have such well developed public transportation systems available to them. Given the costs of owning a vehicle, from an economic stand point, most Americans would gain financially if they could exchange the ownership of one family vehicle for higher taxes to support comprehensive public transportation in their area. There is nonetheless a very high resistance to public transportation (and to taxes to support it). My primary point here, is that such resistance is based on psychological, emotional and cultural reasons, not economic reasons. If we were all rational economic actors as most economists mistakenly take us to be, then it would be easy for us to exchange our automobiles for comprehensive, public transportation systems. We do not want cars because they make us economically better off. We want cars because we have been culturally conditioned to equate them with adulthood, freedom, independence, convenience and other emotionally laden concepts. There was a some years ago a series of "Mr. Goodwrench" advertisements on TV, that had a very catchy tune, the refrain to which declared "it's not just a car it's your freedom."