"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A bipartisan group of Northeastern governors is expected to announce an historic agreement this week to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a plan that would break sharply with Bush administration policy on global warming.
The agreement for mandatory greenhouse-gas emission caps could put the states on the road to compliance with the Kyoto climate-change treaty, an embarrassing rebuke to the president, who made a decision in 2001 to pull the U.S. out of negotiations on the pact. In another repudiation of Bush doctrine, the states say that their move away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy will not only benefit the environment but the economy as well.
“I think what you’ll see is nearly every Mid-Atlantic and New England state agreeing to join in a regional [carbon dioxide] cap and trade regime,” Bradley Campbell, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, told Salon. Campbell said that Republican governors are expected to sign on to the plan despite backroom coercion by the White House. “Several of my counterparts in Republican-led states have reported active efforts by the Bush administration to pressure them to not participate in a regional program to implement greenhouse gas reductions,” he said.
While it’s not surprising that Northeast Democrats would defy Bush, it seems likely six Republican states will break ranks with the president’s refusal to address climate change, certainly including New York Gov. George Pataki, and possibly Vermont Gov. James Douglas, New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson and Connecticut Gov. John Rowland. Only Maryland, said Campbell, is so far siding with the president. “Republican Gov. [Robert] Ehrlich has largely aligned himself with the pollution policies of the Bush administration which has been hostile to even acknowledging climate change as a problem,” Campbell noted. “I think the jury is also out on Pennsylvania because their economy is so coal dependent, and because [Democratic] Gov. [Edward] Rendell is new to these issues and newly elected.”
Campbell argued that the states have been forced to act due to the White House’s lack of leadership on climate change. National and regional climate change assessments generated by U.S. scientists during the Clinton administration — but disregarded by the Bush team as too extreme — forecast dire global warming consequences for the states, including financially disastrous tidal surges in coastal cities, significant stresses on forest, wetland and estuary ecosystems, and increased human diseases such as West Nile Virus.
The Bush administration’s response to these and other scientific warnings has been feeble at best, and sometimes counterproductive. The Bush-Cheney energy plan (a fossil fuel corporate-feeding frenzy) is dead on arrival in Congress, and Bush’s carbon dioxide reduction plan (corporate volunteerism at its most cynical) is stillborn. In fact, Bush’s entire environmental agenda is in disarray, with EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman resigning after her many battles with the White House, and with Bush’s “Clear Skies” air pollution initiative seen as so corporate-friendly that it is creating defectors even among stalwart Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Led by New York and New Jersey, the Northeast governors are looking to act on climate change by moving beyond coal and oil. And they are listening seriously to visionary alternative-energy gurus who see a booming wind-hydrogen economy not decades ahead, but just around the corner.
“If we can go from making cars to making tanks and bombers in a single year, like we did in World War II, then we can transition to a wind-hydrogen economy in just a few years,” Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, told Salon. “But we can only do it if we want to. That level of commitment exists elsewhere. Germany, for example, is planning to cut carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020. The difference isn’t that they have engineering know-how we don’t. It is that they have leadership.”
The regional carbon dioxide emission cap and trade program agreed to in principle by the Northeast states would put limits on the amount of CO2 produced by power plants. Each governor’s home state would be allowed to set its own caps, while allowing individual plant owners to trade emission credits with energy producers around the region. The program will likely be designed similarly to the nation’s successful cap and trade program to limit sulfur dioxide air pollution. For example, one plant might emit less C02 than allowed under the cap; it could sell its surplus to a plant that exceeds its cap. That not only limits emissions, but gives both plants a financial incentive to reduce greenhouse gases.
Pataki challenged the Northeastern states to join him in a CO2 cap and trade program in April, and asked for a response by his fellow governors by this week. While an announcement is expected shortly, most officials declined comment.
Campbell speculated that the regional cap and trade program might be so much like that achieved by the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty that it would allow U.S. power plants, and eventually other industries, to trade their greenhouse gas pollution credits internationally. “There is a long-term possibility that we may, as a region, or as states, be able to participate in Kyoto in spite of the Bush administration’s rejection of the treaty,” Campbell said.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol calls for a 5.2 percent cut in planet-wide greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, achieved by 2012. The treaty, rejected by the U.S., has been ratified by 100 nations but has yet to be implemented. It still requires approval by countries representing 55 percent of 1990 carbon emissions. If Russia ratifies this year, the treaty will go into effect. America’s cuts in all greenhouse gases under Kyoto were to have been 7 percent, made no later than 2012.
Beyond the technical complexities of the plan, some U.S. governors are setting significant mandatory quotas for electricity generated by alternative power — wind, biomass, solar and hydrogen.
The most outspoken and daring participant among the states is Pataki. The New York governor has steadily distanced himself from Bush on the climate change issue. “It’s important to remember that Pataki led the way by inviting the Northeast governors to participate in the [cap and trade] initiative back in April, and that he has worked closely with the environmental community on global warming,” says Ashok Gupta, director of the air and energy program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This allows environmentalists, almost three years into the Bush administration, to work in a state where we are still making progress, while others around the country and especially in Washington are fully on the defensive.”
Since taking the White House, the president abandoned the Kyoto Treaty, reversed a GOP campaign promise to regulate power plant CO2 emissions, ignored scientific reports on climate change, and opted for a toothless global warming program. In June, a long section of an EPA environmental report outlining risks from rising temperatures was censored, “whittled to a few noncommittal paragraphs” after White House arm twisting, according to the New York Times.
Bush does offer limited support to sustainable energy. The administration, for example, allocated $720 million in new funding over the next five years to develop the much-hyped “Freedom Car,” a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. By comparison, federal coal and oil subsidies now run to $5 billion annually, says Taxpayers for Common Sense. This doesn’t even take into account the $55 billion to $96 billion spent yearly by the Pentagon to guard fossil fuel corporate interests worldwide, as calculated by the International Center for Technology Assessment.
Pataki has gone his own way. In 2001, he launched a state greenhouse gas emissions reduction taskforce. It made tough recommendations, which the governor is striving to meet. In an interview, state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Erin Crotty said Pataki’s state energy plan sets a greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, and 10 percent by 2020.
In this year’s state-of-the-state speech, the governor announced that within 10 years, New York will get at least 25 percent of its electric power from renewable resources such as wind and solar. This goal, while ambitious, is not as challenging as it looks, since the state already generates 17 percent of its electricity from renewable hydropower. The governor has yet to officially commit to a specific cap on CO2 emissions from power plants at 25 percent below 1990 levels (a cut the taskforce said can be made with no cost to consumers).
Further, Crotty said, Pataki plans to adopt the California Zero Emission Vehicle standard to cut carbon dioxide exhaust from cars — if the California standard holds up in court. Pataki’s backing of the so-called “California Car” is significant since the Bush administration has joined carmakers in suing California to block the initiative.
While New York’s actions might seem paltry compared with the scope of the global problem, they could have a real impact. New York state, if it were its own nation, would boast the world’s eighth largest economy, spending $38 billion on energy alone. New England, combined with New York and New Jersey, as a nation, would be the world’s eighth largest greenhouse gas emitter.
Pataki’s reasons for supporting global warming action diverge 180 degrees from Bush’s view: “The governor’s philosophy on the environment is that you can’t have a strong economy without a protected environment, and vice versa,” said Crotty. New York state’s economic health is “based on the health of our natural resources. In Long Island Sound alone we have a $5 billion dollar economy based on everything from tourism to commercial and recreational fisheries, not to mention the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves, an area twice the size of Yosemite. For us, climate change poses a serious threat to both the environment and the economy.”
A 2000 federal report estimated that the state’s temperatures may rise an average 1.7 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2020s due to human-caused global warming, resulting in higher sea levels, coastal flooding and increased likelihood of severe weather events such as drought and hurricanes. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency modeled the number of Level 5 hurricanes hitting New York City at high tide and doing billions in damage,” said Jeff Jones, communications director for Environmental Advocates of New York. What’s disturbing, Jones said, is that “while FEMA used to model such an event as a hundred-year storm, they now model it as a 20-year storm.” With New York temperatures projected to rise 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2080, such events could become even more frequent.
Crotty notes another divergence from Bush’s position. While the president claims that adherence to Kyoto CO2 cuts and a switch to alternative energy will bankrupt the nation, Pataki sees a commitment to wind, solar, hydrogen and biomass as a boon. “We’ve proven that reducing greenhouse gases can be done without harming the economy,” she said. “In fact, we see an economic advantage to encouraging technological innovations here in New York.”
Pataki may have a pragmatic reason for his stance. Global warming is becoming a hot political issue in New York. For example, the governor’s surprise announcement of a greenhouse gas taskforce came at the height of the last governor’s race, at a black-tie dinner by the New York League of Conservation Voters. “The governor recognized that a League endorsement was important the previous time he ran and would be very important to his reelection,” said Jones.
Other governors around the nation are pursuing greenhouse gas emission cuts and making commitments to renewable energy. “Three to five years ago, almost no one was talking about greenhouse gases,” says Gupta. “To have state leaders taking action sends a message that regulation at the national level is inevitable. It is part of the overall pressure on Congress to act.”
In New Jersey, it was another Republican, then-Gov. Christie Whitman, who took an early stand against climate change. In 1998, she set a state goal of cutting greenhouse gases 3.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2005, and she added a small charge to consumer utility bills to raise $358 million for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Later, when she was Bush’s EPA director, it was Whitman’s tough stance on global warming that caused her first rift with the administration and helped pave the way for her departure this year.
New Jersey, now in Democratic hands, is out front in curbing greenhouse gas pollution, putting stringent CO2 emission limits on the state’s biggest utility. In June, Gov. James McGreevey pledged that 20 percent of the state’s energy will come from clean power by 2020, a tall order in a state with little hydropower.
Maine, under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, has just committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and by 75 to 80 percent over the long term, in line with a proposal by the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers. “At a time when the federal government has deleted climate change information from EPA reports, Maine is not risking our future — we’re taking action,” said Sue Jones of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Vermont has committed to reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent over the next decade. And Massachusetts was the first state to mandate CO2 cuts at power plants, targeting its six dirtiest fossil fuel plants.
Outside the Northeast, the Republican stronghold of Nevada plans to get 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2013, with a report by the Energy Foundation estimating that alternative energy will increase the state gross product by $665 million and create up to 5,000 jobs.
According to WorldWatch Institute, California Gov. Gray Davis has pegged the net benefits of renewable energy over a five-year period at $11 billion in economic development benefits for his state due to new job creation and in-state investments.
Remarkably, while he was serving as the Texas governor, George W. Bush signed a bill mandating that 3 to 4 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable resources, creating a boon for Texas wind power. By the end of 2002, 15 states had enacted legislation requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable energy, reports the Washington Post. Not unexpectedly, the greatest resistance to alternative energy is in Midwestern states with the most fossil fuel-burning power plants, and in the Southeast, where coal mining remains an economic force.
In Europe, successful renewable energy initiatives and greenhouse gas caps are causing Bush’s bogeyman of economic ruin to vanish in a puff of prosperous reality.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seen by many in Britain as “Bush’s poodle,” has broken with America over global warming, comparing the climate change threat to that of terrorism. Just days before the Iraq war, Blair announced plans to cut U.K. greenhouse gas emissions 60 percent by 2050 — a rate that, if achieved planet-wide, could probably stabilize global warming, U.N. scientists say. “There will be no genuine security if the planet is ravaged by climate change,” Blair said. He hopes to get the entire European Union to back his plan. He has also committed to getting 20 percent of British energy from renewables by 2020, according to the U.K. Guardian.
While critics call Blair’s initiative under-funded, just last week the U.K. announced a program to build offshore wind turbines to generate 6,000 megawatts of power. Wind power is now growing in Europe by 40 percent per year, with a capacity of more than 20,000 megawatts installed — that’s three-quarters of the world’s total wind power output, enough to serve more than 10 million European homes.
In the U.S., wind energy is at about one-fifth of Europe’s capacity, according to the WorldWatch Institute. Germany currently generates 12,000 megawatts annually from wind, Spain has 4,800 megawatts, while the U.S. falls behind at just 4,700 megawatts. Even Denmark installed more wind turbines last year than the U.S.
Japan and Germany lead the world in solar power, producing 100 and 75 megawatts respectively, while the U.S. is a distant third at 32 megawatts. (India may soon catch us, since it already produces 18 megawatts). Japan leads the manufacture of solar cells, monopolizing 43 percent of the market, with Germany controlling 25 percent. Again America is behind, in third place at 24 percent.
Iceland has declared plans to be the first nation to convert fully to a hydrogen economy, is retrofitting Reykjavik’s bus fleet with fuel cell engines, and has opened hydrogen fueling stations in the capital.
Forward-looking political action abroad and by the U.S. governors, while not as far-reaching as environmentalists might like, is indicative of a fundamental change in the response to global warming. Leaders beyond the influence of the Bush administration are fast recognizing that inaction on global warming could be catastrophically costly in dollars and human suffering; that popular opinion is shifting in support of decisive action; and that the alternative energy technologies able to abate global warming’s worst impacts are ready today. Best of all, those who implement these sustainable technologies are likely to reap huge economic dividends — in innovative corporate startups, increased jobs and improvements in quality of life.
This bold vision for the future that is starting to capture the political and public imagination includes vast windfarms that generate boundless power, and hydrogen cars that hum along streets while causing no pollution. It includes landfills that are no longer a source of noxious smells but of biomass power. It promises millions of solar roofs, and energy self-sufficient homes that sell their power back to utility companies. It even promises transformed human landscapes where telecommuters no longer sit in traffic jams wasting gas and time; where urban sprawl is contained and cities are made livable and pedestrian-friendly.
A whole suite of technologies, all blossoming simultaneously, explain the boom in alternative energy abroad. “One of the most exciting things has been advances in wind turbine design to operate at much lower wind speed and convert much more wind into electricity,” said Lester Brown, the alternative energy expert who heads the Earth Policy Institute. The largest turbines now produce 250 times more electricity than the ones built 20 years ago, when California pioneered the industry. “We have enough harnessable wind energy in the U.S. to meet all our energy needs,” Brown said. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, three windy states alone — Texas, North Dakota and Kansas — can supply all of the nation’s electricity.
Brown paints a future where Western ranchers and farmers plant a new cash crop among their cows and corn: wind turbines that will turn their lands into energy providers as well as food providers. Wind is abundant, cheap, clean, inexhaustible, environmentally benign and, because it is decentralized, free from terrorist threat.
“Once we get cheap electricity from wind, then we have the option of electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen,” said Brown. “And hydrogen is the fuel of the future.”
That future may be closer than we think. “Everyone always talks about hydrogen in relation to fuel-cell cars, but the reality is that if we wanted to move rapidly away from oil, we don’t have to go that route. We could simply convert our internal combustion engines from gasoline to hydrogen, burning the hydrogen directly,” revealed Brown. “It’s fairly simple, requiring minor engine changes probably costing not more than about $200 per car. For that amount, a mechanic at a service station could convert an internal combustion engine to a gas engine that would run on natural gas or hydrogen. In fact, BMW now has a prototype model where, while driving down the road, you can switch from gasoline to hydrogen and back again. From an engineering point of view, it is entirely within range.” It hasn’t been attempted before because hydrogen hasn’t been cheap, but an abundance of wind power would change that.
Brown dismisses another often mentioned impediment to the wind-hydrogen transition: the lack of a distribution system. The infrastructure is already in place, he said. “I do all my cooking in a Washington, D.C., apartment with natural gas piped in from Texas. Hydrogen can be delivered the same way, using the same pipes.”
American entrepreneurs already know what Brown knows. “Ken Lay, when he was at Enron — his faults aside — was a visionary,” Brown said. “What Lay saw was that the natural gas fields in Texas would one day be depleted, gone. But the wind that Texas has in abundance would still be there.” Lay founded a profitable wind company at Enron with the idea that Texas wind farms would produce cheap electricity and electrolyze water to make cheap hydrogen. Using existing but modified natural gas pipelines, the hydrogen would flow to the nation’s buildings and cars. General Electric has since taken over Enron’s wind company.
Retrofitting natural gas pipelines probably won’t come cheap. Because hydrogen atoms are very small, thousands of miles of pipeline would have to be better sealed to prevent leakage. But that cost pales against the $1 trillion in climate change-related disasters over the past 15 years. In 1998 alone, the hottest year on record, a Southern U.S. drought did $6 billion in damage; a freakish New England ice storm did $2.5 billion; Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years, caused $5 billion in destruction; while a Yangtze River flood in China did $30 billion in harm. Unless action is taken, the cost of global warming-caused disasters is likely to double every decade, according to a U.N. Environment Program Finance Initiative report.
Brown leaps further ahead in time and in hope: “The development of hydrogen fuel cells is exciting as well because of their efficiency. What we will see in the cities of the future are automobiles that don’t make any noise or emit any pollutants. We can’t even imagine a city without noise and air pollution, because we’ve never known it!”
Amory Lovins, another alternative energy guru, in an interview reported that just such a vehicle has been designed by his Rocky Mountain Institute: “We’ve developed a 99-mile-per-gallon gas-electric hybrid Explorer-class SUV.” According to Lovins, just $200 million in investment capital could see the hypercar roll off assembly lines, saving three or four times America’s annual Persian Gulf imports. Hypercars could eventually be converted to hydrogen fuel cell engines as the technology arrived. Lovins has not patented his design, and Ford, GM, Daimler/Chrysler and other car companies are all racing to be the first to market such a car.
“If you look at the speed of production conversion at the start of World War II, it was just stunning. I think the same could be done now because a lot of the technologies are already well-developed,” said Lovins. “If you put together a New Manhattan Project to develop the wind-hydrogen economy, all bets are off. Under normal conditions hypercars could control half the market in 10 years. With a crash program to get things into production, you could probably cut that time in half. That is ambitious, but Americans are very good at doing ambitious things when their attention is concentrated.”
Unfortunately, Brown believes that we may need a climate change disaster, or a series of them, on the psychological scale of the Pearl Harbor attack to create the needed urgency for change. “We’re probably going to see trouble first in the food sector, the most vulnerable section of the global economy. The combination of falling water tables and rising temperatures may very soon bring the era of cheap food to an end,” he warned. China is no longer producing enough grain to feed itself. Once its stores are used up, Brown said, that nation of 1.3 billion people is likely to come to the world’s table demanding grain. But continued climate shocks — intensifying bouts of drought and deluge — may make help difficult. “We’re really a lot closer to that moment than most of us imagine,” said Brown. “That could be our wakeup call.”
When the moment comes, Brown hopes the technology and economics will fall into place so we can quickly move to stabilize climate. At that date, the pioneering work of the Northeast governors may be recognized for its innovation.
“Twenty years from now, I hope we’ll be looking at a very different mix of energy sources, with a great many more renewables on-line,” said Campbell, the New Jersey environmental commissioner. The state, he asserted, is re-envisioning its future from the ground up, supporting a vigorous green-building program, planting 100,000 trees in urban areas to reduce energy needs and absorb carbon, and working toward livable cities and containing sprawl so people drive less. Ultimately, he thinks, the nation can effectively curb carbon dioxide emissions.
“I don’t want to underestimate what a significant challenge this is,” he said. “We have to build the infrastructure to regulate a new pollutant. It is like the early moments when Congress passed the first environmental laws, setting very ambitious goals, but having little conception of the mechanics and technology of how to get there.”
Should we fail, the cost could be terrible. A new book, “When Life Nearly Died,” by professor Michael Benton of the U.K.’s Bristol University, shows that temperature increases over the next 97 years could roughly equal that at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago. Runaway global warming then triggered the worst mass extinction ever, the disappearance of 95 percent of species on the planet.
President Bush, when he acknowledges modern climate change at all, sees it as a distant threat and challenge. But the problem of global warming — endangering the world’s food supply and even life itself — is with us now. And so are the solutions.
Glenn Scherer is an environmental journalist who resides at EcoVillage at Ithaca, N.Y.More Glenn Scherer.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)