Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

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An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act

As the City of Ithaca considers possible next steps on climate action, it would do well to look downstate for inspiration. On April 18 the New York City Council passed a sweeping “Climate Mobilization Act” to fight climate change, a package of seven bills that supporters said would help build a “Green New Deal for New York City.” The legislation passed by a 45-2 vote.

Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Andreas Komodromos licensed under CC BY-2.0.
The centerpiece of the package requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut climate emissions 40% by 2030 and more than 80% by 2050, which officials said is “the most ambitious energy efficiency legislation in the country.” In addition, the legislation:
  • Requires green roofs, solar panels, and/or small wind turbines on certain buildings
  • Establishes a renewable energy and energy efficiency loan program
  • Streamlines the application and siting process for wind turbine installation across the city
  • Orders the city to carry out a study on the feasibility of closing its 24 oil- and gas-fired power plants and replacing them with energy storage and renewable power

“This legislation will radically change the energy footprint of the built environment and will pay off in the long run with energy costs expected to rise and new business opportunities that will be generated by this forward thinking and radical policy,” said Timur Dogan, an architect and building scientist at Cornell University.

As the New York Times observed in its coverage of the story, “Buildings are among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions because they use lots of energy for heating, cooling and lighting, and they tend to be inefficient, leaking heat in the winter and cool air in the summer through old windows or inadequate insulation.” An inventory published in 2017 of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City found that buildings accounted for two-thirds of the city’s overall emissions.

It is for this very reason that TCCPI moved in 2016 to establish the Ithaca 2030 District as its new flagship program, joining a network of 22 cities in North America seeking to improve the energy and water performance of their downtown commercial buildings. Currently, the network has 493 million square feet committed. New York City is in the process of also establishing a 2030 District in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, and it should soon be up and running.

The Ithaca Green Building Policy marks a significant step towards encouraging new development projects to become more environmentally sensitive. As the policy enters the process of codification, however, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of commercial construction in the city is made up of already existing buildings. How does Ithaca intend to address this issue? The Climate Mobilization Act just passed by the New York City Council points the way.

This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.

COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”

“A Fire Bell in the Night”

In 1820, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that the admission of Missouri as a slave state was like “a fire bell in the night” that threatened the survival of the Union. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, issued a report that sounded a similar alarm across the land.

Only a dozen years remain, according to these scientists, before the world spews so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will be impossible to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C. After that all bets are off and human civilization will be courting catastrophe.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, the consequences will “include, but are not limited to, the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Only fundamental changes in energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure can head off such a calamity. Even then it is almost certain that vast amounts of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere using technologies that are currently only in the early stages of development.

Two days after the release of the IPCC report, underscoring the urgency of the situation, Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, killing dozens of people and inflicting millions of dollars of property damage. It was the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. in terms of pressure and the fourth strongest hurricane to do so in terms of wind speed.

A harbinger of what’s to come, such storms and other extreme weather events will place ever increasing stress on American society, exacerbating class and racial divisions and heightening inequality and civic instability. The strains on American democracy are already tremendous due to a level of political polarization unprecedented since the coming of the Civil War. Accelerating climate chaos will clearly make things far worse.

“The evidence seems to be mounting,” The Atlantic  observed last week, “that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.” All the more reason, then, to head to the polls on November 6 and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do. This time let’s make sure to heed the fire bell in the night.

A Summer of Fire and Rain

Here’s a short and by no means comprehensive list of the extreme weather disasters that have taken place since the end of June, eight weeks ago:
  • More than 90 people died from the extreme heat in Quebec
  • Record rainfall in Japan caused flooding and landslides leading to at least 179 deaths
  • Over 60 wildfires raged above the Arctic Circle in Sweden
  • Thousands of people have been forced from their homes in the U.S. West, especially in California and Colorado, which have experienced unprecedented wildfires sparked by extreme heat and drought
  • An epic monsoon left more than 220,000 people homeless in southern India and killed at least 324 people
  • And in the Finger Lakes last week a “rain bomb” dropped up to 8.75 inches overnight and caused major flooding in Seneca and Schuyler Counties, destroying homes and tearing up roads
Flooding in Lodi Point last week. Photo credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

2018 is on track to be the fourth hottest year on record, and 17 out of the warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001. “It’s not a wake-up call anymore,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, who runs the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “It’s now absolutely happening to millions of people around the world.”

This summer of “fire and rain,” to quote a James Taylor song, has been relentless in its violence and destruction. It feels as if what was a slow-moving calamity has accelerated into a near biblical explosion of unceasing events, each day bringing news of another indication that climate change is looking more and more like climate chaos.

How do we know these are not isolated, unrelated events but rather part of a longer-term process that is nowhere near reaching its climax? Researchers, based on climate models, are now able to draw links between extreme weather events and climate change, and even quantify them. For example, the World Weather Attribution project, an international coalition of scientists, issued a study in July concluding that Europe’s record-breaking heat wave this summer was twice as likely to have occurred because of human-caused warming.

Scientists still think that it’s not too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we undertake dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and changes in the way we live. Meanwhile, for those of us who are paying attention, the signs are all around us that the waters are not just rising; they are getting choppier and more turbulent with each passing day. What used to seem like something that would take place in the distant future is happening now.

“What we’re seeing today is making me, frankly, calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I will be living, what I am currently living,” Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, noted recently in conversation with a reporter. “We haven’t caught up to it. I haven’t caught up to it, personally.”

Sobering words, indeed, that remind us what is at stake. There is no “new normal.” Our summer of fire and rain will only get much worse going forward if we fail, in the words of Taylor’s song, to “make a stand.”

 

Falling Rocks, Rising Seas? No, an Avalanche of Unreality

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on climate change in mid-May that will go down as one of the most farcical performances by government officials since the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the hearing was to examine how technology could be deployed for climate change adaptation. Just a few weeks before, a study commissioned by the Pentagon had warned that rising sea levels were threatening critical U.S. military assets in the Pacific Ocean. So there were serious matters of national security at stake.

But the hearing soon devolved into absurdist theater as one Republican congressman after another trotted out their pet objections to climate science.

 

A cause of rising sea levels? The White Cliffs of Dover. Photo by jpellgen licensed under CC by-NC-ND 2.0.

As reported by E&E News, Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, was testifying when things began to unravel. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) charged that established climate science had been “beaten into our heads” and he questioned whether climate change was caused by human activities.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, then entered into the fray, displaying a slide of two charts that he said made clear that the rate of sea-level rise has not been commensurate with the sharp rise in the consumption of fossil fuels. Duffy noted that Smith’s chart drew on data from only one tide gauge station, near San Francisco, and patiently explained that sea levels rise at different rates around the world.

“It’s accurate, but it doesn’t represent what’s happening globally; it represents what’s happening in San Francisco,” Duffy said.

At this point, having drifted far from the topic of how to use technology to address climate change, the hearing reached a near epic moment of ridiculousness: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), pointing to the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover, insisted that falling rocks were a major factor in the rise of sea levels. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers was contributing to sea-level rise.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

Clearly, the bottom was not just moving up; it had taken over. Having spent most of two hours trying valiantly to correct one misstatement after another, Duffy retired from the field. “No, Mo Brooks, it’s not the rocks falling into the ocean that are raising the sea level,” one could imagine Duffy thinking to himself, “it’s the avalanche of American minds disconnecting themselves from reality that’s causing it.”

The Art of Creative Problem Solving

There are few problems more intractable and complicated than climate destabilization. The interaction between the myriad parts of the climate regime, the various feedback loops and the uncertainties that make it so difficult to predict what lies ahead, can seem overwhelming.

But, fortunately, there has been a tremendous unleashing of creative energy aimed at tackling this existential threat. It is this creativity — the seemingly unlimited capacity of humans to take on the most complex challenges — that is the source of our greatest hope.

One of the toughest areas to address lies at the intersection of environmental stewardship and social equity, especially at a time when the degree of inequality in American society has reached levels not seen since the early twentieth century. It was a special honor, in this context, to hear about a new NYSERDA initiative at last month’s TCCPI meeting to develop affordable, net-zero modular homes targeted to provide low-income families with a way to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

An example of an affordable net zero modular home. Photo courtesy of VEIC.

Working with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), NYSERDA will be spending $230 million over the next three years as it rolls out this new campaign. VEIC is a thirty-year-old nonprofit based in Burlington that is the first of the public-service ESCOs in the U.S. It has, in particular, focused on ways to provide low and moderate income families with ways to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and, in the process, provide significant cost savings for these families.

Currently, 8 million individuals live in manufactured homes in the U.S. These homes typically consume twice the energy of site-built homes. Following Tropical Storm Irene, which destroyed hundreds of mobile homes in Vermont and New York in August 2011, the call went out to replace mobile homes with modular construction.

The new net zero modular homes are equipped with solar PV systems and super efficient technology, including LED lighting, EnergyStar appliances, cold climate heat pump, heat pump water heater, and energy recovery ventilator that also monitors indoor air quality. The result is a manufactured home that not only saves the homeowner money but also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and provides higher quality, healthier homes.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of how human ingenuity and technical prowess can combine to address in one package two of our most serious problems, climate change and inequality. With the right priorities and focus, there is little doubt that more such solutions are on their way.

Renewable Energy on the March

The news so far this year has been dismal: mass shootings, Russian meddling in our elections, rabid political partisanship on Capitol Hill, scandals erupting in the White House, and an opioid epidemic out of control. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a bit of light, however, glimmering on the renewable energy front. When President Trump first took office, it looked like renewable energy would be entering an unremittingly bleak era. His administration has mounted a militantly pro-fossil fuel campaign, advocating policies that are clearly aimed at undercutting the transition to renewable energy. The recent decision to impose a 30 percent tax on solar panels imported from China, in particular, looked as if it would deal a substantial blow to the solar industry.

Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t seem like the expansion of renewable energy can be stopped. As the New Republic points out, ” From solar to wind to geothermal energy, the renewables industry is  withstanding Trump — and in some cases, it’s doing better than ever.” It turns out that the long march towards a clean energy economy can be hindered but not stopped. Trump simply does not have the power to alter the direction of technological innovation and market forces.

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Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

A new report, the 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, underscores this point. Even in the uncertain climate accompanying the ascension of Trump to the White House in 2017, 18 percent of all electricity in the U.S. was produced by renewable sources, including wind, solar, and hydropower, up from 15 percent in 2016. That, as one energy analyst noted, puts renewables “within striking distance” of the nuclear power sector, which has hovered at 19-20 percent since 2008. Just as impressive, the share of electricity produced by renewables in the U.S. has doubled since 2008, while coal’s share plummeted from 48% to 30%.

The continued drop in the cost of renewables (and natural gas) spells bad news for coal going forward. Solar and wind projects made up about 62% of new power construction in 2017 and 2.9 gigawatts of new renewable energy projects were undertaken last year. In contrast, 12.5 gigawatts of coal plants are slated to shut down in 2018.

“Imagine,” observes the New Republic, “how well solar, wind, and battery technology would fare if Trump had the same enthusiasm for promoting it as he does for promoting coal and oil and gas.” But then Trump wouldn’t be Trump — that’s the unfortunate reality. In the meantime, however, the renewables march forges ahead.