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."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Unity College President gives Climate Misconceptions lecture

Our new college president, Dr. Stephen Mulkey, gave a lecture on climate change to the assembled third year class last night, about 65 or 70 students in all, plus a few staff and faculty and other students who were interested.

Mulkey, a tropical forest ecologist, was keen to dispel misconceptions that the general public has about climate change.

(The slideshow is available online here, and hopefully the audio lecture will also soon be available.)

Here is the list of misconceptions he worked on, one by one, plus my summary of his rebuttals.

Each misconception was dispelled by a series of slides containing the rebuttal, generally using real data.

Misconception: Weather is climate - Local weather events are taken as evidence for or against global climate change.

(Rebuttal: Climate records are much longer -- thirty years of consistent data are usually required to demonstrate a climate change. Also, weather watchers may not be capable of distinguishing when mean and variance change together.)

Misconception: Natural variation is the cause - Climate has always varied over the history of the earth, and the observed changes are part of that natural variation.

(Rebuttal: Yes it has, but the climate record shows current change is unprecedented in its speed. Modeling experiments demonstrate that humans must be the cause of 60-70 percent of the current changes.)

Misconception: Models don't work - Climate models are unreliable and cannot predict future climate.

(Rebuttal: Models are increasingly reliable. Scientists are still tinkering with models to decrease the small amount of remaining uncertainty, but we can now predict what will happen with a good deal of confidence.)

Misconception: It s the sun - The earth is warming, but it is caused by the sun not by human activities.

(Rebuttal: Modeling and empirical studies agree that, although solar cycles are involved in the overall system, they are not large enough in magnitude to be driving the current changes.)

Misconception: Global greening CO2 is good for plants - Global warming may be a good thing because higher CO2 will benefit humankind through enhanced plant growth.

(Rebuttal: Plants do grow faster in higher CO2 concentrations, true, but this is more than cancelled out by the degradation of ecosystems, particularly rainforests and arctic soils, which are already adding CO2 and methane to the atmosphere.)

Misconception: Global warming is trivial. We will be able to adapt because climate change will not have significant impacts on the Earth’s ecology and human economy.

(Rebuttal: Global warming is already non-trivial. People are already suffering and dying, in far-away places such as sub-Saharan Africa, but also here in the US as a result of extreme weather events. And it will get worse, perhaps much worse. The economic impacts of the extreme weather events in the US in just the last year added up to $42 billion, never mind the economic multiplier events of slowed growth as a result of the disaster. (The $42 billion was just in direct losses and disaster relief.))

Mulkey concluded his talk by asking why students were not "in the streets" already, and describing the tension between his duties as Unity College president, and his willingness to make a strong statement and join the ranks of those already arrested in protest (Hansen, McKibben, and Speth, to name just three that come to mind.)

(I for one would prefer he stay out of jail and help us get this college moving yet faster in the right direction to really begin to help solve this problem. But if he really wants to spend a night or two of experiential learning in the DC city jail, that shouldn't slow us down too much.)

What was most gratifying to me about the talk was the rather large number of students that stayed to ask questions.

I was instrumental, along with some of my colleagues, in making climate change and sustainability a general education requirement for all majors at Unity College several years ago, making us an early adopter of this important step which is now recommended by the ACUPCC and ASSHE.

But I wouldn't say that this was then, nor has it been since, popular among students. Even some other faculty have complained. It was a fairly radical step at the time, and many thought we were forcing the subject on students.

I think time and hard experience will show that we were right to do so, but in the meantime it was obvious from the reception to last night's talk that some of the heavier hostility has now waned, and it's certainly good to see the going get a little easier. I've really been enjoying my two sections of the required class this year, primarily because of the strong student interest in the subject matter.

It doesn't hurt that the administration seems to "have my back."

Last night only a small handful of students were dismissive or bored, and twenty or so hung around to ask questions and learn more.

Next week's lecture by Dr. Mulkey will take the discussion to the next level.

Meanwhile, back in class, we will begin to unpack a few of the assertions Stephen made and take a longer look at the evidence in each case, trying to answer students' more in-depth questions.

Tune in for the next exciting episode!

Monday, September 26, 2011

All the fun of the fair

The thirty-somethingth annual MOFGA Common Ground Fair was this weekend and Unity College had a number of activities, including the organization of a giant number 350 made of real fair-going humans.

We also had a booth in the Energy and Shelter area. here at students Kelly, Rebecca and Elizabeth on duty Sunday afternoon.

The wall in the background is supposed to be a demonstration of failed insulation. It worked well for most folks, but we did get a handful who would come right up and say "That's not the right way to do it!" without waiting for the explanation or reading the sign that titled "Little Wall of Horrors."

Well, no, we do know that's not the way.... promise...

Thanks to Jesse, Anthony, Jake, Joey, Sandra, Amy, Rebbecca, Elizabeth, Kelly, Melora, Tom, Cheryl, Sierra, Aliza, Roland, Teneel, Sam, Jonah, Amanda, Randy, and Laura for the help with the booth.

NPR on oil boom, for class

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hoofs and dags and Captives

Saturday was the first of two field trips each academic year in which Aimee and I host first year students from Unity College's Captive Wildlife Care and Education program at our farm.

This program, called "Captive" for short among students, trains applied biologists for careers in zoo=keeping and other animal care work at a professional or managerial level. Students may also go into veterinary careers.

It's a very popular program with young women, but there are a handful of young men too. The students are characterized by a particular fondness for animals.

Aimee and I enjoy having the students to the farm because a) it takes away some of the very back-breaking work of sheep care, and b) it's fun to watch the students literally come to grips with the sheep. The professors who run the program, Sarah Cunningham and Cheryl Frederick, are routinely delighted with the arrangement too, because of the great experience for their students at a crucial time in their education.

It's a good trade for all concerned, but especially the students, who like all students need to learn some important lessons.

Sheep are cute and fuzzy, especially our little lambs, but they're also wild and woolly, and will struggle mightily to get out of the shepherds hands.

They also smell.

A lot.

They smell a lot. And it's not a good smell.

I'm not sure how many "Captive" students question their career choices when, often for the first time in their lives, they are told to grab on to their damp, stinky, heavy, powerful, struggling animal and make her assume the proper control position for hoof care or medicine, or whatever peculiar and seemingly perverted task is called for, but if they do, well, that's a good lesson, isn't it?

One that had better be learned sooner rather than later in the college career. If you don't like handling sheep at this point in your career, you aren't going to like giraffe or hippopotami or grizzlum bear very much later, either, and so it may be time to go off and get yourself a communications degree, or join some other less contact-oriented line of work.

Today's task was FAMACHA® care, as well as the ubiquitous dung tags or "dags" for short, and a little hoof trimming. Nothing too difficult, but, as always, animals need to be immobilized and properly handled to manage all this, and it's probably the handling part that is the main lesson.

It's certainly the main emotional lesson. As we routinely tell the students, sheep care is a bit like rugby, and indeed it's no surprise that the regions of the world that produce the most domestic sheep, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and of course my own homeland of northern England, also produce the best rugby players.

There are no half-way measures in rugby and sheep handling.

You just have to get "stuck in" and grab your sheep. This kind of gumption is not that easy to learn quickly, especially if you're a fashionable young lady from suburban America who has just left her teenage years.

There are other good lessons. FAMACHA care provides one. The main point of this routine is the control of the barber-pole worm, Haemonchus contortous. Infestation by this parasite is exhibited by the symptom of anemia, which itself is exhibited by lack of red blood cells in the blood vessels of the eyelid.

If the eyelid is white or creamy colored and almost devoid of red blood cells, then you treat for worms using a broad spectrum anti-helmintic such as Ivormec.

Notice the scientific language. The lesson is less about FAMACHA or worms, and more about science and its practical uses. First year students fresh out of high school in the first four weeks of their college career are apt to cherry-pick the lessons they like and the lessons they don't like. Routinely, the lessons they like are the ones with warm fuzzy animals, and the lessons they don't like have long words, math, and lots of complicated science reasoning.

This is understandable. One necessary character trait for a good college teacher is empathy for the student. It's a long time ago now, but I still remember well enough being an seventeen-year old RAF aeronautical engineering trainee, and being fascinated by fast fighter jets and less interested in the math, science, and engineering of flight.

But an empathetic student, faced with a sad wormy sheep, being taught by an empathetic professor, can begin to grasp that the proper care of this animal depends on her properly learning the science of worm management, and thus the science of biology, particularly cell biology and evolutionary ecology, is required.

And thus, dear readers, another applied biological scientist is born, and the world, or worm, turns once more.

Two sheep needed to be wormed, which was occasion for another big word : "intubate." Lacking a proper drenching tool, the Womerlippi Farmers get Ivormec into a sheep's stomach and importantly, not into a sheep's lungs, with an intubation kit that was originally designed for hypothermic new-born lambs. It's a little awkward but works.

The sheep had been out on good pasture all summer, so their hooves were nice and didn't need much trimming.

They didn't even have too many dags, which was in some ways a pity because dagging is a disgusting job and at this point in a college career a Captive students badly needs to have to do some truly disgusting animal care job or another.

They did fight a bit, but the proper holds and positions take care of that. A sheep can't move at all if held properly in any one of half a dozen holds. The students learn quickly to get the animal into the proper position and keep him there. Only one lamb escaped treatment, by scrambling rather athletically over a gate we thought was too tall to scramble over.

You never learn not to be surprised at what animals may do.

Three groups of students were handled in this way, nearly fifty students in all, but only ten sheep, counting the one that escaped. Three or four sheep per group.

Still, everyone got to get their hands on a sheep. And a good day was had by all, except possibly the sheep.

There was also a bit of talking involved, as we explained scientific care routines and bits and pieces of sheep medicine, and a little farming, all by reference to science. It's relatively easy to actually get lessons into the student's brain, once you've got his or her attention using the hands-on or haptic teaching method, wet wooly animals optional.

We call this approach praxis at Unity College. It's a relatively unique feature of our pedagogy. And it works.

Which saves an awful lot of effort and money. You'd be surprised how much expensive education is out there that doesn't work nearly as well.

You'd think folks would catch on, but they don't.

Aimee has pictures here. Enjoy.

Piscataquis Village Project

In a very argumentative paper published in a book called "Smart Growth and Climate Change,"(ed, Matthias Ruth from the Maryland Policy School) a few years ago, I argued that so-called "smart growth" planning regulations would not "save" climate emissions.

And they won't. I stand by that claim.

Smart growth is not restriction on growth. It is growth, only (arguably) smarter. It adds emissions. To actually reduce emissions takes shrinkage, not growth, unless of course you retire old sources of emissions at the same time.

Think about it.

But while you're thinking about, understand that I'm not arguing against well-planned development. Better planning is something we badly need, especially when performed voluntarily.

Here's a recent letter from a developer:

Hello Mick-
I stumbled across your "teaching, research and service" website this morning. Tons of interesting stuff. I wonder if you know about or may be interested in a project we are working on in Piscataquis County. We have a way to go yet, but we are off to a reasonable start with $250,000 in contingent investment. If you have a chance, take a look. I'd be interested in any comments you may have. Link below.
Tracy Gayton

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tripoli University

A fake university becomes a real one. If they can do it, so can we. Let's replace all the fake education with real education.

From the Guardian:

The best excerpt:

"For the first time in 42 years the university has the chance to be a normal academic institution. "Until now we had the form of a university but not the function," says Sami Khaskusha, a political scientist. "We fed young people garbage. [Muammar] Gaddafi just used this place to boost his cult of personality and bolster the regime. It did nothing for Libyan society."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Can you model?

A rash of energy related articles in my morning paper today.

1) A debate on the future of US green energy in specific and solar power in particular

2) Bud McFarlane gives us strategic advice on petroleum

3) An update on the new oil fields being developed in the western hemisphere

Enough to spoil a perfectly good cup of coffee. Especially the American Enterprise guy going on about solar power.

Here's the rub: We're at 390 plus PPM of carbon dioxide. More than 400 and Texas the state becomes Texas the desert -- and not in too many years, if this year is anything to go by. Maine gets the climate of Virginia or Georgia by 2090.

And the second rub, which combines with the first in a double whammy of super-geo-strategic proportions: Extrapolate 85 million barrels per day, or 32 giga-barrels a year, by roughly two thirds of your favorite global economic growth rate between now and 2050.

If you like six percent, use four percent.

If you like four percent, use two-point-five percent.

It doesn't matter, actually, which one you use. Two percent is enough to do the job just fine.

Just be sure to get the exponent right.

(If you don't know how to do that, please stop talking about oil and climate change.)

For extra credit, take your new, very hypothetical, global oil demand number, and convert it to annual carbon dioxide contribution to the atmosphere.

For extra, extra credit, spell "impossibility theorem."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Krugman v Minkiw

Last time our introductory economics class was taught, we used Professor Gregory Mankiw's book.

We'd have kept using it if it hadn't been so expensive. Most of our students work at least part-time, and any money they get from parents or loans or GI Bill tends to have to go for food or rent, not textbooks.

They certainly can't afford $200 textbooks when $20 ones are available that cover the same material.

Another, by Professor Paul Krugman, that covered the same material was available, and there were plenty of secondhand copies on the Amazon resale market. This semester's students were able to get their books for less than $20.

Is it ironic that last year's expensive book was by the professor who is advising the party that thinks millionaires should pay less in taxes than the middle class, while this year's cheap book is by the professor who is arguing for a yet-greater jobs program?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Buried treasure

An excellent and delightful article on a family's experience with an innovative Russian school. There are probably dozens of lessons on pedagogy embedded within.

Here's another one, a little more obvious to me, although not, I suspect to those who occupy smiley-face planet.

Take home: grit is important to success in academics.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Corporate carbon counting

The Guardian reports that many if not most major multinationals have begun to think directly about climate change in their business strategy.

This could be good, or bad, if like Exxon Mobil or BP the business strategy they have chosen is to take advantage of climate change, as in these companies' decisions to drill for oil and gas in the high arctic.

But at least many of the corporations are interested in saving energy.

"...59% of companies reported that the cost of schemes to reduce emissions such as energy saving projects in buildings, installing low-carbon power and changing the behaviour of staff, were recouped within three years.

Almost three-quarters of businesses (74%) who responded to the survey now have emissions reductions targets, up from two-thirds (65%) in 2010.

Utilities companies have the best average climate change performance while energy companies lag behind other sectors, with fewer setting targets, taking action or disclosing information."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Another La Niña winter?

Good, if it happens, because I'm not sure we're ready for the first El Nino of sunspot cycle 25.

Lucky too, we may not get sunspot cycle 25, or it may be too weak to notice.

Website for class

Why neoliberalism will lead to Chinese domination

Meanwhile, the US and UK governments have available the lowest-cost finance of any governments in living memory, and our multinationals are sitting on mountains of cash.

How much difference do you think we could make to the balance of foreign trade for energy if some of that money was invested in home-produced renewable energy?

Or are we just betting that the Chinese will suffer more from climate change than we will?

I wish we were looking that far forward, but we're not.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Sleeper" technologies

I have a list of these potential game-changers that I monitor from time to time.

Thorium reactors.

Solid oxide fuel cells

Grid scale energy storage

Sheffield pride

My home town, Sheffield, in northern England is a gritty industrial city of notoriously laconic and plan-spoken inhabitants, surrounded by green countryside and wild moorland. It has long been famous for edge tools, silverware and silver plate; and these days, manufacturing of the special steels used in jet engines and gas turbines and the like.

The latest news is that Sheffield is now top of the league table for the UK government's solar power installation scheme.

The ancient Britons and Romans made iron in Sheffield. The town essentially invented modern steel making, including Benjamin Huntsman's famous crucible steel and the Bessemer process which was commercially perfected in a Sheffield works.

Solar PV manufacturing and testing was established in Sheffield only recently, but it seems that the town has embraced the new technology.

Still relevant after 2,000 years of industrial innovation.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gus Speth was in jail

I haven't been doing too well keeping up with the Keystone protests, what with the start of the semester and all. But when Andrew Revkin wrote an article suggesting that the pipeline wasn't quite the problem it's cracked up to be, I knew there'd be quite a lot of blow back from leading environmentalists.

Revkin, to his credit, published the entire roster of responses. You have to give the guy credit for consistently supporting rigorous debate.

I read the whole thing. It's worth a read.

You sort of expect Bill McKibben to court arrest at a protest, but when I read that Gus Speth was also in jail, that got my attention.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farm and food production videos for class

There are five sections of the BBC video "A Farm for the Future" that we'll watch, as well as the new Maine Farmland Trust series "Meet your Farmer."

Here's A Farm for the Future part 1. You can find parts 2-5 on the pull-down menu to the right when the You Tube page launches.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A year of extreme weather events

Useful but hard-to-face list published today in the Guardian:

A year of US disasters – 2011 so far

• Hurricane Irene, August 20-29. Over $7bn and around 50 deaths.

• Upper Midwest flooding. The Missouri and Souris rivers overflowed in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Damages: $2bn.

• Mississippi river flooding, spring and summer. Damages neared $4bn.

• Drought and heatwave in Texas, Oklahoma. Over $5bn.

• Tornadoes in midwest and south-east in May kill 177 and cost more than $7bn in losses.

• Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley, south-east and midwest on April devastate the city of Tuscaloosa, kill 32 and cause more than $9bn in damages.

• Tornadoes hit from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania 14–16 April. Toll: $2bn in damages.

• 59 tornadoes in midwest and north-east April 8-11. Damages: $2.2bn.

• 46 tornadoes in central and southern states 4 and 5 April. Toll: $2.3bn in damages.

• Blizzard late January paralyse cities from Chicago to the north-east. Toll: 36 deaths and more than $2bn in damages.

Of course, all this was carefully predicted. See the table on page eight of the 2007 IPPC FAR Summary for Policymakers.

And the 2006 Stern Review stated that we should invest about 1% of GDP per annum now in measures to control emissions to avoid much larger GDP reductions of 5 to 20 percent per annum later in the century.

How much longer before we all come to our senses?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Taking the fleece to the mill and touring the research sites

Photo: Unity College anemometer tower site in Dexter, Maine.

I took a nice long field trip yesterday.

The primary spur for the field trip was the recent tropical storm, Irene, which necessitated site visits to all my wind anemometer towers to check guy lines and make sure the towers were still safe. The towers are measuring the wind to help determine where Maine's wind power systems should and shouldn't be located. I'm responsible to the state and the landowners for the safety of the towers.

If I was going to visit the sites, then I'd have to pull the data too. It's always good to pull data when you can, and make multiple copies of the data files, in case something goes wrong with the equipment later.

This is enormously valuable data -- there have been five billion dollars of internal investment already in Maine's wind power industry, as well as many millions of dollars and years of labor spent in compensation, litigation, and out-of-court settlements for noise nuisance created by wind farms, and our survey, a joint project with the University of Maine School of Engineering Technology, is the one of very few systematic programs in the state that show much promise to reduce some of these costs. It's the only program that is working with hard wind data. The state needs these data very badly. It's my job to secure it.

If I was going to drive around the three sites where we have stand-alone anemometer towers (there are three other sites where we have sensors placed on buildings or cell towers), then I might as well drop off the fleece from the Womerlippi Farm sheep at the woolen mill, which is on the way, and pick up my store credit slip in return. Our small and very unprofitable farm needs all the income it can get.

The first site, the W. R. Sherburne and Sons dairy farm in Dexter, Maine, is one of the state's largest and most successful organic dairy farms. This is a very successful and vigorous enterprise, and it just happens to be located on top of a hill, the northern side of which the Department of Energy's 50 meter wind map says is a Wind Power Density Class (WPC) 2 resource area. Class 2 is not adequate for any kind of commercial turbine, but there is good scientific reason to think that the map is inaccurate, particularly when it comes to northern exposures, and there is good scientific evidence to suggest that the winds at higher elevations, at the 60-100 meter range of modern turbines, are greater than Class 2.

We've already demonstrated that the wind power density class of a site not far from this one is WPC 4, when the map says that it's WPC 2.

I was able to pull the truck right up to the tower. I examined the guy lines, then pulled the data chip and copied the file to my computer.

Here's the computer logger, an NRG Symphonie. This is a state-of-the-art device that can log two years of data from over a dozen different kinds of weather sensors without requiring so much as a battery change. (Although in practice, I tend to check the batteries quarterly along with the towers -- you may as well do so.)

The next stop on my field trip was the Bartlett Yarns woolen mill in Harmony, Maine. Earlier, I had loaded about 150 pounds of fleece in black contractor bags in the back of my truck.

The Bartlett Yarns mill makes high quality woolen yarns and other woolen products, materials for hand spinners such as roving, as well as woolen clothing and bags and such. The yarn is cleaned, carded and spun on site using the original nineteenth century equipment.

A hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, Maine was packed with small scale industrial enterprises like this one. Maine also had a lot more sheep then. In fact, in my home town of Jackson, Maine and the neighboring town of Dixmont, sheep husbandry was the primary agricultural system.

Here's the mill building and the Womerlippi Farm truck offloading the fleece.

Other than selling directly to the customer, which requires patience and marketing skills I don't have, small scale wool producers have two options for selling their fleece in Maine. You can sell to the annual Maine Sheep Breeder's Association Wool Pool for ¢50/pound. Or you can get store credit at Bartlett Yarns.

Store credit allows you to purchase Bartlett Yarns products -- carded and washed wool, roving, and yarn -- at a price less than wholesale. Our price works out to roughly $3.50 a skein. We can sell the yarn on in small quantities at $7/skein, and could probably do better yet online, so the wool business is at least potentially a source of farm income.

Up to this point the Womerlippi Farm management (just Aimee and I!) has not, however, made much money selling yarn. We're working on it slowly, in much the same way we're working on making money on eggs, livestock, and meat products. Every year we make one or two improvements to the system and close the gap between costs and income a little bit more.

Bartlett Yarns itself is a wondrous place, like stepping back in time, but it's also a profitable business selling a premium product at what seems to me to be a very affordable price. Look online and you can quickly find similar yarn for sale for twice, or three times the price. It's not unheard of for hand knitters to pay $20/skein for hand-dyed yarn. Bartlett Yarn's product is not hand-dyed, but it costs much less. Four or five or six skeins make a decent sized woolly sweater, and you might pay $30 for that much yarn at this venerable and very useful business.

Have I mentioned I like woolen sweaters? I keep trying to figure out how to make them on my own knitting machine with our own yarn. I haven't made one I like yet, but I'm having fun trying.

Here's some of the Victorian machinery at Bartlett Yarns, and some of their quite beautiful product.

I use slideshows of machinery like this whenever I talk about the Industrial Revolution in class.

Back in the day, a lot of child labor would have been used, but in this day and age, there's no exploitation at the woolen mill, just a team of ordinary Mainers trying to make a decent product, a decent living, and to make sense out of one of our otherwise under-utilized and even wasted agricultural resources.

From Harmony I drove west to Mercer, Maine, where another anemometer tower resides atop a hill that is home to one of Maine's most successful sheep farms. Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer produces premium breed stock and high quality commercial hay.

A good long and somewhat overdue chat with the owner was the first order of business. The results from the first year of data collection at this site raised more questions than answers because of a very high, almost suspect wind shear factor number. The wind shear is the term in the Power Law equation that corrects for increased wind at higher elevation above ground level. You derive the wind shear factor empirically by having a lower and a higher anemometer on your anemometer tower, and reversing the Power Law equation to derive the wind shear as the unknown. You may then more accurately correct for wind speeds at different elevations. The higher the wind shear, the higher the wind speed above the topmost anemometer on your tower, and the lower the wind speed below the topmost anemometer.

The measured wind shear at this sites, and at a lot of our sites in Maine, is very high, much higher than expected. Until DoE and NREL came out with a paper earlier this year that suggests similar results for the midwest, I was unable to explain these results. I'm still at a loss, but am beginning to know what to do. The first thing I need to do is get more data from my high wind shear sites, which means I'd like to leave my tower on this particular hayfield for another year. The landowners have to give up some hay to make this possible, so this required me to explain myself properly as to why we needed to do this, and what potential benefits and pitfalls might ensue.

Here's the tower the day it was finished last year, with the wind crew members Amanda and Steve that helped me put it up.

And that, other than the drive back to college and an hour or so of less pleasant paperwork, was my big day out last week, the first week of term.

One idea that occurs to me, now I've finished this blog post, is that the folks at Bartlett Yarns, the Womerlippi Farmers, the dairy farmers at Dexter and the sheep farmers at Mercer hosting our anemometer towers all have something in common -- we're all trying to make economic sense out of good farming and good husbandry and rural, small-scale renewable energy in Maine.

That doesn't make us necessarily better people, but it does mean that we are at least trying to be more self-reliant, and at least trying to figure out a way to live within the planet's means.

One very under utilized resource is the educational uses to which field work like this can be put in helping students learn to live within the planet's means.

One of the things I like about my life is that I get the chance to combine my work as an educator and researcher with my hobby and second job as a small farmer. Students enjoy coming to the farm and learning about sustainable husbandry, and I enjoy teaching them. We have a series of such field trips scheduled, and I'm looking forward to them. I also enjoy having students work on the various research and demonstration projects I have ongoing at any given time, and using the lessons that arise, spontaneously or planned, to more effectively deliver lessons.

Unfortunately, because of the college schedule, it's hard to get the much longer periods of time that would be needed to take students through some of the more interesting processes and to more interesting sites. This is one of the factors behind my perennial complaint about the so called fifty-minute college class -- an oxymoron if ever there was one, that a routinely unsuccessful pedagogy prevents our use of a routinely successful one. Regular readers will be familiar with this particular meme so I won't repeat it. But yesterday was a case in point. A superb field trip in agriculture and renewable energy went to waste for lack of students.

Where were the students? In fifty minute classes, carefully distributed throughout their day in such a way as to prevent their participation in an all-day field trip.

I can, however, post the details of the expedition here, with photographs, and that will have to suffice for now until the college figures out a way for me to get students into these experiences more easily. I'm working on various ideas, such as summer programming and block scheduling.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nothing much to do with sustainability...

My old buddy Gary sent me these. He's the tall dark fellow.

Guess which one is me? Click on the image to enlarge.

Just to remind myself that I was once as young as our first years.

Or almost.

Unity College SAR team members please note, the litter handling technique circa 1983. Hasn't changed much.