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Desert Year:$3 Trillion Thought Experiment for Rio+20

by Skip Laitner • June 7, 2012 @ 6:48 am

Because I roam the desert a lot, the UV Index is something I pay attention to.  It is an international standard that measures the strength of ultraviolet radiation from the sun at a given time and place. Canada was the first to adopt such an index in 1992. The U.S. followed in 1994, as have any subsequent number of countries since that time.  Today the World Health Organization (WHO) has standardized the UV Index by replacing the many different regional methods that otherwise provided an inconsistent set of results.

A UV index of zero is essentially a nighttime reading.  An index of 10 (highlighted by the color red) roughly corresponds to the midday sun beating down on the earth through a clear sky.  Here on the desert we often hit the extreme, at noon, with index of 11.  That is the color purple and not really all that uncommon.  And as I reflected on the thought experiment I am about to describe, yes, I was out on the desert floor at roughly the time when the UV Index hit purple.

Knowing my exposure, I suspect some are likely to think that the intense sunshine will explain my estimate of a $3 trillion loss to the U.S. economy. But, I was properly protected and not really outside for all that long. And if we step back to think about it, that very big number may prove a useful metric to help us understand the huge economic opportunities that await us – should we begin to think big about energy efficiency. And I discuss all of this in the context of the 2012 Earth Summit to be convened in Rio later this month. (more…)

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Desert Year: Doing a 180 on Energy

by Skip Laitner • May 7, 2012 @ 8:53 am

Running with the lizards and doing a 180 on energy!

The heat of the season is beginning to arrive earlier in the morning. And on this particular day it seemed especially sensible to get out ahead of the sun – well before it began to beat down with any real strength.  So I headed out early for a leisurely morning amble.  The route took me up a road that has very high curbs to channel the water from the fall monsoons. On this specific stretch of curb there was a single lizard, hugging the side of the concrete wall.  It scurried maybe 10 feet ahead of me as I approached, and then it stopped.  As I again advanced within three feet, it jumped ahead maybe another 8-10 feet, still hugging the curbside. And then again. . . .

I don’t have a clue why the lizard insisted on moving forward with me, hugging tightly to the pavement sidewall. The smarter thing, it seemed to me, would have been to scurry at a very quick right angle away from me to safety.  Yet, as I again approached it for perhaps the fifth time, it suddenly turned 180 degrees and bolted past me in the opposite direction – leaving me alone with my thoughts.  Although the suddenness of its movement startled me, I reflected a little and thought . . . that was very cool. And I immediately wondered why it is that we are so often dogged in maintaining our existing course of action?

A Changing of the Minds?

The good news is that people can and they sometimes do change their minds. Not to distract from his current predicament, in 2006 Rupert Murdoch, for example, “had a change of heart on climate change and now believes global action is needed.” Also changing his mind on climate change? Bjorn Lomborg who claimed for many years that climate was not an especially important issue to address. Yet in 2010 he released a new book with new equations stating the exact opposite. The indication is that while did change his mind, he hugely underestimates what might be an appropriate scale of mitigation effort. His current thinking recommends that we should spend $100 billion a year to mitigate and avoid the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence, however, suggests it should be many times larger.  (more…)

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Desert Year: How Old is Old? How Big is Big?

by Skip Laitner • October 24, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is discovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that can inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems.

As the monsoon season gently shifts into the fall, a second dry season for the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert begins. I was out wandering in the light of lingering afternoon sun, observing how the waxy leaves of the creosote bush reflect a pleasant hue of green, when I stopped to admire a particularly nice bush.  I looked around and quickly realized that in this part of the desert I was surrounded by a lot of creosote bushes. As I walked up to that first bush and caressed its leaves, I began to wonder how old that particular bush might actually be.

It turns out that all of the plants that I was looking at on that glorious autumn day were likely genetically identical clones of a single original bush.  Saguaros and the Foothill Paloverdes are known to live for 200 years or more.  One famous Creosote Bush in the Mojave Desert, known affectionately as the King Clone, is thought to be 11,700 years old. It is considered one of the oldest living organisms on Earth.  Even some species of desert lizards are clones.  Sonoran Spotted Whiptail lizards are all parthenogenic females. I wondered  if this reptilic sisterhood might collectively be the desert’s oldest lizard.

Spotted Whiptail Lizard

The mind then wanders in some mysterious way and for some reason I thought of a recent news story about the Arctic Ocean’s outer continental shelf. The federal government estimates the oil and natural gas reserves there to be 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Assuming that these resources can be safely and inexpensively produced, that could produce a lot of energy. But how big is that? (more…)


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