The Arctic Gets a New Ecosystem

As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get want you want.” Fair enough. But sometimes, unfortunately, you get exactly the opposite of what you need. That’s certainly true of the Arctic this past winter. The last thing it needed was to break another warm weather record, yet that’s exactly what happened.

The extent of the warming has even caught scientists off guard. The record jump in temperatures “is probably the all-time surprise we’ve seen in the Arctic,” according to Jim Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Needless to say, when you manage to surprise the folks who’ve spent their careers studying you, you’ve accomplished something. Not necessarily something good, but something. What does this mean for the Arctic?

Alaska Glacier2

What it means is that the Arctic gets a complete makeover. Yes, that’s right. A new ecosystem is emerging in the Arctic and it’s wreaking havoc with life in the region: thinner ice, shorter winters, new animals, new vegetation. In short, everything is changing. Everything.

“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander in a Washington Post report last month. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”

Oops. We did that. The salmon are smaller, the caribou have changed their migration routes, new plant life is overgrowing usually clear dog sled trails, more forest fires are occurring, and even cardinals are showing up in Fort Yukon.

Think about that last news flash. It’s the rough equivalent of pink flamingos making an appearance on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Imagine the shock if that happened while you were walking along the Waterfront Trail. In the words of Mr. Alexander, “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note.”

And in case you think it’s only Alaska that has caught climate scientists by surprise, think again. Here’s what Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado climate scientist, had to say earlier this month about another well-known region in the Arctic: “melt in Greenland, over this wide an area, this early in the season, is not supposed to happen.”

In fact, the melt was taking place so early and so fast in Greenland that scientists thought something must be wrong with their data so they went back and checked. Get this: thermometers on and around the ice showed temperatures as high as 64 degrees Fahrenheit on April 11. That’s more than 35 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which for that part of the world is more like a warm day in the summer.

Oops. We did that, too. To paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, “we broke it, we own it.” But now that we own it will we ever own up to it? That’s the really big question, isn’t it?

The Ithaca 2030 District Emerges

As part of the City’s economic development program and effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Seneca Strategic Consulting and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), together with Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, Taitem Engineering, and the Building Performance Contractors Association of New York State, are collaborating to create a 2030 District that will showcase ways to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of building construction and operations, while ensuring Ithaca’s economic viability and profitability for building owners, managers, and developers.

These districts seek to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions reduction targets for existing buildings and new construction called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning. So far, 2030 Districts have been established in many cities all over the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but Ithaca will be the first to create a 2030 District in New York.

The Ithaca 2030 District will build on the work of the TCCPI, an award-winning coalition of community leaders from the education, business, local government, youth, and nonprofit sectors that provides a place to network around climate and energy issues. Leveraging the climate action commitments made by Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the Towns of Caroline, Dryden, and Ithaca, TCCPI seeks to foster a more climate resilient community and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The district will demonstrate how property owners and managers can work together to undertake energy efficiency projects in nonresidential buildings in an economically sound way. This project will create jobs in the energy efficiency sector, encouraging more investment in downtown areas, and helping to foster community revitalization. Building owners and managers will share energy, water, transportation data and case studies that will spur additional efforts to make more effective use of limited resources, improving the sustainability and resiliency of the community.

The Ithaca 2030 District is currently in the planning stage. There is a steering committee that is meeting monthly and beginning outreach to property owners and managers in the City of Ithaca. NYSERDA, through its Cleaner, Greener Communities Program, has awarded the Ithaca 2030 Districts team $90,380 against a match of $108,000 provided by the team members. Contract negotiations have been completed and the agreement with NYSERDA should be executed soon, allowing the project to get fully underway. It is anticipated the launch of the District will take place in the late spring of 2016.

Note: This article appeared originally in the Winter 2015 issue of the Commercial Energy Now newsletter.

Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.

“The Climate is a Common Good”

Pope Francis’s just released encyclical on climate change and the environment, as expected, issued a hard-hitting warning about the “unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem” and the need to reject the “throwaway culture,” “extreme consumerism,”  and excessive profit-seeking that has led to this life-threatening degradation.

As I noted in my last post, although the Vatican has spoken out on the environment many times before, this is the first encyclical dedicated to the issue. The key theme of this historic document is that climate change and inequality are inextricably linked. In the pope’s words, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

In the encyclical, Pope Francis called for the phasing out of fossil fuels, insisting that the responsibility for paying the cost of this transition belongs to the developed countries, “which are more powerful and pollute the most.” He pointed out that developing nations will probably experience “the worst impact” of climate change, and they lack the resources to “adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.”

While the groundbreaking encyclical has received wide coverage in the media, it remains to be seen what its longer-term impact will be. In particular, the climate agreement negotiations in Paris at the end of this year will provide a telling indication of whether world leaders will have taken to heart the pope’s powerful declaration that “the climate is a common good.”

Underscoring the serious consequences at stake, the very next day a new study appeared cautioning that, unless we reversed our climate change trajectory soon, the planet was on course for its sixth mass species extinction. The key difference this time is that it will be the first one induced by human behavior, especially the burning of fossil fuels and the adoption of industrial-scale agriculture.

“Unless we do something radically different soon,” observed Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and lead author of the study, “we may end up having a big catastrophic collapse of humans, not only animals.”

Together, the religious and moral pronouncements of Pope Francis and the scientific analysis of six leading researchers provide a sobering picture of our future. Still, as the pope pointed out, “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

The Pope Speaks Out on Climate Change

Earlier this week Pope Francis convened a major conference in Rome on climate disruption. It is one of several events planned by the Vatican ahead of his much-anticipated encyclical on global warming and the environment. The conference included speeches by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders of the pontifical academies, along with panels on the relevant scientific, moral, and economic issues.

The Vatican did not pull its punches In the run up to the conference or at the conference itself, signaling its determination to move the conversation to a new level of urgency.

Last month Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped write the first draft of the encyclical, declared that global inequality and the destruction of the environment “are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.” “A changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value,” he insisted, would be required to meet these threats.

Striking a similarly resolute tone, the Vatican issued a statement at the close of the conference on Tuesday, emphasizing that “human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.” Pointing out that the climate summit in Paris later this year “may be the last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human-induced warming below 2-degrees C,” it called for a rapid transition “to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems.”

The Pope’s encyclical on climate change will not be the first time that the Church has addressed this issue. But it is the first time that it will be the subject of an encyclical, which carries great authoritative weight for Roman Catholics.

The Vatican’s sustained engagement with the threat of global warming underscores the fact that science and technology can only take the discussion so far. They can explain the causes and consequences of climate destabilization and pose technical solutions. But it is values, especially a commitment to the generations that come after us, that will provide the motivation to implement the solutions, which are likely to be expensive and politically fraught.

Building a sustainable world, in short, is as much a cultural and ethical project as it is a scientific and engineering endeavor. It is a task that requires imagination, compassion, collaboration, and creativity, a willingness to live our lives differently. In Pope Francis’s words, “We need to care for the earth so that it may continue, as God willed, to be a source of life for the entire human family.”

Getting from Here to There

2014 turned out to be a momentous year for the climate protection effort, culminating in the historic march on September 21 in New York City that brought more than 400,000 people, including many from Tompkins County, to join in a demand for action from world leaders. The news on November 12 that the U.S. and China, which together account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had struck a deal to limit these emissions suggested that perhaps they were listening.

Then, on December 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration would ban fracking in the state largely because of concerns over risks to the public’s health. The watershed decision came after years of citizen activism insisting that the state should leave its considerable fossil fuel reserves in the ground because of the threats fracking posed to the air, water, and soil of its communities.

The call for leaving carbon in the ground also came from a rapidly growing divestment movement. Beginning with students at U.S. colleges and universities, the movement soon encompassed, among others, higher education institutions in Scotland and Australia as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Ithaca’s Park Foundation. As a result of this campaign, according to Fossil Free, more than $50 billion in assets have been divested so far. Building on this momentum, 350.org and its partners have begun organizing a Global Divestment Day for February 13-14, 2015. Stay tuned.

At the same time, renewable energy rapidly gained traction throughout the world. As the year wound to a close, reports out of Germany indicated that the country had generated a record 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources during 2014, with wind and solar leading the way. On May 11, almost 75 percent of Germany’s overall electricity needs were met by renewable energy.

All of these impressive developments, however, took place against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening outlook for the planet’s climate. According to climate scientists, all indications are that 2014 will be the hottest year on record for the planet, marking 38 years in a row of higher-than-average temperatures.words,

In Rebecca Solnit’s words,”It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here.” But, she notes, that’s how it felt to lots of ordinary 18th-century Europeans when they contemplated overthrowing the divine right of kings and becoming citizens rather than subjects. It takes sustained, concentrated effort on the part of lots of people working together to create a new reality.

Closer to home, Cornell’s purchase of community-owned wind power, the doubling of residential solar power in Tompkins County, the growing recognition that economic development and greenhouse gas emission reductions are not mutually exclusive, and new initiatives to make our commercial buildings more energy efficient all serve as examples of how to build this new reality. May those examples continue to multiply and grow in 2015.

Will Alaska Be the New Florida?

The current debate over the proposed construction of the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline raises a fundamental question: at what point will we acknowledge that we can no longer conduct “business as usual”?

Implicit in this question is another one: what does it actually mean to put this understanding into operation? Are we willing to move in a radically different direction, as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing as that may be? When will we stop saying, “yes, but …” and recognize that the time to act is now?

The County target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not just a nice idea; it’s the minimum necessary to avoid runaway climate disruption. If we can’t accomplish this task in Tompkins County, then where in the U.S. will that target be met?

A New York Times article in late September examined the issue of climate refugees, not in Bangladesh or the South Pacific, but in the United States. At current rates of global warming, one of the climate researchers observed, “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”

Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts that “millions of people” will be moving inland to cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit to escape coastal flooding in the East and Gulf Coast. By the middle of this century, California and the Southwest will be experiencing catastrophic water shortages and extreme heat.

Aside from the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be among the few refuges left. Even in these places the weather will be dramatically altered. “Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma – the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” according to Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center.

We still have time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we recognize that the decisions we make now will determine whether we do so or not.

“Hope is a Verb With Its Sleeves Rolled Up”

Since its founding six years ago, TCCPI has advanced the notion that the only effective way for communities to fight climate change is by working together. The many challenges we face in dealing with climate mitigation and adaptation can only be met if we break out of our silos and work across sectors.

The achievement of “emerging district” status for Ithaca is a good example of what can be accomplished when we collaborate. Made up of business, local government, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of their buildings, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to foster the establishment of performance benchmarks, the collecting and sharing of data, and the dissemination of best practices in the areas of energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Through the collaboration of diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources, the Ithaca 2030 District will demonstrate the business case for healthy and high performing buildings.

Solar Tompkins is another terrific example of what can happen when we work together toward a common goal. Director Melissa Kemp recently announced that the program has exceeded its target,
enrolling nearly 1,300 families in the program. The initiative aims to double the amount of solar-panel electricity generated in the county. The deadline for enrollees to decide if they want to go solar is October 1, and already 120 have done so. In order to stimulate the growth of solar adoption in the County, Solar Tompkins is selling photovoltaic (PV) solar panel arrays at well below market rate. A typical residential 7,000-watt system could cost only $6,216 through the program once all of the tax credits and rebates are taken into account, according to Kemp.

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, often likes to say. The continuing news about the onset of significant climate disruption could easily lead to despair and paralysis. But by local citizens and institutions coming together on projects such as the Ithaca 2030 District and Solar Tompkins, and rolling up our sleeves for the long haul, we make it possible to build a more sustainable future for Tompkins County.

A Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.