Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SPICE up your geoengineering

This from the Guardian today.

SPICE, apparently, stands for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering.

New Samsø movie

This one is a little more reflective. A little less information on renewable energy, a little more information on people's attitudes, particularly on how the local farmers have investments in the energy projects.

The movie will run automatically. Click on the image to go to You Tube, use 'full screen' to enlarge.

The old one is below too, for comparison.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On reflection...

Don't the CERN cloud formation results strongly suggest that empirical models such as Lean and Rind's 2009 multiple regression make better short-term candidates for setting targets in policy formation, at least until we know more?

Note that the high empirical value derived for the cooling effect of sulphate aerosols in L & R 2009 is consistent with the CERN results -- and troubling for those committed to the IPCC consensus ideas on GHG emissions reduction priorities.

Assuming they read it, of course.

One big difference between the policy world and the world of natural scientists is that policy people, especially economic policy people, go on making old arguments long after the empirical evidence has overtaken the argument.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Energy for ME

Recently, I went to the Energy for ME Summer Institute at Schoodic SERC.

I was asked to give a couple of guest lectures on the future of energy supply in Maine, particularly highlighting the need for STEM skills in middle and high schools so Mainers can understand and control our energy supply better, but also highlighting renewable energy made right here in Maine.

I've uploaded the slideshow I used to the public side of my Google Docs page so you can see it if you'd like to. It's a little difficult to get all my points without the lecture, but you should get the drift of most.

Try the STEM word problem. I made one mistake in drafting the text of this problem. There's a dozen Womerlippi Farm free-range eggs and a package of home-grown bacon (or some more vegan gift) to the Unity College or Maine school student that can find this now-deliberate error.

This was a fun assignment for me. Energy for ME is run by the Island Institute. Which great "think and do" tank , as a very long time fan of Maine and Scottish islands, I am highly supportive of.

I made sure to take lots of books and posters and techy things, anemometers and solar panels and wotnot, for the middle- and high-schoolers and their teachers and parents to look at.

As always I enjoyed the SERC setting and the granite and sea air of the Schoodic peninsula. Fifteen million dollars of ARRA and other recent federal funding has made this place a superb gathering and conference center.*

A big Thumbs Up to the Island Institute and their Energy for ME collaborators and to the staff of SERC. Jolly well done.

*Our own Conservation Law Enforcement program students will be early beneficiaries this fall, as they show up for their new semester program organized by Associate Professor Tim "the Colonel" Peabody and collaborators throughout the federal and state conservation law community.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Quote of the month

"People who think evolution is just a theory should get last year's flu shot."

(Paraphrased from this editorial here.)

Of course, even though this is a great quote, it's funniness depends on the author's science misconception.

The theory of evolution is "just" a theory.

But so is the theory of gravity.

Keeping up with the Jones's (and several thousand other serious climate researchers)

One of the things I enjoy about my work in teaching climate change and related problems in energy is how quickly we are developing new information. Climate science has been a serious and well-funded priority for nearly twenty years in the academy, and so there's a fairly large infrastructure, and a large number of participants in the worldwide science process.

This is not to say that we still couldn't answer some important questions faster.

It is to say that there's a lot of new information to sort through, and it's very easy to get left behind. I'm a natural student and always have been. Other than a few odd hobbies (like pig farming and household energy retrofit) there's really not much out there that I enjoy more than reading the science literature and trying to revise my internal mental model of how the climate system works accordingly, so this is fun for me.

If you don't read the literature in this game, you'll be woefully out-of-date in a year or less. I'm always fascinated by how many amateur proponents there are, such as the large number of folks still on the Al Gore circuit, and so on, that don't bother to keep up with this stuff.

This latest study from CERN and collaborators contains some interesting and complicated new material about atmospheric chemistry that will inform and perhaps revise the large scale General Circulation Models (or GCMs) used in climate modeling and prediction.

At this point, the new material doesn't seriously affect the most important policy concern, which is how quickly and in what directions will the regional climates change in the next few decades. What it does mean, if supported by other lines of evidence, is that an entirely new explanation of cloud formation will be needed, and the GCMs will need to be re-parameterized to the new explanation.

Which is all to the good, because a revised explanation of clouds will go someway to reducing the remaining unexplained variation in the GCMs, which will allow us to better hone our policy recommendations to reduce upset in the human economy.

Assuming we can get people to listen, that is.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

El Nino and conflict

One climate phenomenon our students study in some detail is the El Nino/Southern Oscillation or ENSO cycle.

The Earth Institute has a new take on some of the downside ENSO impacts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Are you sitting down?

That's what a lawyer said to our new college president Stephen Mulkey last Thursday.

The attorney then went on to tell Stephen that the college would be receiving an anonymous $10 million gift, earmarked for our endowment.

Nothing remotely like this has ever happened to our small college.

When the announcement was made at the start-of-term assembly yesterday, Dr. Mulkey asked for questions.

We were all far too stunned to ask any.

This itself was remarkable, since we at Unity College are not generally so reticent with our questions and comments.

When I think back over what it took to bring the college to the point where we could be the recipients of such confidence, well, there's just been an awful lot of hard work for me and my colleagues. At times it was exhausting and demoralizing. At other times, it seemed like we were getting somewhere.

This year of 2011 was shaping up to be a watershed year for the college even before the anonymous gift. We have completely rebuilt our curriculum, updating it for 21st century sustainability problems. We have revitalized our campus with several new buildings, including our Terra Haus, the first student residence in the US to meet the Passive House standard. We hired a good half-dozen excellent and superbly qualified new faculty colleagues, including Doctors Mulkey and Trumble (President and VPAA respectively). We won two $100,000-plus research grants for summer sustainability field research involving students and a $200,000 Davis Foundation grant to support curriculum reform and accessible technology. Things were looking good.

Money was still tight, as it always is at our small institution, and we still had to think long and hard about every expenditure, a process in which I'm heavily involved as the Faculty Moderator and a member of various key planning committees.

There are always at least a half-dozen completely vital and essential things we could do with every last dollar.

Sometimes I feel like frugality, particularly frugal sustainability, is what this college has that is best in itself, to give to the world.

But we were getting somewhere. I felt buoyant walking around campus, doing my daily business, organizing my research crew, seeing the new, super sustainable buildings, the solar arrays on the Unity House and the Terra House, the huge new fields of productive organic veggies grown for the dining hall and the local food pantry, all thriving in the Maine sunshine.

And then someone, name unknown, gave us ten million dollars on top of all that.

Our budget deliberations will still be difficult. There will still be four or five competing and perfectly vital things we might do with every last dollar. (Down from six!) We will still need to be very frugal.

But I think what this gift has dome more than anything -- and perfect timing at the start of a new term and a new college budget year! -- is to ratify all our hard work.

This gift tells us that we are appreciated, that we've come a long way, and that important people understand that we have a long way to go, but we are going to get there.

Monbiot on economics

British environmental blogger George Monbiot, has been writing about the economics of Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth.

This kind of economics was a major focus for my PhD studies. Jackson takes the ecological economics of Herman Daly and Georgescu-Roegen and the members of ISEE to the next step, intellectually speaking.

Unfortunately, and fortunately, nothing very much will happen as a result of Professor Jackson's book or George Monbiot's editorial plug for Professor Jackson's book.

Unfortunately, because without a new economics, we are headed for some very difficult years on planet earth, as the planet's various climate zones shift around, and as our short experiment with fossil-fueled human population and economic growth comes to an end, one way or another.

Fortunately, because untold human misery unfolds every time some academic "scribbler" comes up with a new economic game plan.

Keynes will probably always have the best line on this problem:

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. "

In particular, in today's America, a vast and unpredictable movement of economic conservatism, of which the so-called Tea Party is just the tip of the iceberg, will refuse to participate in any transition to Jackson's kind of economics. It's possible that some portion of this movement might even become violent, were some other group in society to gain political power and attempt to impose a (new) Jacksonian policy.

Monbiot doesn't talk about this, but I tend to think it an important point.

We're a long, long way from any kind of serious implementation of these kinds of ideas. But it would be good to talk about them.

Preferably without revolutionary or counter-revolutionary violence.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Oxytocin implicated in "group think"?

That's not what the article says. It's my extrapolation, related to yesterday's post on critical thinking. But worth thinking about. All those college cliques...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Critical mass

College starts next week with the usual faculty work week, during which we get ourselves organized and ready.

Students arrive the following weekend. I'm happy about this, and anticipatory.

I'm teaching three content-oriented classes, two sections of our general education Environmental Sustainability class on food, population energy and climate change, and a section of our introductory economics class, all of which makes me very happy because I enjoy the content and students, especially in the economics class.

But as always I'm thinking a lot about skills, especially critical thinking skills, which are a major outcome for Environmental Sustainability.

I've learned that it's best to start by discussing what constitutes critical thinking with students, both to determine their current level of skill, which varies quite a lot by year and individual, but also to make the outcome visible and explicit, a kind of goal-setting exercise.

"See here, this is what we need to try to do, and if you get good at it, these benefits will follow."

Critical thinking is really the difference between a serious college education and imitations. There are plenty of college programs out there that never really succeed in developing this skill. And huge benefits do follow for the individual and society. I've written at more length about this elsewhere on this blog.

And without the particular kind of environmental criticism that is the environmental movement, we wouldn't have any raison d'être for America's Environmental College.

So it's especially important to our work at Unity College.

Of course, one downside to becoming a powerful critical thinker is a kind of loneliness. Critical thinking requires the questioning of "group think," a very pervasive phenomenon in any primate society.

If you question "group think," necessarily you are set apart from the group. You become a loner.

Even in college this group-think is very visible, even in the classroom, as in when all the student tribes and cliques sit together. Sometimes I find it necessary to have students sound off by numbers into new groups, just to break up these old groups, just to get them thinking differently.

It's so easy for folk to be captured by the social milieu in which they spend their time, and so difficult to develop independence of mind.

I teach mostly upper division classes, and so students come to me having developed the reading, writing, math and speaking skills that enable us to explore difficult problems like climate change critically.

At this point in their educations, it's good to try to get them to set aside the patterns of early youth, particularly the identity-building primate socialization that leads to these patterns.

But this can be very painful for those who are insecure in their identity.

That might be one reason I like this part of my job. Not that I get to inflict pain! But that I get to be the midwife at the birth of a newer, stronger, more resilient identity for the brightest of our young people, the identity of an emerging independent thinker.

Here's the Wikipedia list of critical thinking skills:

....observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition... due consideration to:

Evidence through observation
Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

In addition to possessing strong critical-thinking skills, one must be disposed to engage problems and decisions using those skills. Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Species movements faster than thought

This is a interesting article, a summary of some recent findings.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

$1.50 a watt "not out of the question."

I've reported elsewhere on the grid parity achievement in CA.

This latest is a technologically and economically competent journalistic article about solar power -- an extreme rarity.

Subsidies to go: Ethanol update

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Load cell

On Tuesday last week we raised the new campus anemometer tower and wired up the weather station.

As we raised it we took some load cell measurements, to check our design calculations for the load on the anchors.

For checking the load on any anchor or guy line system, a load cell, AKA tension transducer, is the best solution. Ours was expensive, several hundred dollars, but a lot cheaper than a failed anchor.

The load on the lift anchor topped out at about 1,200 pounds. The anchor is designed for about 3,500 pounds.

The tower in its initial configuration is thirty feet of a recycled Bergey wind turbine tower with anemometers at 10, 20 and 30 feet. You can see wind shear in action by watching the different anemometers spin faster the higher they are.

A primary purpose of this tower is to study ground-level wind shears over very long periods of time.

By design, another ten feet is available to also allow the testing of small scale wind turbines, for which, however, a building permit would be required. Unity is one of those Maine towns that, in a panic about wind towers, passed an ordinance that restricts even the tiniest turbines.

In fact, such is the zeal of the anti-wind power activists in Maine who advocate for these ordinances, that if our students were to design and build a wind turbine one semester, and wished to test it, and the next semester decided to come up with a different design, a different building permit would be required each time.

This would apply even if the turbines had only a one-meter blade diameter.

And that, dear friends, is a really, really silly restriction.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Not the Fox News one. The real one.

The only problem with Gretchen is that Daily and Daly is confusing.

Scientists in power?

If you'd asked me whether or not this was a good idea twenty years ago, I would have said "no way!"

But that was before the Great Denial.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Borrowed from Aimee

This is very funny, stolen from my lovely wife's Facebook page, although I'm not sure where she got it from. Click on the image to enlarge. Click twice if, like me, you need bifocals.

My only quibble is, I think there are millions of members of the general public who don't know how science is done at all, let alone know it well enough to have a coherent view of the process.

Which may be one reason why we're going to cook the planet.

Doug gets down with the numbers

My colleague Doug Fox just posted what I thought was the best post yet on the Terra Haus blog.

Apparently the expected solar gain is 7.8 m BTUs/year, which Doug states is 1/2 a cord of wood.

Let's check his math. According to my friendly local forest products website, there's 24 million BTUs of heat per cord in ash firewood -- the most common hardwood used for fuel in Maine. But with even the best modern wood-burning space heaters you'll only get 85% of that heat into the house. So 0.5 times 0.85 times 24 million is 10.2 m BTUs, a little more than 7.8, but close enough for government work.

I think he's in the ballpark.

I like numbers, but I really like those numbers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


My last week of summer field research is coming up. Following that, a couple of easy weeks. And then the fall term will start and we'll be back in the grind. I'm getting that anticipatory feeling that I always get at the end of summer.

It's always interesting at this very pleasant time of year how little we remember our feelings at the end of spring term, how tired and frustrated and upset we were with one another, and with the educational process in general, students and faculty alike.

Education is a process fraught with inherent conflict, internally and externally, or it isn't education.

It should come with a government health warning.

Warning: Participating in education can change your mind.

Changing your mind can be painful. Symptoms include but are not limited to headache, blurred vision, backache, perspiration, shivering, pallor, migraine headache, and feelings of inadequacy.

I'm always amused by the politically correct among us, even at Unity College, who seem to think that all life's activities should be pleasurable,
especially academics.

But, student or teacher, if you don't occasionally have some of these symptoms, you're probably not doing it right.

Newsflash! Serious college is hard. Hard things take effort. Effort hurts your mind. They also require feedback and criticism, particularly self-criticism.

But then that's how your mind gets better.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Oil from plastic

The next step for a Sustainable Energy class would be to evaluate the claims made for this new technology, particularly the EROI

But it looks very cool.


That's what I'm talking about...

If there's any "bottom" to the notion, both the New Economics Foundation and Rocky Mountain Institute (the latter our recent partners on a superb campus-wide energy audit conducted by RMI Fellow Anne Stephenson) have taken to calling themselves "think-and-do-tanks" rather than just think tanks.

Something I gleaned from a new Andrew Simms piece in today's Guardian on happiness and economic growth, well worth a read in its own right.

(Although I can't imagine how long it will take, or any feasible political pathway, to get from today's world of economic dogma to the one Simms imagines -- that Keynesian problem that all the most radical economists love to sweep under the carpet. And I'm not prepared to wait, especially to get something done about climate emissions.)


I've commented previously on the much-underestimated power of the common law in battling pollution, including climate pollution. One aspect of British life, reflected and even magnified in the USA, is the fact that corporations may eventually, sometimes, occasionally, get held responsible for their bad actions in a court of civil law.

Elsewhere on this blog I've talked about climate tort cases currently wending their way through the system.

Today's interesting case is Shell, in the Niger delta.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wind Crew video

I believe Rachel and Jacob share credit for this great You-Tube video featuring wind crew members at work.

How to.... an offshore wind farm.

This is what serious engineering looks like in 2011.

It took only four months to build.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt ceiling detritus

Like most of the western world's educated class, I've been having an interesting few weeks following the debt crisis kerfuffle in DC. Now that a deal appears to be on the table, I'm interested in relating the process and the outcome to what I think of as the real world of geopolitics -- the very different world I live in, which admittedly is shared by only a small minority of scientists and policy thinkers.

In my world, the American debt-and-deficit crisis needs to be seen in the context of larger things, if you can think about anything larger.

What larger things?

On the top of my list, the items I tend to track daily, are the processes and pace of climate change, changes in relative energy cost-and-availability, or energy economics, innovations in energy technology, changes in food security, changes in geopolitical military power, including asymmetric capabilities, and finally, the desperately slow march of democracy and human rights worldwide.

Set alongside this laundry list, the debt ceiling negotiations seem in very minor proportion, just a light bump in the long slow downhill stretch of road that is the decline of western hegemony.

For others, it seems, the debt ceiling fiasco allowed or enabled the realization that we're on a downhill trajectory. Duh. How does this come as a surprise? Growth in Chinese population and economy has long been on a pathway guaranteed to outpace the west. Sure, Western technological preeminence, including military preeminence, remains the key factor in determining the outcome of conflict all around the world, but how long can this be expected to remain the case?

And what will happen when climate change and relative energy scarcity adds to that potential for conflict?

So the various geoeconomic jeremiads being issued today by and through the world's press (examples here and here) are surprising to me only for their lack of overall perspective.

Of course
the west is in decline. And of course America is now leading the charge. How much longer did you expect it to last?

The real question is what this, and the much larger problems in climate, energy, food and security that barely make the front pages, will do to the great western project of political, intellectual and religious freedom?

We're going to have a climate and energy and food and security crisis, and the west will decline relative to the east, particularly China and India. Those things will most likely happen whatever we do.

The real question is, will we be living in a world of climate change, energy and food scarcity, and increasing conflict where democratic freedom is in the ascendance, or will we be living in a world of climate change, energy and food scarcity, and increasing conflict where democratic freedom is in decline, along with the great western nations that permitted it to all-so-briefly flourish?

One interesting personal nuance to my vantage point over this complex and shifting geopolitical arena is that I'm British.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that the west is found to be in decline.

Born in 1961, I grew up in the last gleam of the twilight of empire. In the decade when America was putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, Britain was in the last stages of bringing her people home. As I became of conscious age, British possessions all around the world were decolonized one after the other. Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Singapore and Hong Kong, British Honduras/Belize, none of these mattered very much to me, but it was interesting to hear tales from various elders of the different world that had existed forty or fifty years later, before Britain effectively bankrupted herself fighting the Nazis.

That was a war that most of those elders fought in or suffered through. And it was a war that ended in a debt crisis. At least, it did for Britain.

What can we learn from this?

I have no personal nostalgia for all those little bits of "pink on the map," but if we're to preside over the decline of the American empire, what might we learn from the decline of the British one?

The final end of empire was averted for a short while, a generation, by a foreign bale-out, the famous "American Loan" negotiated by none other than Lord Keynes himself. But hidden in the sub-text and context of the American Loan was the final clause of the grand bargain that FDR had effectively put to Churchill prior to Pearl Harbor: America will help you, but the Empire has to go. Churchill of course thought he could out-live and out-smart FDR on this. He managed one of those two.

The Suez crisis of 1955 and '56 was in essence Churchill's final attempt to outsmart the American position, and marks the end of any final dreams of empire for Britain.

There were ten years between the post-war debt crisis and the bale-out that was the American Loan, and the military conclusion that was Suez. Ten years during which Britain had a chance, and failed, to work out a sustainable geopolitical stance. After which she went into almost terminal decline. Luckily, the island nation lost only her empire and not her soul, largely, again, through American backing.

There is life after decline, once you've learned how to be a second-rate nation. But you can't expect the world to do as you wish anymore. And you have to work out what it is you value the most, because you can't hold on to everything. The Britain I grew up in was working out those kinds of things. Ultimately it settled on a very plural and inclusive democracy that has not yet been fatally wrecked by terrorism. Indeed, terrorism may have made it stronger and more inclusive in some ways. There are still satanic mills churning out product, still pastures green, stillness still lives in the cathedral close, and it doesn't seem to matter very much to the sanctuary of the cathedral that there's the sanctuary of a mosque just down the road. Britain is still Britain, and the British are still the phlegmatic and absurdly mongrel race we've always been, only more so now that many of us are brown.

So while the current crisis marks a turning point of kinds in American power and hegemony, it doesn't yet mark the kind of geopolitical and military failure that was Suez. American economic power is wounded, possibly fatally, but American military power is not. And America is still a place where people of all colors and religions can somehow live together in imperfect and creative harmony.

There will be half a generation or more, or less, between the nadir of American economic power that is represented by the recession-to-debt-crisis period of 2008-2011, and the point in the future when some burgeoning Nassar chooses to challenge America militarily and wins some kind of American Suez. But that time will necessarily come. It is inevitable that as American economic power declines, American military power will follow.

And so now the process begins, and Americans have to therefore begin to work out what it is they value the most, because they can't hold on to everything.

As a Briton that knows and loves America well, well enough to be part American, what would I advise holding onto?

Britain has her green and pleasant land and her mongrel people, including generations of new British races currently being assimilated, all of whom are now deeply accustomed to freedoms of speech, politics, and religion that date back to 1215.

America has a landscape that stretches from sea to shining sea, a geography of plenty shared with Canada that can perhaps be saved from the worst of climate change. It would be good to hold onto this, the world's breadbasket. That means preventing it from fatal climate damage. The Chinese will have to come to terms for food, if nothing else. A healthy environment is a source of power and freedom.

And America has, like Britain, a mongrel population that has become used to being able to say anything it wants to say to anyone it wants to say it to. A healthy disrespect for authority is also a source of freedom. One possibility we should hold out for is that as western power declines, democracy and freedom rises in China. We should do everything we can technologically and intellectually to foment democracy in China. We should deliberately export disrespect for authority to China. It's what they need the most.

And if all else fails, it would be good to hold onto that freedom for ourselves, so at the very least, we can talk truth to Chinese power.

And tell them where to get off.