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.

Regeneration retrospective

Picture: The head of Glen Alladale. The trees in the snow in the background constitute the most northerly remnant of Caledonian Pine forest in Scotland, and are the subject of a major conservation effort by the Alladale estate.

In 1985 and 1986, on a path to recovering mentally and socially from nearly seven years military service, I lived a year at the Findhorn Community in Scotland, and became involved in the meetings of a start-up forest conservation group called Trees for Life. I soon tired of one or two of the personalities involved and instead reached out to the more pragmatic Reforesting Scotland, which I have to say is probably my favorite all-time conservation group for its ethos of indigneous forest regeneration combined with democratic and affordable rural lifestyles. Many years later, I wrote a history of conservation and sustainable development in the Highlands and Islands for my MS thesis, and was lucky enough to be given financial support from the University of Montana and Japanese industrial sustainability advocate Akira Yamaguchi, to revisit on long research trips. And just recently, Aimee and I were sponsored by Unity College to take another research trip, this time to the Alladale Estate run by eccentric millionaire Paul Lister, another regeneration effort.

All these groups, and several others not mentioned, not least the official government agency the Forestry Commission, are important for their contributions to reforesting the Highland landscape. A Scots pine forest spreading slowly across a heather moorland is a great sight to see, speaking both ecologically and in terms of conservation. I recommend it. But the birch and sessile oak and rowan and other hardwoods deserve attention too.

This new travel article by the Guardian details the remarkable success of Trees for Life in connecting the east and west coasts of the Highland landmass with regeneration.

What an inspiration for others in taking the long view! And what a personal delight to have tracked this effort all these years and watched it grow. All in all, I think I've done a pretty good job of staying in touch with Highland forest conservation and regeneration. I hope to put these contacts and knowledge to good use soon with a spring break trip for Unity students, possibly in 2010. Why not sooner? Aimee has a trip to Nicaragua scheduled for this year, and someone has to feed the sheep!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Finally, land managers paying attention...

... to climate change, that is. A notoriously conservative profession, rangeland and forest managers are finally getting serious and provocative articles on the effects of climate change in their journals. The most recent edition of Wildlife Professional was devoted entirely to the subject, and a particularly well-written and evocative article has appeared in Range Management (reviewed here with links to the original by Revkin of the NYT).

The Society of American Foresters, an organization to which I am entitled to belong by virtue of my forestry school MS, has just held it's annual conference, this year dubbed Forestry in a Climate of Change.

About time. But even at little Unity College, now acknowledged as one of the nation's leading schools in the teaching of climate change and climate mitigation, while bright young liberal studies students virtually inhale science and policy news about climate change, even some of our best land management students still sit sullenly at the back of class with their baseball hats pulled over their faces. Generally they're waiting to jump in their V-8 pick-up trucks and head to the woods.

(It is hunting season after all, so maybe I'm being too harsh.)

So there will need to be quite a bit more work done yet before the profession of land management finally as a whole realizes that, literally, the planet's ecology is shifting under its feet.

Funnily enough, it was at the Forestry School where I got my first introduction to climate science, in the early, heady days of 1994. There was a corner of one floor of the seven-story University of Montana forest science building reserved for a lab funded by NASA, where a tiny team of select, and very geeky, graduate students and professors implemented a recently devised technology in remote sensing by satellites to study what they called Leaf Area Index, an indicator of the changing seasons around the globe, but also correlated with the effectiveness of carbon sinks. I spent a happy-enough semester taking an advanced class there as part of my senior year in biology, before starting the MS.

(Here's a link to an essay by Dr. Steve Running, the leader of the UMT remote sensing program, and my climate science professor that semester, that I found amusing, mostly because I have students in each of his Five Stages of Climate Grief in class right now.)

Of course, the rest of the foresters studiously avoided that corner. For good reason. It was an easy trip to academic, cultural and sex-role humiliation. There were always computers humming, the math was advanced, many of the graduate students were suspiciously foreign or female, and there was only the slightest prospect of a field trip. There were far more of us geeky biologists, and many environmental studies students (who still couldn't do the math needed to finish the class), than there were foresters. The idea that Montana forest science would soon be turned on it's head by this motley crew was barely considered by anyone, especially the Republican, Mormon Dean of the Forestry School himself.

(I told you it was a conservative profession.)

Now Running is, officially, a Nobel Laureate.

And, ironically, part of my job is to find ways to get our eastern state land management students interested in this material so they can begin to be prepared for what will await them in the field at their first stations.

Plus ├ža change

Still, the UMT forestry students were more believable outdoors-men than some of our guys. They had cowboy hats, not baseball caps. And they hunted elk, not whitetail.

Ungulate envy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Wind turbine advice

Grainy picture of local turbines at dawn.

This was a note to a former student involved in the Great Maine Wind Turbine Controversy:

Dear Mick:
Up until now, a bulk of what I've been reading in regards to industrial wind power has been very negative, by and large. Could you recommend to me some websites, journal articles, reports, and other resources that speak of the pros and even un-biased facts about this development? I truly want to be thoroughly educated in all aspects of this topic and do not want to be tempted to take one side or the other without solid knowledge.

Dear XXXX:

Of the various options to provide energy that would reduce climate emissions, wind power is currently the most cost-effective, coming in at between 2 and 6 cents per installed watt, compared to upwards of 20 cents for solar, 10 cents for nuclear, and so on.

There are few renewable energy options that offer as good an economic return for communities and corporations. Because of their good economics, private finance is interested in them, hence the developer's interest, but they also will help keep electricity prices down for ordinary people, compared to other sources of power, assuming fair competition and regulation in power generation.

So they are beneficial to owners of stocks and shares in energy companies, which are, like all stocks, often owned by ordinary people through pension funds, etc, they provide jobs in wind development corporations and maintenance contractors, although these are mostly specialized engineering, development, and finance jobs, and they can help keep electricity prices from rising as fast as other energy prices.

Local jurisdictions can benefit from taxes, and landowners benefit from lease payments.

Wind power also helps meet state and federal goals for energy independence. The current war in Iraq, for instance, which costs taxpayers an awful lot, and requires a lot of death and destruction, is at least partly over oil, and might not be so likely to be repeated if we develop our national wind power resources, as well as other clean, independent energy.

(There are many different kinds of ugliness in the world.)

I can recommend a good book on wind power control and development that covers all of this quite well. I have it in my office, and you can take a look at it when you come.

Then there are the ecological benefits.

Most climate scientists expect that to abate dangerous climate change of 2 or more degrees Celsius in the next 100 years, we need to reduce emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Wind power is one part of the possible mix. Climate change by itself doesn't make a good argument for any specific form of clean energy. There are lots of others to choose from, including efficiency and conservation. But the European countries, who are ahead of us in reducing emissions, have generally found wind power helpful and inexpensive so far.

I have a couple of very up-to-date science books on climate change that make this clear.

The consensus prediction for New England, from the New England Regional Assessment (NERA) which can be googled and downloaded easily enough, is that our our region will experience a 3-6 degree Celsius increase in average annual temperature, giving us roughly the climate of Virginia (3 degrees) or Georgia (6 degrees). This kind of rapid warming will destroy forest ecology, make farming initially quite difficult, force wildlife to migrate, and generally overturn most efforts at conservation. That's without taking the likelihood of damage to houses and other infrastructure from increased extreme weather such as floods, hurricanes and windstorms into account, or sea level rise.

Like I said, this resource (the NERA) is available on line, as is the IPCC 2007 report. Both are scientifically moderate documents, and well supported by the evidence.

So generally although a lot of people find them ugly, and think of them as damaging to wildlife, many people do benefit from wind turbines, and scientists who keep up with climate change news see them as one possible form of energy generation that would help mitigate and thus avoid climate change.

(There are plenty of scientists, and conservationists, who don't really understand how severe the climate change worries are. Those, like me who have up to date training, tend to see stopping climate change as an overriding priority for all conservation.)

On the down side, there are documented effects on birds. I have a copy of a book with some of the latest research, which again you can study when you come. Bats may actually suffer more than birds, according to new research in Europe. And there are effects on humans. They can be noisy, they can create discomfort through noise or reverberation at very low frequency, and they are considered unsightly by many, although not all. I also can help connect you with the deliberations and documentation of the federal-level USFWS Wind Advisory Taskforce, which is quite relevant as other communities are experiencing similar qualms.

Wind turbines are also new to Maine and we don't know how to best control their development, or how to tax them for the benefit of local jurisdictions. The experience of locals in Freedom, for instance, seems from my vantage point to have been largely negative. The turbines used may have been noisier than promised, the company doesn't seem to have done a great job of education or outreach, to say the least, there were accusations of unfair dealing, and the town itself may not quite have known how to cope well with the strong feelings that developed.

A more rational approach, it seems to me, would emphasize stricter performance standards and deeper setbacks to houses and abutting properties, would anticipate skyline and viewshed effects carefully, specify public disclosures needed from corporations wishing to develop sites, such as the specific equipment to be used and its specified noise and other characteristics, would allow for a stronger say by the community and by abutting landowners, would look for a much more structured and deliberative process in town meeting, and would plan to tax turbines, output, and site leases carefully (not just the capital value of the equipment). Writing town ordinances to do all this that would survive court and even constitutional challenge is a specialized business.

Turbines can also be owned by communities instead of for-profit corporations. That is what we're aiming for with our Mt View High School project, in which, if we're successful, the school will benefit from much cheaper energy, freeing money from the budget for education. there will also be a turbine available for high school and vo-tech education purposes, making it more likely that local people get hired to do installations and maintenance of future turbines.

So, I apologize if this all seems too even-handed and rational. (But this is exactly the sort of thing that a policy PhD is likely to suggest -- it's what we do.)

But a balanced approach is really the only one available. As I believe XXXX has already realized, even were a group to try some kind of more aggressive action, say a blanket ban, they would be unlikely to succeed in any case, largely because the property rights are all on the side of the landowners and development companies. Development restrictions for any kind of development (think how widespread are suburbs and sprawl) are problematic in the courts.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mini nukes: Blink and you'd miss it

One of the strange consequences of teaching climate change and energy at the general education level is how much time and attention it takes to keep up with the latest climate science and energy tech. I've already commented elsewhere in this blog about how policy ideas in climate change mitigation and abatement are rapidly made obsolete by either new climate science, or new energy technology. This article, a bit of a teaser, is a prime example. It suggests that prefabricated small scale nuclear power plants will soon be mass-produced and available for delivery to firms and communities all over the world. Presumably the service "package" also includes waste processing and treatment, although, because few details are provided, I'm going to have to do some digging to find out what the government researchers, and the commercial firm that is getting the technology, has in mind.

Most environmentalists would run a mile before embracing any kind of nuclear technology, so this is going to be a hard sell. But for those of us who have looked the potential horrors of abrupt climate change right in the face, this might be a partial solution to some hard "techy" questions about providing the right energy mix. In particular, although renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, wave, and biomass seem very likely to be cheaper and less polluting than fossil fuels, there's still the "base load" problem to solve.

Take wind turbines, for instance. These are more reliable than you would guess. Most people don't know that a good wind power site can produce electricity 70-90% of the time. But there are still lulls, calm periods in which no power can be generated. This is a problem because electrical power demand is regular and diurnal, with a daily double peak in the mornings and evenings, and a constant base. Redundant wind capacity is only a partial solution. Some suggest that, particularly with the new giant 500m and 700m super-turbines in more or less permanently windy offshore sites, we can get upwards of 30% of our power from the wind. The Danish island of Samso is generally held up as an example of the feasibility of this. But more likely, we will be held to a more conservative theoretical maximum supply projection of 20% wind power. That leaves 80% to be provided by some other form of electricity generation.

Likewise, solar power only works when the sun is shining. Some applications, like electrical lighting, are needed when the sun is definitely not shining. In off-grid installations, lead acid batteries are used, an ancient and potentially polluting technology, to store power overnight. Battery cost is prohibitive, large scale use within grid tie systems as decentralized storage would require a massive increase in industrial scale battery production and recycling, as well as a lot of regular maintenance at the house, and so most solar power installers recommend grid-tie systems instead of batteries. In the event of large scale adoption of household solar, or indeed any kind of renewable household energy production, this lack of storage contributes to the base load problem in designing and managing local and regional grids, making it worse, not better, in most cases, and is one reason why power companies such as Central Maine Power are not really looking forward to the day when solar panels, or household-scale wind turbines, become cheaply and mass-produced for household installation.

It would also be nice if we could make the grid itself more resilient and secure on a regional basis, avoiding disasters such as the massive supra-regional power blackout of a few years ago that caused so many problems and recriminations. Any "hardening" of power generation in case of attack or natural disaster would also be a boon.

Right now, base load for our part of the world is primarily coal from southern New England states with our own Maine hydropower, waste incineration, and biomass. Peak load "topping off" is provided by oil, or small to medium scale natural gas, or hydro. Natural gas is actually a nice peak load technology because of the speed with which a natural gas plant can be fired up and on-line. Hydropower can be used for either peak or base, although peak load usage requires more substantial reliance on storage than in-stream flow, and thus requires more changing of reservoir levels. Coal-fired power production, currently the favorite, and cheapest base load technology, is probably the largest single contributer to climate change.

So any technology that is capable of providing decentralized base load power relatively cleanly is interesting as a necessary complement to clean household-scale energy generation. A local or regional base-load system such as the small nuclear plants suggested in this article would actually make current household solar and wind power technology more viable. It would also make offshore wind more viable.

I don't expect very many environmentalists would see things quite this way, though!

Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes

£13m shed-size reactors will be delivered by lorry

Jon Vidal and Nick Rosen, for The Observer

Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb.

The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years. 'Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,' said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. 'They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $250 per home.'

Deal claims to have more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries, but says the company is also targeting developing countries and isolated communities. 'It's leapfrog technology,' he said.

The company plans to set up three factories to produce 4,000 plants between 2013 and 2023. 'We already have a pipeline for 100 reactors, and we are taking our time to tool up to mass-produce this reactor.'

The first confirmed order came from TES, a Czech infrastructure company specialising in water plants and power plants. 'They ordered six units and optioned a further 12. We are very sure of their capability to purchase,' said Deal. The first one, he said, would be installed in Romania. 'We now have a six-year waiting list. We are in talks with developers in the Cayman Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.'

The reactors, only a few metres in diameter, will be delivered on the back of a lorry to be buried underground. They must be refuelled every 7 to 10 years. Because the reactor is based on a 50-year-old design that has proved safe for students to use, few countries are expected to object to plants on their territory. An application to build the plants will be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year.

'You could never have a Chernobyl-type event - there are no moving parts,' said Deal. 'You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it's too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.'

Other companies are known to be designing micro-reactors. Toshiba has been testing 200KW reactors measuring roughly six metres by two metres. Designed to fuel smaller numbers of homes for longer, they could power a single building for up to 40 years.

Friday, November 7, 2008


Below is an excerpt from the Office of the President-Elect web page, detailing what is to be part of the education policy. Presumably this service program in the case of colleges will be linked to financial aid, otherwise I don't see how it can be enforced.

This is actually a suggestion I made in a policy paper several years ago, although I don't know whether or not my ideas have anything to do with the proposed policy. I do know that Bill Galston of Brookings, one of two correspondents I debated in the original paper, is influential in Democratic and possibly therefore Obamite education policy circles.

Even if it isn't my sole or original idea, it's nice to see it up there so quickly.

Here's the paper:

And here's the President-elect's web-page statement:

America Serves

"When you choose to serve -- whether it's your nation, your community or simply your neighborhood -- you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That's why it's called the American dream."

The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

My suggestions to Obama

The flurry of blogs and other interactive media offering suggestions to the transistion team is impressive, and presumably has only just begun. One consequence of the Internet Age is that interactive media can give ordinary people the impression that they are participating in all kinds of conversations from which they might have been completely excluded in past decades.

In some cases, the impression is actually correct.

I like some of the big environmental news blogs, particularly the Guardian's Comment is Free, where I've been able to respond and interact with important thinkers in Britain, and received some nice emails and comments in return. The other I like is Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog at the NYT.

I generally have a low opinion of the Times, especially since I got publicly dissed by Matthew Wald, their transport guru, for my suggestion in a conference presentation that depletion modeling and reserve numbers indicated that oil would soon become very expensive, possibly upwards of $100/bbl. This was in 2006.

How do you like that prediction now, Matty?

But Revkin is more sensible. His latest column asks for suggestions to Obama on how to handle planetary environmental problems. He got a hundred and fifty responses already.

Here's my answer:


The main problem we have is that our economic system requires perpetual growth, to pay the "growth dividend" that both national pension plans and stock portfolios require. But our planet can't survive the onslaught much longer. This isn't opinion. It's scientific fact.

Obama and his team probably will be the first presidential administration in history intellectually capable of realizing this. But even they will be afraid to do what needs to be done, because the American people do not understand this situation.

They will need to be educated. A major effort to improve science and particularly sustainability education at the school and general college level in this specific area will be needed before Americans will accept limits on growth for the sake of the environment. That should start right away.

Then another effort will be needed to determine what kind of economy, and what economic theory, will guide us in a world where physical growth of the economy is first slowed then curtailed, but where qualitative development is still needed for the sake of the poor (and even the overworked middle and upper middle classes). The work of Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland, and other ecological economists, has pioneered the field, but there's a long way to go between theory and practice.

It will be many years before my first and second suggestions begin to bear fruit. In the meantime, although most Americans do not yet understand why restraints on physical economic growth are needed, they can probably understand restraint on population growth. Programs in international aid that stress population control, education, and careful development, some (not all) of which were suspended by the Bush Administration, need to be reinvigorated (I give Bush credit for work in AIDs and a few other areas of AID). And they can also already begin to understand that we need to avoid the terrifying specter of climate destabilization. The many comments so far on a green jobs/technology "moon shot" are sensible, as long as we understand that even green growth can be ultimately problematic.

— Mick Womersley, Unity, Maine

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The science vote

I had to crop this one. Who could resist?

No more trickle-down sustainability?

I had to conceal my mild discomfort the other day when a gushing colleague handed me another of the growing clutch of high-end locavore/foodie magazines, the kind that take on the mantle of "sustainability" all too quickly for my liking.

Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of local food. I grow a lot of it myself, in a crusty, curmudgeony, perennial English countryman kind of way. But I'm distinctly uncomfortable with any kind of elite movement in society. A yeoman farmer, from a long line, one of Cromwell's "russet-coated" captains, I've been on the wrong side of the class system all too often for my liking.

As such, I studiously employ the thrifty human ecology of my ancestors. I carefully maintain a heavy emphasis on the Yorkshire breed of pigs in my farming, employ various strange northern English and Scottish dishes made with sheep's offal, and, of course, the humble Maine potato. The basis of my food chain is oatmeal, food for both sheep and pigs, from Aroostook County, Maine.

Not really what the gourmands of this world have in mind, but it does stick to your ribs and keep you regular.

So I stifled my discomfort and took an interest. It wasn't so bad. This particular magazine did have some real farmers, and some interesting Maine food system innovations.

But let's not fool ourselves. The local food movement, like the green business movement, is just a slight diversion of capital and finance from the main torrent of commerce, generally upmarket, generally trendy, but small. A trickle. From the trickle-down theory of sustainability. And like green business, it was what climate and sustainability advocates in farming and business needed to do, to do business at all before November 4th 2008. But it's now a bit of an anachronism.

Trickle-down sustainability is now, officially, out of date. It's "out."

But what's "in?"

Now that President-elect Obama has begun to organize for the day he gets his hands on the strings and levers of executive branch power, and now that the Dems in Congress have a sizable majority, it's time for a mainstream approach to green business and agriculture. By definition, "mainstream" means two to three orders of magnitude larger than now.

Larger means bigger, folks.

Specifically, we need to begin to fill those carbon stabilization wedges in short order, on a very large scale. We already have this pretty much figured out. A small army of climate wonks stands in waiting, around the nation, in colleges and universities, to help implement climate solutions. But stabilization wedges are not exactly what most people think of when they think of carbon reduction.

Take methane management, for instance. Much of the methane we produce comes from farm animals, the rest from landfills. Ah, you say, time to employ the local food solution, get the unsightly CAFOs banned, go back to small mixed farms, have all the kids eating local salad in high schools, etc, etc. Increase the rate of food waste recycling from kitchen to compost to farm, get the methane out of the waste stream, out of the landfill. Get the methane gone in no time.

Well, let's think about this a bit longer.

One of the best ways to manage methane on the farm is to run the manure from feedlots and dairies through a biogas digester and use it to produce electricity and fertilizer, spreading the liquid manure that results on fields used for corn silage, hay, and other forage crops. But to do that, animals need to be confined at least some of the time, and because of a surface area/volume ratio effect in the digesters themselves, the economic size of herd needed to supply manure to an efficient biogas plant might be 300-400 animals. Or more.

Not what the locavores had in mind. While the small organic and artisanal farms they definitely do have in mind, well, these needed to be audited carefully for climate emissions per unit of food, before we sink a lot of government time and money into them as a way to help the climate. I'm pretty sure that some of these places use more energy per carrot, or per pig, not less, than conventional operations, trucking produce around to farmer's market after farmer's market.

So it isn't necessarily local that is key here. Local is a fad, a trend. One that happens to coincide with some of the important but underlying trends in agriculture that need to be encouraged, like the use of aerobic compost, or the reduction of pesticides, but not all, and not some of the most important. As with much of the climate problem, more careful analysis will be needed.

Likewise green business. Current notions of green business are either distinctly small in scale, when we need to ramp up production and deployment of green energy and transportation capital by one to two to three orders of magnitude. Others are distinctly greenwash, a marketing ploy. The big oil companies for instance, have been polishing their "beyond petroleum" credentials for public consumption while ramping up tar sand production behind the scenes. Tar sands, like coal, are climate anathema, requiring two to three times the emissions of conventional oils. The oil companies know this, and they even know what they have to do, which is to make plans to sustain oil production at a much smaller scale for very much longer than they have in mind right now, with a much higher quality of extraction technology to eke out supply. While the rest of industry, especially housing and transportation, makes plans to learn to use first 25%, then 50%, then 75% less oil per year through efficiency improvements to cars, trucks and houses, and through new designs for replacement cars, trucks and houses. They already know how to do that too. They just won't do it until we make them do it. But we will make them do it. If we're smart, we'll never run out of oil. It's too useful. But we will learn to cherish it.

Cherishing oil is not what a lot of green advocates have in mind.

So we're heading out of the era when the only way you made a farm or business more sustainable was by starting your own, very small, very green farm or business. These will still have their place in the sun, but now what we especially need are efficient green solutions for very large scale businesses. The larger the better, in fact. There's some urgency here.

But thankfully we're also heading out of the era when the only sustainability you could get was "trickle-down" sustainability, that diverted a small flow of finance and commerce from the mainstream to the green. Now we can bring the entire resources of the federal government, with all those agencies, NASA, EPA, NOAA, NSF, plus the great land-grant university system, plus the massive resources of capital itself, trillions of dollars of savings and investment that needs to make a buck, sitting around a little too idle right about now.

We've done this before, so we know how, more or less, to do it again.

In the summer and fall of 1940, after the Invasion of France and the Low Countries, but over a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR began finally to reorient the US economy from the peacetime production of cars and refrigerators then favored by isolationists, to wartime production of ships, planes, tanks, and munitions, both for the new ten-million strong US Army and Navy he would eventually create, and to send to Britain, then fighting for it's life alone against Nazism.

Ultimately 50% of the US economy would be diverted to wartime production. Government investment increased by an order of magnitude. Finally the Great Depression came to an end, and there was full employment, including Obama's own maternal grandmother, working in that aircraft factory.

Dollar-a-year men went to Washington for their marching orders, then went back to Kansas and Chicago and Detroit and Seattle and reorganized American industry on a scale that many, including Adolf Hitler, had thought impossible.

If we could do it then, we can do it again now. Civilization is no less threatened by climate change now than it was by the Nazis in 1940. And it certainly will pull us out of the recession.

But we have to think big, very big, to have a hope of succeeding. And we shouldn't imagine that the sustainability policy of an Obama presidency looks anything like the trickle-down sustainability that the greens who started small farms and small businesses were forced to develop in the shadow of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Poll parade

Here's the third or fourth annual Unity College frosh "Parade to the Polls," about 200 strong.

A jolly enough bunch.

They all have to go. They do not have to vote when they go, and if they do vote, of course, they can vote for whoever they want.

I think that if you go once, you might get in the habit.

Some were chanting.

President Mitchel "Mitch" Thomashow dated himself with his chant:

"Hell no, we won't go."


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Methane on the uptick

The market may have gone down, way down, to be followed by a period of volatility, but atmospheric methane is going up, after a period of relative stability. This according to Matthew Rigby and Ronald Prinn of MIT.

This is important because it relates to Jim Hansen's (and others') working hypothesis that even a small rise in average annual temperature puts us within closer reach of various possible/hypothetical climate system tipping points than otherwise thought.

One tipping point might be northern hemisphere methane release. Not methane clathrates. (Those are even scarier, almost too scary to think about.) Just plain old bacterial methane from anearobic decomposition in actic and subarctic soils, particularly wet soils, peats, and pond and lake sediments.

AAT increases (the theory goes), heating up northern landscapes more typically too cold or frozen to decompose very fast. But the nutrients, bacteria and moisture are all there, primed and ready to go. Decomposition increases, releasing more methane, increasing AAT.

Rinse and repeat. Otherwise known as feedback. "Feedback can lead to exponential change," I teach my students, and then show them how, ad nauseum, with model after model in Stella ®.

(Even then, most don't get it. Ordinarily, even when taught well, and over and over, many people fail to understand exponential feedback.)

If atmospheric methane is increasing as stated in this new paper (very likely), then it has to come from somewhere. Most likely it comes from the warm Siberian summer of 2007.

Not good. A tipping point like this could ruin your pension plans even more effectively than the current market problems. The methane numbers bear watching closely for a few years. We should all cross our fingers and hope it's just stochastic, an anomaly.

There's a potential tipping point in my career as a climate mitigation academic too. At some point I would have to give up, and start teaching climate emergency management and climate change adaptation. And get busy adapting myself. (As if Aimee and I haven't really been doing that for years with our farming, gardening, forestry and building experiments.)

Abrupt climate change of the speed and effect envisaged by Hansen and others will create a new feedback loop in the climate system, or more correctly change the (mathematical) sign and direction of an old one, by effectively reducing our ability to feed, water, clothe, shelter, house, and keep safe some large portion of the human population.

Emissions from human sources will go down as a result, but it won't be a good thing, and it will be far too late. Unplanned, unreasonable, and distinctly uncivilized. Once out of balance, the global climate system could stay out of balance for quite a while.

Those governments that remain viable will be stretched to the limit.

The question is, in such a scenario, how quickly would we need to adapt, and in what sectors? The answer is, quickly, and in almost all sectors. A thought experiment might be helpful here. Taking the 2001 New England Regional Assessment as our baseline (essentially 6-10 degrees F of regional AAT increase by 2100), a tipping point that accelerated this rate of regional AAT increase by an order of magnitude would require Maine to adopt forestry, agriculture, fisheries, housing, extreme weather, and disease control strategies more like Virginia's or Georgia's before 2020.

This is assuming that there are no other system perturbations or tipping points down the road after the first. Just a more rapid AAT rise than currently predicted.

Sea level rise would lag, giving us a few years to cope there. That would be a blessing. but within a century, instead of a millenium, Jackson, Maine would be a peninsula or an island and Unity College would be the environmental college next to the Atlantic. Assuming there was anything left to teach.

I tend to think there would be. I think Maine could survive this with a democratic civil society intact. Assuming that we don't encounter major security concerns because of threats from countries who are less able to adapt.

Evidence for this: My parents and grandparents collectively survived WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. They survived, and I survived, the Cold War, the socialist Britain of 1945-1979, the Maggie Thatcher capitalist Britain of 1979 to the present. I survived and adapted to this very different American culture. In my small experience, people are surprisingly adaptable. The twentieth century demonstrates this admirably, even in the case study of my small family.

Of course, other countries, and other people, did not do so well adapting to and surviving the period 1914 to 2000.

In the event of a tipping point, the 21st century will look politically a lot like the 20th, only worse. And there will be no Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler to blame, only ourselves.