Week in Review: June 19

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Building a power plant worthy of tomorrowland, a climate nudge disguised as a clarion call to arms, and school’s out—brains, turn off!

Illustration: Tyler Lang

Another Shot at Coal 2.0

FutureGen—the US public-private venture to build the coal-gasifying, carbon-capturing power plant of the future, which had been both initiated and abandoned by the Bush administration—got revitalized by the Obama administration last Friday, when Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the US Department of Energy was returning to the program. That is, DOE is returning for the time being. Although Chu has pledged slightly more than $1 billion to the project, the majority of which is due to come from this year’s stimulus bill, there’s still a chance that the US will bail on the project again next year. That depends on the project’s budget, which is to be finalized in the next twelve months, and on the ability of the FutureGen Alliance—the private part of the venture—to recruit enough members to cover their share of the cost, which will be at least half a billion dollars, and likely more. The US could decide next year that either the cost will be too high, or the level of enthusiasm from private industry too low, to justify continuing the experimental project. That would likely kill FutureGen. The FutureGen Alliance kept the program alive for a few months after the Bush administration abandoned it, while Illinois Senator Dick Durbin lobbied the incoming administration for renewed support for the power plant to be built in his state. He got it. But if that support falters next year—if an Illinois president and an Illinois chief of staff give up on it—then that’s probably the end.

And that would be a terrible shame. After all, assuming the passage of a bill such as the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which mandates reductions in carbon emissions, we need to develop technologies that will actually enable us to meet those goals. This particular power plant uses coal, but the general idea—for what is known as an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant, with the added bonus of capturing carbon—could be easily reapplied to other fuels, such as natural gas. And just as well, as natural gas has been cheaper than coal for months. As important as it is that the US government—or any government, for that matter—take an active role in funding the sort of research one couldn’t expect an individual company to undertake, it needs to make sure that it doesn’t back one approach to the exclusion of all others. Although the DOE has disbursed funding for a number of carbon-capture projects as well as solar ones, none of the funding for any other project comes close to what is being offered to FutureGen. It’s a fundamental tenet of investing that diversified portfolios are the safest. Let’s not forget that in our rush to come up with climate change’s killer app.

The Point of Predictions

Nature Geoscience published a paper Sunday reviewing efforts to predict global average and local changes in sea levels over the coming century. According the authors’ review, overall rise is unlikely to exceed 1 meter on average, but could well be either worse or much better in any given location. The tone of the paper is every bit as constrained as the predictions it makes about the future of sea levels. The same cannot be said of the Obama administration’s report on the effects of climate change, or the UK’s annual one. These are documents meant to inspire action, detailing a possible world in which we had done nothing to prevent the worst possible effects of climate change. Between the march to Copenhagen this December and the ongoing fight in Washington over the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, the Obama report seems intended to provoke a reaction from the American people, and to put opponents of action on notice, that the American people will soon demand it.

What a shame, then, that the publication is being put to use in defense of such a lousy bill as Waxman-Markey, with its massive allowances of free, bankable emissions credits all but guaranteeing that there will be no strong incentive—at least not one resulting from US law—on the part of US industry to stop emitting so much carbon dioxide. Indeed, the bill seems so bad that the best provision in it may have nothing to do with capping and trading at all. The “cash for clunkers” provision, which gives consumers a cash incentive to trade in less efficient cars for new, more efficient ones, will, at least, let us get at the low-hanging fruit of carbon-spewing automobiles; for each 14 mpg car that’s replaced with a 24 mpg car, US carbon emissions will fall by three-and-a-half tons each year. (For comparison, replacing all those fairly ordinary cars with Priuses would remove only a further two tons per car. To double the initial savings to seven tons per car, we would need to replace all those 14 mpg gas-guzzlers with the daintiest fuel sippers, getting 90 miles per gallon!) Nevertheless, everyone laughs.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think that the point of the Obama administration report is not to prod Congress to action on Waxman-Markey, or even to tell the rest of the world that we are serious about climate change. It’s to get the rest of us to care, to inspire companies to make the investments we need them to make. Even if Waxman-Markey passes and by 2016 turns out to be only half the dud it seems to be, a legislative redo will be too late. This new report might be signed by John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, but it has Cass Sunstein all over it: It’s a nudge, a piece of libertarian paternalism, to make sure that Americans make the choices that no legislation will likely make for them. The Obama administration is ringing the bell; here’s to Americans hearing it.

Just in Time for Summer Vacation

The American school year is ending, which means there’s no better time for doom and gloom about the state of American STEM education. As ScienceInsider reported Tuesday, the kids are having trouble with math, lagging a full “letter grade,” according to one new analysis, behind their peers in wealthy East Asian countries.

Happening roughly contemporaneously, if not connected causally, was the passage of H.R. 1709, the STEM Education Coordination Act of 2009, in the House. It now gets shipped off to the Senate, where presumably it will pass, despite guaranteed opposition from the die-hard right wing still smarting from the Republican failure to abolish the federal Department of Education in the late 20th century. But what will it—or a similar bill, H.R. 2710—do? Both call for coordination of federal STEM education efforts through the Office of Science and Technology Policy; both are meant to address US shortcomings in math and science education without having to apply any extra resources to the problem. And maybe, as unlikely as it sounds, they don’t have to apply any extra resources to get a good effect. As Lexington in the Economist recently pointed out, American students’ biggest problem may just be that they go home to rot their brains for three months each summer. They don’t do that in the rest of the world. Just splitting up the summer vacation could have a salutary effect on how much students retain from grade to grade; the extra time at each term’s beginning not spent on reviewing older material is practically free, just waiting to be picked up. Whether Congress, or a new STEM committee, has the guts to ask for that remains to be seen.

Originally published June 19, 2009

Tags climate education environment funding policy politics

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