Monday, January 05, 2009

My Generic Christmas Letter, 2008

I sent this to lots of people and intended to post it here but forgot to do so. Now I've received an extensive reply that is worth posting from my friend in Norway. So I'll post my letter and show his as a comment to it -- an extremely important comment in that he has important information about greenhouse gas emissions which I did not know. Be sure to read his comment, therefore. The photo is the harbor of Bergen, with a cruise ship at anchor. Here is my letter:

Dear Friends,

What a thrilling year! Every day big events seem to take unexpected turns, requiring new solutions that we never dreamed of before. The stakes are higher than usual, and there are vast opportunities to make a difference. We’re out of the quagmire, folks! Hallelujah. As Rahm Emanuel says, you don’t ever want to waste a crisis. And we have an abundance of humdingers now.

captured my attention and wouldn’t let go. As an early enthusiast for , I set up a committee to study the subject over a seven-month series of dinners in a Chinese restaurant. We learned enough to give talks on the subject and produced a dandy power point show just as the Liberal Party swung into action promoting the same idea.

But the timing was wrong. First the price of oil went so high that it seemed cruel to tax people’s fuel at a time like that. Then the price of oil dropped 75 percent just when the recession hit, making it a terrible time to tax anything. So the Liberals lost the election, big time. Most of us weren’t watching the candidates anyhow; they couldn’t compete with the gripping Barack-vs-Hillary show, which was still going on.

I quit the NDP, as loudly as possible, when they opposed the carbon tax proposal, So now I belong to no party, but for a week this month it seemed likely that the opposition parties might form a coalition that the Governor-General would invite to form the government. That was the most exciting week in Canadian politics since I’ve lived here. The denouement has been deferred until next month, but in any case nobody will introduce a carbon tax. Never mind; I have a secret plan to manage climate change anyhow, so I’ve stopped worrying.

Vehicles matter now. I’m trying not to fly on jet planes much, so when I went to Florida for a February vacation I went by train. Then in April I took a ship to Europe as a (probably misguided) alternative. My sixteen nights of opulent sailing fouled the planet more than a jet would have. (Let me talk you out of taking a , if you aspire to live any kind of purposeful life whatever. I just hated it – unexpectedly so, because I had planned to work every day, but my laptop broke down.)

So thereafter I traveled by train everywhere between European cities. In Madeira, Seville, Gibraltar, Sardinia, Rome, Florence, Aix-en-Provence, Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin I rode double-decker tour buses around the city, usually making two or three laps so I wouldn’t have to walk much. That part was great. In Moscow my vehicle of choice was the gypsy cab. You stick out your hand and after two or three cars pass, one will stop and you negotiate a fare if he’s going near where you want to go. I hope North Americans adopt that practice; it’s less polluting than regular cars or taxis.

The purpose of my week in Kyiv and five weeks in Moscow was to interview people about political matters so I can finish the book that simmered on my back-burner for 16 years. I returned home with 35 new interviews and a clear sense of how to finish the book. In January I will start working on it. A month ago I tried out the idea on an audience in the Slavic Studies convention in Philadelphia. (My transportation there: trains and propeller-drive airplanes, which emit less CO2 than a jet. Unfortunately, they don’t fly across the ocean.)

I also came back from Moscow intending to revive the back-channel that used to take place during the Cold War. They declined over time, though there are sore feelings in Russia – a Cold Warlike hostility worse than I personally experienced during the 1980s. Former liberals are not immune to it. Lots of people no longer want democracy, which they believe they already experienced under Yeltsin. People say the West betrayed them by supporting Kosovo’s independence (which is why they paid us back by recognizing South Ossetia). They consider the Orange Revolution an American attack on Russia and fear the that is planned for Czechia and Poland. They especially resent the expansion of NATO up to the borders of Russia. I think they are right about some of these issues, but not all of them, so it’s time for us to talk.

Nuclear weapons remain a huge danger. I came back full of new resolve -- to hold a big two-day public international here In Toronto, with speakers who have influence with both governments – Russia and the United States. So we have a committee now, representing all the most effective peace organizations in Canada. We’ve been meeting three months, hoping to convene it next October. Unfortunately, we’re having trouble, partly because of the recession. That’s my biggest challenge. If you know any eager funders, please let me know. $100,000 will do nicely.

Fortunately, there’s a new anti-nuke campaign that began in Paris a couple of weeks ago which has the most promise of any so far. It’s called “” and you can look it up and endorse it on-line. The wonderful thing is that Obama wants to eliminate nuclear weapons so the possibilities are realistic for the first time in a generation. Polls show that around the world 75% of the human population wants to abolish nuclear weapons.

You may know about the world-wide campaign to establish departments of peace at same level as department of war. I’m active with a campaign to create such a ministry in Canada. There’s a campaign in the US too, led by Dennis Kucinich and Walter Cronkite.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for Peace Magazine (which I still edit after 25 years!) about the journalist . He has a new book called Climate Wars showing that it is now too late to limit the global temperature rise to two-degrees. Inevitably the world will be entering a runaway feedback situation because (a) the permafrost is melting, emitting to the atmosphere. Since methane is 20 times worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2, the process will soon become irreversible. Also (b) the ocean is a sink for CO2, but as it heats up, it can hold less and less of it. Eventually it gets to the point that it is emitting more than it is taking in. So logically we should now recognize that the game is over. Humankind is doomed.

But Dyer is remarkably cheerful, for a sound reason. There are alternatives, called “geo-engineering.” Actually, I came around to that same position over a year ago, but most of my friends are horrified by it. The most common method of is to block the incoming sun rays, so as to prevent the greenhouse effect. (One way would be to spray water into the air from the oceans, making the cloud cover denser, so it would reflect more rays. A second way would be to sow sulphur particles into the stratosphere from jet planes. That would simulate the effect of Mt. Pinatubo; all volcanoes cool the planet measurably.)

Personally, my own geo-engineering preference is by a fellow named Klaus Lackner of Columbia University, who shows the possibility of putting up structures that coated with lime water or some similar mineral that will adsorb the ambient CO2 from the atmosphere, so that it can be buried. For about one trillion dollars, they can reverse the whole planet’s CO2 content. This will give us time to exploit the new sources of energy, such as wind turbines, geo-thermal sources, biofuels from algae, and solar.

So this is my secret plan. It’s only secret because nobody likes to hear it, but this is Christmas and I’m spreading the cheer, like it or not. Humankind has a future. Let’s celebrate!

Happy New Year!


Metta Spencer



Blogger Metta Spencer said...

From Arent Greve:

Hi Metta
Interesting to read your mail, particularly about pollution and global warming, Bergen gets a lot of cruiseships into its harbor every year, and there this traffic has become a major pollution source. One cruiseship docked in the harbour idling its engines burns more than 3000 liter of diesel oil an hour, that is like 7% of all cars in the whole of Norway, Bergen has about 5% of all cars in Norway, so that one ship pollutes more than all cars in the city, sometimes there are 7 ships simultaneously in the harbor, I attach a photo that shows the whole city is smogged, which normally never happens. This pollution is from idling, then you can imagine what happens when the ship moves. CO2 is just one component, there are several worse ones: NOx (nitrogen oxids), and Sulphur, combined pollution from ships are more than twice as much as from all airplanes of the world, which has about 2.5% share of CO2 pollution in the world.

Now comes one big surprise: trains. In Europe it makes sense travelling with trains, they are light and energy efficient, and runs on electricity. In Canada and the US trains pollute more per passenger than airplanes. These trains are very heavy, they run diesel engines that are not energy efficient at all, and pollute heavily CO2, NOx, Sulphur, and soot particles, this latter is a serious health hazard for people living around railroad tracks. So, you are actually better off in the air, or use a bus.

Again, there is a difference between Europe that has energy efficient diesel or natural gas engines on buses and Canada and the US where diesel engines are just horrible, but compared to the energy wasting North-American cars, you share the pollution among more passengers on a bus. If you drive, you have to be more than 2 people in the car to beat the plane (given a load factor around 80% on the plane). In Canada and the US cars contribute 35% of the CO2 pollution, planes 2%, a jet engine today uses around 75% less fuel than they did 30 years ago, cars actually use more fuel now than they did 20 years ago. Janets 1994 Honda gets 40 miles per gallon fuel, or 6 liters per 100 km. New cars are far from that fuel efficiency!

To really manage CO2, the car industry cannot do much, what is needed is an efficient system of light rail, and efficient power plants. Today's power plants in the US and Canada contribute about 35% of CO2, so that is another serious source. Final question is: is it too late to do something? Too late is always a question of how much damage you can live with, to avoid natural disaster affecting millions of people, it is surely too late already, they are occurring as droughts or flooding and will get worse.

The biggest problem is water supply in China, they depend on glaciers in the Himalaya mountains, if they are reduced, China will be in deep shit, and it is happening. Water supply is the main reason China will not let Tibet go. They need to control the water sources. In the future you will also see military conflicts over water supplies, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, and those guys are nuclear, so look ahead to some exciting futures — excitement that we rather be without.

Despite all this pessimism, I wish you and the world a happy new year, right now the financial acrobats have played havoc with the world's economies, which again takes resources and attention away from more serious issues,
- best w. arent
Arent Greve, dr. oecon, professor
Department of Strategy and Management
The Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration
Breiviksveien 40
NO-5045 Bergen, Norway

12:20 AM  

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