The Climate Story You Don’t Hear About

So while American politicians and environmentalists slug it out over a proposed pipeline, China is stocking its rainy day shale and oil sands fund. Let’s start with the recent news out of Canada:

China will take over full ownership over a Canadian oil sands project for the first time after Athabasca Oil Sands Corp announced Tuesday it sold the remaining 40 percent of the MacKay River oil sands development to PetroChina for US $673 million.

The deal continues a trend that has seen China’s state-owned oil companies invest billions of dollars in exploration or production ventures in Canada, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Elsewhere is another way of saying the United States, as this other bit of news suggests:

Showing that it isn’t worried about the upswell of angst over hydraulic fracking technology, the Chinese government, through state-controlled Sinopec, today struck a deal with Devon Energy to buy into five prospective new exploration areas in the U.S.

The deal, which includes $900 million in cash upfront and a promise of $1.6 billion in the years ahead to cover drilling and development, gives the Chinese a 33% stake in five of Devon’s fields, and a front row seat to what is effectively the second wave of development of U.S. shale assets. The areas in question include the Tuscaloosa in Louisiana, the Niobrara in Colorado, the Mississippian in Devon’s home state of Oklahoma, the Utica in Ohio and the Michigan basin.

The second wave? Does that mean it washes over us irrespective of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline? Has anybody told environmentalists this? And what about climate activists? Who worries you more at this point: Mitt Romney or China? Oh, Never mind.

Back to that second wave, and how it’s being funded from Chinese cash, see this 2011 must-read from Jonathan Thompson. He writes that, over the last decade,

China has emerged as one of our biggest customers; U.S. exports to China have increased 460 percent since 2000. Compared to British, Canadian or Australian multinational corporations, Asian companies still have a minuscule investment in Western resources. But over the last year, as much of Asia scrambles out of the global recession unscathed and the U.S. continues to wallow, Chinese, Indian and even former Soviet-bloc companies have bought into American oil and gas fields, molybdenum mines and more.

The story of fossil fuels as a much sought after global commodity is the big climate story that climate-concerned activists and bloggers willfully ignore.

Category: China, climate change, Energy

China’s Coal Dependency

A China analyst advises that

dethroning coal from its dominant position in China’s energy hierarchy will be exceptionally difficult, even assuming optimistic scenarios of deploying other energy sources.

What does this realistic outlook imply?

Therefore, it is imperative to simultaneously focus on developing clean coal and carbon technologies.

Category: China, clean coal, Energy

Question of the Day

Would you trust a company that produced a report saying that 88 percent of Chinese citizens trusted its government?

Global Voices reports that “many Chinese netizens” are incredulous of the survey’s finding, including this person who posted a comment on a Chinese blog:

A mistake, the result should be 100%. Even prisoners in China trust the Chinese government, no one dare not to trust the government. It is therefore 100%. No one dare to say publicly that they don’t trust the government, including myself. I trust it even in my dream.

The nightmares of Chinese citizens look like this.

Category: China

About that “Authoritarian Envy”

It’s good to see I’m not the only one bothered by it. Now this post-and President Obama’s speech on Tuesday-is the way to balance that admiration for China with some healthy perspective.

Category: China

Enviro China Lust

It just amazes me how some greens continue to entertain the notion that authoritarianism might be better for the future of humanity than democracy.

Two years removed from a historic election, in which a black man was elected president of the world’s longest-lasting democratic government, try wrapping your mind around this question posed at Grist:

Is China’s quasi-dictatorship better prepared than our mess of a democracy?

There are a few messy facts that China’s enviro admirers conveniently ignore when they conduct this kind of thought experiment. I could tick off a bunch but I’ll simply state the most obvious. In China, you can’t pose a question like this on a popular website:

Is America’s aging, flawed democracy better prepared for the 21st century than China’s corrupt, quasi-communist dictatorship?

Or you’d think that green fans of China might at least ask themselves that question and wonder, which system would I like to improve on?

Of course not. Greens despairing over global warming lust after China the way guys drool over supermodels in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The fantasy is further indulged in the enviro mind with weirdly skewed comparisons like this:

Is a nation ruled somewhat autocratically by engineers and scientists better equipped to confront the 21st century than a nation that has always been suspicious of intellectuals, a nation increasingly ruled by the checkbooks of lobbyists and the entrenched industries they represent?

This is, to be charitable, “somewhat” amazing.

Category: China, climate change, environmentalism

The Love-Bunny of the Greens

Bishop Hill latches on to this post, which catches up with a two-month old wet kiss to China from James Hansen, all which leads a Bish commenter to sarcastically (and rightly) note:

The way China has become the ‘love-bunny’ of the greens is indeed funny, its human rights records is still awful, its building coal fired power station as fast as it can and it’s pollution and environmental problems far surpass anything seen in the west, hardly the hallmarks of eco-hero’s you would have thought.

China is also the “love-bunny” of a certain influential op-ed columnist (which I’ve previously discussed here and here). The weird thing about Hansen’s China-related op-ed and follow-up article (both which you can see here at his site) is that he doesn’t acknowledge the two energy faces of China (I guess he can’t in an op-ed for a Chinese newspaper). I mean, China is in no way banking on renewables to meet it’s voracious energy needs in the decades ahead. Happy talk of green tech aside, China is making deals all over the world to secure unfettered access to fossil fuels, including Canada’s oil sands.

Lastly, I’d be rather sparing in my praise for a country that keeps the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize locked away in jail.

Category: China, Energy

Getting Past China Lust

There’s just something weird about this China envy that I keep hearing from liberal pundits and intellectuals. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around yesterday’s op-ed by Thomas Friedman, so I’m going to attempt to unpack it. Bear with me.

Let’s start with Friedman’s opener:

To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year’s World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China’s CCTV aired a skit showing four children — one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian — getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, “Anthony,” boasts that he will win “because I always win,” and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. “Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!” shouts the Chinese child. “What’s wrong with Anthony?” asks another. “He is overweight and flabby,” says another child. “He ate too many hamburgers.”

That is how they see us.

For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station — where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work.

What can we glean from this? That Friedman is pissed off he had to huff it up the steps the last time he was in Penn Station? (Wouldn’t such exercise be good for lardass “Anthony”?) That he’s pining for a second coming of Robert Moses as President?

At least this time Friedman acknowledges a few inconvenient facts:

I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital — and authoritarianism — you can build anything in nine months.

Hurray, Friedman still remembers the one take home lesson from Robert Caro’s The Powerbroker.

Oh, but those bullet trains and sleek and sexy space age buildings are the cat’s meow:

Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.

This is where he loses me. If we know how china is manufacturing its “impressive growth engine,” then what lessons can we draw from it, other than to ape its methods? In fairness, Friedman next addresses this:

Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before.

We have? You mean, like, when we won Texas, California, and New Mexico in a penny ante poker game? And then the Indians willingly herded themselves onto reservations to make way for our “manifest destiny”? Yep, that’s when American leaders knew what was best for their country.

Okay, enough with our formative history. Even though he doesn’t provide any examples, it seems obvious to me that Friedman is referring to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which simultanously pulled the U.S. out of the last depression and laid the foundation for its emergence as a dominant world power.

James Kurth in The American Interest, argues that China has launched its own modern-day New Deal, with respect to the current global economic crisis, and that this economic investment is what is greasing China’s continued ascendance.

So instead of continuously blowing wet kisses China’s way, why doesn’t Friedman use his prominent platform to articulate the kind of vision and argument for a new American “growth engine” that is distinctly American-one that produces bullet trains and sleek space age buildings while staying true to our democratic system of governance.

This China and American comparison by Friedman is not only disturbing, its counterproductive. It’s like a parent saying to his kid, who gets C’s on his report card, why can’t you be more like johnny down the block, who gets straight A’s? In other words, enough with the negative reinforcement. Let’s focus on what we can do better (instead of just blaming others, like feckless politicians), and work on that.

Finally, at the end of his column, Friedman quotes Orville Schell (who was with Friedman on his recent China trip):

Because we have recently begun to find ourselves so unable to get things done, we tend to look with a certain overidealistic yearning when it comes to China. We see what they have done and project onto them something we miss, fearfully miss, in ourselves” — that “can-do,” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together,” “whatever-it-takes” attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon.

These were hallmarks of our childhood culture. But now we view our country turning into the opposite, even as we see China becoming animated by these same kinds of energies. I don’t idealize China’s system of government. I don’t want to live in an authoritarian system. But I do feel compelled to look at China in an objective way and acknowledge the successes of this system.

Fine. Duly noted. Now move on and help construct a “can-do” “get-it-done,” “everyone-pull-together.” whatever-it-takes” attitude for the age we live in today.

All I ask: have it be consistent with our democratic ideals.

Category: China, politics, thomas friedman

Chu on Coal & China & Green Peas

I’m a little late to this Wired profile on Energy Secretary Steven Chu, since I just started reading the May issue last night.  For hardcore Chu watchers, probably not much is new, but the piece by Daniel Roth is still worth a read, if only to be reminded that the battle against global warming is being fought on many levels, some of which are not openly discussed much.

For example, the theme of the profile is Chu’s pragmatism, so here’s a meaty, revealing passage on his approach to both China and coal:

Chu’s philosophy can, of course, irritate environmentalists. One of the topics they clash over most is coal: a dark, nasty substance that is utterly crucial to the energy supplies of both the US and China but that, per unit of energy, releases roughly 40 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline does.

Chu has called coal his “worst nightmare.” But the energy secretary also knows the big countries won’t abandon it. So he has turned his attention to what’s called clean coal. The theory: After the rocks are heated, the CO2 would be pumped deep underground instead of into the atmosphere.

For now, clean coal is hypothetical. But because Chu wants us to figure out a way to make it happen, he announced in spring 2009 that the DOE would channel $1 billion into FutureGen, a carbon-capturing power plant planned for Illinois. And not surprisingly, one of his next priorities has been getting China and the US to commit to clean coal projects together.

But even thinking about clean coal infuriates environmental hard-liners. Jeff Biggers is a prominent author who writes about Appalachia, a region ravaged by coal mining. “This is where Chu is a failure,” Biggers says. “He can’t look anyone straight in the face and say that within 10 years we’ll be able to capture carbon emissions.”

Chu can, however, say that he has no time for chasing all-or-nothing proposals, or ones that nobody is going to buy into. He sees the need to act now and to act fast. And most important, to act in a way that will bring China along. According to Chu, the old way to solve environmental problems was to say “Eat your peas, they’re good for you.” The new way is to invent clean energy technology and say “If you do this, you’re going to be richer, you’re going to be happier. And it turns out that it creates jobs, and oh, by the way, you have to do it anyway.”

A side note: this fine profile is part of Climate Desk, a multi-magazine venture, defined as

a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS’s new public-affairs show Need To Know.

It’s a great idea, and I’m rooting for it to have a big journalistic impact. But why, oh why, did they launch this thing without an accompanying blog to trumpet the stories? This is what I don’t get about my print magazine colleagues: they produce excellent content and yet all too often let it disappear into a black hole. For pete’s sake, put up a blog at Climate Desk, so these pieces have a forum where they can be chewed on and discussed (and distributed) more widely than they will be on a static website.

Category: China, climate change, coal, Journalism

Climate Wars

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comment thread, where a number of top environmental security experts weigh in.

I bet you you think this is going to be a continuation of last week’s discussion. Nah.

This week, I’ll be talking to scholars and experts who study the linkages between climate change, energy, and security. The shorthand for that nexus is climate security or energy security. Or, put another way: global warming = war.

In 2007, think tanks were just starting to define the climate/energy/security nexus. In 2008, intelligence experts sounded the alarm. In 2009, the CIA opened a climate change shop. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review declared:

Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.

These are important developments that deserve more attention. So far, public debate (which is minimal) seems to be shaped mostly by advocacy campaigns and political talking points.

In reality, the linkages between climate change, energy and national security are complex. Remember that impenetrable counterinsurgency powerpoint slide that recently bounced around the blogosphere? I bet there’s an equivalent one somewhere under lock and key that has a geopolitical diagram of the climate security threat.

What follows is a Q & A with two environmental security experts that seeks to clarify some of the core issues that have come to define climate security and energy security.

Geoff Dabelko is Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatam House, in London, and the author of the recent book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map. (Disclosure: Several months ago, I reviewed Global Warring for Nature.)

Two questions for Geoff Dabelko:

Q: Last September you wrote in the journal Climatic Change that, “‘climate security’ is in danger of becoming merely a political argument that understates the complexity of climate’s security challenges.” This recent commercial by seems to bear out your concern. What is the danger of oversimplifying the climate security issue for political reasons?

GD: Distilling complex topics into compelling sound bites demands (over)simplification and big leaps from problem to solution. But after grabbing people’s attention, what argument are you really making?

Careful analysis of climate and security linkages must inform advocacy efforts and policy responses. But we must realize that a wide range of players will interpret this analysis for their own ends.

Environmentalists should not use climate security just because it “polls well” or because military officers make effective communicators. In the 1990s, environmental security was proffered as the national security issue of the 21st century, but when that proved not to be the case, the blowback was fatal.

The security concerns related to climate and energy range well beyond typical climate advocacy goals. For example, the Pentagon is focused on clear tactical vulnerabilities such as IEDs targeting fuel re-supply missions, and strategic vulnerabilities, including dependence on unstable regimes for fuel. Both concerns have led DOD to prioritize fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, which can help reduce carbon emissions but are not direct arguments for passing a cap and trade scheme.

Similarly, climate change could act as a “threat multiplier” or “conflict accelerant” in regions of the world already destabilized by poverty, scarcity, and/or poor governance. While climate change may contribute to this instability, it should not be framed as a new type of conflict or a certain path to catastrophe.

For example, not all “climate migration” will be destabilizing or even negative. Migration has been a rational adaptation strategy in the past and will likely continue to be one in a warmer future. Yet advocates are often tempted to paint a picture of hundreds of millions of migrants flowing South to North. Such false precision in the face of tremendous uncertainty undercuts the legitimacy of the problem.

The bottom line: Climate change poses a range of security challenges, some of which must be met by security actors and others by civilians.  Those efforts must be based on precise analysis, even when fitting it on a bumper sticker.

Q: Energy security is a buzz phrase that has made its way into the political discourse. It’ll probably be invoked as a central plank of the U.S. Senate’s climate bill, whenever that is unveiled. How can the U.S. best achieve energy security?

GD: Energy security is not a new label but an enduring one that gained salience in the oil crises of the 1970s.  It is now surging past climate change as the political frame for the energy and climate efforts on the Hill and at the White House.

Energy security has unfortunately been conflated with the call to “end our dependence on foreign oil.”  While politically appealing, this slogan is practically impossible, given the nature of the global oil market, and probably undesirable and unnecessary-Canada, our friendly neighbor, is actually our largest supplier of oil.  The challenge is to channel the strong support for reducing trade with fragile or hostile suppliers into support for measures that increase efficiency, cut demand, and transition to alternative fuel sources.  Making these demand-side reductions-not just changing suppliers-is a key step to achieving energy security. It’s politically more difficult, but ultimately necessary.

We also need the software as well as the hardware. Achieving energy security requires an honest accounting of subsidies and regulatory incentives and disincentives for the full portfolio of existing and future energy technologies and sources.  Alternatives to fossil fuels remain at a tremendous disadvantage despite recent changes for the better.  Massive public and private investment in technologies must be accompanied by revolutions of equal importance in regulatory and behavior change arenas.

Energy security depends on addressing the current and future energy infrastructure vulnerabilities, including equipment failure, extreme weather events, long-term environmental change (i.e., sea-level rise/surges in the Gulf or pipelines built on thawing permafrost), regulatory inflexibility, and terrorist attacks.

Three questions for Cleo Paskal:

Q: What’s the big collision coming up at the intersection of climate change and U.S. national security?

CP: Environmental disruptions (caused by climate change but also other environmental change factors, such as depletion of groundwater) are increasingly threatening domestic U.S. security across the board, including economically, socially, politically and militarily.

Economic security is being undermined by, for example, water scarcity affecting urban development, agricultural communities and energy security. Costly extreme events, such as the ‘snowmageddons’ of February 2010, don’t help either. These uncertainties can, in turn, affect other operating costs, such as insurance, as economic systems try to figure out ways of factoring in the disruptions.

Socially, U.S. security is likely to be increasingly affected by internal migration caused by one-off extreme events, such as hurricanes, as well as by the gradual collapse of some of the regional economies that will be badly hit by environmental disruptions. In many regions the scars from Katrina are still festering.

Politically, failed response to disasters can have enormous political repercussions. According to Matthew Dowd, President George Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 campaign: “Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn’t matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn’t matter. P.R.? It didn’t matter. Travel? It didn’t matter. I knew when Katrina-I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We’re done.

From a traditional security perspective, the U.S. military is not properly trained, staffed or equipped to handle extreme or multiple domestic environmental disasters, as was made evident during Katrina. And, according to the National Intelligence Council over 30 U.S. military installations are already threatened by rising sea levels.

Q: Can you talk about the geopolitical concerns raised by China’s pursuit of energy security?
CP: The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is very focused on, and often very effective at, securing resources it deems essential to national prosperity and security. It sees prosperity and security as interlinked because without much prosperity (or the the hope of prosperity), Chinese citizens may be less acquiescent to their authoritarian government.
One of the keys to that prosperity is a reliable flow of energy. Given the relative lack of domestic hydrocarbons, that means the Chinese government has had to try to lock in a broad range of energy partners. Typically, when possible China will offer country-to-country package deals incorporate long-term energy supplies. So, for example, in Africa, China might supply infrastructure, military hardware, training and international diplomatic cover in exchange for a reliable flow of oil. This form of ‘nationalistic capitalismcan mean by-passing international markets.

Geopolitically, this can mean the scything off of large economic and political blocks from the ‘West’, and include high level (including the U.N. Security Council) diplomatic - and possibly even strategic - backing for nations such as Sudan, Iran and Venezuela.

Q: If you looked at climate change purely through a geopolitical lens, what should the U.S. be worried about most today?

CP: That the U.S. will see a gradual (and in some cases sudden) erosion of economic, social and infrastructural stability that will drain the nation and leave it increasingly less able to cope with coming challenges.

Stimulus package spending is a good example. This was an opportunity to shore up the U.S.’s physical infrastructure and defenses. However little, if any, assessments were made to see if the new builds were placed in locations that would be compromised by environmental change. As a result, instead of reinforcing stability, you can end up with infrastructure that pulls people into areas that are going to become increasingly dangerous - for example along some vulnerable coasts.

There are a lot of challenges coming our way, but there is also a lot of low hanging fruit. Little things that can be done that will dramatically increase security — such as ensuring that environmental impact assessments include not only an installation’s impact on the environment, but also a changing environment’s impact on the installation. We can do this. We have to.

There is a whole suite of climate security issues that deserve greater clarity and discussion. I will explore more of them in depth as the week progresses. Meanwhile, thanks to Geoff and Cleo for kickstarting the discussion.

Category: China, climate change, climate security, energy security

China’s Energy Security

Over the last year, Thomas Friedman has frequently promoted China’s green face to the world. Perhaps it’s time the esteemed NYT columnist and foreign policy specialist began paying attention to the other China, the one that’s been on a fossil fuel buying spree the past few years.

There’s even a nifty climate change angle for Friedman, should he take a look at China’s latest Canadian foray, confirmed this week: a $4.65 billion deal that gives China another sizable helping of Canada’s Oil Sands pie.

I can understand all the continuing interest in China’s green tech investment. What I don’t understand is why mainstream commentators pay little attention to China’s continuing procurement of dirty energy reserves around the world. Friedman’s blind spot seems especially curious given his focus on the nexus between national security and energy. And make no mistake, there are serious strategic implications, which some China watchers in DC have already noted.

Those implications are being considered this week by some Canadian pols, according to The Globe and the Mail:

China’s interest in Canada worries some Conservative MPs, who fear Beijing is out to put a lock on strategic resources. “If you buy both sides of the Panama Canal, it’s not just money,” observed Calgary Tory MP Rob Anders.

To which one Asian business official counters:

Nonsense, says Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. The evidence shows China’s state-owned companies invest for commercial reasons, and vague fears of China’s rise are behind the opposition.

Oh really? I think this is a more accurate take, from Shi Yan, a Shanghai-based energy analyst:

The policy of energy security is fundamental to the overseas acquisitions by Chinese oil companies. China’s oil demand is increasing and domestic supplies cannot meet demand.

Like I said the other day, when some were touting the Iran/climate security angle, maybe it’s time people started paying more attention to China’s tangible pursuit of energy security.

UPDATE: Roger Pielke Jr. picks up on a different tar sands development, which highlights an important contradiction in American energy policy.

Category: China, climate change, climate security