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Per Capita Davis: It’s hard to believe unbelievable news

By From page A5 | June 19, 2014

BELIEVE IT OR NOT: The news is full of stories about our energy future; some grim, others hopeful. Most include numbers to back up the point being made. It can sometimes be hard to sort out truth from fiction given the seemingly universal nodding of humanity’s collective heads in agreement with Mark Twain’s caustic phrase: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

What made me think of this was something Bill Bryson wrote in his book “A Walk in the Woods.” He’s a humorist, so maybe he was being funny, but I don’t think so. According to Bryson (he doesn’t cite a source), in America upwards of 90 percent of all trips outside the home are made in a car.

Further, he asserts that Americans, on average, walk only about 350 yards a day, little more than the length of a football field. This seems unbelievable to me, since he’s including walking from the house to the car, from the parking lot to the office, from the car to the grocery store, etc. But I generally trust that people don’t just make stuff up.

But, a recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek was, on the one hand, easy to believe, but on the other hand, if accurate, seems jaw-dropping unbelievable.

Speaking as a person who gets south of 2 percent interest on my money in the credit union, I was more than a little taken aback by an article in Bloomberg Businessweek indicating that Chevron (the company with the ad campaign stating “It’s time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy”) apparently told employees in their renewable energy group to go look for new jobs. The group had turned a profit of 15 to 20 percent on its renewable energy investments.

Speculation for why Chevron would back away from renewables was that if the money spent on renewables was instead invested in fossil fuels, it could make twice that. This is so short-sighted that it is hard to believe a company as big as Chevron, with all kinds of expert economic forecasters looking down the road, would shoot itself in its (carbon) foot (print).

The article concludes with a quote from a former oil and gas analyst: “I bet Kodak wished it had kept a closer eye on digital photography.”

NO SURPRISES HERE: One of the loudest and thorniest arguments in the multi-national “talks” about reining in carbon emissions has centered on figuring out who’s to blame. Generally, developed countries point the finger at China and India as the primary coal-burners in today’s world. The argument from the lesser-developed countries has been that developed countries have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and therefore should bear the lion’s share of the costs of cleaning up the atmosphere, including financing efforts in developing countries.

A recent study from the Climate Accountability Institute has, to a degree, shifted the conversation. The study identified and named 90 companies from around the planet that its author says are responsible for just short of two-thirds of all emissions since 1750, half of which were spewed into the atmosphere since 1979, well after alarms began sounding about potential negative effects.

Of the 90 companies, 81 are oil, gas or coal producers, except for seven cement manufacturers. The list includes investor-owned oil and coal companies (Chevron, Exxon, British Petroleum, Shell, Conoco/Phillips, British Coal Company, Peabody Energy, etc.), state-owned companies (Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Gazprom in Russia, etc.) and government-run coal-producing industries in countries such as China and the Soviet Union.

The study asserts that the Soviet Union and China are the largest emitters of CO2 produced over time, together accounting for 17.5 percent of emissions. The top five private oil companies (Chevron/Texaco, Exxon/Mobil, BP, Shell and Conoco/Phillips) in turn are responsible for about 12.5 percent.

Arguably, the 90 on the list, instead of or in addition to taxpayers of developed countries, could be expected to shoulder the bulk of the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

MORE ON THE CITIZENS CLIMATE LOBBY: Back in May, I wrote about the Citizens Climate Lobby, a national group with more than 200 chapters across the nation, one of which is in Yolo County. This group is somewhat different for our area because it is not just Davis-based; its members and its meetings are spread throughout the county.

It is also of interest because it is organized to pursue a unique solution to reducing carbon emissions: a “fee and dividend” program that places a fee on carbon emissions but instead of the government collecting and spending the money, the funds from the fee are allocated as a “dividend” to all households in the United States.

It’s a daunting task to enact legislation at the national level, but two recent signs indicate CCL is making progress. One, George Shultz, a conservative former secretary of state under President Reagan, supports it and talks about it in speeches to opinion makers and leaders. Second, it’s getting some traction in Washington, with Michael Gerson of the Washington Post suggesting it as a more viable solution to greenhouse gas emissions than the seemingly elusive international treaty.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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