Renewable Energy Disruptions and Ch-ch-ch-changes

A few weeks ago solar lost a big battle to old power in one of the sunniest states in the nation. Warren Buffett’s NV Energy had proposed, and won, new net metering policies in Nevada which essentially disincentivize homeowners from going solar. In fact, those who had elected to put solar on their homes are now paying more than had they never installed panels.  Seems a bit unfair. Worse yet, it seems contrary to fighting climate change through renewable technologies.PV array

Truth be told, NV Energy’s bottom line was being pinched by a growing base of solar-generated electricity feeding the grid, particularly during peak use times. As solar generated electricity increases, NV Energy revenues decrease-a phenomena taking place across the country. And selling less fossil fuel-generated power cuts into a utility’s profits, which is unacceptable to an industry accustomed to being your sole electricity provider.

There have been other renewable energy battles waged by old utility companies around the country in recent months. Just this past week the California Public Utilities Commission upheld net metering policies for four more years by a narrow 3-2 vote. Narrow, because this is the state of California. And last week the Supreme Court upheld Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) jurisdiction over demand response, ensuring large consumers of energy are compensated for cutting back energy usage during peak times.

What’s happening in Nevada and across the globe is a significant disruption of the status quo by a new energy model, one driven by advancements in technology and a planet growing hotter and more inhospitable by the minute. The time is upon us where the old models of electrical energy generation are being shattered as new technologies and an awakened climate change sensitive global community say enough is enough. In the words of David Bowie, “Ch-ch-ch-ch changes, Turn and face the strange”.

 

Confusing Climate Change with Weather

“Climate changes all the time”. You may have heard that line recently from some of our presidential candidates presently vying for their party’s favor; and I wonder, “do they really think climate changes all the time?”  The cynic would suggest they are purposefully confusing science with reality to sidestep the issues, while the non-cynic would assume these folks have some serious scientific misconceptions. Regardless, I cringe each time I hear the line.  As a former science teacher, I know how important it is to clear up misconceptions early lest they become permanently wired in children’s neural pathways. I also know the joy of seeing a student have an “Aha” moment when the misconception is erased.  When they “get it”.1499

Besides the weather and climate change confusion, two other common misconceptions are 1) big objects fall faster than smaller ones, and 2) winter in the northern hemisphere happens because the earth is further from the sun at that time of year. Disproving misconceptions is fairly easy with children. After all, their brains are quite plastic and more able to learn new information than older folks. My favorite technique to correct a misconception is through a discrepant event.  As an example, to address the gravity and object size misconception, I would hold a feather and plastic disc in front of students and ask which would fall faster in an evacuated column. They would of course predict the plastic disk. I would then use a compressor to remove air from the column and then drop the two objects simultaneously. When both objects hit bottom at the same time, we’d have a nice discussion.  Misconception erased. For the winter weather and distance from sun misconception, all we needed was to remind students that summer time occurs in the Southern Hemisphere during our winter. Add the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis and the fact that the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth tilts away from the sun during winter, and voila, another misconception is erased. The final misconception is the easiest to correct using this simple declaration: “weather is what you get and climate is the weather you expect“. .

Climate describes the weather in an area averaged over 30 years or more. Weather is what you see at any given moment in time, and a weather forecast is a prediction of what weather conditions will be like in the near future. It’s not terribly complicated. Climate is the average, weather is the present. If someone has risen through the ranks to be a legitimate presidential candidate, wouldn’t they know the difference?  If not, then they shouldn’t be running for President.  JMHO. Peace.

A Story and Climate Change’s New Hurricane Season

120 degree temperatures were the norm in Oman, and our small canvas tent set by a tidal station along the Arabian Sea would get awfully hot by mid morning. It was the mid 1980s, and I was with another U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office scientist on a three-month stint which began in May. We were in month two when Armed Forces Radio announced Tropical Storm Bonnie was churning in the Gulf of Mexico 300 miles south of Pass Christian, Mississippi. “Pass Christy Ann”, as locals pronounced it, was where my house was located, and I was worried.IMG_7558

My home was a three bedroom ranch less than a mile from the Gulf. The house sat a healthy 13′ above sea level, but had been visited by hurricanes before.  Camille’s 1969 watermarks seven feet up two by fours behind my home’s recently gutted walls were a reminder that 13 feet doesn’t measure up when a 20 foot storm surge barrels through. Camille was a monster hurricane, but even smaller storms could cause serious damage. Neighbors looked out for one another, and if the storm was a mild Category 1 variety, we might even get together for a little socialization. The frightening part was watching a storm erupt from a tropical depression and wondering if the path would take it over your hometown.

Back in the Gulf of Oman desert, Armed Forces radio reported Bonnie was gathering strength and steam as it headed north towards the Mississippi-Louisiana coastline.  The storm was developing into a full-blown hurricane, and now the question was where it would make landfall. We worried being so far from home at a time when there was no Internet, no cell phones, no communications. With warm Gulf waters fueling the storm, we wondered if Bonnie would develop into a monster storm and if that monster would sweep away our communities. And so for the next week we followed closely Bonnie’s passage, one that ultimately veered away from Mississippi and Louisiana and into the heart of Beaumont, Texas. it was a mild storm, though “mild” is a relative term when talking about hurricanes. We had dodged a bullet, but the citizens of Beaumont suffered greatly.

I no longer live along the Gulf Coast and now call the Adirondack Mountains of New York state home. I love the area, though I do miss the ocean. There’s something about the salty air, maritime climate, and ebb and flow of water that are so alluring. I don’t, however, miss the hurricanes. Warm waters fuel hurricanes, and when you live along a basin of very warm water, you come to expect the possibility for a hurricane each year during the summer and early autumn months. Of course, climate change is now changing all the rules. With ocean waters warming world-wide, we can now expect severe storms to develop at any time of the year–including the month of January.  And so it goes. Welcome Hurricane Alex, the first hurricane of the “new” hurricane season.

 

Start of a New Year and Climate Change Musings

New Year in the Adirondacks of New York is one of darkness and cold. With but nine short hours of daylight to enjoy in early January, it’s stark outside, and the lonely drive to and from work is done under dimly lit skies.  But when I put on my rose-colored glasses, the recent Winter Solstice is my reminder we’ve turned a corner and will begin gaining daylight. Of course, we won’t hit our normally lowest temperatures for the year until late January, but it’s the increasing minutes of daylight I welcome. And with that comes hope. Hope for sunshine. Hope for the planet. Hope for humankind.P1000217

Darkness has its benefits. I find more time for contemplation, reflecting on my life and place in the world. My role as a husband, parent, son, sibling and uncle; my duties as an educator; and my contributions to society. Family life and work seem to follow a natural order, but leaving a better planet for future generations is a challenge due to the complexity of climate change and dependence on a myriad of factors beyond one’s immediate control. Frankly, it’s difficult to convey the urgency of climate change to a general audience when the science or policies to mitigate and adapt are misunderstood or distrusted. Who wants to hear the Earth is heating up due to our actions, and that we’d better act fast or else? It’s an unpleasant message few wish to hear.

I’ve been evaluating by lamplight my climate change message recently, and have decided to “tone it down” a little. My passions for many things are palpable, and that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to the emotional issue of climate change. Toning the message down is a decision affirmed by an article I just came across in a Facebook posting in which psychologists found getting people to act on the environment positively impacts their sense of legacy building. Great news for empowering action, and great news for a more proactive approach to climate change messaging. So when it comes to climate change activism, stoking a person’s emotional register to think about the environmental legacy they will leave future generations can lead to action. I think I’m ready to give it a try. Peace.

 

Pumping Oil Like There’s No Tomorrow

You’d pump every bit of oil out of the ground too if you knew your product would soon become as obsolete as the dinosaur flesh and plant greens that stewed together to make the black ooze millions of years ago. The world has turned it’s direction forward to an age of renewables and sustainability, and the fossil fuel industry is scrambling to get as much oil, coal, and natural gas to market as the “lights go out” on a dirty, dying industry. The Paris Climate Agreement, U.S. Clean Power Plan, Congress passage of solar and wind tax credits, San Diego’s pledge to be 100% renewable energy by 2035, etc… are the steps towards an Age of Clean Energy.  And so if you are a fossil fuel producer, it’s “drill baby drill”. Get the product out of the ground ASAP while there’s still some value.P1000261

The fossil fuel spigot will surely run for decades to come, but the long-term view is clearly away from these climate changing products. Clean energy is a win-win-win for our planet, resulting in new jobs, reduced asthma and other health problems, clean air and water, and most importantly, hope for the planet.  Contrary to the small but annoying vocal climate denying political leaders, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are a serious threat to the Earth’s oceans, forests, flora and fauna.  And the costs for increased sea level, environmental refugees, extreme weather, droughts, and spread of infectious diseases are in the trillions of dollars.

Oil surpluses will pile higher and higher over the coming years, and the American public will continue cheering lower gas prices and heating oil costs.  However, many fossil fuel companies will go bankrupt, others will merge and acquire lesser stable companies, and a few forward thinking ones will transition to the renewable energy sector. The implications on pension systems and other financial entities heavily invested in this dying sector are disconcerting (I wouldn’t want my money in anything related to coal, oil, or natural gas). Divestment from fossil fuel companies, at one time a radical idea, is now a sound, fiscally prudent act. We are finally transitioning to the Age of Clean Energy and closing the door on the Fossil Fuel Era. What an opportunity we have ahead of us!  Peace.

Paris Climate Agreement and a Carbon Energy Diet

The Paris Climate Change Agreement is the first step on a long journey to wean humanity off a carbon energy diet. A journey unlike any before. One that demands we live simpler, consume less, and consider every action’s impact on personal carbon footprints. Solar energy, wind turbines, distributed energy, demand response, LED lights, geothermal heating, fuel cells, and electric cars will make up the new energy menus, and conservation, sustainable living, urbanization, reforestation, and habitat restoration will be the necessary societal changes. This will be an exciting and challenging opportunity for our global community.P1000459

There was a time when the suite of fossil fuels, particularly coal, were iconic in transforming lives and lifestyles for the better. An era when coal smelters powered industry, oil energized transportation, cheap fertilizers fed the globe, and natural gas warmed homes and buildings. Fossil fuels were seen as keys to a better life. A life of efficiencies that removed the burdens of basic chores and elevated possibilities for where and how we lived, commuted, and subsisted. But alas, the realities of climate change have redefined everything, particularly the image of fossil fuels.

Climate change and the demise of fossil fuels should not be surprising. We’ve known about carbon dioxide’s unique properties and risks for over 100 years. John Tyndall in 1859 was the first to discover the heat-trapping capacities of carbon dioxide, and research over the following 156 years has led to this unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement. Milestones to Paris included the 1979 US National Academy of Sciences suggestion that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would add 1.5-4.5C warming, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first report in 1990, stating the world is warming and will continue to do so with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.  In 2013, the IPCC’s fifth report stated, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased p.4

So here we are with the warmest year ever on record coming to a close, and 2016 projected to be warmer yet. Paris is a first step on a very long journey to a carbon free diet. What’s needed now is leadership and action. We can not afford to be tripped up by climate denying politicians, misinforming fossil fuel companies, or ignorance. The stakes are too high, and we have no other choice. Planet Earth is ill, and we know the causes and solutions.  Let’s do this.

IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. 

Paris and Climate Change Musings

Climate change has been a popular news item with the ongoing Paris talks these past few weeks.  Just yesterday I heard a clip from Secretary of State, John Kerry, describing climate change deniers as members of the flat earth society who believe any water rise in sea level will simply run off the edges of our flat planet.  And today I heard a NPR Morning Edition interview with Ted Cruz, who described climate change as a “pseudoscientific theory for liberal politicians who want government power.” I guess that would then hold true for the thousands of other politicians world-wide working hard for a climate change agreement? Making the Paris talks one big liberal global conspiracy? You can’t make this stuff up.Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 12.59.19 PM

200 nations are represented at the Paris Climate Talks this week. And why are they spending all their time and efforts in Paris? Let’s consider the facts. 98% of all climate scientists believe climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels, and nine of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade–and we know that 2015 will rank as the hottest ever. Arctic ice is melting, coastal cities are threatened by flooding, oceans are acidifying,…and yet, a Presidential candidate believes not the 1,000s of climate change scientists, but his own pseudoscientific version of climate change. Sad.

Ignorance is a dangerous thing. If we give politicians (think Ted Cruz, Jim Inhofe, Marco Rubio,…) rejecting climate change science the benefit of the doubt and assume they “just don’t understand the science”, then we need to do a much better job with science education in this country. Of course, most Americans understand climate change is real and caused by burning fossil fuels. And most Americans are concerned about the planet they leave for future generations. Which makes it so perplexing how grown men and women with leadership positions in this country can omnipotently declare climate change science a hoax. I just don’t get it.

Xenophobia and Climate Change

Xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, is gaining traction globally as people grapple with the horrors of terrorism. Some politicians suggest stopping Syrian refugees from entering our country will keep Americans safe. Others recommend barring certain religions from entering. It sure sounds good to take a “tough stand” and stop terrorism by closing borders, but we know it’s much, much more complicated than that. And are we willing to compromise our values and beliefs that made this country great? To suggest that people are no longer welcome, regardless of what our Statue of Liberty in New York harbor has to say.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s good to remember we are a land of immigrants, and other than our Native American brethren, descendants of people who came to America with hopes for a better life for themselves and their families. Whether our roots are Irish, Italian, Guatemalan, Honduran, Chinese, Indonesian, Polish, Hungarian, … we all can trace our country of origin to one far away from the shores of America.

There is much to be concerned with in today’s society, including religious extremism. However, we must realize the Syrian refugee crisis stems from, among other things, a brutal, relentless multi-year drought tied to climate change. And when people can’t meet their basic needs for food, water, and shelter, all hell breaks loose. Today it’s Syria. Tomorrow it may well be Small Pacific Islander nationals seeking shelter. Will we turn away those that lost their homes due to climate change, or will we welcome them?  Let’s heed Pope Francis’ Encyclical which calls for action to protect God’s creation, particularly the poor, from the ravages of climate change.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a whisper of what’s to come in the decades to follow, and international agreements, protocols, and funding will be essential to adapt to climate change and mitigate the damages in the warming years to come. Let’s try to learn from our present refugee crisis so people fleeing homelands in the future will find a welcoming, supportive, and safe refuge. We can start with a successful United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held later this month in Paris.

Terrorism and Climate Change

Just 24 hours after the horrors of terrorism struck the City of Paris, Democratic Presidential Debate moderator, John Dickerson, asked Bernie Sanders, “Do you still believe climate change is our nation’s biggest national security threat?”  “Absolutely”, Bernie Sanders responded without hesitation.  Sanders commented that climate change threatens water supplies, arable land, and coastal communities, all of which increase the likelihood of refugees and destabilized governments. The worrisome outcome:  international terrorism.Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 6.56.16 AM

Climate change and terrorism’s close relationship is not a new concept. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review identified the growing geopolitical instability which accompanies climate change impacts as a major global threat. It all makes sense. When people can not meet their basic needs for food, shelter, water, and security, they pack up and move on. Out of desperation, they will cross militarized zones, ocean waters, and mountain ranges seeking a safer haven for themselves and their families. In the process, they become environmental refugees, and in so doing, unintentionally stoke global chaos. Think Syria as an example of a climate change-induced geopolitical struggle whose tendrils have now reached far beyond the dessertified farm region Syrian refugees fled. The Syrian government’s inability to deal with a pressing, endless drought were primary factors in the Civil War that has since enveloped the region.

THE global problem facing humanity is climate change, and it’s evil twin, international terrorism. We must and will have a multi-national attack on international terrorism, and so too will we have an equally aggressive war on climate change. Geopolitical stability can not be maintained in the years and decades to come if millions of environmental refugees are created by rising seas, punishing droughts, elevated temperatures, etc. We can do this. We will do this. We must do this.

Peace.

 

Notes from Sixth Extinction Kolbert Talk

Earlier this week I heard Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert speak at Skidmore College about her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I attended the talk with my niece, a Skidmore student majoring in Environmental Science. My takeaways are to the point:IMG_7401

  1. With great peril, we are erasing the barriers (oceans and land masses) that separated species from one another. Under ordinary circumstances, ocean dwelling species can’t cross land masses, and terrestrial dwelling species can’t cross vast oceans. But when an invasive species can hitchhike on human travelers, anything is possible.
  2. We are going back in geologic time at breakneck speed as we unleash carbon stored over millions of years in a geologic blink of an eye. Carbon pools that took hundreds of millions of years to collect underground are being released in a few decades. The impacts are unparalleled in geologic history, and the threats equally unparalleled.
  3. We are dissolving corals and vulnerable calcareous zooplankton as oceans absorb carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid.
  4. We are confused. Much like the exotic Hawaiin crow or New Zealand Kakapao, we are dysfunctional in our economy and place in the biosphere. Either we wake up and act assertively, or go the way of so many species before us.

Below are some quick notes my niece took during the presentation.

WE ARE THE ASTEROID

  • Several species of crows in Hawaii many years ago
    • most of them did not last, they were killed off when Polynesians arrived in Hawaii; there are no wild Hawaiian crows left
      • habitat loss
      • introduction of mosquitoes–avian malaria
      • introduction of new species
    • “sharing our earth with other creatures” –rachel carson
      • we are driving species to and over the brink of extinction

What is the 6th extinction?

  • HOW WE ARE CHANGING THE OCEANS, GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION, ATMOSPHERE
    • ATMOSPHERE:
      • 10 b metric tons of CO2/year are added to the atmosphere
      • taking carbon deposits and re emitting them into the atmosphere
      • 25 ppm CO2 (as of October 28, 2015)
        • CO2 levels decrease during the spring and summer because of photosynthesis; in the winter CO2 increases
      • Look at ice cores to study ancient layers of snow
        • records of temperature
        • records of past atmospheres that are trapped as air bubbles in the ice
      • Scientists also study dead marine orgs to learn about atmospheric changes
      • (NASA heat map was very good)
      • the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet
      • changes in climate are more devastating for species in the tropics:
        • trees:
          • 1000 different species in 50 acres of land in the Andes Peru
          • Trees have a range of about 100 yards in the tropics (very narrow temperature ranges)
          • The trees would have to move 20 m up the mountain per year if they are to survive climate change; some trees are moving fast enough to track climate change
          • most species are not moving, so they are breaking down and new species are taking their places–what happens to the other organisms that live in the trees?!
        • OCEAN ACIDIFICATION
          • surface water quickly absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, forming carbonic acid
          • The oceans have absorbed roughly ⅓ of the co2 emitted since the start of the industrial rev (~150 b metric tons)
          • Every 4 hours the seas absorb another million metric tons of co2
          • net result is that the acidity of the ocean has increased by 30%
          • ocean acidification destroys calcium carbonate shells of organisms
            • coccolithophores
            • sea urchins
            • starfish
            • shellfish
            • corals (stony)
          • ocean vents acidify the water, essentially pouring CO2 directly into the water (pH of 7.8)
          • One Tree Island, Australia
            • coral bleaching as a result of ocean warming
            • reefs will not survive this century if we continue on this path
              • “It is likely that reefs will be the first major ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct”–Charles Sheppard, Simon Davy, Graham Pilling, The Biology of Coral Reefs
            • INVASIVE SPECIES
              • Pacific rat: brought to New Zealand around 1300; multiplied
                • the English then brought different rats, which drove the Pacific rats to extinction
                • the English also brought rabbits, which multiplied (“like rabbits”) → the rabbits ate all of the farmers’ crops
                • they then brought Stoats to hunt the rabbits, but they ended up just eating NZ’s incredible and diverse birds
  • Little brown bats, killed by white nose syndrome
    • 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces
    • 300,000 bats used to hibernate in this certain cave from powerpoint; now about 90% of those bats are alive
  • 126 Kakapo left in New Zealand