Saturday, December 27, 2008

NYT calls for gas tax

A new New York Times editorial calls for a gas tax to keep gas prices high and stimulate innovation in vehicle fuel efficiency. It also mentions the tax on imported crude proposed by Harvard econoguru Robert Lawrence. In the same paper, another article explains how midwestern and mid-Atlantic homeowners are switching back to coal.

No mention is made of the effects on carbon dioxide emissions or climate change in the editorial, while in the business article, there is only a passing reference.

Read between the lines and this juxtaposition of articles shows an entirely different conclusion quite clearly: Americans are beginning to know that they have to wean themselves off oil, but have yet to figure out that coal is not an answer.

Brits discover rural roots via urban hens

Womerlippi farm hens: this year's Buff Orpingtons.

Here's an interesting Grauniad article about how many of my fellow countrymen and women are rediscovering the helpful hen, even in urban settings.

Following on my grandad's heels as a young tyke, I grew up partly in what I thought for many years was a long-gone world of terrace streets and allotments (community gardens), where old men like my grandfather, World War I and II veterans for the most part, practiced a Yorkshire kind of urban self-sufficiency with great efficiency and expertise. Hen coops and rabbit hutches were commonplace in the allotments. During WWII, mother kept rabbits as a young girl, while dad kept bantam hens, until he was bombed out and evacuated to the country.

Now apparently the allotments are making a comeback, and so are the urban hens.

Grandad could grow massive amounts of good food on his patch, not to mention huge quantities of cut flowers, dahlias, chrysanthemums, and the like. Flowers and veggies alike were wrapped in newspaper bundles and carried home, some distributed on the way to various folks he knew.

Growing and giving away food is a family tradition.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Preserve our Planet: National Geographic's Student Video Contest

National Geographic asked me to promote this contest among Unity Students and blog readers. It's a little early for spring semester, but I'll post reminders later, and mention it in class.

It looks like a great contest. Any Unity Student who'd like to enter can come see me for ideas. I may also allow this as a project for the Unity IDEAL Leadership seminar.

Until then, have a good holiday,


Hello Professor Womersley-

My name is Minjae Ormes and I am working with National Geographic Channel to promote the second annual "Preserve Our Planet <> " College Film and PSA Contest. I came upon the Sustainability Activities blog while researching for college students or environmental bloggers who might be interested in this news and wanted to reach out to you with further information.

Preserve Our Planet <> is about working together to preserve the environment, and this year's criteria include a new core idea - "Together We Can Make A Difference" - which students should reflect in their entry films and PSAs. In addition to the cash prize, winners will have the opportunity to screen their work at the annual meeting of the National Geographic Explorers in June 2009, and see their films broadcast nationally as part of National Geographic Channel's Earth Day events via on-air, online, and NGC On Demand, wherever available:

· For complete details, including complete details, including rules, entry forms and prize information, please visit: <> . Submissions will be accepted through December 31, 2008.

· To watch last year's winning films, please visit:
· Also, join us at the Preserve Our Planet Facebook Group to communicate with last year's winners and connect with other students who are interested in the initiative:

Finally, there will be an online voting component, where people can help determine the audience choice film. I have attached the full press release for your reference.

Thank you in advance for your time and helping us spread the word, and please let me know if you have any questions or need additional information!


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Four Freedoms Redux, or How to use cheap oil to win the world for western thought

I'm fairly conservative in some ways, indeed in lots of ways. For one, I firmly believe in western liberal democracy (using the word liberal in the old fashioned Adam Smith sense, ie, economic and social liberty). I am an unabashed occidentalist. I look around the world, and while I can admire China's stupendous recent economic achievement, or the impressive three-thousand year Persian cultural history of Iran, or the earthy simplicity of Native American spirituality, or a dozen other profound cultural and economic cultures not of the west, I don't at all wish to ape their dignities, nor live under their constraints.

Some of my friends and colleagues in academia see this trait of mine as misanthropic or even bigoted. I don't care very much about that. My defense is that I'm a bloody-minded Yorkshire Englishman, from a very long line of Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Roundheads, Chartists, Fabians, Kinder Trespassers, and Sheffield steel small "s" socialists, the same bloody-minded so-and-so's whose thought and doughty northern ways were in my humble opinion behind every serious foreign and civil victory for liberty of thought and action in Anglo-America from Cromwell through Paine to Lincoln, and further that if you can admire a Soiux Indian or an African freedom fighter for being in touch with his cultural heritage, then you shouldn't criticize me for doing much of the same.

All I want is to see the west tread as firmly as it can the path of liberty while also supporting democracy, education, and development elsewhere in the world with as much energy as we can afford.

This leads to me occasionally siding with the right wing. For instance, I don't like Dick Cheney very much at all, but I think Natan Sharansky has a point. I don't think we'll ever see, for instance, a truly democratic Islamic state. I feel sorry for the Palestinians but feel that many of their men for generations have overly confused murder with resistance and made simplistic and ridiculous excuses for their own failures in government. My favorite world leader of all time is Winston Churchill, not Che Guevara. My favorite historians are Simon Schama and Kevin Philips, not to mention Churchill himself (although I just did), not Howard Zinn or Todd Gitlin. I admire Gandhi more for his work within the western tradition, for his doughty use of the common law he learned at the Middle Temple and the freedoms it enshrines, than for his sainted guru-ship.

It will be a good day, in my book, when we can do without gurus.

We didn't do gurus in 1960s Yorkshire, at least pre-Beatles. We did brown bread and bacon and eggs, also brown, school milk, Sheffield steel and coal, and council houses and grants for university instead.

What my grandfathers stood for.

In my worldview, it will only be when the states of Islam discover the separation of mosque and state that repression and torture will end in Iran or Pakistan or Palestine, and it will only be when China frees up business enterprise and democratic thought that that it will begin to meet my standards. While Kim Jong Il simply fills me with disgust.

And while I'm happy to read all their history and thought in order to understand them, perhaps I'm reading them more to know how to change them than to excuse them.

All this makes me a fairly strange environmentalist, although not such a strange Quaker, the example of Thomas Paine being a case in point, also Nathaniel Greene. It made my participation in Peter Brown's new book a tad strained at times, since many of the participants were more conventional liberals and socialists.

What I really want is for the deep liberty that is at the heart of the western, and particularly the Anglo-American worldview, to spread widely, including important concepts such as freedom of speech and thought, freedom of religion, economic freedoms such as the freedom to start your own business or run your own farm or firm, but most of all, freedom of conscience.

What I want is to live in a pluralistic democratic society based on debate, a free press, with a strong role for reason and science. This is neither the gated and middle-class-suspicious western community that Dick Cheney or Rush Limbaugh inhabit, where science and reason are replaced by cronyism and spin, but neither is it the soft-minded, New Agey silliness, and fake or invented community, that often pervades the liberal left. It may take a village to raise a kid, but it will take more than Hilary Clinton saying so to make a village work. It takes actually getting your hands dirty with your neighbors, doing your bit.

So when I read in the Guardian that low oil prices are putting strains on OPEC and that Iran is having trouble balancing it's budget, I want our leaders to see that this is a strategic opportunity for the west and for the liberal tradition.

What we need to do with what will likely be the last few years of relatively cheap oil, is use that as the fuel to retool industry to turn out the renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment we need to wean ourselves off OPEC's oil once and for oil. It would be a good thing if we could win this green space race that the Obama team intends us to run, but I want us to win it as much to make a planet that is run by liberal democratic countries as I want us to win it to save the planet and biological and cultural diversity.

If we were really doughty and somewhat self-sacrificing, and had excellent planning and forethought, starting with energy efficiency and moving to renewables and small scale Hyperion nukes, we could control oil price from the demand side, a reverse OPEC of the western countries plus India, and Japan, possibly even China, and never let it get above $60 again, which would be a boon to our relationships with Iran, Russia, Venezuala, and to democracy everywhere.

Now that's a strategic idea.

This is our second big chance.

Recessions spell O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y to those who can think out of the box. An example would be the first New Deal and the "Good War" that replaced it as Keynesian package. Because of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, because of their great respect for freedom and the western tradition, when the dust had finally settled on the decades of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the west was undoubtedly supreme. If it had not been for Stalin, the Soviets and the western traitors that supported them, particularly Fuchs who gave them the bomb, the western project would have likely succeeded, through the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, in creating the liberal democratic world I want to live in, a world where all kinds of ignorance and mind-control, from religious totalitarianism to fascist or communist totalitarianism, in fact any kind of fundamentalism at all, would have finally been on the run.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, no-one could have foretold that this is the way it would all end in 1945. Many western thinkers were throwing their hat in one or the other totalitarian ring, throwing Bill of Rights baby out with Magna Carta bathwater in their fawning admiration for dictators.

Habeus corpus? Only a few million, courtesy of Adolf, Joe, and Chairman Mao.

Now we have another recession, but we also have another opportunity to build a world that can leave Vladi Putin, Kim Il Sung, Hugo Chavez, and a host of other tinpot threats to human dignity in our dust.

A do-over. Let's not screw it up this time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How do you clean a 30 year old Jimmy Carter solar panel?

Good question, and one we didn't have much of an answer for until Interim Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham and I figured it out today.

These are the panels that were on the White House roof between 1979 and 1987, placed there at President Carter's order as a boost for his energy policy. Unity College has had them since 1993, gained through the foresight and alacrity of former UC development director Peter Marbach, who obtained them through the federal government surplus program..

We placed 16 of them on our cafeteria roof where they remain. We have more in storage.

We had the realization several years ago that they were perhaps best used for museum donations and for PR projects for boosting renewable energy and energy efficiency. We have donated one to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library museum, loaned one to the Canadian architects' association, who sent it on a traveling display, and donated another to a museum being established by NRG Systems in Vermont, our supporters in wind assessment work.

Aaron and I were cleaning three of the stored ones prior to being shipped for another museum display soon. As you can see, they are scratched and weathered. But still usable, and clearly a major artifact in American memory despite the scratches.

We learned a little about caring for them as museum artifacts from our various loans and donations of them to other museums. But this was the first time we've been involved in the cleaning and conservation process ourselves. Aaron and I began by placing each panel on sawhorses and then gently cleaning the base. We then flipped each one and removed the rubber seal and the glass, very, very carefully, and vacuumed out the interior. We cleaned the glass both sides and then reassembled them.

After the first one taught us the various tricks, and we devised a safe and suitable technique, the rest went well. We used ordinary household cleansers, as mild as we could find that would still remove the dirt, and a good bit of ordinary elbow grease.

You can see how filthy the glass was in one of these photos.

The only serious conservation problem we found was a little corrosion around the screw holes inside the panels. Not knowing exactly what to do, I imagine that a little steel wool, followed by some of the same kind of flat black paint originally sprayed in the interior of each panel, would fix it for years to come. But that's what you would do to fix an ordinary solar panel.

What you might do about corrosion in an honest-to-goodness American presidential history artifact, we didn't know for sure. But my gut feeling was, we could clean up the surface rust with a rag and shop vac, button the whole thing up again, and wait to ask someone who does know with a fair amount of certainty that nothing terribly bad would happen in the meantime.

Which is what we did.

Still, after 30 years of not being cared for particularly well, these panels are in decent shape. A couple are broken, how we don't know. Perhaps in removal from the White House, perhaps in transit, possibly by a student experimenting. Those can be fixed by students who want a project. They won't be original, with some new parts, but they might be the ones the college keeps for itself.

Made to last, Mr. President, made to last.

Chapter 3.4 of the federal government climate science project's SAP (synthesis and assessment product) is out, the abrupt climate change chapter. These products are excellent work, and the efforts of all these agency scientists and their research university counterparts, working under an administration many of whose leaders are still hostile to climate science and indeed any kind of science, are to be lauded.

I met a few of the authors at the recent NCSE conference, and enjoyed working with them on some questions about what the essential climate education for federal land managers might be.

The SAPs gave me hope these last few years because they proved that science was still at the root of federal resource management, that there were still plenty of good science brains in the federal government, and that we would be able to pick up the pieces very quickly when the dust had finally settled on the disasterous Bush legacy on climate change.

The new report on abrupt change makes important reading because it revises the sea-level rise estimate upwards, which is good because the new estimate is high enough to begin to affect city planning and other important on-the-ground concerns (although I think the width of the estimate is still too little). And it has a prognosis for the methane feedback.

I've been amazed how many developments, even ones managed by government, there still are right on the shore. Talk about denial! I wouldn't even think about owning property below the sixty foot contour, let alone building new stuff below the ten foot one. I've seen the melting, in pictures and for myself, and I have enough imagination, and enough science, to see how easily it might accelerate.

Old King Canute is alive and well and living on America's coast, wearing rose-tinted glasses, and getting his climate news from Fox and Rush!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Shopping Helper?

I'm a lousy holiday shopper, as my partner Aimee will readily attest, one who will do anything to avoid the malls, and whose idea of haute couture is Carhartt's bib overalls, so when I was asked to review The Sunrise Guide, a Maine environmental not-for-profit coupon book, I was so gob-smacked I had to say yes, or reveal myself as a total grinch.

The book duly came in the mail. It's published by Heather Chandler Publishers, and I got nice notes from Molly Gallagher, public relations consultant for the Guide, and Heather Chandler, the president and founder of the company.

Even I had to grinchily admit it is an excellent value. It's available from various outlets, including many schools, faith organizations and non-profits, and features columns from Maine organic characters such as Russell Libbey of MOFGA right here in Unity, or Lisa Fernandez of the Portland, ME permaculture group, as well as energy saving advice from the DEP and others.

Such a deal!

Quite a bit of the book is actually an anti-consumer or at least a how-not-to-consume-as-much message. It's sponsored by Maine DEP and the State Planning Office and supports countless small charities in the state.

So why not? We're all going to spend some money this holiday season, and apart from supporting essential work in the great State o' Maine, this is also a good deal. Most folks I know have paid far more for their collection of "fifty things to do to save the planet" books.

This save-the-planet book comes with cash back! A good stocking stuffer for the shopper in your life.

Coupons abound, in the back of the book after the the fifty or so pages of self-help enviro hints, and I can't imagine anyone, except perhaps me, who couldn't get their money back in special deals. Last year's book sales raised $30,000 for good causes.

If your child doesn't bring one back from school, Boy or Girl Scouts or Sunday School, and if you don't find one at your organic grocery, you can buy one online at

What will I do with mine? Especially since I haven't actually been shopping anywhere other than my regular four suppliers, the Brooks hardware store, Home Despot, Uncle Henry's, or Reny's, in years?

Give it to herself, of course. She never reads my blog anyway, so Mr. Grinch here can tell her it was a holiday gift!

How about that for right livelihood?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Half-time break!

With some time off coming to me now the semester is over, I have in mind to do some long-postponed sustainability projects.

The first is catching up on my sleep! This last two weeks, with the lowering of our NRG wind assessment tower, a four-day conference trip, repeated Introduction to CLE map-reading finals, numerous other final projects, I've been feeling a little "wore down" as Huck Finn might say.

And that is definitely not sustainable. Teaching is a stressful occupation, and the long breaks are needed to recharge your batteries.

Then I have some farming and homesteading to do. Regular readers will know that I keep a second blog at where my partner Aimee (also a UC professor) and I post pictures and stories from our adventures on a 15 acre homestead in the deep greenwood of Jackson, ME. My main project is building a greenhouse for Aimee for a Christmas gift, but we also have seven bred (that would be "pregnant" to you city folk) ewes to care for, and a borrowed ram to return to his own farm 60 miles away.

Lambs will arrive soon enough, so we have to pay close attention to the ewe's welfare at this time of year. They get extra feed, and we make sure their water doesn't freeze and so on. Daily chores get harder to do as the snow and cold creep on. We still have to move snow, pipe or carry water, deliver feed, and move manure and bedding, even when the thermometer reads below zero in a white-out.

But when the spring finally comes, we won't miss it. We'll be right there. We live lives that are very close to nature, and thoroughly enjoy the changing seasons on our small farm.

The next is mastering the wind assessment software world. This is an indoor job. With a year's data from two separate sites, the Mt View High School site and the Kinney Farm site, I have the opportunity to create a good wind resource report for the Knox Ridge area. Problem there is, NRG only makes software that works in IBM-clone computers, and I use a Mac. No worries, the new Macs allow the evil Windows to be loaded on a segregated hard drive. For the first time, I can dink around with NRG's products in the few hours a day when I actually have time, early in the morning in my own den. Finally, I can begin to learn how to use the software. I also will be looking to find a new community wind site for my students to put up the tower and read the wind for another year. The logistics of wind assessment are formidable, and this coming year our new site might be on a Maine island, which will be beautiful, but three times as difficult to plan out.

Not sure how I feel about having Windows on my Mac, though. I'm deliberately not connecting the Microsoft partition of the hard drive to the Internet, except via the Mac partition, so as to avoid viruses. Let's hope it works.

There are lots of smaller things I want to do, like catching up on my reading. Right now I'm reading The American Future by Simon Schama. Schama, a British jew, is an interesting combination of social liberal and political libertarian, with an eye for the intricacies of the "special relationship" that I've lived out loud the 22 years I've been in this country. The book traces the recent Obama victory (how did he get it out so fast?) back through American memory to look at the peculiar mental pathways that define the roots of American freedoms. Shades of David Hackett Fisher. whose Albion's Seed is positively my favorite work of American history.

And then there's family Christmas. Most regular readers will know that Aimee comes from a German-American Church of the Brethren backgound, and her family are located in the western PA and Shenandoah Valley homelands of the Brethren, Amish and Mennonite communities. We'll travel to the Shenandoah, where we'll go to the Christmas Eve service with her immediate family, visit the Amish and Mennonite farmer's markets, loading up on "plain" food, kitchen goods, seeds, and other products not routinely available in Maine, but useful to homesteading, and visit with her extended family in the retirement community at Bridgewater College, the Brethren-run school in the town of the same name. I always enjoy touching back in with the history of the Peace Church societies in the Shenandoah. Unity itself is an old Quaker town, founded by Quakers, who helped choose it's name. The old meeting house belongs to the college now, and I use it for storage. The new meeting house is where Aimee and I were married, the first Quaker wedding in Unity since at least 1927, with a silent meeting in the old Quaker tradition.

And now the Amish are moving to Unity, Thorndike, and surrounding parts. I met their school teacher the other day. He has the same last name as the Amish family I was friends with in western Maryland. I'm glad to see them, because they feel like home. Funny how the Peace Churches always run through my life. Even when I lived in Missoula, MT, I discovered some Amish history, specifically of their involvement in WWII firefighting for the USFS. There some Amish boys even became smokejumpers during the war, as alternative service, and I made friends with one of these characters though my work with the senior center's Friday forest outings, which I ran as part of my work for Wilderness Institute, but which were paid for through a Forest Service grant.

Peace Church history weaves itself like a thread though my life. I'am also looking forward this break to reading Peter Brown and Geoff Garver's new book on economy and environment from a Quaker perspective, which I helped organize. I think it will be an important new book, and I'm excited to see how well it sells. There will also be a number of educational meetings held to discuss the book with Peace Church communities, and I may be involved. Peter gives an interview on the book at this video site here. Plain speech.

Soon enough all this relative freedom of time will come to an end, and we'll be back at college, on the starting blocks for the race to graduation in early May. The academic year, like the fall semester, always comes to an crashing, grinding end with a big last minute rush. It's never pretty. But it does always end, for which I am always grateful, just as I am now for this upcoming month of freedom.

And a new crop of UC graduates will go out into the world, hopefully to make as much of a difference, or more, than previous generations. If you want to know how successful this college is, well, you might not know, until you go to a National Park, or National Forest, or perhaps a small rural school, or an environmental summer camp, and ask around. Pretty soon you'll find one of ours. Or two, or three.

Unity graduates are everywhere and anywhere the environment needs to be protected.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

He gets it

This is Obama's pick for Secretary of the Department of Energy? Awesome. The Lawrence Berkely Lab is a world leader in green energy, but also energy efficiency, which is the best bang for the buck in the first stages of any emissions reduction campaign. Plenty of green wonks out there would rather forget about efficiency because it's too unsexy, but I've said for years that we could probably get our emissions down 50% on efficiency alone. The $6-8 grand windows and insulation and new heat system retrofit on this old farmhouse, for instance, got emissions down 80%.

I've been using the LBL product "Home Energy Saver" for years in class and in energy audits. And the Nanosolar link is spot on.

What a great pick. And pithy too. No wishy-washy New-Agey "let's just be nice to everyone" character here.

The coal and oil dinosaurs will have a serious opponent in Dr. Chu.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dire warnings

The Guardian is so far the only newspaper I've seen to publish these warnings in the same tone that scientists are issuing them. How many ordinary people are actually getting this message in the US or the UK?

Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst

As ministers and officials gather in Poznan one year ahead of the Copenhagen summit on global warming, the second part of a major series looks at the crucial issue of targets.

David Adam, The Guardian

Tuesday December 9 2008

At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert audience and contemplated a strange feeling. He wanted to be wrong. Many of those in the room who knew what he was about to say felt the same. His conclusions had already caused a stir in scientific and political circles. Even committed green campaigners said the implications left them terrified.

Anderson, an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, was about to send the gloomiest dispatch yet from the frontline of the war against climate change.

Despite the political rhetoric, the scientific warnings, the media headlines and the corporate promises, he would say, carbon emissions were soaring way out of control - far above even the bleak scenarios considered by last year's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Stern review. The battle against dangerous climate change had been lost, and the world needed to prepare for things to get very, very bad.

"As an academic I wanted to be told that it was a very good piece of work and that the conclusions were sound," Anderson said. "But as a human being I desperately wanted someone to point out a mistake, and to tell me we had got it completely wrong."

Nobody did. The cream of the UK climate science community sat in stunned silence as Anderson pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 have risen much faster than anyone thought possible, driven mainly by the coal-fuelled economic boom in the developing world. So much extra pollution is being pumped out, he said, that most of the climate targets debated by politicians and campaigners are fanciful at best, and "dangerously misguided" at worst.

Read more

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

DC wrap-up

Well, the NCSE Biodiversity conference is a wrap, at least as far as I'm concerned. The conference goes on for another day, but we have to get back so Aimee can help judge our own Unity College student conference, and so the students can participate.

Apart from a moment this morning where we all got unexpectedly separated for an hour or so, we've kept our troops in a loop, and all has gone more or less well logistically. The van driver even showed up so early to the Quaker guest house, I had to send him off for some lunch. Unheard of. I had put an spare hour in the schedule on the grounds that the van driver always shows up late, or that you get delayed by traffic or something. But it seems we may not need it.

Hopefully the students have learned something, if at least how much more there always is to learn, especially if you want to be a successful professional in this field, especially a scientist of policy wonk.

All of the faculty said they learned a lot.

For myself, I ran into some old friends and updated some knowledge, so I was glad for that.

I took some notes on hearing Tom Friedman of the NYT talk this morning. He was waxing quite lyrical on the notion that owning the best green technology (the best way to make to make "green electrons and green [fuel] molecules") would make America great and powerful again.

"ET," he calls it, for energy technology. As in IT, the last great wave.

OK. Good. I can go with that. Obviously, I'm all for green energy. That's why I studied ecological economics, climate change and climate policy, and why I help run a sustainability design and technology degree program. (Is this an "ET" program?)

But what are we going to do with that power?

That's what I want to know.

If we plan to spread freedom, democracy and economic security around the world, I'm all for it.

If all we want to do is get rich (again), well, sorry, but that's just sad.

Peter Brown and Geoff Garver's book Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, is coming out soon. It contains a much more developed program that considers the developing world and the poor.

(I was on the Quaker committees that helped organize the book and I contributed some ideas and text.)

Maybe I'd better read Friedman's book, to see if he does know what he wants to do with the power he wants us to have before I judge him.

Hot, Flat and Crowded is the name of the book.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Aimee with the whole world... on her head!

This was at the Air and Space Museum. A physics display with a globe beachball floating on air.

Very cool.

A scientist's idea of a good vacation activity

Still in DC, Aimee, Alysa, and Peter and I went to the Natural History Museum.

Aimee was big on looking at and taking pictures of evolutionary and marine biology displays. I of course was interested in human ecology and climate change.

Oetzi the Iceman is a new arrival since my last visit, several years ago.

While the ice ages exhibit, based on the GISS core results, needs to be updated for the Vostok and Epica cores.

A good time was had by all.

A Policy Wonk's Dream. Or Lobbyist's Nightmare?

The transition team has followed up on one of its promises, to open up all government consulting and lobbying to the Executive Branch, and make it transparent and archived using the Internet.

K Street in your living room! Can you imagine how disgruntled Dick Cheney's old cronies in the coal and oil lobbies will be, to have so much competition?

I'd already been involved in helping prepare two or three documents to go to the team from different organizations and even a couple of journalistic sources, particularly the one from Andy Revkin's blog at the NYT, which I thought was especially good, so I was sort of expecting this, but very pleased to see it become a reality nevertheless.

Have the transition team any idea what an awesome public policy and debate teaching tool this is?

Now, how can we get our students to leave MySpace and come and read some more substantial stuff?

Here's the Big Ten's environment proposals. Any dinosaurs who still thought that climate and energy were not the priority, read chapter 1.1.

Front and center!

And here's the front page to the whole system.

Now that's what I call change!

On the road again

Three of us Unity College faculty are leading a group of students on a filed trip to DC to the NCSE Biodiversity Conference.

These are a couple of shots of events so far. The first is of student Kelli B and Professor Alysa Remsburg on the couch at William Penn House, a Quaker guest house for groups visiting town. The Penn House is very comfortable and affordable, and has saved us a lot of money on DC hotel prices, which are upwards of $200/night, even before the inauguration.

Kelli had Greek food for the fist time last night. Quoth she, "I was nervous, but when you see the menu it all looks good."

Next up is Peter K, an infrequent poster to this blog, and well known for having no worries about eating any kind of food, and Kaylee S.

That's all for now except for this big lobster we saw at the National Aquarium, over three feet long including antennae. Why come from Maine to DC to see a lobster? I don't know, but we were impressed.

More to come. Today is museum day. Monday is day one of the conference.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

And the tower comes down

Here's a sequence of shots of our project today, which made me quite tired so I don't plan to write much. But this is our 60m NRG TallTower wind assessment system coming down after having done its job at the local high school for the last year.

A lot of roughnecking for a lively crew of Unity College students and community members.

Present were students Kiera, Cody, Paul, Jennifer, and community members Steve and Joe.

We now have all the data we need to help the high school decide whether or not a medium-large scale turbine (likely a reconditioned Vestas) will pay.

Thanks to NRG, but especially Phil Pouech and Wellie Cobden for all the good training and the equipment.

We now have several students interested in learning the wind assessment business.

Monday, December 1, 2008

From Stef at the DEP

Cut Your Carbon and Save, In Our Back Yard

Climate change is a big problem—one that is going to require big solutions. But don't let the big picture make you lose sight of all the little things that each of us can do to make a big difference. Here are three easy steps that have a big impact on emissions and our wallets and that we can all take every day: not idling, taking shorter showers and turning off unused lights and electronics.

Car Idling:

Letting your car idle for five minutes every day wastes 15 gallons of gasoline per year, costs you up to $45 (at $3/gallon), and adds an extra 293 lbs. of climate-warming carbon dioxide to the air over the course of one year. It would take roughly 34 trees to absorb carbon dioxide at that same rate. Over the next 50 years, that adds up to an extra $2,250 out of your pocket and an extra 14,650 lbs of carbon dioxide into the air!

Shorter Showers:

Cutting your shower time by three minutes each day can reduce the amount of climate-warming carbon dioxide emitted by up to 715 lbs each year (assuming you have electric hot water)! That's the same amount saved by recycling 220 pounds of waste or cutting back your driving by 750 miles. It would also save approximately 5,500 gallons of fresh water and up to $73.

Turning Off/Unplugging:

Television – Remember to turn off the lights and TV when you leave a room. Leaving the TV and a pair of lights on for an hour a day wastes about $14 worth of electricity each year and adds an extra 134 pounds of carbon dioxide to the air. In terms of greenhouse gases, that's the same as burning through two and a half propane cylinders with your home barbeque.

Lights – Remembering to turn off the lights can save a lot of energy! A single 60-watt bulb left on for one hour a day will waste over $4 worth of electricity and emit an extra 43 pounds of carbon dioxide. Make that two bulbs for two hours and you are wasting almost $18 in electricity and adding over 170 pounds of carbon dioxide to the air. In terms of greenhouse gases, that's more than burning through three propane cylinders with your home barbeque.

Computer, Monitor, Printer –Turn off and unplug your computer and accessories when you're not using them. Leaving your computer, monitor, and printer on can add up to $60 to your annual electricity bill. It also sends an extra 754 pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air each year, which is equivalent to burning off 39 gallons of gasoline. You would have to grow roughly 88 trees to absorb carbon dioxide at that rate.

Although the climate change problem is big, we can all take little steps that add up to a big difference.

The information in this column was provided by SmartPower. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Green grannies: they run in the family

The yUKe is seeing an outbreak of "Green Grannies," septuagenarian ambassadors for the environment and sustainability.

This is nothing particularly new. All my grandparents were one or the other kind of traditional home grown British greens, from the grandad who was a Kinder Trespasser, to the grandma who could knit a sweater in a week and who survived WWII by eating home-grown veggies and rabbits trapped off the moors. I suspect most Britons my age had grandparents who lived through the austerity of the 1920s to the 1950s and had lots of thrifty, handy skills.

Young Americans raised on Jon Stewart and SNL will however find the style of Barbara Warmsley, Oxfam's new green grannie, to be ludicrous and one step away from satire.

It doesn't help that she's almost my namesake. Warmsley and Womersley are considered diferrent spellings of the same British surname. We probably share a great-great-great something granparent somewhere down the line.

Oh well. No press is bad press. Enjoy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting the wind up

It's been windy down on the farm lately, enough so two nights before Thanksgiving to take some roof off our sheep barn and bring down some trees on our power line. We're second to last house on a spur line, off another spur, deep in the woods, a forgotten enclave as far as the tree trimmers seem concerned, and so we're used to short power cuts every few weeks or so, but I was still worried as my sump pump wasn't doing its job and I have several hundred dollars worth of farm-fresh meat in my freezers and this seemed a longer outage than most.

So when the linesmen showed up I was very glad to see them. This despite the fact that they showed after quite some delay, about 20 hours of no power. About half the county was without power, and our little outage was a low priority job compared to others that would have restored power to hundreds of people, not just a handful.

This logic of electrical triage we understand and appreciate, and we also are mindful of the responsibility to be self-reliant when you choose to live so deep in the deep woods.

We choose to live here. If we and other rural folk demanded the same services and amenities enjoyed by urbanites and complained every time the power went out or the snow didn't get plowed, everyone's utilities and taxes would be that much higher.

And we'd be what our students would rudely call "lame."

So when the linesmen finally showed up with chainsaws and a cherry picker truck, I was delighted, and set to, helping them clear the trees. They were all young guys, and they didn't mess around, expertly wielding chainsaws and winches and other useful implements to clear the trees. Even so, it took them about three hours to fully diagnose and fix all the ground leaks on our five-hundred yard spur, there were so many down and leaning trees. The power came on and off again several times, and we even heard the main breaker crack loudly once, like a gunshot, down on the main line, as the linesmen tried to switch the power on before they'd cleared all the trees.

All very exciting.

Luckily, electrical power, like many other energy problems, succumbs to logical trouble-shooting, and so you know that eventually, if you keep asking the right binary questions, and proceed by elimination, it will get fixed. There's a good lesson there. Reason still works! Surprise! When lots of perfectly intelligent people in academia have tried to make it go away for many, many years. But these are not people who have to fix things and keep them running. Those of us who do, love reason because it makes our lives easier.

Question: How many postmodernist and deconstructivist academics does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Because if you don't really believe in logic and reason in the first place, you'll be so busy thinking up silly notions of why the light ain't on, you'll never get around to fixing even the simplest problems.

I've been fixing things since my dad taught me the basics of my first trade, electrical wiring. Dad rewired houses, and I was his crawl space boy, expertly fitting junction boxes into tiny dirty places at the tender age of eleven. Now, a dozen skilled and semi-skilled trades later, from airplane maintenance to barn-building, I remain thoroughly appreciative of practical things and practical people.

Postmodernists never seem to actually do anything useful or practical. They depend on others for all that. And of course, if everything is relative, and there's no such thing really as wrong or right, just differing viewpoints, well, what's to stop me eating my neighbor if I get a little hungry in an emergency? Why should I have to contribute anything important to society and to community, if there's really no such thing, if it's all just a simulacrum.

Obviously, deconstructivism begins to fall down when you realize even the best deconstructivists are dependent on the ordinary con-struction trades for shelter.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Another good lesson was found in not having power for twenty-three hours, this one in ecological systems. Everything is connected to everything else, in our house, and around the planet. As with ecological systems, resilience and redundancy are key. If you don't have power, the things that still work are wood stoves, flashlights, and oil lamps. Appreciating resilience and redundancy, we have all of these. Our propane kitchen stove still works, although its oven does not. When we bought a wood stove, we opted for a practical Norskie model with a hotplate built-in. Those Norwegians appreciate the absolute value of heat. Inverters and generators are also useful things, mostly made in China these days, and we own several inverters and a good propane generator. Practical folk, the Chinese. Admirably productive and adept at engineering usefulness out of steel and plastic. And a sensible hot water tank by GE that runs on propane and still works just fine when the power goes out. Remember when America was the workshop and factory floor of the world?

Unfortunately, some folks have borrowed the genny for quite a while now, and so we were left trying to use inverters hooked up to a pick-up truck motor to run the essential systems of the house and that's where our otherwise careful preparations fell short..

These essentials, in our particular farmhouse, comprise two chest freezers, two refrigerators, a sump pump, and a well pump. The various food coolers are needed to store our farm surplus for the winter. The sump pump is needed twice a year when the ground water begins to rise in our basement. Mostly, we use it to keep the water away from the furnace and hot water tank and one of the two freezers that live in the basement. And we need to run a deep well pump to get water for humans and animals. Our eleven sheep in particular need about ten gallons a day.

If all else fails, we're just two hundred yards from a year-round creek. We wouldn't even have to carry the water, just let the sheep go. They can go get a drink and come back. They're good sheep and they would come back.

Of course, even with all this resilience and redundancy, things never go quite as well as you want. I managed to burn up the larger of our two inverters trying to get it to run the well pump, which had I thought about it, I would have known would happen, that pump drawing about twice as much power as the inverter could supply. I was more careful with the other one after that. We gave up trying to get the well pump to run and used rainwater collected in pools here and there for the animals.

Other than that, all went well and we even enjoyed our electrical hiatus. We heated with the wood stove, shutting down the heat systems that needed power. We cooked on the wood stove and the propane burners and used flashlights and oil lamps for light. We were able to stay warm and fed and to properly water and feed all our animals. We missed our TV a little, but instead made conversation and read books. It was actually quite pleasant at times.

Still, I know now I need to be more forceful about getting that generator back. It's silly to be the owner of a 1500 watt generator, if you can't use it when you need to. I would have been much happier about it all if I could have used the genny to run the sump pump to clear the water from the basement and to run the well pump.

This was a good test, and we were not unprepared. A passing grade. We have a thing or two to tinker with, to be even readier for the next emergency.

So much for the Womerlippis. How resilient is the rest of society? And how redundant are our systems for food, water, shelter, energy, health care and emergency services? Because we are for sure going to need them more and more these next few decades.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Barn-building done for the winter

Student Kiera Shepherd tries a fairly advanced cut with a power saw, making a tenon joint.

I started to realize that although the title of this blog is purportedly "Sustainability Activities at Unity College," precious few student activities have been reported this semester.

There's two reasons for that. The first is that more and more other professors have been adding hands-on sustainability activities to classroom instruction and to co-curricular projects. Examples range from Nancy Ross's work with local hunger activism, to Aimee Phillippi's recent local foods class, to Doug Fox's efforts with the student weatherization teams. Some of these folks post articles on their own blogs or web pages, or there are many college news articles, but they haven't been making it onto these pages, an omission I'd like to begin to fix.

The other is that my own efforts at classroom integration of hands-on sustainability projects have been dominated this semester by the barn project, which has it's own blog right here. I've been spending durn near all my non-teaching time, 15-20 hours each week, with students building our own and other folk's barns, and the efforts have been recorded on that blog, not this. As a consequence, our usual work with wind turbines, solar panels, other hands-on stuff has gone by the wayside.

Working on our new barn has been fun for our class. We didn't get to finish it because we needed a permit from the Maine DEP. Instead we have it prefabricated in frame sections and bents, and stored in a shed for the winter. I'll most likely finish it next fall with a new class. But we helped build barns at MOFGA, the local Alpaca farm, and we remodeled the existing Unity College livestock facility to improve it's winter functioning, to make up for not finishing the new barn. We worked on four different buildings, with students seeing all the diferrent stages of basic construction.

Here's some good shots of students at work earlier this fall. Our project for the day was a bit of trial and error to see which sizes for mortise and tenons fit best to make a solid brace. In these shots we were working on perfecting the tenon.

Measure twice, cut once

Amber and the framing saw

Trey, Pat and myself work on a knotty problem in construction

Monday, November 24, 2008

Who is Justinian?

There's another proposal to President-elect Obama on how to combat climate change. This one is interlaced with detailed tech specs that suggest a high caliber wonkishness combined with good common sense. The overall effect is not unlike the seven-wedge stabilization system given by Holdren at the Kennedy School, but the technical detail is much greater. The document is signed "Justinian," a neo classical reference.

During the Revolutionary war era, pamphleteers and publishers of radical opinion often used neo-classical noms de plume that had hidden or allegorical meaning but protected identity. An example was Cincinnatus, commemorating the soldier who entered civil life after retirement, for whom an important civil society, as well as a city were eventually named, both heavily involved in the first recognizable phase of manifest destiny as former revolutionary soldiers settled the Ohio valley.

So why Justinian? Apparently the authors intend to reveal themselves at some point, so we'll find out, but a little bloggish speculation never hurt. And by remaining incognito, they invite it.

Justinian was the rather academic ruler who tried to revive Rome during the dark ages, supervising the reconquest of the western lands around the Mediterranean previously part of empire. He also completely revised the Roman law code, bringing it up-to-date and making it more reasonable for the various "barbarians" who had inherited the physical trappings of empire.

Being obviously descended from one or two such groups of so-called barbarians, various Teutons and Celts, I have a certain sympathy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hansen to Obama: Get on with it

Jim Hansen has a new missive -- actually, missile would be more correct, given his propensity for forceful debate -- on climate change. This one is directed to President-elect Obama. You can get to it through Andy Revkin's blog.

I like Hansen. He just says his piece, doesn't mess around worrying about hurting people's feelings.

A climate Cromwell.

We British have a long tradition of forceful debate. We regularly throw off forceful characters like Cromwell, Wilberforce, or Churchill, extreme characters, full of vision and flaw, whose ability to imagine futures good and bad is translated into emotive argument for the good, yet whose vision is usually before their time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Signs of intelligent life

The National Intelligence Council has published a new Global Trends Review. It makes for interesting reading. The Guardian published a "book review" article as their lead this morning, and I was able to download the whole thing.

Mostly, I was interested in the inclusion of climate change and oil depletion as two important drivers of system changes. But I was also fascinated by the scenario-spinning the various "intel" wonks do in this document.

Unity College is in the middle of a trends-scanning process right now, as prelude to an academic overhaul, long overdue. Change at our small college has been accretionary for a long time, and we have some fairly unwieldy bits of curriculum attached in somewhat random fashion here and there.

This is no great crime in the world of academia. Most colleges and universities suffer from much of the same: a natural result of well-meaning efforts to be inclusive, universal, and liberal (in the sense of the liberal arts and sciences). We've long known we needed to cut some of it out and pare down, so a team of professors is consulting widely internally and externally.

What the NIC brief shows that is relevant to our process is that environmental concerns are now considered important in the overall international system. They always really were important, of course. After all, where does water, food, fuel, and shelter come from, except the environment?

But for many years it's been considered perfectly reasonable for even the smartest analysts of public affairs to ignore them. Business and security were the main concerns for serious people, and environmental issues could be shunted off to the side for treehuggers and hippies.

Well, try doing business and staying secure without a well-functioning environment.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Test your knowledge: Climate and Energy

These are the multiple choice questions on today's exam in Environmental Sustainability, sections 1 and 2, a junior general education class in the human environmental prospect, including climate change, in which one gened outcome is that students learn and apply quantitative reasoning, hence the math and stats questions applied to climate:

(There are also comprehension and essay sections)

1) The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report defines that the likelihood that a greater area of earth’s surface will be affected by drought in the 21st century as “likely,” meaning that there is a…
a) >99% probability of occurrence
b) 90-99% probability of occurrence
c) 66 to 90% probability of occurrence
d) Likely probability of occurrence

2) According to your instructor, what does the R-squared statistic represent?
a) The slope of the line
b) The probability that the alternate hypothesis is incorrect
c) The proof the experiment is correct
d) In a regression analysis, the amount of change in variable y that can be explained by change in variable x

3) Which of the following might we learn from both dendro-chronology AND pack-rat nest data?
a) The chemical composition of the atmosphere in the past
b) Ecological effects of climate change in specific regions
c) Information relating to past drought and rainfall levels
d) Two of the above
e) All of the above

4) What, according to the instructor, and Professor Kerry Emmanuel of MIT, is the measured effect of climate change on hurricanes so far?
a) There has been an increase in hurricanes
b) There has been an increase in the total energy of hurricanes
c) No change has been measured
d) 66 to 90% probability of occurrence

5) Which of the following dynamic systems are not likely to “go” into a mode of exponential change?
a) Carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere
b) Loan principle when the interest rate is 0.0% and payment is delayed
c) The polar albedo/AAT relationship
d) Two of the above

6) What results from polar albedo reduction
a) Increased oil depletion
b) Reduction of Arctic and Antarctic ice extent
c) Warming land and ocean in the Arctic and Antarctic
d) Two of the above, in a positive feedback system
e) Two of the above, in a homeostatic feedback system

7) NERA stands for
a) Never endure rotten academics
b) New England Regional Average
c) New England Revised Average
d) New England Regional Assessment

8) What is the exact meaning or interpretation of the slope m in a linear regression model of the form C = mY + b used to estimate the rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere over time, where C is carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million, and Y is time in units of years from 1959 - 2008
a) The rate of temperature increase
b) The exponential growth function
c) The average increase in carbon dioxide concentration per year
d) Two of the above

9) Solar photovoltaic power is…
a) Expensive
b) Best placed in desert or other locations with high insolation
c) One of several options for climate mitigation, with pros and cons
d) Lousy in Maine, so you should never try it
e) Three of the above

10) Show and label, the basic form of the Hubbert Peak

c, d, d, b, b, d, d, c, d,

And the Hubbert Peak is a bell or normal curve

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Denial "no longer an acceptable response"

Churchill said that the night after Pearl Harbor he slept like a baby, because he knew that the US and Britain were finally united against Germany and Japan.

I've been sleeping a lot better lately. I still occasionally wake up thinking about arctic methane and methane hydrate. But months ago I realized that, although an Obama presidency wasn't inevitable then, action on climate change was.

This is just the seal on that promise.

Now what do we need to do?

Other than cap and trade, the speech is short on means. What we could use now is a massive national education effort on stabilization wedges. There are several versions of the wedge theory, each with different emphasis.

I like John Holdren's (of the Kennedy School and Woods Hole) version because it's more universal and embodies a better understanding of feedbacks from soils and forests:

Seven stabilization wedges:

Energy efficiency
Methane management
Decarbonized electricity
Decarbonized fuels
Decarbonized transportation (electric cars, etc)
Forests and soils

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blue stain blues

Back when I lived in Montana, environmentalists friends would build houses and remodel with "bluestain" pine because it was beautiful to look at, and only available from small scale local mills. Now the mountain pine beetle epidemic has increased its availability by perhaps one or two orders of magnitude. This NYT article and accompanying video clip is excellent coverage of the problem.

This is just one of the first of the great landscape transformations that will accompany climate change. Embedded in the article we see what will become to be seen as the canonical and characteristic elements of a human systems problem in climate ecology:

1) exponential change, due to positive feedback loops intrinsic to the system;

2) inability of some people to anticipate change or adapt to it, particularly evidenced by the surprise and dismay of some community members who expected either no change or only linear change, not exponential change;

3) the much better adaptability of some others, including the ability to re-organize systems of value around what is really important;

4) tipping points that harbor potentially much greater danger, in this case from catastrophic wildfire;

5) the notion of "assisted migration," in this case by planting other species not affected by pine to provide seed trees for forest biodiversity;

6) the connections, sometimes including positive or accelerating feedback loops, of the local or regional subsystem to the greater global climate system. In this case the dying forests contribute more carbon to the atmosphere than live ones, accelerating change, and wildfire is one potential method for the carbon to be released.

Monday, November 17, 2008

From Stef at the DEP

Compact Fluorescent Lamps In Our Back Yard

Been thinking about changing some of your lights to compact fluorescent lamps? Worried about what to do if they break? This edition of In Our Back Yard explains the benefits of fluorescents and how they have to be handled just a little bit differently than the standard, incandescent lamps you are used to.

Energy Savings

Only 10% of the energy consumed by an incandescent light bulb is in the form of light. The rest is wasted as heat. By contrast, fluorescent lamps use 75% less energy to produce the same amount of light. So fluorescent lamps offer huge energy and financial savings.

According to the US Department of Energy, if we all switched our five most-highly used light bulbs to compact fluorescents, we would save enough electricity to shut down 21 power plants—about 800 billion kilowatt-hours. That means a lot less carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides going into the air and causing problems like climate change, acid rain, and ozone. Not to mention the money we would save on our monthly electric bills. Try Efficiency Maine's website at and click on the "Savings Calculator" under their "Residential Program" to see how much you might save. This website will also tell you about the ENERGY STAR® Residential Lighting Program.

Proper recycling of fluorescent bulbs

Do not throw fluorescent light bulbs in the trash. Maine law does not allow fluorescent bulbs, including CFLs, to be disposed of in the trash because they contain a small amount of mercury. And it's easy to recycle them for free in Maine. Check out recycling options at the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) website and click on "Fluorescent light bulb information". You can recycle intact bulbs at any of more than 200 participating retail stores or where your municipality has made arrangements. (There may be a small charge for recycling the bulb at a municipal recycling facility.)

What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The next time you replace a lamp, consider putting a drop cloth on the floor while you replace the lamp so that any accidental breakage can be easily cleaned up. If there are very young children in your home or other sensitive populations, avoid the use of CFLs in area where they could be easily broken or in kids' bedrooms. Also get detailed instructions now, before you break a lamp. You can get these instructions from the DEP by clicking on "Fluorescent light bulb information" on the DEP website , or by calling 1-800-287-1942.

Do not use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the breakage. This will spread the mercury vapor and dust throughout the area and could potentially contaminate the vacuum. Ventilate the area well by opening windows, and leave the area for 15 minutes before returning to begin the cleanup. Mercury vapor levels will be lower by then. Continue ventilating the room for several hours after the cleanup.

A little extra care will go a long way in preventing the nuisance of cleaning up a broken lamp.

This column was submitted by Maine Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

NYT Exxon-erates

The Times has a revealing feature article on Exxon today. Titled "Green is for Sissies," it will be read by very few folks in the sustainability field, although all of us have a major stake in what this oil industry leader thinks and does. But while many of my colleagues in the sustainability discipline and movement are capable of serious, disciplined and self-honest analysis, they remain a minority. Wishful thinking, wooly-mindedness, and New-Agey wishy-washyness is the norm. The current version of which seems to be, "Barrack will save us," or "wait until after January 20." This article would suggest to any serious person how much more difficult, controversial, and a consequence of serious analysis, our salvation will actually be.

Or, as the famous general allegedly said, when the going gets tough, they send for the sonsabitches.

Don't get me wrong. I could happily be an Obama ditto-head. I can't wait for a serious federal energy policy, and a cap and trade bill or carbon tax, preferably both.

But at the same time, I want to know what the overall objective trends are, trends that even the sainted Obama almost certainly cannot control. And I'm not talking about the Dow Industrials.

Examples of important trends I like to watch:
Atmospheric methane concentration
Atmospheric CO2
Proven oil reserves
Share of global oil and gas production owned by national governments hostile to US and UK
Mindset of US industry leaders too big to fear the upcoming Democratic majority very much
Advances in renewable technology likely to affect prices of renewable energy
Latest science on sea level rise and stability of major ice sheets

The Exxon feature informs number six on my list. I watch them like a hawk. This huge company almost single-handedly distorted US public opinion on climate change for an entire decade. The average US citizen still has very little information about climate change or climate policy. Despite the fact that the US is the leading nation in the climate science effort, including most of the now-Nobelite authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the average Joe or Jane in this country remains more or less completely ignorant of even the simplest understanding of climate basics. Thanks in large part to Exxon-Mobil.

But Exxon conspicuously bailed out of the climate denial business last year. Not that all is forgiven, but the new fact is that the lingering US ignorance in climate affairs is now mostly a factor of a) the poor education system and general all-round lack of science understanding in this country, b) the scurrilous and superficial media system, and c) general disinterest, especially when 401Ks are plunging all around the nation.

Even though drought, wildfire, extreme weather, and growing seasons are already dramatically affected all around the country, most Americans, it seems, could care less.

So what does Exxon itself currently think about energy and climate? Although there were some welcome fig-leafs to reducing emissions, the real money sentences in the Times article were these:

"According to Exxon’s own outlook, global oil demand is set to reach 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up sharply from 86 million barrels a day today.

Meanwhile, renewable fuels, like solar, wind and biofuels, will grow at a brisk pace but they will account for just 2 percent of the world’s energy supplies by then, according to Exxon, while oil, gas and coal will represent 80 percent of global energy needs by 2030."

In other words, Exxon believes that global demand for oil and gas will a) continue to grow as developing nations develop, and b) be actually capable of being met by pumping and drilling more oil, while c) deployment of renewables will be dwarfed by the continued growth in demand for the convenience embodied in liquid and gaseous fossil fuel.

Oh boy.

While what I think is going to happen over the next two-three decades is that we will either,

a) realize the terribly dangerous path we are on, to a pace of climate change capable, more or less, of ending civilization. In which case we will surely be looking to reduce oil demand and thus consumption quite dramatically. If Obama can help Americans achieve this understanding, he will as far as I'm concerned, be eligible for the sainthood.


b), we won't realize anything of the sort, and toddle merrily off into the abyss.

What's the abyss? There are options:

1) Rapidly accelerating methane is one. We have, essentially, no idea what might happen to us if the northern methane reservoirs represented by Alaskan and Siberian soils and sediments, and undersea gas hydrates, decide to become unstable. Since they clearly are showing such signs, we are teetering on the edge right now, but few of us realize it.

2) Growth of CO2 concentration at or above the current rate of 2.2 ppm per year is another. This is just the more or less mundane climate change the IPCC expects and was set up to deal with. Since we're already on a path to a global AAT rise of around 6 degrees Celsius, this Business As Usual scenario is worrying enough. Perfectly capable of the total destruction of civilization, but more moderately so. A hundred years instead of ten. (This possibility, to me, is actually kind of soothing at this stage in my intellectual and emotional development regarding climate change.)

3) Collapse of the Greenland and/or West Antarctic Ice Sheets, exacerbated by either 1) or 2) above is another. Luckily, at an altitude of 500 feet in the Maine hinterlands, I live on a future island. Does Irving, TX, home of Exxon-Mobil?

Most likely? Number 2). But the possibility of either 1) or 3), or both, increases with each ppm/year of CO2.

What is eerie about the different perspective between my trend-watching and that represented by the NYT article is that presumably the author, and the Exxon analysts whose views he represents, are intelligent people fully capable of grasping what the climate science means. Perhaps they're even aware of it. Possibly they even read the IPCC FAR, or Jim Hansen's recent paper on the proper safe level for CO2 in the atmosphere.

But still they think that 116 million barrels a day is both possible and even desirable, and that it wouldn't matter very much if the best we could achieve for renewables by 2030 is 2%!

I can't for the life of me imagine why, and how, any intelligent person can possibly still think this way. How can my reality, as a more or less middle-class, relatively conformist academic, be so far removed from theirs at this juncture?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Poor day for a wind turbine party

Today was the day our local wind development company held an open house at their new development of Freedom Ridge.

Not the greatest weather. But there was sufficient wind that these GE 1.5 MW turbines were spinning well enough.

The turbines were controversial within the Freedom community, and I wanted to hear how noisy they really were. You could hear them quite clearly at about 200 meters. I imagine that you can hear them from further away. There are definitely houses well within earshot.

The same company wishes to develop a site in my own town of Jackson, which was one reason they held the open house. Generally, the Jackson site is further from housing, although I'd have to see a map of the proposed installation to be sure.

1.5 MW/hour is enough to power about 1500 houses.

That about sums up the trade-offs. But for more, see a few posts back.