A Five-Feet.org Restart

A year and a half ago the concept of climate change and sea level rise finally seeped through the clutter of my mind. I “had” to do something, and so I conceived of Five-feet.org as a way to raise awareness–not having any idea how much work was already being done in this area.

I have since learned that many groups have that base covered. So I see no sense in duplicating efforts ad nauseum. Let me find some other way to contribute.

After 18 months of study, I have come to realize that the real cutting edge of climate action relates to policies (taxes, incentives, laws and rule making) which will have a profound affect on all of our lives. We have to expedite the changes that can have a meaningful impact on emissions. Yet at the same time, we have to do this in such a way that the poor and the economy in general do not get crushed in the process. 

From all I can gather, few in the climate action crowd have any real understanding of money or business or how economies work. It is an empty thing to promote policy agendas which the world has no realistic means with which to foot the subsequent bill.

We have to work within reasonable economic bounds and with the understanding that it’s not just atmospheric physics/thermodynamics which limit the choices we make. It is also the physics/thermodynamics of energy generation, storage, delivery, and utilization which set profound limits on the scope and scale of alternatives as we seek to decarbonize human activity.


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The Greatest Question of Them All…

An open letter to those who would care about the planet, its people, and where we are all headed together…

To all here alive this day, and for all to come:

The more I consider our fossil fuel predicament, the more I realize what a perfectly horrible trap most (if not all) of humanity has fallen into.

Most of the political and social goals are misaligned because the goals are mutually exclusive and all lead to a decline in productivity, real wages and economic growth. It’s just a question of how quickly the decline arrives and whether our choices have left enough headroom in the carbon budget for human survival.

We can’t build renewables without lots of fossil, but we’ve gotten into this Coase Theorem argument that causes political thinkers to want to dream up ways to curtail fossil before we’ve built the renewables needed to replace existing carbon emitting systems (tail chasing at its worst), causing an upward price/cost spiral that I’m pretty sure will end up delaying the deployment of renewables overall. Not to mention the fact that renewables (no matter how cheaply we build them) will tend to be much less efficient relative to the fossil energy sources we have built our very existence upon; meaning the total cost to society of our renewable replacements, are going to tend to be quite a bit higher than our present system, even if we keep fossil prices relatively low in the near term.

In the end, no matter what path we choose, I think it is safe to say that global productivity will decline substantially over the next millennium. We need very much to prepare for this outcome.

And in the end, the only question that really matters to me, is whether the final equilibrium will provide room for at least a portion of humanity to survive at least until the next reglaciation period kicks in 10s of thousands of years from now, or whether we will have extinguished all opportunity to live in this world and will have therefore lost the extraordinarily precious gift of pondering things like math, art and the nature of the universe.

This is the only question that matters. Will we maintain a margin of safety against human procreative failure over the next 10,000 years, or will we extinguish our capacity to survive completely?

BT Hathaway

Founder, Five-Feet.org
twitter: @goneplaces

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My Attitude Towards Climate Change


My attitude towards climate change is this: If we are to climb a mountain—and make no mistake, climate change is the tallest most treacherous mountain humanity has ever faced—then let us not arrive at base camp blindfolded. We have a long and arduous journey ahead, requiring enormous planning and probably great sacrifice, let us begin with a full view of the challenge and what tools and resources we realistically may bring to the effort. Sober thoughts and planning will get us to the top, not boosterism, nor obfuscation, nor wishful thinking.

William “BT” Hathaway
Founder, Global Embrace

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A Critique of the Energize Rhode Island Act (H7325)

[Note: I have copied here the text of a letter submitted earlier today to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources for Rhode Island. It aims to outline major concerns about the structure of a bill titled Energize Rhode Island: Clean Energy Investment and Carbon Pricing Act.

A small portion of the funds collected by the carbon tax would be used for energy efficiency improvements for small business and low income residents. No problem there. But the bulk of the money turns into a massive and unfair money transfer system which does not have any useful purpose in regard to carbon emissions. There are many alternatives to carbon taxes which produce more immediate and more lasting benefits for our economy. Let’s shift our focus away from this dead-end policy and towards forward looking approaches that help all of us build a better (and less carbon intensive) future.]

March 7, 2016

To the honorable members of the Rhode Island House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

Rep. Arthur Handy, Chair
Rep. David Bennett, Vice Chair
Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, Secretary

Dear Sirs and Madame,

As a resident of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, I write to express my observations and concerns about House Bill 2016 — H7325, otherwise known as the Energize Rhode Island: Clean Energy Investment and Carbon Pricing Act.

Let me state from the beginning that I do accept the science of climate change, and realize that human society around the globe must engineer an enormous transition in energy production, storage and portability, so we do not destabilize the habitability of our planetary home. I also acknowledge the sense of urgency and frustration which many in the scientific and environmental communities convey as they advocate for climate policy change. Governments have had access to climate change information for decades, but only now have we begun to formulate the first round of substantive plans.

This may seem a dereliction of duty at first glance, but we must remember that governments have always been designed to react slowly to new ideas, so that fads and temporary manias do not destabilize daily social function. Now we have arrived at the turning point, where law makers such as yourselves, have accepted the realities of climate change and begin to deliberate the appropriate response. So let us choose wisely our initial steps. Time is of the essence, we should not adopt rules inadequate to the scope and desired outcome in addressing these global challenges.

As I understand the content of H7325, the bill levies a tax on purchases of fossil fuels within the state at the rate of $15.00 per ton of potential carbon dioxide emissions contained in those substances. These funds are then redistributed according to a specified formula. In terms of gasoline, this means a levy of slightly less than 15 cents per gallon; a rather modest penalty in terms of curbing fuel use. Be that as it may, I think it is more important to look closely at the other mechanics of the bill. Does this law accomplish the stated goal of promoting the general welfare of the people of Rhode Island (page 1, line 16) and does it truly help us address the challenges of climate change?

Of course the first 25% of the fund’s purpose seems sensible enough. Few can argue with the goal of boosting climate resilience and energy efficiency programs for low income residents and small businesses, and 5% seems reasonable for administrative costs. But what happens with the other 70%, how do those dollars help “strengthen Rhode Island’s position in advancing efficient use of energy, make Rhode Island a nationally recognized leader in energy efficiency, stimulate job creation and enhance innovation-based economic growth”? (page 2, lines 25-27)

From what I can gather, the rest of the bill is designed to take money out some citizens’ and businesses’ pockets and then deposit that money into the bank accounts of others; a state-wide money transfer system that has nothing to do with building a more resilient and efficient economy. In practical terms I believe the outcome is something like the following:

  • Those citizens who depend on personal transportation for work and those who happen to have limited choices in the heating of their homes (a gas or oil furnace they cannot afford to replace for instance) will make an automatic contribution to the livelihoods of retirees who happen to already live in high-efficiency housing. Overall this dollar-shifting seems counter productive to the stated purpose of the bill. Those who need the money most to make personal investments in high efficiency alternatives, will actually have their incomes lowered by this act. To me this looks like a punishment for circumstances beyond most people’s control rather than an aid to transform our citizen’s lives.
  • Inequities would also hurt the business community. Companies with preexisting high energy footprints would end up supplementing the profits of other kinds of business—those that by their nature happen to require less energy to function. We might say that restaurants, construction companies and dry cleaners will have profits taken away to help lawyers, accountants and call centers get a bonus; not because any of them did anything different, simply because of the inherent energy disparities between different kinds of work. I see nothing fair or even sensible in the outcomes of such a money transfer system.

Truly we could cut the levy to $5 per ton, fund only the first 30% of the bill, and accomplish just as much or more than the entire carbon tax proposal would do for our state. The remaining 70% would only tend to chase away citizens and businesses over time, as they sought more equitable places to live and operate.

Please consider carefully the total outcome of this bill, and consider as well the peer reviewed literature which consistently describes carbon taxes as a cause of lower economic output. Even British Columbia—the oft cited “success” story for carbon taxes—shows signs of economic decline after the 2008 carbon tax enactment, and in recent years total fuel use has returned to pre-carbon tax levels. We must find better ideas than this, otherwise we risk wasting valuable time and resources pursuing an ineffective solution.

So what might we do instead? Time and space will limit the extent of my suggestions, but here are a few thoughts for further consideration.

  • Energy and the economy are quite literally one and the same, so we must expand energy availability in Rhode Island with the aim of making fossil fuels simply irrelevant. Wind turbines, solar panels, wave and tide generation, all of this and more will be required. And during the transition we will have to work very hard to help energy investors navigate the financial challenges of building a new economy while displacing the old. This will require some foresight but we are up to the challenge.
  • Make Rhode Island the easiest place in the world to own and operate electric transport. We are a small state better suited than most to the current operating limits of electric vehicles. Let us encourage businesses and home owners to install charging stations by the thousands state wide. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if companies like CVS and Dunkin’ Donuts got involved so that wherever people traveled, they would not have to worry about a drained battery keeping them from getting home at the end of the day? Make it easy for municipalities to purchase and use electric transport in their fleets, so that more and more used vehicles become available to the general public in the years ahead. Make our electric transportation commitment an international drawing card (Elon Musk are you listening?), then push our neighboring states to get on board so that we become the corner stone of a regional electric transport initiative. Private investment, reinforced by tax incentives would get this transition underway in no time.
  • Draw in alternative energy companies and researchers. Make Rhode Island a hot bed of energy experimentation and innovation.
  • Help people replace fossil fuel based equipment in their homes and businesses. Everything from lawn trimmers to oil furnaces needs to be retired from service. Citizens will need grants, rebates and tax incentives to accomplish these changes.
  • Foster public awareness and training in regard to building a new energy future for our state. Expand community outreach. Encourage the development of courses and majors at our public and private colleges and universities which will provide a properly trained workforce for the new energy systems we seek to encourage.
  • Educate our children. Help them envision and pursue the new energy future we all must share.
  • Modify building codes and zoning ordinances to ensure buildings are designed and sited with renewable energy systems in mind.
  • Encourage research into new building techniques and materials which reduce the use of concrete and other carbon-intensive inputs.

We have many forward-thinking and downright exciting things we can do to put Rhode Island at the forefront of a new world of carbon independence. Let us rapidly begin.

Mr. Chairman, I respectfully ask that you include this letter as part of the testimony related to H7325, and consider carefully the unintended consequences of a carbon tax constructed in the form now under consideration. I will also make myself available to speak about this letter to the entire committee during the March 10th public hearing, if you care to extend an invitation.

Needless to say, I have a great passion for the future of our world, and at the same time I have a devotion to sustaining and improving the society in which we live. Please let me know if I can be of assistance to yourself and your committee as you deliberate this matter.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

William “BT” Hathaway
Portsmouth, RI
Founder, Five-feet.org
e: info@five-feet.org
t: @GonePlaces

UPDATE: *************

Items added to the letter presented during the committee hearing.

  • Sponsor electric boat races and/or an electric boat show on Newport Harbor. Encourage research and development in and among our marine contractors and builders.
  • The military is actively pursuing alternative energy research and development. Ask our congressional delegation to bring some of that work to our state.
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Towards to a Climate-Stabilized Modernity

[Note: I have used several titles on this piece since first posting it on November 16th. I even toyed with using the word “mainstream” in place of modernist/modernity (after all, I am a child of the late 60s, I do have vague memories of the waning American monoculture of that time). Except in a global media culture where no two people experience the same event in the same way, we now have millions of mini-cultures which float and jostle around the globe. This also means that the mini-cultures with the most political activism and astuteness may have a disproportionate influence on the future of human society. In relation to climate, I see extremists on both ends of the spectrum having this outsized influence and through either design or studied neglect, these actors threaten the stability of modern civilization. We need a center of influence around which a new majority may coalesce, so that we act rapidly to address the human impact on planetary climate systems, and do this in such a way that the most valuable parts of modern life are sustained and further spread to peoples around the globe. Please share this piece, perhaps it can serve as a seed around which a new modernist-climate-action pearl may grow. Thank you.]


The interaction between humanity and the climate has always functioned like an enormous game of Russian Roulette. We’ve known this for many thousands of years and accommodated the vagaries to the best of our ability, though in the first world we have sheltered ourselves from many sufferings our forebears considered inescapable.

The “gun” (as it were) of famine and tornado and hurricane surge would go off from time to time. People would lose the game to one degree or another, and still we would work to further buttress our awareness and preparations, so as to mitigate future impacts and restore order with able expedience.

Yet beyond our cultural awareness (though some in science have attempted to raise an alarm), the emissions of modernity have changed the stakes of the interplay. Storms grow more frequent and dangerous, droughts deepen and expand their terrain, seasons shift and overheat beyond any previous human experience; and the shock that we could have changed the game so thoroughly, continues to blunt our ability to respond effectively to our differed surroundings and the onrush of additional climate complications.

As a result, extremists of all kinds, attuned as they are to vacuums of social will, stand at the ready to champion themselves and their narrow, shortsighted causes; all the while abetted by a media economy desperate for titillating conflict, out of which to build audiences and revenues.

To the left, a neo-Marxist, anti-capitalist perspective which would vouchsafe the planet by sending us all back to the work house and communal farm. A return to a nonexistent pastoral idyll (or should we say idol) which has always been properly described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” On the right, denial and obfuscation at every turn, even while the preponderance of evidence grows mountainous and inescapable that we have shifted the foundations of civilization, such that climate nomadism may become the norm of human existence, should we abstain from building the non-carbon modernity we need to survive.

The complexities and till now subtleties of climate mutation, have kept climate discourse within the purview of specialists and cranks. But now has come the time to put the fears of rightist and leftist paranoia aside so centrist democratic majorities may actively pursue the founding of a new modernity designed to wean civilization from the mother’s milk of fossil fuel dependency, while maintaining the pursuit of improving human welfare.

Our planetary home has knowable and very real physical boundaries. Let us shake off our surprise, and work with all diligence and expedience to incorporate this awareness in our societal plans, and let us set in place the civilizational foundations upon which many future generations may depend.

William “BT” Hathaway
Founder, Five-Feet.org
t: @GonePlaces

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