Thursday, December 29, 2011

Great new emissions calculator

This one, an official UK Government project, was produced under the supervision of David McKay, whose excellent e-book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air we use in class.

Both book and calculator are recommended. Both are free.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

La Nina

For those of you tracking this winter's "double-dip" La Nina, NOAA has a great article on last springs Missouri River flooding headlining on its Climate Portal.

There's also an article on this fall's resumption of ENSO-negative conditions.

Finally, when you want to understand Maine's winter weather under ENSO influence, there's nothing like the Jet Stream tracker map at

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Great NYT article on the "methane timebomb"

"Takings" issues with fracking wells too

Last month I heard about a bill that may (or may not) yet appear for debate in our Maine legislature limiting the amount of value in land property that can be reduced by state and presumably local environmental regulation to 50%. This constitutional "takings" measure would dramatically affect all our state's many local restrictive ordinances on wind turbines.

It seems a similar question has arisen in areas where shale gas development has taken place or been threatened.

You might expect me to be in favor of a bill that would allow more rapid development of Maine's wind power resources, but I'm not. The "takings" bill opens a Pandora's box of environmental regulatory questions, and if it passes will require reconsideration of every hard-won environmental protection from shoreline zoning to water and air quality regulation.

It might have been better had the anti-wind activists who passed these local ordinances thought through the measures properly, instead of passing suspect "boilerplate" from town to town, badgering the various planning boards to accept these flawed texts, and then passing the ordinances in special town meetings at which only a minority of townsfolk ever show up. Some of these ordinances require sound limits for wind turbines that are actually below the ambient sound level of ordinary Maine woods. Others require setbacks that are impossible to achieve anywhere in the town.

Impossible to measure, impossible to regulate. And, as we have begun to see with this takings bill, likely to stimulate an almost-as-irrational backlash.

Now we have that very backlash in the "Takings" bill, with conservative activists using the constitution as a massive wrecking bar to undo not only the anti-wind ordinances, but also our many other environmental protections.

An interesting dialectic, isn't it. And entirely predictable.

Interesting too, that our difficulty with siting energy facilities extends in much the same way to natural gas wells on the Marcellus shale.

Everybody wants energy. Few wish for intrusive energy developments in their own back yard.

But some kind of energy facility has to go somewhere.

You pays your money, and you takes your choice:

Wind turbines in Maine....
Hydropower plants in Quebec
Fracking in PA, NY, and ND
Mountaintop removal coal mines in KN and WV
Nuclear plants in NY and elsewhere
Albertan tar sands
Solar power plants in the western desert

Each has its own, very effective protest movement.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rooting for Unity

Here's Adjunct Professor Jim Merkel (in red) and his class of students, who built this fine root cellar for the college and the Unity Food Pantry to use to store food that we grow here on campus.

UC President Stephen Mulkey is helping to cut the "ribbon" -- appropriately a dried bean string.

There was some speechifying, including a very heartfelt thank you from the head of the food pantry board.

All very cool.

Well done to Jim and the students.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Yesterday I collected an award, including a nice plaque, for our wind research project from Maine Rural Partners.

I say "I collected" for "our project" because in reality a major part of the work wasn't done by me at all. We have numerous employees and students and external partners involved.

Here's a short list of those that deserve credit for this award:

All the student Wind Crew members over the years, including (off the top of my head), Jason Reynolds, Kiera Shepherd, Peter Knipper, Jake McGinley, Jennifer McClain, Cody Floyd, Dale Pitre, Ari Leach, Chris Froehly, Steve Swartz, Amanda DeBais, Jamie Nemecek, Heidi Kowalski, Rachel Mestas, Mary Bowers, Jay Pendleton, and probably quite a few others whose names have escaped me.

One the UC side, we couldn't function without the help of Doug Fox, Jan McInnes, Jennifer Whelan, the entire Maintenance Crew, the Business Office, especially Kathryn Hickson, and Human Resources.

And of course, the funding came from Efficiency Maine, the federal Departments of Energy and Agriculture, while expert help has come from NRG Systems and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Then there are the several wind power companies that have supplied equipment, especially NRG Systems, Competitive Energy Services, and RA Wind Power Inc.

Last but not least, there's my partner anemometer loan operator, Paul Villeneuve of UMaine School of Engineering Technology, without whose data the wind shear part of the project would not have been possible.

So thanks, Maine Rural Partners, for the award, but thanks also to all the folks who made the award possible.

It's been a privilege working with you.


PS: For those new readers, or those who haven't yet heard about the wind survey, here's the movie Jacob and Rachel made earlier this year. Click once to start and then click on the screen again, to see the full screen.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Buffet goes solar

Warren Buffet, the "sage of Omaha," whose previous renewable energy acquisitions have been wind-related, has bought into a major solar PV power plant in California.

Friday, December 2, 2011

NCSE conference in DC, Jan 17th to 22nd

Dear students:

With the generous support of the President’s and VPAA’s offices, Unity College is offering a conference field trip to Washington DC for up to six students in early January 2012, 17th to 22nd.

The purpose is to attend and participate in the National Council for Science and Environment’s 2012 conference “Energy and Security.”

Read on for application instructions. (Applications that do not conform to the instructions will not be considered.)

Why would you want to go to this conference? Well, because you’re a serious student of environmental issues and concerns. Read on:

The National Council for Science and Environment (motto: “Improving the scientific basis for environmental decision-making”) is a non-profit environmental organization representing scientists and students of the environment in Washington, DC. It advises the federal government and engages in lobbying and advocacy work for science solutions to environmental problems. Unity College is an affiliate organization, and we are regular participants in several NCSE activities, including programs in curriculum design for climate and sustainability, as well as a program of support for college leaders in climate and sustainability education (CEDD)

Every year there’s a national conference. NCSE conferences are very hands-on in the sense that students are participants, not mere audience members. At NCSE conferences you get to talk, present, make points, and influence the final proceedings, which are widely circulated (in full glossy format) to policy makers and scientists around the country. Past highlights have included a Unity College student asking a pointed question of former Science magazine editor Dr. Donald Kennedy, in full plenary session, at the microphone, with an packed auditorium of roughly 400 scientists and policy makers, a private, conference-room held discussion with the World Bank’s Environment staff in the World Bank building itself (one of DC’s modernist architectural wonders), a night out with dinner and conversation (partially) en le français de Belgique in a DC mansion on “Embassy Row” and so on, in addition to the routine (for NCSE) student participation in break-out and workshop sessions with everyone from congresswomen and men to senior federal agency managers. Unity students have met and shaken hands with environmental science greats such as E.O. Wilson, Herman Daly, Peter Raven, and so on.

An important tradition for this field trip is the final Museum Day, in which students get a full day in, as Forest Gump so memorably stated, “Our Nation’s Capitol,” with free time to explore museums and monuments and/or the National Zoo (which some feel is at its best in winter when tourists are absent). At least one fiendishly hot ethnic dinner is also on the cards, de rigueur, no pepper wimps allowed, a rite of passage.

Routinely this college provides one of the largest and most visible undergraduate student delegations. Student visibility like this, when combined with obvious high academic ability, improves the value of each and every Unity College degree by helping make our name as a college where finding smart solutions to difficult 21st century environmental problems is the curriculum.

Obviously, we’re looking for good intellectual ambassadors for the college.

Students will stay with the two conference faculty (Dr’s Ongley and Womersley) in the Capital Hill Presbyterian Church seminar center, which is youth-hostel style accommodation, men’s and women’s separate dorms and bathrooms, a sitting room, and a catering kitchen. We will partly self-cater, primarily breakfasts and some dinners. A sleeping bag is required, as is suitable clothing for a professional conference. You will also need, at minimum, a few tens of dollars of pocket money. The Presidents Office and the conference faculty will work to get you out of class for that period so you may freely attend. A required pre-trip meeting will be arranged if possible, before the end of this semester, to answer any further questions you may have.

There is a student fee of $50. All other expenses of several hundred dollars per student will be met by the college. We seek student volunteers to be “lent” to the conference to act as staff for short shifts, to help keep our expenses down.

The dates for the trip are as follows:

Tuesday January 17th Leave campus early (7am!), drive to DC, arriving late at night at the Capital Hill Presbyterian Church seminar center
Wednesday January 18th: Moderately slow start, recover, conference registration, attend opening keynote Session (by sustainable energy guru Amory Lovins)
Thursday, Friday, attend conference
Saturday: Museum Day
Sunday: Return to Unity College, arriving back late at night.

To apply, send a paragraph addressing the following prompt to and

  1. Go to the conference agenda page
  2. View the choices for Symposia “A” and “B” and the Thursday afternoon “Breakout Workshops”
  3. Choose which of the many Symposia A and B sessions and which Breakout Workshop Session you wish to attend (three choices total)
  4. Write a short application essay (one to three paragraphs) explaining why these choices are interesting to you. You may also include why any particular plenary sessions are interesting. (Hint: Be specific, or Lois and I may think you just want a field trip to DC, or are looking for a way to get out of class for a week.)
  5. Submit by email to and

If accepted, you will be required to pay the $50 conference deposit at the Business Office before that office closes on the last day of Fall Term (December 16th, 2011)


Dr. Michael W. “Mick” Womersley
Center for Global Change and Sustainability
Sustainable Energy Management Program
Unity College
90 Quaker Hill Road,
Unity, Maine 04988

207 948 3131 ext 259

Phew. Thanks Pew

Major news on the climate communications front: Pew says the numbers are now growing again, a serious failure for the "Merchants of Doubt."


Texas and tornadoes, is my immediate guess.

Here in Maine, we just had the warmest November on record.

Yellowstone wolves and climate

An interesting article:

Monday, November 28, 2011

The trouble with oil and one near-term solution to LIHEAP worries

Here's a very sobering article from the NYT about the cuts to LIHEAP, the program that provides heat oil assistance to thousands of Mainers.

This is the problem with all those sources of unconventional oil we've been studying in class, the Bakken shale and the Albertan tar sands, and so on. Although these sources reduce North America's dependence on oil from "petrostates" like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Russia, they don't reduce price. High cost heat oil will be with us for years to come, as long as demand from developing nations continues to increase, and as long as the new sources we rely on are as expensive as they are to extract.

What should Mainers do?

Insulate, weatherize, and/or switch to a cheaper-per-btu fuel, such as home-grown hardwood pellet or firewood. Those are the only realistic choices in the short term, absent some Big New Idea in Maine energy.

The sooner we realize this, the better.

The Governor's Office of Energy Independence is promoting increasing natural gas supplies as one solution. I believe this is a useful measure in the medium to long run, but I'm not sure what we think it's going to do for us this winter.

I'm sorry, Mr. LePage and Mr. Fletcher, but I don't understand how natural gas, admittedly cheap right now, can be an immediate substitute for high cost heat oil when we only have a very small amount of city gas supply infrastructure in Maine to begin. We have to lay new pipe to get that new gas to new consumers. The current crisis that results from the lack of LIHEAP and the high cost of heat oil can't last very long. People, even those on low incomes, will adjust to the loss of LIHEAP over time, two or three or four winters, by making investments in home weatherization, insulation, and switching to pellet or firewood fuel at the margin. The state's efficiency and weatherization programs, increasingly efficient themselves (5,000 homes were weatherized last year, a record), will help cut the time taken to bridge to warmer, weatherized Maine homes down a tad, but much of the interim will be a good deal colder, at the margin, for a larger number of Mainers than before.

By the time that gas pipe has been laid, much of the current heat oil crisis will be past, and much of the suffering will be over. The new infrastructure will be nice to have, in five or ten years time. But it isn't going to help next week and next month, this winter and next winter, which is when we'll need the help.

There's another way to think about this: Natural gas, which is very cheap now, can be a good substitute for coal in electricity production, however, reducing climate emissions and costs, and electricity in general can be much more easily easily gotten to consumers as a heat source than gas using existing infrastructure. We could buy more natural gas instead of oil tomorrow, if we wished, if we were to use that gas as electricity.

(Before anyone write to complain, let me state a disclaimer: Yes, I do know the Second Law. Very well, thank you. I know that we'll use overall more energy this way. But this is about economics and the time-taken-to-deploy technology, as well as physics. You need to know a bit about all three, in my business.)

Maybe what we should do for this year, instead of imagining we're going to magically lay all that pipe in the frozen months, is create some kind of lower cost, off-peak electricity scheme, and help folk access the cheaper price of gas through off-peak electricity, by allowing them to heat their homes with small, cheap, and relatively safe electric resistance heaters using off-peak power.

Ceramic storage heaters are particularly useful because they can be run off low cost, off-peak power and the energy stored up will last for several hours.

(The url above links to just one manufacturer. No endorsement is intended. Indeed, this technology is so simple, these heaters could be manufactured right here in Maine if we wished, a true job-creator.)

One closely associated idea that has (possibly) begun to circulate in the legislature is for a community energy bill that would allow towns and municipalities to create or to buy into power production projects, such as wind or small scale hydro or biomass plants, and to sell that energy at discount to themselves, and possibly taxpayers through some kind of smart grid accounting system. Introduced by Kevin Raye, and reported, as far as I can tell, only in the Quoddy Times, "An Act to Increase Energy Options" is a durn good idea, if you ask me.

It would be an even better idea if it included this Smart-Grid, off-peak discount-sales-to-LIHEAP recipients and local taxpayers option I'm suggesting. Without that, well, it's still a decent idea, just not a really timely one at this particular juncture in Maine energy history.

Unfortunately, I was unable to secure any details of this act despite writing to my State Senator Mike Thibodeau, whose utilities regulation committee it has been assigned to.

I'll keep working on it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Green Deal vs. Maine PACE?

The UK government's housing energy retrofit scheme, long awaited, was unveiled today, and the Guardian has three separate articles, here, here, and here. This is a home loan scheme in which the retrofits are supposed to be audited and managed so that the cost of the retrofit loan is less than the current cost of utility bills. This is doable anywhere, given the high prices of heating fuels, but is probably a tad easier in the UK than the US because of higher natural gas prices.

Job creation, in other words, for Sustainable Energy Management students.

Here in Maine we have a similar scheme in place called PACE, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy, and there are others in the US.

The possibility for a serious case comparison will therefore shortly come into being. I already have way too many degrees, but a good case comparison of these two countries' approaches to PACE-type loans would make a great master's or PhD thesis.

The obvious role of a scheme like this as Keynesian stimulus, assuming the proper scale of uptake, would also make an interesting study. The British are notorious homebodies, and as a general rule dislike having strangers in their home, especially repairmen, and so there may be some rather non-linear and threshold effects in the demand curve for take-up.

One interesting factor, post-Thatcher, is that the dearth of proper apprentice and community-college schemes for training the required electricians, plumbers and builders, combined with the general fall in favor of working with one's hands, has meant that in recent years the UK has imported tradesmen wholesale from eastern Europe.

This wave of handy immigrants has slowed recently as the economy has also slowed in Britain, and some have already made their grubstake and returned home to Lublin or Danzig, presumably to enjoy a happy retirement, with the proper amounts of pickled herring and sausage.

(So much for Solidarność.)

One obvious result, if the new scheme hits the proper scale, will be to reopen the floodgates. But fixing a tap doesn't necessarily require one to perform a full-on energy audit, use a computer, fill out complicated government forms, essentially negotiating a mortgage for the householder with the government, and so on, all in a foreign language. And these post-Soviet volumes of available handymen were likely just that -- a one-time only endowment of trained repairmen left over from the command-and-control era, now aging and stiffening. Have younger eastern Europeans abandoned the trades in the same way that young Britons and Americans have? A good question, to which I don't know the answer, but on which the success of this scheme may rest.

Even if they haven't, there are obviously huge barriers in language and training to be overcome here, to reduce the market friction and speed the uptake.

I do hope that the coalition has begun to lose its distaste for building government. This is one job that needs doing, but it needs to be done well, and there are obvious needs in education and training, as well as in bureaucracy and oversight.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Coal too expensive for Asian markets? Thank heavens for that!

Just yesterday I commented, as I often do, on one of Andy Revkin's NYT blog articles on the Australian climate bill. Andy was concerned about the large amount of coal exports from Australia to China and other Asian "tiger" economies, exports unaffected by the otherwise strong new legislation.

Also in response to the blog article, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club posted an excellent update on Chinese coal markets, well worth the read not only for its excellent content, but also for its economic and technological competence. It was too long for Andy's comment section so was re-posted on Crocodoc:

This was particularly helpful as it came along at a moment when I was (once again) beginning to feel that most environmentalists had lost the plot, technologically speaking.

This feeling overcomes me regularly when confronted with Maine's anti-wind power activists movement, and indeed with anti-energy NIMBY-ism of all kinds. I guess it's just part of the angst of our times.

Talking about angst of the times, I was remembering the early nineteen-eighties in Britain on one of my blog posts just recently, and then came across this excellent Channel Four documentary on the undeclared civil war that was fought in Britain's northern and western mining communities in 1984 and 1985. This was the conflict that, along with the Greenham Common Peace Camps, forced me out of the Royal Air Force.

Not only is it an excellent film, it also has a great eighties soundtrack.

It made me quite nostalgic.

You'll need to rent it on DVD, or buy a VPN membership.

On art and the 99 %

I've never understood very much about non-representative art. Call me a philistine, but it seems to me that at least some wealthy art patrons are getting sneakily ripped off by at least some supposedly avant-garde artists. As a kind of "Robin Hood tax," this makes sense to me. Consider it an example of the "trickle-down" approach to welfare, if you will.

I was less amused by this article here. Although the idea of the Teamsters picketing Sotheby's swankiest auctions with an inflatable rat sculpture does lend itself to a chuckle or two.

That must be a form of art too, right? Protest art?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On industrial decline, or the actual situation

This is an important and thoughtful article from , obviously a very well-rounded thinker. It's well worth the read, and touches on some of the themes in my side bar below titled "Selected Posts." I've been going on about issues of industrial decline, particularly where they relate to green technology, for years now.

I was lucky enough to have had one of those superb technical educations in my youth, the kind that no longer exists, where I was taught to do pretty much anything in the engineering fitter/fabricator's pantheon.

This wasn't trivial. My high school gave all of us two whole years of classes in each of Metalwork, Woodwork, and, just to make sure we were up-to-date, Plasticwork. The young men (this was back in the days of sex discrimination in education) had to take Technical Drawing (the women took Needlework, but then, thanks to the then-burgeoning women's movement, we all took Home Economics).

Then I won a place in the Royal Air Force's vaunted aircraft technician pipeline at RAF Halton. Eight hours a day, for a whole year, of everything you ever wanted to know about, and do with, aircraft engine technology -- hands-on. We literally took apart whole airplanes and put them back together, all day long. I'll never regret that time.

(Except for the daily drill and parades and PT three times a week, just to remind we were still in the military. And oh, how those drill sergeants and corporals hated us baby techies -- they could lord it over us for the length of the course, while we were mere LACs, but almost as soon as we graduated, we went right over their heads on the pay scale.)

But then came Thatcher.

Britain was supposed to wake up and smell the post-industrial coffee, give up on three hundred years of engineering technology predominance, which in Thatcherite terms was fatally and permanently associated with socialism, and step boldly into the post-modern world. Britain was no longer to be run by grumpy northern and western working class industrialists like Nye Bevan or Ernie Bevin, but instead suave smooth suburbanites from the home counties, preferably with aristocratic connections sufficient to woo the Iron Lady (who in my view had a rotten inner core of inferiority complex), would lead us into the bold new future.

The unemployment of the Thatcher years would end, we were told, when all the market distortions were wrung out of the economy, and then we'd all have well-paid roles in the Service Sector and the Information Age.


We took three hundred years of technological supremacy, in which analysis and data and destructive testing could tell you, with effort, what was true or not. And we discarded it. We threw the baby of technology out with the bathwater of socialism, and instead swallowed the Newspeak of spin as our new Authorised Version.

It's a pity George Orwell was dead by 1984. He would have worked with wondrous satire on Thatcher and her spinmongers.

What followed was the Stalin-esque purging of whole northern and western British communities. If you want to see what this looked like, the film Billy Elliot is a good way to do so. Just watch what's going on in the background, instead of the ballet in the foreground.

Oh. And enjoy The Clash on London Calling, permanently part of the soundtrack of my youth. They don't make 'em like that anymore, either.

My own personal discombobulation at this wholesale change in national ideology, which was admittedly only partly-thought out at that point, led me out of the RAF and even out of the country, never to return. Twelve years of a superb American liberal arts education, and ten years research into renewable energy technology and climate change mitigation policy, and I'm just about beginning to understand it all.

Meanwhile, the world turned, and the general lack of internal western agreement on industrial policy has made it so we've invented whole industries since then, industries by the bucket load, and turned them over to the Chinese.

And now we have ten per cent unemployment. Again.

So what's the solution?

This may be where I part company with Chackrabortty. He seems to think, although he doesn't quite come out and say so, that those manufacturing jobs can somehow be clawed back from the Chinese.

This is a conceptual error. We need a more nuanced view of what has actually happened, and then we'll realize that this isn't likely or even possible. Sure, we've given the Chinese, and continue to give them, the technological information, and even the specialized equipment needed to create vast new industries. They're building massive new cities of millions of people around the factories that now house our older industries.

But we didn't give them what they really should have wanted, which was the robotics, and the code, and the builders of robotics and code, and then the engineering and materials science and chemical and biological design, that they would need to build any truly modern industry.

There are no legions of workers in a modern factory. There are legions of computers, connected to laser cutters, robots, and computerized assembly lines. Someone has to design and build all this stuff, of course, often from scratch, which is one reason that those few of the old fitters and tool-and-die makers that learned how to use the new machines are so highly paid. But that's not very many people. A team of a few hundred up-to-date western technologists, Germans or Brits or Americans, armed with millions of gigabytes of ROM, can design and build a factory that can make enough solar panels for a small city in a year, and then go on to build another factory, and another.

But these are factories that have virtually no workers.

Check out this Nanosolar video here to see what this really looks like.

All those miners in Billy Elliot? There aren't jobs for them in a Nanosolar world.

It isn't that the west's ability to imagine things and build them has declined. It's actually been enhanced and refined by the addition of cybernetics and nano-engineering and biology, whole new electronic and materials technologies invented wholesale in our universities and industrial laboratories.

And we didn't give that stuff to the Chinese. We couldn't give it to them, even if we were foolish enough to want to do so.

That kind of truly modern technological supremacy comes from the one thing the Chinese don't have, which is the freedom of speech and thought represented by our democracy, still standing despite the attacks from Citizens United and the Koch brothers; and the intellectual freedom represented by our glorious and still supreme higher educational system, still standing despite all the dumbing-down that No Child Left Behind and our ridiculous commercial media can throw at it.

And it's that freedom and that educational system that ultimately leads to these technologies.

As long as China is a closed society with a closed political system, all they will get will be our secondhand technology, not the good stuff.

Because no-one that smart wants to live someplace where your vote doesn't count.

Now the Indians, however, are another story. They do have an open society, and they are easily capable of learning to do what we do, once they've figured out how to end the corruption in their political system.

But they're on our side. I don't fear the Indians. They're not a threat to freedom and democracy. Despite their burgeoning revolutionary movement led by Gandhi, two and a half million Indians volunteered to fight for Britain during the Second World War. Indian people are thoroughly integrated into both British and American society. We'll go forward together.

None of this is helpful for the nine or ten per cent of Americans and Britons that are currently unemployed.

Even with our technological and yes, manufacturing prowess, there aren't, and won't be, well-paid jobs for badly trained or untrained workers who can't read, write, think, figure, understand science and technology, use a computer, and most importantly of all, imagine.

And the really well-paid jobs will be for people who can do all these things at a very high level of intellectual ability.

We have to figure out what to do with these other people, the folks who don't or can't think.

But in the absence of the mass industrial employment of old, figuring out what to do with the New American and British lumpenproletariat is no longer a manufacturing problem.

It's a social problem. A huge social problem.

It's not that there aren't useful things for them to do. There's plenty of useful, undone work in our society for people who can't or won't learn technology and science: in health care and non-science education and the environment and social work.

It's instead that we seem to think we would rather have unemployed, untrained people crowding our capital parks and demonstrating, or worse, in the unemployed and drug-infested underclass, than to simply raise our upper-income bracket taxes a little to pay them to do some of this useful work that the commercial market can't or won't do.

Do the Koch brothers and their ilk really think that they will enjoy living in a society where so many people are so permanently unemployed and not provided for?

NYC and sea level rise

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

Time waster, for class

We're supposed to be talking about nuclear power, but how could anything this beautiful be a waste of time?

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mulkey on leaving well enough alone

This food-for-thought piece, written by our new college president Stephen Mulkey, is copied from the UC Sustainability Monitor, also a recommended read.

The case for leaving the carbon in the ground

Jim Hansen has used the phrase “essentially game over” when referring to the greenhouse gas emissions that would ensue from the use of Tar Sands oil as an energy source. To be sure, there is one heck of a lot of carbon in this one source, and Bill McKibben has referred to the proposed pipeline as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” As discussed over at RealClimate by Ray Pierrehumbert, the amount of carbon in this single source is equivalent to almost half of the future emissions needed to push us above 2 degrees C average warming, which is the point at which the biosphere will become a net source of CO2 as processes such as respiration and burning exceed the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. The Canadian Tar Sands oil reserves are six times the size of Saudi Arabia’s. Is it any wonder that TransCanada is fighting tooth and nail to deliver this oil to consumers? Obviously, the profits to be made from this single source of oil are immense. Moreover, we must consider the life cycle carbon emissions associated with mining and transporting the Tar Sands oil. Assuming in situ extraction, we must add 23% -41% to the carbon footprint necessary for conventional petroleum, thus making this arguably the dirtiest oil on the planet.

The article at RealClimate makes the valid point that not all of the estimated 230 gigatonnes of carbon in the Canadian Tar Sands would be mined. Assuming full production, I would guess that somewhat less than half will be delivered to market over the lifetime of extraction from this single source. In combination with the other sources of coal and oil on the planet, it is clear that even this more modest amount would result in massive pollution. Similarly, it has been argued that this should be viewed as a transitional source of oil to be used while we decarbonize our economy. Perhaps this would be a reasonable argument if there were any evidence whatsoever that the US is moving in the direction of reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Ray Pierrehumbert draws the obvious parallel to the alcoholic who puts the vodka in the cupboard while promising to drink only a little bit.

What is most troubling about this discussion is the assumption that our estimate of the additional warming from this carbon is based on a partial understanding of only first-order feedbacks. The initial radiative forcing from CO2 added to the atmosphere is only a portion of its warming potential. To this must be added the near term, or first-order, feedbacks of clouds, disappearing sea ice, and a myriad of other relatively short-acting factors such as black carbon (enhances warming) and aerosols. Aerosols are complex, but their overall global effect in the form of pollution from smoke stacks and tail pipes has been one of cooling because they reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth. This masks the warming potential of the greenhouse gases. Indeed, part of the reason for a hiatus in warming for the last few years may have been increased pollution from China. Using only these first order feedbacks, it is deceptively comforting to think that we will not cross the 2 degree threshold for possibly several decades while emitting up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon from coal and oil.

This is a considerable overestimate of our remaining latitude for emissions. There is ample evidence that the second-order, longterm feedbacks on climate are emerging much faster than previously thought. Specifically, the timeline for permafrost thaw seems to be quite short. A recent paper from the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that the tundra will become a net source of CO2 by roughly 2025, a date uncomfortably soon. This estimate ignores the amplification of warming from methane and first-order warming from new CO2 emitted as the tundra progressively thaws. Similarly, the Amazon has experienced two droughts of 100-year severity within five years, inducing widespread tree death. The scale of carbon loss from tree death and burning from these droughts will effectively negate the carbon uptake potential of the Amazon basin for an entire year. Note that the Amazon basin is so large that it could hold most of Western Europe and the UK with room to spare. Finally, recent research has found that there is widespread forest dieback in progress. While the cause of this is complex and only partially related to climate change, it nonetheless adds to the greenhouse gas burden of the atmosphere. It has now been confirmed that for most forest types dead trees really do burn more frequently than living ones. Overall, I see no processes or factors that might slow warming during the coming decades. Thus, I think that we will cross the 2 degree C threshold much sooner than previously estimated, and I would argue, almost certainly before 2050.

I know that I share a sense of urgency with many other scientists who have studied climate change over recent decades. During our recent trip to DC to circle the White House, Tim Godaire asked me if I was afraid. In all honesty, the answer is yes. From my study of the literature, I believe that our emissions must peak no later than 2020, with strong mitigation thereafter if we are to retain any certainty of avoiding significant and dangerous climate change during coming decades. A recent report by the National Research Council shows that peak warming is approximately linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted, and that this warming will persist for the next thousand years before beginning a slow decline over the next ten thousand years. Yes, you read that correctly: The emissions we produce today will have their effect over a millennium and beyond. I daresay that this gives new meaning to the concept of seven-generations sustainability. Once the biosphere becomes a net emissions source, we effectively lose leverage to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations through our efforts at mitigation. That is not to say that mitigation after that point is useless. Quite the opposite is true in that our efforts will need to be all the more strenuous to avoid catastrophic climate change.

It has been suggested to me that my active messaging on the science of climate change is inappropriate for someone in my role as a college president. I find this quite odd, because I thought that my job was to do everything in my power to ensure the future for our students. I urge all of us to take this science very seriously and to act in every acceptable way to influence our policy makers to begin massive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. To the greatest extent possible, we simply must leave the carbon in the ground. The good news is that conversion to a green economy will be a source of millions of jobs and economic renewal. The bad news is that the dinosaur economy will be hard to kill.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Monbiot hits the spot

Sometimes Britain's George Monbiot is pointy-headed. That's making no bones about it, I know, but it's true. There are time when the material he comes out with is laughable in the extreme.

But I enjoyed his editorial today. It may be the reference to the Putney Debates -- as someone steeped in the heritage and traditions of Quakers and Levelers, the dissenting churches, Fabianism, and so on, even the American descendants of these, I always like it when a commentator is literate in this history.

The other part I liked was the bit about the "three B's."


Monday, November 7, 2011

Three cheers for Ms. Gillard

It was a hard slog, but worth it. Not bad for a girl from Barry, Old South Wales.

If she can do it, why can't we?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Smart grid in Washington state

I was pleased when the Fox Islands Electrical Coop organized its smart grid experiment using electric storage heaters to soak up excess wind power and use it to heat island homes, offsetting expensive heat oil use. I had hoped for such a scheme to be extended to other Maine homes via CMP or Bangor Hydro.

Actually, what I really wanted was my own grid-tied Vestas V-15 wind power plant. The V-15 is a second-hand turbine widely available from refurbishers. I would have used much of the power it could produce behind the meter in a dump-load mode, feeding it into my own home heat and possibly an electric car. But that will have to wait for the repeal of the Jackson wind turbine ordinance.

(I tend to see it as inevitable that Mainers eventually realize that wind power is cheaper than oil for heating homes and running cars, and repeal all the restrictive ordinances that have recently been passed. In most cases only a minority of townsfolk voted for the ordinances, because special town meetings were always used. Everyone knows that only the folk that are interested in a measure show up to special town meetings to vote. Eventually, the folks that were left out of the decision will realize how much was left on the table in the form of new tax dollars and cheaper heat and transportation, and we'll begin to repeal these ordinance or modify them.)

In the meantime, here's another state that has figured out that wind power is great for heating homes.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More sheep mowers

The Womerlippi farmers mow lawns and clear brush with a small flock of sheep, and have long been advocates for this system: using woolly critters instead of gas- and diesel-guzzling, polluting, climate-change causing lawn mowers.

We've even tried, with very little success so far, to introduce the idea to Unity College, which has what seems like a good square mile of lawn.

You can lead a sheep to water...

But if we're about anything here on the farm, it's perseverance. I'm sure the Unity College sheep herd, and shepherds, will have their day.

And the Unity College sheepdogs. They should have their day too.

Every dog has his day.

Here's another article, one of many I've read in the last few years, about urban shepherds and mowing lawns with sheep.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Airborne wind turbines to be tested in Limestone

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

Bangor Daily News

Posted Sept. 26, 2011, at 4:56 p.m.

LIMESTONE, Maine — The skies around the Loring Commerce Centre will look a bit different this fall now that a Massachusetts-based business has secured the rights to test its airborne wind turbines at the former air force base.

Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, said that Altaeros Energies is preparing to test its helium filled floating turbines, which are being developed to turn high-altitude winds into electricity.

“This project is in the development stage,” Flora said late last week. “Their product is a helium filled cylinder approximately 30 feet across. It is light enough to float and it is tethered to the ground with a cable.”

The company is led by alumni of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Company officials could not be reached for comment Monday. But according to the firm’s website,, the airborne balloon, which is designed to hold a wind turbine in its hollow center, can produce abundant, low-cost renewable energy and can operate at higher heights where winds are much stronger and more consistent than on the ground.

It can ascend to an altitude of 500 feet or more and the generated electricity is transmitted to the ground and into the power grid through the tether cable.

Flora said that Altaeros will be operating out of Loring’s arch hanger for several months while the testing program is under way.

The testing could last up to three months.

Presently, Science Applications International Corporation is leasing part of the arch hanger. They will allow Altaeros employees to share the building’s unused space.

“Altaeros will be a subtenant in the building,” said Flora.

He added that while nothing is set in stone, this could turn into a long-term partnership between the center and Altaeros.

“It is possible that they would return to do additional testing or other work,” he said.

The Loring Commerce Center, located on the former Loring Air Force Base, is a commercial, industrial and aviation park that houses more than 20 employers, including Loring Job Corps and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Corridors and the Cabinets

Map and panorama of the Cabinet Mountains wilderness. Map is USFS, photo is from Wikipedia. Click on either to enlarge.

A long time ago, indeed a very long time ago, it sometimes seems, I was both a USFS volunteer wilderness ranger and an outdoor activity instructor in Montana's Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, north of Thompson Falls, MT. This was just a few years after getting out of the British military. I helped patrol the wilderness on summer weekends, hiking in with the paid seasonal ranger to dismantle fire pits and pack out trash, and then the rest of the time I would go to work at the troubled youth camp, hiking back in to the same mountains or the Little Bitterroot range across the Clarks Fork River for weeks at a time with bands of troubled teenagers and packs of rice and lentils.

I also loved to hike in by myself when I could, to fish the high mountain lakes for cut-throat trout and wander the high ridges alone.

Those were great days for a leggy kid from Yorkshire who liked to hike the high peaks. I had the place entirely to myself most of the time. No doubt a lot of my current students would love to have that life, despite the fact that I was paid only $1,500 per 21-day backpacking trip.

Later, after I realized I needed a college education to break into some more remunerative wilderness-based work, and began a biology degree at the University of Montana, I volunteered to help with the Cabinet Mountains Fisher Reintroduction Project, an Endangered Species Act-driven project to boost fisher numbers by releasing wild-caught individuals from Minnesota. We hiked in on snowshoes, or snowmobiled in, to "soft-release" our fishers in the deep cedar groves of the west slopes of the Cabinets. The lead biologist on that project was Kevin Roy, who was later killed in an air crash over Wyoming while tracking grizzlies. It took four years to find his plane.

That was big country out there.

But not the Cabinets. The Cabinets were and are a tiny sliver of wilderness, preserved under the 1964 Wilderness Act. At the narrowest point, Rock Creek, the protected area is less than a mile, east to west. They are a natural corridor.

Anyway, long story short, here's a great Yale 360 article on the Cabinet Mountain's role in working out some ideas in conservation biology related to climate change, particularly the need for wildlife corridors.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A grid storage beta test

Just putting it out there...

A thought that just came to mind following the Long report from CA, below.

Why tie climate policy schemes only to carbon, and thus internalize concerns about attribution, as well as prolong the denier-warmer debate?

Why can't we tie a Coasian climate policy instead to carbon volume via the actual climate change itself, using some reasonable central indicator such as global AAT increase? It's true that we have imperfect measures of the impact of each unit of carbon on AAT, but the models that approximate this, GCMs and the Lean and Rind multiple regression, and so on, give us workable correlation coefficients. If we just picked one, however arbitrary, we would abstract away from this issue, while abstracting towards actual solutions.

One option that satisfies this concept would be to make the fee per unit of fossil energy use in one time period a function of the AAT change during the previous period, after correcting for ENSO, the solar cycle, and volcanic aerosols.

That way investors would have to strategize using more complex thoughts about the mix of carbon and carbon free technologies, going forward.

Let the Koch brothers and their ilk bet against climate change if they wish. But make the consequences of such a bet direct and natural.

Deniers shouldn't complain about such a policy, since they believe that climate change is not a result of all that carbon. If you tie carbon fees to both carbon and ATT, if the deniers are right, the fee would be minimal. Which is just what they believe should happen. If they're wrong, they get left holding a whole bunch of worthless investments.

We could call it the "Put your money where your mouth is" climate policy.

Whereas right now, the cheapest route for the Kochs, et al, is to fund the denial movement!

I don't have time to take this idea very far myself, but someone else in the mitigation business might.

So I'm just putting it out there.

An important article

Jane C Long, of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, has published a column summarizing a very important new analysis of energy approaches in Nature.

The analysis itself is also available online.

The upshot: There needs to be a 50-year strategic energy policy, not a piecemeal approach. There are important considerations that result from interaction between green power sources during the roll-out or deployment period.

Those of us in the energy education business now need to absorb this, and think about it, and teach something a little different.

Importantly, the interactive effects are different for different regions. So, because California has little coal-powered electricity, each unit deployment of wind power may add some emissions from a corresponding unit deployment of base load natural gas. In a mid-western state, the natural gas would naturally reduce emissions, from the coal fired plants that currently provide the base load.

I think the difficulty that results from this is that the result is a negation of the carbon tax and/or cap and trade approaches. Those are essentially Coasian economic approaches that allow free reign in terms of technology. What this report is telling us is that there are important coordination issues between technologies in any green energy roll-out strategy. Since free market economics is essentially technology-neutral, we got ourselves a problem, Houston.

Arguably, free-but-Coasian energy markets can take care of this problem too, if investors and planners have enough knowledge of future carbon penalties. Capital depreciation is an important consideration. Wind turbines are good for 20-25 years before a major refurbishment is called for, not the forty or fifty years of this analysis. They might be deployed in one region for 25 years, then taken down, refurbished and redeployed elsewhere, an efficiency even within the confines of the strategic vision outlined by this plan.

Since it remains to be seen whether or not the US will opt for any carbon reduction mechanism, all of this is speculative. It's only in states like California that are ahead of the game, where problems like this are being worked out, that this is even a reasonable kind of thinking at this point. The rest of us need to think as much about adaptation as mitigation, especially those of us that teach.

I'd give us a fifty-fifty chance of figuring it all out in time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

CAT on video

A great short clip about the Centre for Alternative Technology on Wales, where a dozen or so Unity students and I visited in 2010.

NYT special on energy trends

Just-in-time, as we switched from discussing climate change to discussing energy and land use solutions to climate change, the NYT has a special on energy trends. It's quite good, as these kinds of things go, and well worth your attention.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jane Long on geo-engineering

A quote below from a Jane Long interview in Yale Env. 360, which happens to underline some of the ideas discussed with our recent classroom discussion of mitigation versus geo-engineering options. The emphasis is mine.

Read the full article here.

"...the best way to solve a problem is not to have it. The best way to solve this problem is to mitigate as fast as we can manage. We should be talking about how we can get to a zero emission energy system as fast as possible. That’s what the climate science tells you the context should be. The discussion about saying, “Well we’re going to reduce by 10 percent or 20 percent”— it doesn’t really jibe with what the problem is. The problem is how fast can we go to zero and then probably below zero. Believe me, I know how hard it’s going to be. Even if we had the will tomorrow to do it, it would not be easy. So the next arrow in the quiver is we know some areas are going to flood, we know we are going to have more forest fires, we know we’re going to have more droughts. And how are you going to better manage these phenomena? And the last and the scariest is we’re going to intentionally manage the planet so that climate change doesn’t destroy us."

New report on global carbon sources

A useful new online device for teaching some aspects of carbon mitigation is an interactive web page called The Supply Chain of CO2 Emissions, by Davis, Peters and Caldeira, also published as a short report in PNAS.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Green collar jobs and the missing workers

I found this article interesting, particularly as it illustrates the fact that even with 9% unemployment, there are still jobs to be had, and even jobs left unfilled. Mostly, it seems, the missing workers are engineering jobs at the technician or journeyman level -- the kind of jobs I held for much of the ten or so years I spent in the workforce before I became an academic.

These are the jobs that, as Matthew Crawford pointed out, can't easily be exported to China. And the absence of adequate workforce must be holding up the recovery, since the toolrooms and assembly lines that make our stuff, however robotically, are still put together by humans: fitters, machinists, welders, and process engineers.

In the green economy, the primary missing ingredient is energy modeling and cost analysis -- there are literally thousands of dollars of energy efficiency measures to be found in almost every large institution and even in most family homes.

You'd think we would get on it, considering what's at stake, for the climate and the economy.

"Get it sorted," as we say in the yUKe.

But even here in Maine one of our most technically proficient and largest green contractors has felt the need to have its own job fair (to which our Sustainable Energy Management degree students got a special invite).

Imagine, needing to have an expensive event like this in the middle of a jobs recession!

Here's the invite, the flyer, and a neat letter that accompanied it all:

From Nicole Collins at the Unity College Career Center:

Evergreen Home Performance, a Rockland-based energy audit and contracting company, is holding a Career Exploration Open House on Tuesday, October 18. They are hoping to see some Unity students there!

The information is attached. Please contact Elise Brown, Development Manager, with any questions. Her contact info is , 594-2244 x711.

Career Exploration Open House – Tuesday, October 18, 5-7 pm

Ham Niles can’t quite remember when he first set his sights on a job with Evergreen Home Performance. He’d worked with the energy-efficiency contracting company on his own home and found that “an hour or so with them revolutionized my whole agenda and the framework on which it was based,” so he paid attention when friends mentioned a Career Exploration Open House last spring. Evergreen’s next Open House is Tuesday, October 18, from 5-7 pm, at 15 Tillson Avenue in Rockland.

It was clear that Evergreen wasn’t a regular contracting company. Everything from its mission to make homes more comfortable, healthy, and energy-efficient to its culture (family-friendly with health insurance for all full-time employees) intrigued him, so Niles applied for Evergreen’s free, six-week, 24-hour class in building science.

The course is part of Evergreen’s long-term workplace development process, explained Development Manager Elise Brown. Regular open houses and building science courses have proved an effective hiring tool. “Instead of waiting till we’re desperate for new advisors and technicians, we’ve created a longer period of time to explore the relationship with potential employees,” said Brown. “Applicants get the change to learn about the field and prove their commitment, and we get to assess their skills and enthusiasm.”

At the October 18 Open House, Energy Advisor Cree Hale Krull will explain how the training process prepared him to figure out what’s wrong with a house, explain problems and solutions to customers, write reports, and make sales. Project Manager Svea Tullberg will talk about the hands-on work she and the other technicians do to improve homes, including adding insulation and drainage systems.

Niles – who started as an Energy Advisor this month – recommends the Open House to “anyone who has a desire to more fully understand how houses work and make the leap from theory to practice.” Those who share his interest in working with “smart people who do dirty jobs with dignity and an eye for the details that count” can apply for the next building science course. Evergreen has already hired four of the students from last spring’s class, and anticipates another round of hiring soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011


An interesting question: Does the 1918 eruption mentioned in the article below appear in the L & R 2008 base data, graphed above and in the table below?

Answer is a pretty unequivocal no. The values for optical depth (of sulfate aerosol-caused UV light scattering -- VOLC in the data set below) do not exceed typical low/background values. Something like a value of 0.05 would have been required to register.

Katla does not appear to historically have been a high-sulfate aerosol type volcano.

Which is good for humanity in general, although it may yet disrupt air travel.

And although it would have been a nice test of L & R 2009 and other models, had Katla erupted as predicted, and had there been sulfate in the stratosphere as a result.

But I found this a valuable short exercise. The value of this kind of thought experiment is in providing students with the kind of mastery over the facts and math of climate knowledge that will be needed to provide mitigation and adaptation needs in the next few decades.

A special version of what philosopher Matthew Crawford has called, in another context, "mastery over one's own stuff."

A shortage of java? Not necessarily.

Starbucks execs are warning that the humble Arabica bean may shortly go into short supply, as a result of climate shifts.

What do I think about this? Moi, who drinks probably a good half-gallon of the strongest possible brew per day, and is a most-favored customer at all branches of the Seattle-based chain within forty miles of Unity, Maine?

Well, I think I know far less about coffee cultivation than I would need to know to comment.

But I know enough about genotype, phenotype, climatic zone and climate change to know how to think about it. It's not rocket science. It's just good old fashioned ag sci

With a twist.

The slight difference is that your climate zones, or hardiness zones, or whatever you want to call them, may shift faster than your cultivation and cultivar might.

Not something your average aggie has had to contend with, historically speaking. And your average aggie does have a rep for being, ummm, well, a bit of a plodder.

(A cruel and foul canard -- you try getting your head around all that juju. Especially when the guys from Monsanto, et al, come in with their Wall Street lawyers.)

And so what I think is that there's a small fortune to be made here by the company or individual or even national government of a small semi-tropical nation that can most quickly match current or future variety to future climate zone, essentially put the ag sci alongside the climate sci, and thus identify where the next great coffee growing region of the world will be, where the most cost-effective agricultural land resources will be within that region, what variety of bean to grow there, and, inestimably, how to grow it without large fossil fuel subsidies required.

Job creation, albeit of a somewhat unusual kind (that will get far too usual as time goes on).

Because I may be willing to do without oil heat, incandescent light bulbs, and even gasoline-powered cars to help save the planet, but I'm not sure I physically can help save the planet without me regular cup of joe beside me! And I know I'm not the only one.

Maybe it's time for me to review this obvious addiction.

BTW, I'm not sure how many agricultural scientists there are that get this training elsewhere, but I work with about five or six of them each Tuesday/Thursday.

And that exact kind of problem, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are talking about. That kind of thing.

It's called adaptation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

From Jerry Cinnamon

(Recently retired UC Geology professor)

I thought that you might be interested in this presentation. It's both
stunning and informative.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Ap for L & R 2009

For Environmental Sustainability class:

I built a Google Docs spreadsheet ap embodying the regression model obtained by Judith Lean and David Rind in their 2009 paper, How will Earth's climate change in future decades, which we have been studying.

Instructions are here.

The calculator is here.

(Note, there are no margins of error given in this simple ap. To see the margins of error, which are important, you would have to get the basic data and replicate the model in a stats program such as .JMP or Smith's Statistical Package (a free download). I will give extra credit to any student who replicates this analysis on their own using the software package of their choice. See me for the data.)


Extensive McKibben

An interview, at the Guardian

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Andy Burt comes to visit

One of my favorite local organizers came to visit college yesterday. "Andy" Burt is a Quaker, a long-time member of Mid-Coast Friends Meeting (where I met Aimee, many years ago now), and was for many years the key organizer in Maine Interfaith Power and Light, the religious environmental organization that spurred creation of the renewable electricity market here in Maine.

Andy now organizes the Green Sneakers Project, a door-to-door canvas working on local energy advocacy.

I think this is a great project for Maine, primarily because of its ability to reach out to people suffering what is currently great hardship each winter because of high energy prices and actually help reduce the hardship by making homes tighter, warmer, and more efficient.

Andy was also arrested at the Keystone XL protests in DC.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Deep background to forest dieback article

On the NYT's Green blog:

McKibben hammers Obama on pipeline

In today's paper.

Of course, Bill doesn't have to win re-election.

What the Obama administration are thinking, and why they are thinking it, is probably less to do with cronies and more to do with the calculation of 2012 votes, and the timing of the decision.

Obama's team probably wishes it could drag out the discussion until after next November.

Think about it:

If the administration nixes the pipeline directly, the climate wins a short-term battle, but then the Koch brothers and less rabid oil interests pour money into the election, and get their pipeline anyway.

If the administration supports the pipeline directly, they lose all negotiating power with moderate oil interests. No point in giving it away.

But if the administration is seen to be thinking of supporting the pipeline, asking, even begging for moderate oil interests to show some support, jeez, buddy, spare a dime for a poor embattled most-powerful-man-in-the-world, then the Obamites get a new angle on the election, something they're going to need if they continue to abandon their base, and a wedge is driven between the radical conservatives such as the Koch brothers, and more moderate oil interests.

The notion that somewhere in Canada there are two trillion barrels is itself enough to take the edge off the bull market in oil which will take the edge off the bear market in general. I'm not a practicing econometrist but I was well trained by some very good ones, and can read the numbers well enough to know that there may be two percentage points of employment numbers for Obama, if the edge can be taken off the oil price.

I'm not saying it's good, or that I like it, or that Bill should back off. As Jim Hansen has intimated, the CO2 from two trillion barrels of Canadian crude is probably enough to send us back to the paleocene.

I'm just saying, it is what it is.

By the way, if the jobs numbers will be the primary determinant of 2012, and if oil interests like the Koch brothers want so badly to see Obama gone, do you think they might find a way to send the NYMEX crude numbers up again at some opportune point?

I would bet on it, myself.

You'd think that those conservative types clever enough to work this kind of stuff out would be clever enough to read a few science papers and realize that, no, scientists actually aren't kidding, nor a liberal conspiracy, and that the possibility of going back to the paleocene is real.

You'd think.

In the same paper, an article about new support for geoengineering, and a good discussion of the risks of the Keystone XL.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Forests and climate change

An excellent article in the NYT, featuring woolly algedids, the Harvard Forest, and the work of the Running lab at UMT, among other things we teach in Environmental Sustainability and at Unity College in general.

UK up to ten per cent renewable electricity

Friday, September 30, 2011

What will it be like?

Graph of the four primary climate change factors from Lean and Rind 2009 (paper linked in the menu to the left). The right hand part of the curve is the L & R projection for future decades.

One of the responsibilities of teaching young people about climate change is that at some point you will be required to be to be able to describe, as accurately as you can, what will most likely happen. Students, quite rightly, want to know what their futures will be like, and will ask you to tell them. More than anything they will be seeking reassurance, some straw to grasp that things are not as bad as they seem. This is only human. If it's in your power to give some reassurance, you should. No young person deserves to spend their early years worried about some horrible event that may or may not come to pass. But you must also balance this with a realistic assessment of the facts, and some careful set of warnings so that they are prepared.

This important obligation is complicated by the fact that what will happen in climate change is simultaneously as much an economic and social problem as it is a problem for natural scientists. Few thinkers have a good grounding in all of these disparate areas, and so their expertise, and comfort level, begins to peter out as they approach disciplinary boundaries.

And the honest truth should always be, well, we don't quite know exactly what will happen. The future is full of uncertainty and subject to the influence of random events. In the case of climate change, the primary uncertainty is whether or not various currently hypothetical "feedback loops" will tip the system over some "threshold" to an entirely different equilibrium -- an entirely different planetary climate resulting in the dislocation of billions of people and their support systems. I'm not going to deal with feedbacks in this article, except to say that they may exist, may kick in, and have all the power they need to change the planetary reality beyond current comprehension. (This is one reason our class focuses on dynamic systems models -- so students can begin to understand feedback loops and how they can create exponential effects.)

Instead I will try to answer the easier question, "What will most likely happen if what has been happening for the past few decades continues to happen for a few more decades and there are no tipping points or fast feedbacks in that time-frame?"

I'm no world-class expert, but I have been puzzling over these social and natural science interactions in the sustainability arena for some twenty years now. Interdisciplinary problems like these were the focus of both my MS and PhD theses, particularly the PhD which focused directly on questions of social change with regard to climate change in American society. It was a similar concern that forced me out of my first (military) career with a crisis of conscience many years ago. I guess I would say that my main qualification would be that, yes, for better or for worse, this is actually a lot of what I think about, and have been thinking about for a few decades now. In addition to the expected books about climate science and renewable energy, my bookshelves are full of books on the history of great social upheavals, from the American revolution to the end of the Cold War.

It helps that I teach climate and sustainability classes each academic year and each semester. That keeps me in practice, and the students' interest gives me a reason to keep thinking.

Each year and indeed each semester I must therefore take a good stab at trying to describe for my students what I think will most likely happen, based on the most recent data and events. I always tell them that this is my best guess, based on the most recent data publicly available, and subject to change, perhaps dramatic change, as things unfold.

This is a responsibility I take seriously.

I use a two- to five-decade time horizon, and focus on the important periods in students' futures one to two decades out when they will be forming a career and a family and therefore need a reasonable economic situation, and then later, four or five decades out, when they will be thinking about their retirement, and therefore need society to be organized enough to support them.

Most recently, since it became available, I've used the 2009 Lean and Rind study "How will Earth’s surface temperature change in future decades?," which is linked to the side of this post, and which directly addresses this decadal problem. It also happens to use a statistical method that most third-year students have been taught already, and which can be easily replicated in class. I extrapolate the L & R projection based on the table of climate effects given on page 8 of the 2007 IPCC report Summary for Policymakers. (The "FAR SMP")

This seems to me to be a conservative set of starting points based on the low p-values in L & R, the high R-squared, and the consensus nature of the FAR.

Let's start with what will most likely happen with the planetary, North American and Maine climates, in that order.

There are four major factors to consider. Three major stochastic or cyclical natural factors, the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, volcanic effects, and the cyclical variance in total solar energy reaching the planet, compete to mask the combined anthropogenic effects of greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes, and black carbon pollution. (For the statistical exposition of their workings, see L & R 2009 posted to the right.)

The underlying temperature trend is, however, upwards, and this slope is correlated with the combined anthropogenic effects and statistically very significant, allowing us to rule out other hypotheses as to the cause (p < 0.01 for all four variables).

The coefficient of correlation in the L & R model is 76%, meaning that we have a good ability to predict what will happen to global temperature, if we know or can guess the future status of the four variables.

The 24% unexplained variation is definitely unsettling, but society routinely has to predict public and private policy based on far more unsettling uncertainties, for instance, the uncertainty of what the oil markets will do next week, or whether North Korea will use one of its nuclear bombs. The notion that we shouldn't do anything about climate change because we don't know how enough, with enough certainty, is nonsense, and mostly just a rhetorical tactic used by climate policy opponents who have some personal monetary stake in the outcome. We know plenty enough to act now.

(This is a slimy business, this climate denialism, and the people who practice it seem more and more reprehensible to me as time goes along. But, what goes around will come around. In particular, should the people that have been attacking climate scientists ad hominem expect any mercy when the public realizes just how utterly evil they have been, and how much they have been playing fast and loose with other people's lives and futures? But this is a matter for another discussion.)

So what will happen if, as seems very likely if not almost certain, the anthropogenic effects in L & R continue to increase?

More or less obviously, the planet will continue to warm as it has done for several decades. The recent flat spot in the five-year average warming was just that, a flat spot at the top of a long uphill incline, most probably due to a recent sunspot minima and the persistent presence of small amounts of volcanic aerosols, and the temperature trend will continue on up as soon as the eleven-year solar cycle picks itself up again and the skies clear of aerosols.

(Correction: I just received an email from Judith Lean, in which she cites persistent La Nina conditions as responsible, along with the solar cycle, for the recent sub-decadal moderation of the climb in global AAT.)

The result would be a year like 1998, only worse, because of the increase in the anthropogenic variable. L & R project such a year (labeled "B") in the right hand side of the graph. (They don't really know which year this might be, of course.)

The next decades warming may not be as abrupt as we had thought it would be five or six years ago, based on the recent projections for solar cycle 25. This seems to me a kind of Godsend of sorts. However, if at any time the sunspots return, the warming will accelerate.

The anthropogenic effects will continue to climb, even if the sunspots hesitate, and so the planet will continue to warm, just at a slower rate than was thought in, say, 2004. But the trend may also accelerate. Back then we were able to "look forward" to depleting oil supplies reducing pressure on the atmosphere, but with recent developments in domestic non-conventional supply this "hope" has evaporated.

(My quotes are deliberate. I understand perfectly well how bad oil depletion would have been, and how great it is that we now have better domestic supply. I'm relieved and even willing to celebrate that the new supplies allow us to get some of our (US and the west's) geopolitical power back with regard to the various petrostate dictators, especially China, Russia and the middle east. I just think that climate change is likely going to be worse for us than oil depletion would have been.)

The general addition of energy to the atmosphere, with the evaporation and churning that results, will mean increased extreme weather -- what Tom Friedman has called global "weirding" -- all over the planet, more droughts and desertification, more heavy monsoons and more ten, hundred- and even thousand-year flooding. Atlantic hurricanes may become more intense, but they may also become less frequent, or at least it may appear so because they may veer away from the eastern seaboard more easily. All this and more is provided on page eight of the FAR SPM or other references such as Kerry Emmanuel's work on hurricane intensity or frequency.

In La Nina years, according to L & R and the various expositions of ENSO effects given by NOAA, regional warming won't appear too strongly in Maine and other northern tier states, but the American south will be badly affected much as it has this year. In El Nino years, the entire continent will be much warmer and Maine will generally have a warm wet winter. There's usually quite a bit of snow with an El Nino Maine winter, or at least it seems that way to me after having lived through a few of them now, but the air temperature is warmer. If, as happened during this last winter (a strong La Nina), a strong southerly loop of the jet stream sets up for a good portion, the winter weather in Maine can become very changeable, as cool northerly and warm southerly air masses either side of the jet stream alternate overhead, and as the great storms that cause nor'easters run up from the southern waters, along the edge of jet-stream-following cold fronts.

A good volcanic eruption with significant cooling aerosols is enough to give us a much cooler year world-wide. Volcanoes are, or at least appear to be, random within this decadal viewpoint.

The general take-home message for the next few decades is gradual warming of one to two degrees Celsius, most likely just one degree before 2050 (this warming is less marked in predictions based on L & R 2009 than in the IPCC FAR because of the effect of the solar cycles), with random El Nino warmings and volcanic coolings from time to time along the way. But this is quite rapid warming from an ecosystem point of view. In the continental US under an L & R scenario, changes will most likely be gradual but climate zones will move steadily north "over" the tops of ecosystems, leaving those systems subject to high disease- and weather-related mortality, particularly of those native plants and animals that were at the edge of their range. An example is the dramatic pine beetle infestation in the western US. Invasive plants and animals will move in to replace natives. The people that live in these ecosystems, particularly farmers and gardeners and fishermen, will be required to work out new ways to live in relationship with the ecosystem. In the high arctic change will be more rapid.

It seems reasonable to me to expect that extreme weather events will worsen as the energy in the atmosphere increases. It seems unreasonable to expect different, especially after this year.

Understanding how all this impacts the economy and thus society requires a slightly different way of thinking. Economists understand that economic change occurs at the margin, because economic events such as recessions or booms in the business cycle or in specific sectors are the aggregate of thousands of small decisions made by individual consumers and suppliers.

Thus the aggregate demand for petroleum created the current North Dakota and Canadian oil booms. What was a shortage and high prices just about everywhere else, and a factor in the recession, created an economic boom and even an investment bubble and over-employment in the Albertan and North Dakotan oil patches.

At the margin, climate change will have impacts on the economy as some sectors and products are badly affected, while other sectors and products boom. I think Texas agriculture is in for a hard time, while Maine agriculture seems to be experiencing if not a boom, at least a partial resurgence of sorts, and the development of new crops and new markets. Likewise, continued high price even for the new oil supply means that Maine hardwood pellets are in demand, as are the stoves that burn them.

So, ceteris paribus (all things being equal), if we expect marginal change and if climate change continues much as it has done for the last few decades and as predicted in L & R 2009, an economic viewpoint will predict some proportion of Texan farms and ranches to lose output and go out of business one by one as time goes by, while some proportion of Maine farms will increase in output and a few more will come into business or increase the scale of their business every year.

Likewise, Maine maple businesses will go out of business one-by-one, while farm businesses in Maine that are experimenting with new crops, such as our new small vineyards and wineries will come into business one-by-on.

This is the inherent nature of marginal change.

It's only when a community is actually badly damaged by extreme weather events to the effect that civilization has to be rebuilt locally that this balancing economic effect is reduced. Otherwise, one community's economic problem tends to be another community's economic gain, and Maine, as Stephen Mulkey mentioned in last night's lecture, is a refugia of sorts for many climate related concerns, but particularly rain-fed agriculture.

There will be more extreme weather. And we can't easily predict where it will hit. Too much of this kind of impact will, however, predictably contribute to another recession or depression, or will affect our ability to pull out of the current recession. It's also possible, as happened in the 14th Century in Europe (detailed in a book by Barbara Tuchman titled "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" (1978)), for climate change effects to create a breeding ground for war and revolution. It seems that high food prices exacerbated by climate change did contribute to something like this in this year's "Arab Spring."

When will Americans change their minds and demand political action on climate?

"When they realize how bad things can get," seems to be the best answer I can give and indeed the one I gave in my PhD dissertation conclusion. In other words, after things get worse, and, given the increasing power of climate denialism, possibly much worse.

Right now the combined impacts are bad but not bad enough, and as mentioned the Lean and Rind study shows only relatively slow change. This slow change is enough to create huge problems, but we could adapt to the new climate reality, perhaps without even recognizing it as climate change.

Most likely the change will be large enough that most ordinary people will realize climate change is occurring, which is itself a blessing of sorts. It will help us get something done before feedbacks kick in.

If we are lucky, that is.

But with the various fast feedbacks possible in the global climate system, they may easily get bad enough soon enough, certainly in my remaining lifetime. It's eminently possible that some threshold will be crossed in the next few years.

Remember, the extreme weather events we are currently experiencing result from only roughly one degree Celsius of average global warming since measurements began around 1850. L & R's model predicts between one and two before 2050, but extrapolation of a regression model this far out is statistically unreasonable, meaning L & R is best used for the next two or at most three decades, after which we must return to GCMs to work out scenarios.

There are at least two and possibly eight more degrees in the pipeline this century, if we don't slow the burning of oil and stop burning coal, according to the IPCC FAR, based on multiple GCM outputs.

Two degrees over the course of the century, we can probably deal with. More than three or four is a lot, and will be very difficult to deal with.

Here I tend to look at other great American changes-of-mind such as the fight over slavery that ended in the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Movement, or importantly for me as a Briton, the period of isolationism leading up to World War II.

Americans, it seems, change their minds only slowly, but generally do so in the end. A practical people, concerned mostly for their own well-being and that of their families and communities, Americans require a good deal of very obvious evidence before they are willing to change their ideas and mental models of how the world and society work. Hurricane Katrina, and even the numerous weather disasters of 2010-2011 were not that sufficient a Pearl Harbor.

But as Churchill said, perhaps somewhat in exasperation as German bombs were literally falling around British heads,

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities."