The Talking Dog

February 12, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Adam Stein

Adam Stein is the co-founder and vice president of marketing of TerraPass, described on its own web site as a means for concerned people to combat global warming. On February 9, 2007, I interviewed Mr. Stein by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected by Mr. Stein.

The Talking Dog: Everybody these days seems to be talking about the weather... and climate change... but you and TerraPass are actually doing something about it. Can you briefly describe what you do for TerraPass, and what TerraPass does for the rest of us (full disclosure--aside from TerraPass's blog being on the blogroll, I happen to have bought a "Cross-towner Terrapass" this year)?

Adam Stein: I am a co-founder of TerraPass, and am also presently "the marketing guy" (right now there are only 5 of us!) TerraPass is a way for people concerned about global warming to balance out their own CO2 emissions. By driving or flying or heating our house or using electricity, we all create carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. These emissions add up to our "carbon footprint". TerraPass balances your carbon footprint with a reduction in carbon emissions -- we fund an "offsetting" reduction in greenhouse gases.

The Talking Dog: In other words, this amounts to a forum for individuals to "carbon trade"?

Adam Stein: Yes... this is the voluntary purchase of these carbon credits -- individuals don't have access to private markets to do this, usually. Theyíre just not set up for individual citizens-- so we aggregate our customers' money to enable them to do this.

The Talking Dog Is anyone else doing this?

Adam Stein: There are about 45 companies or orgaizations doing this. Most are tiny, but some are establishing themselves.

The Talking Dog: Are you structured as a for-profit, and do you take an ownership or investment stake in the carbon reduction projects?

Adam Stein: We are a "for profit". We are a social business enterprise. Our goal is to make this self-sustaining. Climate change is a long-term problem, and we want to ensure that we will be around for the long haul. We set this up on a retail organization model.

We make purchases from carbon-reducing projects, but we do not take an ownership stake, nor are we making "a grant". Someone is creating a carbon credit by generating clean energy (such as a windfarm). We are purchasing that credit for our members, and the funds help to sustain the carbon-reducing projects and make them financially viable.

We are addressing a market flaw: you can now buy carbon reduction. For example, we invest in methane (CH4) digesters on dairy farms, methane being 23 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. The methane digester captures methane from a dairy farm-- where cows may produce 6,000 gallons of milk a day, but as a byproduct, also create 20,000 gallons of manure, loaded with methane... our project enables the farmer to recapture that methane without discharging it into the atmosphere.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on September 11th? The fast follow up is to what extent do you believe that the American reaction (or, in the view of some, such as the rest of the world, overreaction) to September 11th has set back the cause of combatting climate change?

Adam Stein: I was then living in San Francisco. I remember I was in the shower, and I got a phone call from my girlfriend who told me to turn on the TV. I remember it quite vividly. As far as how 9-11 changed the United States response? Probably not very much, honestly. Itís impossible to say, of course, but the debate over global warming has been playing out for decades.

On a more personal note, 9-11 certainly instilled a sense in me that my work should be important and reflect my personal values. Certainly I didnít have climate change on my mind that day, but I did switch careers shortly after that, and now I find myself at TerraPass.

The Talking Dog: But what about the sense that we might not have a second Bush presidency if not for 9-11, and Bushís administration has been an obstacle to action on climate change?

Adam Stein: Thatís true, but you could also say that a change in the shape of ballots in Palm Beach County in 2000 would have dramatically changed our response to global warming and climate change. It's all water under the bridge now; we can't go back.

The Talking Dog: It seems that in the last year (specifically, in the last six months) climate change, which has been looming as a potential problem for decades, if not centuries, has suddenly caught on to the public consciousness, at least in the world's number one with a bullet CO2 producer, in the United States... to what do you attribute that to? Forced follow up: to what extent do we owe the consciousness to Al Gore, his movie and other efforts?

Adam Stein: I think Al Gore deserves an awful lot of credit for raising popular awareness. His movie was extremely well done, and tackled an extremely complex and hard topic to get one's attention around.

But had the movie come out two years earlier, it probably would have gone nowhere. Gore certainly influenced the media-- that's a big factor, but the science is just getting further and further locked down and certain in the last couple of years. Yes, the public's understanding lags that of the scientific community-- but only for so long; reality eventually catches up.

Also, Katrina was a factor. I am not suggesting that climate change caused Hurricane Katrina, but I am suggesting that it dramatically woke people up to the potential effects of extreme weather.

The Talking Dog: The President, when he's not trying to suppress government science from disclosing anything deviating from the Republican party line best expressed by Senator James Inhofe that global warming is either the greatest or second greatest myth perpetrated on the American people (the other first or second greatest myth being evolution), he has recently suggested in his State Of The Union speech that climate change... is a problem. His prior proposed solutions include hydrogen power, and now presumably, alternative fuels, presumably meaning ethanol. Can you comment on the pros and cons of these proposals?

Adam Stein: I am reluctant to pick winners, because there is no silver bullet for climate change. The solutions will be broad-based; technology is critical, but so is conservation. Iíve noticed an unfortunate tendency for people to anoint this or that technology as the savior.

I can say that, right now, ethanol is pretty useless. Corn ethanol is just not the answer, but we can hope that maybe it will prove to be a helpful bridging technology coupled with increased fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks. We really have to improve mileage standards. But if we do, ethanol could certainly be a part of a broader solution.

Hydrogen is very interesting. I have been in hydrogen-powered cars and buses, but this technology is still a long way off, and itís only useful if you have renewable sources of hydrogen production. Right now, the most basic changes we can make involve efficiency in our use of energy, coupled with increased research and investment in renewable carbon-free energy.

The Talking Dog: Well, regardless of where it fits in the President's agenda, I have read (and heard a lecture program provided by my employer) suggesting that, at least in the short term, as another bridge technology, nuclear power--particularly in India and China, is probably the best option for producing a great deal of electricity without significant CO2 emissions-- again, nuclear waste generation is a problem but one that we may be able to solve in 50, 100, 150 years... whereas if we cross the climate change threshold, there will simply be no going back-- all human life-- if not all life-- will be changed forever. What's your view on that statement?

Adam Stein: Well, I am not, and do not purport to be, a nuclear expert. I admit that I tend to see a lot of sense in the view that the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh the very real downsides. I should mention that I am not speaking for TerraPass here, and some of my colleagues see things differetly than I do. But I view climate change as a much, much more pressing problem than nuclear waste.

But nuclear is not, of course, the ideal solution. Also, it is not clear just how "short term" a solution nuclear energy really is, as nuclear plants take years and years to come on line, and they are very expensive, so not many will be built. But in the context of India and China, I would agree that nuclear should be looked at as a potential part of the mix.

The Talking Dog: Following up on the last question, of course, the Europeans are reconsidering their embrace of palm oil, given that the clearing of tropical forests for palm plantations has made Indonesia the third largest carbon emitter (according to a recent New York Times article). This leads to a number of questions... For one, to what extent are TerraPass's efforts at biofuels measured to ensure that they amount to net carbon reduction?

Adam Stein: That's an easy one: TerraPass avoids projects like that. We avoid forestry projects. Although, to be honest, our reasons for avoiding these projects really arenít related to all the issues you hear about with clearing of tropical rainforest. At a more basic level, there are still a lot of questions around the basic science of accounting for carbon reductions from forestry projects. Personally, I would very much like to see forestry brought into the fold, because deforestation accounts for about 20% of climate change. But we just don't feel that these projects are the best use of our members' dollars at this time.

The Talking Dog: To what extent are changed agricultural practices (or food purchasing practices) available that can reduce CO2 emissions, and is Terrapass involved in any projects in that area?

Adam Stein: Again, TerraPass does not have projects in this area; for one thing, it is just very difficult to generate carbon credits for these activities. Still, some of these practices sound like great ideas, and they should definitely be pursued. Itís just that in order to generate a carbon credit, you need to meet certain baseline criteria of measurability and verifiability. So some programs might be great for the environment, just not a great source of carbon credits. The problem is global in scale-- the solutions will have to be broad based.

In the food purchasing area, the Tesco chain in Britain (equivalent to the UK's Walmart; it's their largest retailer) has added Carbon labeling to all 70,000 products on their shelves. I'm not aware of any similar Carbon labeling program in the U.S., as of yet.

The Talking Dog: You recently wrote of "the changing debate" (in particular, also the subject of a recent New York Times article) of a growing "middle ground view" on climate change-- that it is a serious problem and must quickly be remedied, but that "extremism" and "alarmism" are somehow counterproductive; this, indeed, is somewhat of a positive shift, because, Senator James Inhofe aside, the side paid by oil and coal companies to deny the existence of global warming or climate change is now forced to be less outright dismissive of it... A couple of questions emerge from this... For one, how do we (all people, of course, but we'll start with, for example, so-called "progressive" bloggers) address so-called "climate skeptics"?

Adam Stein: Well, you address a climate change skeptic politely and respectfully with solid arguments based in science and fact. We have to realize that most Americans just don't know about climate change. Many people are still learning about this for the first time. This can be frustrating, but itís a long-term problem, and a certain amount of patience is necessary.

When encountering a diehard skeptic, one need not convince them -- you can't necessarily. But in any debate, there are always people on the sidelines listening in, and these are the people that your arguments should be aimed at. We need to convince less partisan onlookers with the reasonableness and soundness of our position. Itís a hard task, though. The science is complex, and even those of us who understand the scope of the problem canít always be up to date on the latest climate research.

But a key point is that there is no scientific debate -- there is not a single peer reviewed scientific journal article that disputes the reality of man-made climate change at this point. Indeed, the scientific climate change does something unique-- they get together every 5 years and issue a report that summarizes the latest scientific evidence on climate change. This is the IPCC report that has just come out, demonstrating that there is a greater than 90% chance that climate change is not only real, but caused by man-made emissions. The scientists have made up their minds; the vast body of data is now indisputable. We now have the science-- CO2 records go back 600,000 years, and there is now no alternative explanation-- in short, the "debate" is over. The only question is just how long it takes for most people to understand, and act on this.

Another interesting fact to confront skeptics with is that the oil companies themselves have all given up their opposition to the notion of man-made climate change. They donít dispute it anymore Ė Shell, Exxon, all of them. You would think that if there were any doubt left, these companies would be the most eager to reinforce it.

The Talking Dog: How would you respond that, in some ways, the American people are so jaded that unless something is portrayed as an absolute crisis, the political pressure to do something just isn't there (see "September 11th")?

Adam Stein: This is by far the biggest problem with climate change as a political issue-- it is a slow motion problem, and its effects and the consequences of actions take decades or longer to play out. It is just not something that can be easily dealt with politically, given how we now do things. Several decades of climate change are already baked into the system, even if we stop emitting carbon altogether immediately -- that's just the effect of lags of processes we have already put in place.

This is why events like Katrina have such impact, even if it is unclear that global warming had anything to do with Katrina itself. Indeed, Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart said that he "got religion" after Katrina. He regards global warming as "Katrina in slow motion", which is a pretty apt metaphor. How do we fix all of this? We will have to have a steady drumbeat of popular sentiment, followed by effective legislative action.

The Talking Dog: Are you optimistic we can solve this problem before catastrophe sets in?

Adam Stein: Am I optimistic? I have to feel that we have to, and we will, get on top of this problem in time to forestall the worst effects. We cannot stop all of them-- we are well past that, and many are already happening. There are a number of different scenarios that can play out, but I have to believe that the other benefits of getting beyond fossil fuels will be enough for us to get to that point. This will take decades at a minimum and major effort, but I believe we will get there.

The Talking Dog: With a minimum of "The Day After Tomorrow" hyperbole as best you can, can you briefly describe some of the consequences of climate change, assuming the "business as usual" scenario, and CO2 emissions continue unabated for the next 10, 20 50 years... for example, the increased strength of hurricanes of which Katrina is but one example?

Adam Stein: Hurricanes are still being debated scientifically, but there is no question that oceans will be getting warmer, which potentially will strengthen hurricanes.

Sea level changes are one of the most salient effects of global warming, though, again, there is debate over just how much. Our current models of sea level changes mostly reflect the fact that water expands as it heats up. But glaciers are also melting, and it now appears they are melting faster than we originally thought. Right now, scientists are predicting a rise of several feet in this century, although these figures may have to be revised upwards.

The effects of even a few feet are enormous. Some low lying islands near Indonesia have already begun to disappear, and thousands of people have to be relocated, right now. The United States will be effected, for sure. Parts of California's Highway 101 near the ocean will be submerged, for example! There will be serious shifts in weather patterns-- some areas wil get wetter, and some drier. This impacts food production and the water supply-- there will be ecoomic consequences and geo-poltical consequences. Arguably, we are seeing them start to play out now in places such as Darfur. Australia is already experiencing severe droughts, and that will only get worse.

The price to the planet in terms of biodiversity will be high: plant and animal species' traditional reaction to weather and climate change was to move; our cities will make that harder or impossible, and many species will become extinct. And not just on land: oceans are getting more acidic-- we may lose many, if not all, of our coral reefs. Plankton will be heavily effected, and plankton sits at the bottom of a food chain that goes all the way up to whales. At this point, it really is hard to estimate just how far reaching all the effects of climate change could go.

The Talking Dog: Notwithstanding that climate change is a global problem requiring global action, what (besides buying a TerraPass!) can we as individuals (and individual community members) do on our own, say, today, this week, this year, and in the next 3-5 years?

Adam Stein: There are a few categories of action. First of all, be sure your elected representatives know how important these issues are to you-- voting is one way of letting them know you care, but another is calling and writing to tell them directly. Trust me, they pay attention to that. Another is to just tell your neighbors and friends-- start getting the word out. And, of course, there are a lot of personal actions that you can do to reduce the size of your own carbon footprint.

Beyond changing your light bulbs to compact flourescents-- which by the way is an excellent idea-- there are, for example, many things you can do as far as efficiency. Heating and cooling your home and your water is one of the major categories of energy use, and one where you can make dramatic improvements in efficiency. Or you can call your power company and ask for the green energy option. TerraPass happens to have a product in that area if your utility doesn't.

Just as you vote on Election Day, you vote every day with your dollars. Large companies are highly attuned to their customersí desires, and they have leverage. Wal-Mart is an example of this. Regardless of what else you think of the company, Wal-Mart has the potential to have a huge positive impact due to its incredible reach. Itís compact fluorescent program is a great thing, and we can hope for more programs like it in the future. As customers, we have some real points of leverage here, and companies-- especially larger ones-- really do listen to consumers. So shopping green and letting people you buy from know of your preferences can have a host of benefits.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you on these subjects but didn't, or anything else that my readers and the public need to be aware of?

Adam Stein: We've covered a lot of ground. I would say that in the climate change area, right now is not the time for panic... nor is it the time to relax.

The Talking Dog: I join all my readers in thanking Mr. Stein for that enlightening interview, and for being so generous with his time.


Comments

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Posted by qwqw at February 13, 2007 7:05 PM

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Posted by sqwsqw at February 13, 2007 7:05 PM

I love the blog that you have. I was wondering if you would link my blog to yours and in return I would do the same for your blog. If you want to, my site name is American Legends and the URL is:

www.americanlegends.blogspot.com

If you want to do this just go to my blog and in one of the comments just write your blog name and the URL and I will add it to my site.

Thanks,
David

Posted by David at February 14, 2007 1:02 PM

Another thoughtful discourse. How does John Edwards fit into this?

Posted by Blogstarry at February 14, 2007 5:07 PM