UMass Amherst professor and PERI Co-Director Robert Pollin discusses his latest book that he co-authored with Noam Chomsky, about the Global Green New Deal and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in addressing the climate crisis.
Conservatives lying about what’s causing the rolling blackouts and power outages in Texas.
Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. That, plus a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country’s power grid, left the state alone to deal with the crisis, experts said.
Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.
While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state’s energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.
“Nuclear units, gas units, wind turbines, even solar, in different ways — the very cold weather and snow has impacted every type of generator,” said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.
Energy and policy experts said Texas’ decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choosing to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.
Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.
“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.
“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies’] rush for profits,” he said.
It is possible to “winterize” natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines, and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.
LESSONS FROM 2011
In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.
Woodfin, of ERCOT, acknowledged that there’s no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures. “Those are not mandatory, it’s a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things,” he said. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is currently developing mandatory standards for “winterizing” energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.
Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing” of power infrastructure was necessary, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation shows. The large number of units that tripped offline or couldn’t start during that storm, “demonstrates that the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds,” regulators wrote at the time. More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages, the report said.
“This should have been addressed in 2011 by the Legislature after that market meltdown, but there was no substantial follow up,” by state politicians or regulators, said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston. “They skipped on down the road with business as usual.”
ERCOT officials said that some generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, and new voluntary “best practices” were adopted. Woodfin said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were “not sufficient to keep these generators online,” during this storm.
After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rolling blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark and have remained without heat or power for days. On Tuesday, nearly 60% of Houston households and businesses were without power. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40% went offline during the storm, Woodfin said.
CLIMATE WAKE-UP CALL
Climate scientists in Texas agree with ERCOT leaders that this week’s storm was unprecedented in some ways. They also say it’s evidence that Texas is not prepared to handle an increasing number of more volatile and more extreme weather events.
“We cannot rely on our past to guide our future,” said Dev Niyogi, a geosciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously served as the state climatologist for Indiana. He noted that previous barometers are becoming less useful as states see more intense weather covering larger areas for prolonged periods of time. He said climate scientists want infrastructure design to consider a “much larger spectrum of possibilities” rather than treating these storms as a rarity, or a so-called “100-year event”.
Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University, highlighted a 2018 study that showed how a warming Arctic is creating more severe polar vortex events. “It’s a wake up call to say, ‘What if these are getting more frequent?’” Hayhoe said. “Moving forward, that gives us even more reason to be more prepared in the future.”
Still, Hayhoe and Niyogi acknowledged there’s uncertainty about the connection between climate change and cold air outbreaks from the Arctic.
Other Texas officials looked beyond ERCOT. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins argued that the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry — a remit that includes natural gas wells and pipelines — prioritized commercial customers over residents by not requiring equipment to be better equipped for cold weather. The RRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Other states require you to have cold weather packages on your generation equipment and require you to use, either through depth or through materials, gas piping that is less likely to freeze,” Jenkins said.
Texas’ electricity market is also deregulated, meaning that no one company owns all the power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks. Instead, several different companies generate and transmit power, which they sell on the wholesale market to yet more players. Those power companies in turn are the ones that sell to homes and businesses. Policy experts disagree on whether a different structure would have helped Texas navigate these outages. “I don’t think deregulation itself is necessarily the thing to blame here,” said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
HISTORY OF ISOLATION
Texas’ grid is also mostly isolated from other areas of the country, a set up designed to avoid federal regulation. It has some connectivity to Mexico and to the Eastern U.S. grid, but those ties have limits on what they can transmit. The Eastern U.S. is also facing the same winter storm that is creating a surge in power demand. That means that Texas has been unable to get much help from other areas.
“If you’re going to say you can handle it by yourself, step up and do it,” said Hirs, the UH energy fellow, of the state’s pursuit of an independent grid with a deregulated market. “That’s the incredible failure.”
Rhodes, of UT Austin, said Texas policy makers should consider more connections to the rest of the country. That, he acknowledged, could come at a higher financial cost — and so will any improvements to the grid to prevent future disasters. There’s an open question as to whether Texas leadership will be willing to fund, or politically support, any of these options.
“We need to have a conversation about if we believe that we’re going to have more weather events like this,” Rhodes said. “On some level it comes down to if you want a more resilient grid, we can build it, it will just cost more money. What are you willing to pay? We’re going to have to confront that.”
Regenerative grazing can store more carbon in soils in the form of roots and other plant tissues. But how much can it really help the fight against climate change?
CANADIAN, Texas — Adam Isaacs stood surrounded by cattle in an old pasture that had been overgrazed for years. Now it was a jumble of weeds.
“Most people would want to get out here and start spraying it” with herbicides, he said. “My family used to do that. It doesn’t work.”
Instead, Mr. Isaacs, a fourth-generation rancher on this rolling land in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, will put his animals to work on the pasture, using portable electrified fencing to confine them to a small area so that they can’t help but trample some of the weeds as they graze.
“We let cattle stomp a lot of the stuff down,” he said. That adds organic matter to the soil and exposes it to oxygen, which will help grasses and other more desirable plants take over. Eventually, through continued careful management of grazing, the pasture will be healthy again.
“These cows are my land management tool,” Mr. Isaacs said. “It’s a lot easier to work with nature than against it.”
His goal is to turn these 5,000 acres into something closer to the lush mixed-grass prairie that thrived throughout this part of the Southern Great Plains for millenniums and served as grazing lands for millions of bison.
Mr. Isaacs, 27, runs a cow-calf operation, with several hundred cows and a dozen or so bulls that produce calves that he sells to the beef industry after they are weaned. Improving his land will benefit his business, through better grazing for his animals, less soil and nutrient loss through erosion, and improved retention of water in a region where rainfall averages only about 18 inches a year.
But the healthier ranchland can also aid the planet by sequestering more carbon, in the form of roots and other plant tissues that used carbon dioxide from the air in their growth. Storing this organic matter in the soil will keep the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, two major contributors to global warming.
With the Biden administration proposing to pay farmers to store carbon, soil sequestration has gained favor as a tool to fight climate change. Done on a large enough scale, proponents say, it can play a significant role in limiting global warming.
But many scientists say that claim is overblown, that soils cannot store nearly enough carbon, over a long enough time, to have a large effect. And measuring carbon in soil is problematic, they say.
The soil-improving practices that ranchers like Mr. Isaacs follow are referred to as regenerative grazing, part of a broader movement known as regenerative agriculture.
There are no clear-cut definitions of the terms, but regenerative farming techniques include minimal or no tilling of soil, rotating crops, planting crops to cover and benefit the soil after the main crop is harvested, and greater use of compost rather than chemical fertilizers.
Regenerative grazing means closely managing where and for how long animals forage, unlike a more conventional approach in which animals are left to graze the same pasture more or less continuously. Ranchers also rely more on their animals’ manure to help keep their pastures healthy.
These practices are spreading among farmers and ranchers in the United States, spurred by environmental concerns about what industrialized farming and meat production have done to the land and about agriculture’s contribution to global warming. In the United States, agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Agribusiness companies and large food producers are launching initiatives to encourage regenerative practices, part of efforts to appeal to consumers concerned about climate change and sustainability.
And the Biden administration, in its initial moves to combat climate change, has cited agriculture as a “linchpin” of its strategy. One idea is to allocate $1 billion to pay farmers $20 for each ton of carbon they trap in the soil.
Proponents of regenerative agriculture have sometimes made extravagant claims about its potential as a tool to fight global warming. Among them is Allan Savory, a farmer originally from Zimbabwe and a leader in the movement, who in an often-cited 2013 TED Talk said that it could “reverse” climate change.
Some research has suggested that widespread implementation of regenerative practices worldwide could have a significant effect, storing as much as 8 billion metric tons of carbon per year over the long term, or nearly as much as current annual emissions from burning of fossil fuels.
While there is broad agreement that regenerative techniques can improve soil health and bring other benefits, some analyses have found that the potential carbon-sequestration numbers are vastly overstated. Among the criticisms, researchers point out that short-term studies may show strong increases in soil carbon, but that these gains decline over time.
“It’s really great to see the private sector and the U.S. government getting serious about reducing agricultural emissions,” said Richard Waite, a senior researcher at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization in Washington. But for carbon sequestration in soils, the institute’s analysis suggests that “mitigation opportunities are on the smaller side.”
Focusing on carbon sequestration through soil also risks drawing attention from other important ways to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, Mr. Waite said, including improving productivity, reducing deforestation and shifting food consumption to more climate-friendly diets.
Jason Rowntree, a researcher at Michigan State University who was a scientific adviser for five years for an institute founded by Mr. Savory, said that while regenerative grazing “creates a cascade of good things,” his and others’ research has shown the amount of carbon sequestered can vary greatly by region, affected in large part by the amount of rainfall and soil nitrogen available.
“Based on the amounts of these where you are, the ability to build carbon can change dramatically,” he said. “It needs to be considered in a localized context.”
What’s more, Dr. Rowntree said, using carbon in the soil as the basis for judging how well agriculture is contributing to the fight against climate change could be problematic because it is difficult to measure. As a metric, he said, “carbon is probably the worst one we could find.”
Tim LaSalle, a former executive director of Mr. Savory’s institute who later co-founded a sustainable agriculture program at California State University, Chico, said that he views the movement as “a change in looking at soil and its potential.”
“And that’s where science is lacking,” he said, arguing that most research focuses on one or two factors without considering the entire, and complex, plant-soil system.
Dr. LaSalle and colleagues are collecting data from research that shows the benefits of regenerative practices, including field trials using compost inoculated with fungi and other microbes that reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers.
“We’ve got to get the data out there to shift people’s understanding of what goes on,” he said.
Mr. Isaacs, who studied ranch management at Texas Tech University and worked for two years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, does some measurement and analysis to gauge how well his efforts are working.
“We do a lot of surveys,” he said, taking photos and samples to determine microbial activity in the soil, how well plants are growing and how the mix of species is changing. “That way you can see trends,” he said. “When you’re out here everyday, it’s hard to see what you’re doing.”
He is certain that he is building more carbon in the soil, and thus benefiting the climate to some extent. But from a drive around his ranch, it is clear that a big source of pride is the visible improvements he is seeing in the land.
Stopping in one pasture on the way back to the ranch house he shares with his wife, Aubrie, he pointed to a gentle slope with a mix of vegetation.
As with other pastures at the ranch, Mr. Isaacs has used his electrified fencing to put his cattle to graze on small plots here for short periods of time — 200 head, perhaps, eating and stomping around in a space no larger than a suburban homeowner’s backyard for as little as half an hour. Moving the fencing down the pasture to new plots allows the grazed land time to recover.
“That’s what the bison did,” he said. “They’d come in a million at a time, stomp it all down and move on to fresh pasture. And they wouldn’t come back until it was time to graze again.”
The work requires planning and frequent moving of cattle. But Mr. Isaacs is aided by technology — he uses a small drone to help herd the animals, and is investing in devices that will lift fence gates on command from an app on his phone.
The cattle make one pass around much of the ranch in winter, to prepare the land for spring growth. More passes follow in spring or summer, the number depending on largely on rainfall.
“In spring, the forage grows really fast, so we’re rotating cows around the ranch really fast,” Mr. Isaacs said. “As summer progresses and it gets hotter and the growth slows down, we slow the cows down.”
Mr. Isaacs pointed to several tallgrass species growing amid shorter ones on the slope. The intensive grazing and recovery has helped these tallgrasses come back, he said, and the cattle devour them. “In the growing season, this is as good as it gets,” he said.
“As I do better for the soil, it just becomes progressively better and better and you grow more grass,” Mr. Isaacs said. “And as you grow more grass, you get better soils.”
“It’s never ending.”
Author and economist, Jeff Rubin, says that climate change could bring great financial benefits to Canada. Namely, Rubin thinks a longer crop growing season caused by climate change could make Canada the world’s bread basket. He joins The Agenda to explain what Canada needs to do to take advantage of this possible opportunity.
climate change is an education problem
mm-hmm okay the numbers tell E Barrett
out the percentage of people with PhDs
who don’t believe climate change is real
is trivial the percent if you have
master’s degrees is maybe a little
higher but right if if you double the
percentage of Americans with a college
degree there’d be no problem of climate
change denial in this country and then
what that would mean is the world would
not would have a would actually have a
shot at maybe addressing it in a way
that right now looks unlikely a lot of
our problems are education problems in
because the ability to believe in fake
things is essential to upholding the
kind of system that we have otherwise
how do you explain in a democracy a
system that doesn’t work for most people
it makes no sense well people have to be
persuaded to believe in things that are
not real the democracies become a
plutonomy where the power of that vote
is diminished and the more you can
manipulate people as you just described
the more power the money has relative to
the individual and I’ve been trying to
help people see the connections between
each of these stories you know I was
just saying today you know we have a
story in the news of Michael Bloomberg
giving 1.8 billion to John Hopkins very
nice gift but why does he have that
money why is that happening that way
then you got a couple days before this
bombshell story on Facebook and how it
totally looked the other way as the
Russians were waging cyber war on this
country to basically protect itself from
government scrutiny then you got the
story of Amazon running a The Bachelor
contest on American cities getting you
know a tax break for the world’s richest
man you know then you go back and we
just have the 10-year anniversary of the
financial crisis and basically now 10
years later it turns out the only people
who are fully recovered from it other
people who caused that and on and on and
on and on these are all connected and I
think we are not who we think
we are in this country and we are living
in an America that is the opposite of
our self-image if you ask if you stop at
any red state blue state small town big
city farmstand and you say what are your
kind of central ideas of what this
country is about one of things that come
up very fast in my experience is
American dream like whatever effort you
put in that’s where you end up this is
actually leat less true in America than
in any other rich country the thing we
think is our thing is like the opposite
of our thing ours is actually the most
cast we are the kind of most cast
Society among the rich countries and by
the way the reduction of funding for our
public universities like University of
Michigan where you went to school where
I grew up around or Cal Berkeley they’ve
ceased to be vehicles of upward mobility
and according to Raj Chetty study with a
number of colleagues the University of
Michigan now has more people from the
top one percent then from the bottom
sixty combined as undergraduates and
that’s 40,000 students that’s not some
boutique College picking off trust fund
kids that’s how they got to sustain
themselves out of the hole like you said
the mask is like all occluding our
vision of what’s really happening you
know sometimes you can have like a very
bad disease that remains invisible in
your body right there’s cancers that you
people have for years without realizing
they have cancer and then and then it’s
too late I think we’ve had a cancer for
a while in terms of the veneration of
wealth thinking that people are smart
just because they’re rich thinking they
know what our school should be like just
because they made money in hedge funds
thinking that they you know have insight
into how we should fight diseases just
because you know they made a soft drink
company and cause diseases and that
cancer has been in our society for a
while and it was pretty much undetected
people weren’t critiquing these things
Mark Zuckerberg a few years ago
announced I’m giving 99% of my wealth
away I mean every newspaper story was
this like puffy like gauzy philanthropy
thing I think Trump is the moment where
we realize we have cancer and I
appreciate him for that I appreciate the
way in which he is flamboyantly made
visible many of the ugliest tendencies
of our society he is the incarnation of
so much of what is bad in a culture that
Revere’s money and he has tased Rama
ties so many of the things I write about
in this book the the notion that the
people who caused our problems are best
equipped to solve them somehow
the notion that you can kind of seek to
enrich yourself and sort of fight for
the common man at the same time when
when the notion that you can you know be
that just because you’re a
businessperson you have like you know
these special skills to solve any other
problem that have nothing to do with
your lane well I think the the
sensibility you know we talk about new
economic thinking like it’s this model
versus that model or whatever but you’re
penetrating to a different level which
is what I would call the emotional
contours of who you want to be and who
you allow to be the judging jury of the
meaning of your existence and by
understanding the context in which ideas
are formed and how they William are
called resonate with value it challenges
us all to think about governance
media what matters to us
you’re really you’re opening up a lot of
structures that people who just played
my model versus your model never
considered and I think that that to me
that’s a very beautiful contribution
that you’re making thank you
and will help us all go deeper Cornell
west the famous theologian and scholar
said to me one time we were on stage at
the Union Theological Seminary she said
Robert sometimes you know you don’t
understand what you have to do is get
quiet and go deeper until you can come
back yeah and I think the challenge that
you mission in this book for all of the
thinkers the intellectuals the scholars
were the people who think that they have
some kind of right to know a
paternalistic design architecture for
society I think you’re shaking us all up
and I and I’m grateful to you for you
thank you so much
Reserve Currency Status
Brainard’s speech didn’t address recent concerns regarding the reserve currency status concerns of the US dollar or China’s current lead in the CBDC race, which could advance its national interests. The reserve currency status is among others determined by the resilience of a country’s payment system, depth and trust in the well-functioning of the capital markets and exchanges, appeal to and innovation acumen of its tech industry and financial market infrastructure, international thought leadership, lead into climate change solutions and the global military might and power base, which reinforces adoption of a currency. (Customers pay for oil in the currency of the nation which offers regime protection at the oil fields. Asians and Europeans move every month out of their home currency in favor of the US Dollar to pay for their imported oil bill). Global adoption can also be ensured if censorship or control concerns, linked to the use of the CBDC, can be substantially mitigated.
Referring to innovation acumen and climate change solutions, could the central bank digital currency project incorporate scientific data observations regarding climate change triggering terrestrial and atmospheric trends? Could TRACE, a consortium tracking greenhouse gas emissions 24/7 by satellite, foster a balance between monetary policy and a thriving planet and be made part of this initiative? Could monetary policy be framed incorporating observations from those data trends, with support from climate scientists? Could digital currency be directed at ZIP code levels, impacted by climate change calamities? From a supervisory perspective, could solvency weightings for banks’ asset exposure be dynamically set as a function of the data observations and the remaining finite carbon budget? Could bank stress testing scenarios under CCAR (Comprehensive Capital Assessment and Review), undertaken to assess the banks’ adequacy of solvency levels, be articulated as an extended continuum of such climate change observations?
Innovative monetary design ingenuity linked to climate change solutions can only solidify the continued appeal in the US dollar as the global reserve currency.
The Current Five-Headed Crisis
The current crisis is five-headed in nature, characterized by a
- public health crisis, a
- financial crisis, a
- social justice crisis, a
- climate change crisis and a
- trust crisis in institutions and international trade.
Could a central bank digital crypto currency address each of the crisis challenges? How could financial inclusion offer a dent into the social injustice paradigm? How could distributed, decentralized and crypto-graphed data sharing enhance trust in institutions? How could the Central Bank consensus protocol be made more energy efficient than the private crypto-currency protocols? How could smart contract design introduce a central bank digital currency-based reward economy?
Instead of offering mere helicopter money, could compensation be offered in exchange for contributions to the regenerative (climate change) and caring economy (childcare and parental care at home)? How could blockchain supported supply chain data trace the global export and import flows in relationship to FX trades and exchange rates? How could market intervention and/or sustainable change to circular economic paradigms be steered on the back of those data?
Need For A New Anchor Currency
The debasing of currencies by the most important central banks ($6 Trillion of QE in the US alone), the arising currency tensions in the emerging markets (e.g. Lebanon, Turkey, South-Africa,….) and the COVID-19 default impact on total debt outstanding of $258 trillion per Q1 2020 will only accelerate the need and call for debt rescheduling and ensuing FX rate mechanism interventions. If gold is no longer an option, could a central bank issued stablecoin, finite in supply, become a store of value or new anchor currency to manage the restructurings and market support activities?
Brainard’s speech makes reference to a new initiative with the Bank of International Settlement’s Innovation Hub. This initiative could provide a useful avenue to design such Central Bank stablecoin.
The collateral base of the stablecoin could consist of a reserve of natural capital assets, consisting of
- 50% of land and forests,
- 35% In renewable energy initiatives, and
- 10% in the top 100 most compliant ESG companies and
- 5% in biotech research.
The collateral base would be managed dynamically, but would also benefit from monetary policy and prudential supervisory decisions aimed at regenerating the natural capital base on earth and replenishing its finite carbon reserve. The supply could be managed, within a range, as a function of the TRACE observations.
On the occasion of Bretton Woods II, the new Central Bank Stablecoin could be introduced and offered, akin to the gold standard, as a fixed rate against all other fiat currencies, including the US dollar.
Milton Friedman once observed, only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Then, ideas once dismissed as unrealistic or impossible might just become inevitable.