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.”

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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.

Weather v. Climate Redux

Here we go again. One of the favorite gambits of climate skeptics and deniers is to roll out the old chestnut that if the weather is cold outside your door, then global warming (emphasis here on “global”) must be fake news. You would think that anyone playing golf in sunny Florida and commenting on the cold snap in the Northeast would grasp the basic idea. But apparently not. Hence the latest dispatch from the tweeter-in-chief calling for some “good old global warming.”

Putting the concept in terms that even President Trump might understand, Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, observed, “There is still hunger in the world, even if you just had a Big Mac.”

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Graphic courtesy of University of Maine – Climate Change Institute.

The map above makes the same point, using science rather than a metaphorical cheeseburger. It shows all of the places in the world that were experiencing above-average winter temperatures during the current cold spell in the eastern U.S. “Nobody ever said winter would go away under global warming, but winter has become much milder and the record cold days are being far outnumbered by record warm days and heat extremes,” Matthew England, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, pointed out. “Climate change is not overturned by a few unusually cold days in the U.S.”

In the face of such willful ignorance on the part of the American president, it would be easy to pull up close to the fireplace, take a slug or two of Wild Turkey, and write off the future. But, in fact, Trump’s extreme views on climate change are a reason for hope, not despair. His obstinate refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change has mobilized citizens and their leaders across the globe.

The U.S. withdrawal from Paris, in particular, has energized American corporations, higher education institutions, faith-based organizations, mayors, and governors to take action. Projects for carbon-cutting and green energy at the local and state levels are making every effort to close the gap created by the White House’s insistence on treating the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a hoax. The most prominent coalition emerging since the withdrawal expresses this determination with eloquent conciseness: “We Are Still In.”

Developing countries, too, are recognizing the foolhardiness of President Trump’s stance and are ramping up the production of renewable energy at unprecedented rates. As a recent New York Times article noted recently, “China has indeed moved dramatically on climate change,” seeking to meet its own pledge under the Paris accord to cap carbon emissions by 2030, to launch the world’s largest carbon market, and rapidly expand the use of electric cars.

So, as the clock winds down on 2017, we should turn to 2018 with a renewed commitment to engage in unrelenting local action and national resistance, understanding that Trump is the weather and we are the climate. Best wishes for the new year.

A Season of Havoc

It has been a season of havoc in the western hemisphere, with biblical winds, water, and fire sweeping across the land. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have pounded the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, driving millions of people from their homes and making entire islands uninhabitable. A firestorm has ripped through wine country in northern California, killing dozens of people and flipping cars over with the force of winds generated by the heat. Forests have erupted in flames in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, blocking out the sun for hundreds of miles.

“We are in the unsustainable future,” disaster-preparedness expert Kathleen Tierney recently observed. “Now that the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico have heated up so much, there are going to be more of these big storms and there are going to be more fires.”

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The post-apocalyptic scene in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture licensed under the Creative Commons.

That’s our new reality. But in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration is hard at work, seeking to erase all evidence that the federal government acknowledges this new reality. The now inconveniently named Environmental Protection Agency has removed resources to address climate change from its web site. Last week it  canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on in Rhode Island. Perhaps most outrageous, it just released a draft of its four-year strategic plan that contains no mention of climate change or greenhouse gas emissions. The list of such inexcusable actions grows longer with every passing day as other federal agencies carry out similar purges.

And the world wonders if we have lost our minds. In late September I attended an international conference on “The U.S. and the World We Inhabit” in Milan, where I had been invited to deliver a keynote on climate activism in the U.S. The main theme of my talk was simple: don’t give up on us; there are lots of Americans pushing back against the effort to dismiss climate change as “fake news.” At one point, I remarked somewhat sarcastically that I doubted Italy had had to mount a “March for Science.” Amidst the laughter a hand went up. “Oh, but we did have a march,” the professor said. “It was for America.”

With this remark came a shared but unspoken understanding: the U.S. has relinquished leadership of the biggest and most important challenge of our time, the transition to a low-carbon economy. How did we get to this point? How is it that the U.S., which for decades led the world in scientific and technological achievement, has become an object of pity rather than a source of inspiration? It was both an embarrassing and infuriating moment, and it left me with plenty to ponder on the flight back home.

Houston, Harvey, and the Future

The ongoing tragedy in Houston is a dramatic reminder of what will happen if we continue to defer action on global warming. Climate change did not “cause” Hurricane Harvey, but it almost certainly intensified the impact of Harvey. The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake provides us with a glimpse of the future awaiting us if we don’t take extraordinary steps to decarbonize our economy now. As Eric Holthaus notes, “This isn’t just a Houston problem.”

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Houston residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Besides giving us a window on what lies ahead if we don’t act to mitigate climate change, Harvey has underscored the extent to which climate change is a social justice issue. The disproportionate impact on Houston residents of this unprecedented storm couldn’t be starker. The economic divisions of Houston are easy to delineate : neighborhoods to the west and south of Houston are significantly better off than those to the east and north.

True to form, the worst damage has been in the poorer neighborhoods, especially those on the east side closest to the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. “You’re talking about a perfect storm of pollution, environmental racism, and health risks that are probably not going to be measured and assessed until decades later,” says Texas Southern University sociologist Robert Bullard.

Here’s the big picture: currently we are putting 41 billion tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere. Scientists have determined that we can only emit 600 gigatons of carbon dioxide before we run the risk of setting off catastrophic climate destabilization. That means we only have 15 years left before we use up our carbon budget. Obviously we cannot wait until year fourteen and then shoot for zero in that last year.

In fact, an article published this past June in Nature argues that if we do not reach peak emissions by 2020 and begin to drop from there the chances of the of not overspending the carbon budget are minimal. That’s three years from now.

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the Paris climate negotiations, along with several scientists, policy makers, and corporate executives, lay out in this article a six-point plan for ensuring that we reach peak emissions in three years. Everything outlined in the plan is achievable but it will require a level of political will and support from civil society that simply does not exist at present.

Among the targets that the plan sets:

  • At least 30% of world’s electricity supply generated by renewables (currently 23%)
  • No new coal-fired power plants built after 2020 and existing plants on the road to retirement
  • Upgrade at least 3% of building stock to zero- or near-zero emissions structures each year
  • 15% of new car sales are electrical vehicles (currently 1%)
  • The financial sector is mobilizing at least $1 trillion a year for climate action

Ambitious goals, yes, but Hurricane Harvey reminds us of the cost we will pay if we don’t start to move immediately to put carbon emissions on a downward path. “The status quo is not an option,” says David Roberts. “We will end up with some mix of prevention, adaptation, and suffering; it is for us to determine the ratio.”

No Moratorium for Climate Change

As the 8th annual Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) report makes clear, there is much to celebrate in our community. Viewed collectively, the report documents an impressive contribution to the fight against climate change. Perhaps most important it demonstrates how collaboration and a sense of common purpose can lead to real progress.

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The Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden. Photo courtesy of the Town of Dryden.

There is one area, however, of significant concern: the growing opposition in the Finger Lakes region to commercial-scale wind and solar. The debate over solar farms in Dryden, in particular, reflects the sharp divide between those who want to hold on to a nostalgic view of rural life and those who want to address the future challenges that we face as the climate continues to destabilize at a rate that even the most pessimistic computer models have underestimated. “Hillside after hillside, farm land after farm land, field after field they are going to replace our beautiful, beautiful landscape with nothing but industrial solar panels,” declared one opponent in the Dryden controversy, while other opponents decried the disrespect shown to those buried in a nearby cemetery.

The same battle lines have formed in other communities such as Newfield, Enfield, and the Town of Seneca, all of which have recently passed moratoriums on large-scale wind and solar projects in an attempt “to preserve the rural character” of their communities. The irony is that there seems to be little acknowledgement of how climate change is threatening the very foundation of rural life in the Finger Lakes, the biosphere that makes our region so unique.

If we refuse to act with an eye on the future and move rapidly to a clean energy economy, we are faced with the prospect of a new ecosystem making its way north. Projections indicate that, given the current pace of global warming, in as few as 30 to 40 years the climate of upstate New York is likely to resemble that of Georgia. Clearly, such a shift will result in a very different countryside than what our grandparents experienced. Already the average temperature in New York during the winter has climbed 4.4 °F since the 1970s, heavy downpours have increased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and spring begins a week earlier  than it did a few decades ago.

The message is clear: the biggest risk of all is to do nothing. The ecosystem of the Finger Lakes is already experiencing significant stress and only by dramatically reducing our carbon footprint as quickly as possible can we have any chance to avoid exchanging it for a very different ecosystem. Without the development of large-scale wind and solar, there is little to no possibility of avoiding this fate. In short, there is a lot more at stake than spoiling the view.

Go Faster and Go Further

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration this Saturday, it’s clear that the new president has determined to maintain the fossil fuel regime. In response, hundreds of marches will be held around the country (including in Ithaca), with the main event in Washington, DC. As Bill McKibben notes, “since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing.”

The rollback of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, which had their own limitations, means that the U.S. will send up to 900 more megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent report, that will increase the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent at a time when we need to be making dramatic cuts in these emissions.

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Trump’s advisors are divided about whether the U.S. should abandon the Paris Agreement, but even the strongest advocates for not doing so want to renegotiate the terms of the accord. In any event, it certainly appears as if we’re handing over leadership on this critical issue to China and Europe. In terms that Trump might understand, such a failure of leadership will do permanent damage to our nation’s brand. But much more than a marketing blunder is at stake;  the fate of human civilization rests on not going down this road.

The one bright light is that the transition to a clean energy economy seems to have reached a tipping point that will carry it forward regardless of any policy shifts. In particular, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, It’s too late to bring back coal or the associated mining jobs, not just because natural gas has become too cheap for coal to be competitive. The costs of wind and solar have dropped so significantly in the last several years that they, too, have become cheaper than goal. This new reality is apparent in the recent decision of the Kentucky Coal Museum to install solar on its roof as a cost-saving measure. Yes, that’s right: the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar.

The numbers tell an even more impressive story. As the chart above indicates, renewable energy capacity grew 9.3 percent in 2015, the fifth year in a row that the rate has been above 8 percent. In the first quarter of 2016, renewables made up 99 percent of the new electricity production capacity in the U.S., and from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 they increased from 14 percent of electricity to 17 percent. In contrast, coal dropped during that same period from 36 percent to 29 percent.

The global growth in solar has been especially explosive. For the first time since 2013, solar outpaced wind in 2016. The primary driver has been the astonishing reduction in the cost of utility-scale solar: it fell 62 percent from 2009 to 2015 and is projected to drop another 57 percent by 2025.

At the same time, renewables have become a key source of new employment around the world. Renewable energy jobs rose by 5 percent in 2015 to 8.1 million and there were an additional 1.3 million jobs in large-scale hydropower. In another sign of the historic transition taking place, the American solar industry now employs more workers than coal: 209,000 compared to about 150,000 jobs.

So we’re moving in the right direction; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that we need to move a lot faster and go a lot further. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we need to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix by 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Overall, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent per year on average to meet the Paris target.

Accomplishing this task is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And, clearly, we can’t count on the federal government to make it happen; it’s up to us. All the more reason we need to take to the streets on Saturday and make our voices heard.

Embracing the Commons in the Age of Trumpism

“As we enter the twenty-first century,” Thomas Berry observed in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (2000), “we are experiencing a moment of grace.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” is the understandable response. Certainly, anyone paying attention to the news these days has good reason to challenge this seemingly naive claim.

What Berry means, however, has less to do with a positive assessment of our current circumstances than with the narrow window of opportunity we have to turn back from the disastrous road we are on. We have an all too brief moment to transform our exploitation of the Earth and each other into a web of relationships that is, in Berry’s words, “mutually beneficial.” Unless we act now to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, Berry contends, we will become “impoverished in all that makes us human.”

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These are important words to remember as we come to grips with a level of political polarization in our nation’s history unprecedented since at least the days of racial, ethnic, and class conflict in the 1890s, when lynchings, virulent opposition to immigration, and widespread  attacks on labor dominated the U.S. landscape. In particular, the threat that Trumpism poses to democracy is all too real, and the implications of “America First” for global efforts to stabilize the climate and confront inequality in the developing nations are alarming.

How should we respond? For those of us privileged enough to have the resources, it is all too easy to fall into despair and retreat into our respective cocoons. But that is moral cowardice and, at any rate, will end up being self-defeating. As Van Jones has pointed out, ” eco-apartheid is just a speed-bump on the way to eco-apocalypse. Any successful, long-term strategy will require a full and passionate embrace of the principle of eco-equity.”

What does it mean to embrace eco-equity? Conventional politics offers two opposing points of view: conservatism, in which the unfettered market is seen as the way forward, and progressivism, in which the expanded state is considered to be the solution. But the hard truth, as George Monbiot contends, is that “the market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state.” In Monbiot’s words, “One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

What are the commons? Monbiot provides an admirably concise explanation: the commons are “an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights.” It can, at least in theory, include land, water, air, knowledge, scientific research, and culture. Historically, the commons in pre-industrial England were an integral part of the manor. They existed as part of the estate owned by the lord of the manor, but to which the tenants and others held certain rights.

By definition, then, the commons as an idea holds itself over and against the concept of private and exclusive ownership. Perhaps the most compelling current example of the commons is the Missouri River, which the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans, have fought to protect against the incursion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Knowing the clear risk that a potential oil spill could pose to the drinking water not only of their own people but also all those living downstream, the “water protectors” have taken a stand against the argument that the rights of corporations have precedent over the rights of all those whose lives depend on the commons, including those yet to be born.

To understand the crucial place of the commons in determining the future of what it means to be human, in short, is to see that the “moment of grace” to which Berry refers insists that we resist Trumpism and the corrosive atomization of community and radical individualism that it engenders. It is the most effective and humane way that we can bring about the kind of eco-equity Van Jones rightly views as the only viable option left for avoiding an otherwise inescapable eco-apocalypse.

On the Importance of Building Sand Castles

Warning: an historian’s Lemony-Snicket view of the world. Proceed with caution!

We are facing an unprecedented threat to modern civilization. Even at the height of the Cold War, when only two nations possessed the great preponderance of nuclear warheads, there was a pretty clear cut solution that didn’t necessitate the elimination of the very basis of that civilization. That’s hardly the situation now as we undergo an accelerating pace of climate destabilization set in motion by our use of fossil fuels.

When you throw into the mix an unwavering insistence on preserving the American Way of Life and the possession of nuclear arms by some of the very nations that have the most exposure to catastrophic climate chaos (Pakistan, India, the Middle East, etc.), and then inject the fuel of extreme religious fervor, what are the possibilities of implementing an adequate solution?

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It’s this hydra-headed threat of climate chaos, nuclear proliferation, American commitment to material consumption, and religious fanaticism (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu — let’s be clear about that) that makes the whole situation so dark. And on top of all this you put a sociopath like Donald Trump in the White House? Good luck is all I can say.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine a path through the conundrum that we have created for ourselves. I don’t think you can disentangle climate destabilization from the other factors — that’s what’s so grim about the current situation. Each factor is just as real and threatening as the other, and they’re all mutually reinforcing.

If the crisis involved only climate change, then the possibility of some kind of technical solution emerging within the necessary time frame could be envisioned, much like arms control agreements during the Cold War. But when the other variables are factored in? Not so much.

If you’re interested in trying to be a moral person with some semblance of integrity, I’m afraid the only reasonable course of action is to do what you can in your own local community, while recognizing with clear eyes, that you’re building your sand castle well below the high tide line.

But at least you’re doing something. It’s the beach version of Sisyphus‘s punishment. The difference for us, obviously, is there’s a beginning, middle, and end, unlike poor Sisyphus, whose plight is eternal.