The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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How to Quit Fossil Fuel in a Few Simple Steps!

By now, most people reading these words probably know why getting off fossil fuel is important, but you might not really know how. It is difficult, and getting off fossil fuel entirely probably requires the collective effort of a whole community (or enough money to build your own personal infrastructure, as some off-the-grid enthusiasts do). It’s a big, overwhelming problem that is hard to think about clearly.

But an individual or a couple can make substantial progress. I have (though I am not entirely off fossil fuel yet). Here’s how.

Step 1: Set a Goal

Do this right now; write down on a piece of paper “I will get off fossil fuel soon.”

Or use whatever wording works for you. The point is to make cutting your fossil fuel use to zero your actual, honest goal. You may or may not succeed, but you won’t likely succeed if you don’t honestly try.

Step 2: List Your Fossil Fuel Uses

I don’t mean to count up how much you use, I mean to itemize the things that you do that constitute fossil fuel use (though it is very helpful to know which uses are the big ones, the places where most of your fossil fuel goes). Here is a hypothetical example:

  • Gas for my car
  • Gas for my lawn mower
  • Gas for public transportation I use
  • Fuel for the airplanes I fly on
  • Heating oil
  • Natural gas for my stove
  • Household electricity
  • Office electricity
  • Food transportation
  • Food processing
  • Creating “stuff” for me to buy

Step 3: Divide and Conquer!

Probably, most of your fossil fuel use falls into just a couple of categories–maybe electricity, gas, and food transportation/processing. Pick one category to work on first. When you have made substantial progress on that, or if you get stuck and have to wait for something to change, work on the next category.

Electricity is probably one of the big ones for most people. 40% of US electricity use is either residential or commercial, meaning citizens have direct control (collectively) over it. That’s huge. Readers in other countries are probably in a similar situation. Not all electricity is from fossil fuel, of course, so your first step here is to find out whether yours is. If you are already on alternative electricity, you’re probably done with this one. Congratulations.

If your electricity is not renewable, you probably don’t have to do without but you will likely have to reduce how much you use. A good way to start is to go on an energy fast. As an educational exercise for yourself, go without electricity for a set period of time, say three days or a week. If that is logistically impossible, you can make exceptions for specific activities (like going to work) or take symbolic steps. For example, if you do not want to turn off your refrigerator and freezer, commit to not opening their doors during the fast–pretend they are not there.  If you must use your computer for work, do so, but commit to not using social media or personal email. The idea is to make an honest effort to do without in order to learn which uses of electricity add something to your life and which do not. You might be surprised.

For example, refrigerators and clothes dryers are major electricity users and most people probably take them for granted, but you can do without either. Line-dried clothes smell divine and refrigerators often become places where people hide food to spoil. If you buy food in small quantities and use it promptly you might not need it, especially if some or all of your meals are vegan.

But, in point of fact, our refrigerator stays on and my husband occasionally uses the dryer on the no-heat setting–and our fossil fuel contribution from home electricity use is now zero. How? Our electric company offers a certain number of kilowatt-hours per month from landfill gas generation and we keep our usage below that number. Landfill gas is the methane that leaks out of landfills. Collecting it and burning it to generate electricity does release carbon dioxide, but methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 is, so our electricity actually has a negative carbon footprint. Isn’t that awesome? Your electric company may offer something similar, and if it doesn’t you can ask them to, or find a new electric company that is more helpful.

You may have to reduce your usage a bit to stay within the limit, but that should not be difficult. We did it by not using our supplemental electric heat, line-drying most of our clothes, switching to energy-efficient appliances and light fixtures, and turning off the electricity at the breaker when we leave home so as not to “leak” power through appliances on stand-by.

Gas is another big one. Some people can get by without a car, but others just can’t. If you happen to be shopping for a new car, you can get a diesel, convert it to biodiesel or veggiediesel, and then find or create a fuel source (some people make veggiediesel from donated used fry oil from restaurants). An electric car is another possibility, if you have enough non-fossil-fuel electric capacity to charge it.

If a new car is not an option for you, try a gas-fast. Again, this means going without as a means of educating yourself. How many places can you get to by bike, on foot, or by public transit (which is usually not fossil-fuel free, but it’s usually an improvement)? How many of the trips you normally take do you really need to make? You might be surprised here, too. Minor lifestyle changes and a little ingenuity might get you out of cars all together.

If you do have to use your car, get thinking about steps you could take in the future and in the meantime set a concrete goal for gas reduction. Our first goal was to use our car less than once per week. We have achieved that for the summer, although in the winter my husband is a volunteer firefighter and he needs to drive to fires. Our next goal is to reduce our total annual gas usage by 10%.

Food can involve a lot of fossil fuel, given how far it usually travels. Factory-farmed meat is especially carbon-intense. I do not know what the carbon footprint of local, free-range meat is–it probably depends a great deal on how the individual grower does things. Ideally, you could grow all your own food or buy food from right near where you live and transport it in a backpack. Don’t laugh, many humans have lived that way, many of them probably happily. You probably don’t have the option, but you can get creative about ways to get fossil fuel out of your food in future, and in the meantime work on eating local as much as possible (and cutting out factory-farmed meats).

Depending on where you live, this may be easier or harder than you think it should be. A good way to get started is, again, to set manageable but challenging goals. For example, commit to getting all your fruits and vegetables from within your state, or 60% of all your food by weight from within a 50 mile radius, or whatever else works for you. You get to decide whether you want your goals to be detailed (weighing produce and calculating miles) or general (shop mostly at the farmer’s market).

Part of my practice is that when I can’t find local food, I at least stick to food that could be local–for example, bananas don’t grow in my area, so I no longer eat them. I’m not absolute about this; lentils don’t grow in my area, either, but I eat a lot of them. I don’t turn up my nose at what other people offer me when I’m a guest in their home and I make other exceptions, now and then. I find that making exceptions and being flexible makes any discipline easier to stick to.

So Where Does All this Leave You?

Realistically, getting off fossil fuel may be a long-range goal for you, but you’ll get farther if you take achieving your goal seriously. No vague “I guess I’ll try to be a little greener.” Defining sub-goals and achieving them is also important psychologically. Remember, where you get stuck is where you get busy, because other people are probably stuck, too, and you can help un-stick them.

Remember, too, to support political and corporate leadership towards dealing with climate change. The one cannot make it without the many, and the many cannot make it without the one.



Marching Orders

A (hopefully) huge climate march is coming up this September 21st in New York City. Being there could make a difference.

The People’s Climate March, as it is being billed, is not the product of a single organization’s efforts. Instead, it is a cooperative effort of many groups–eight hundred and fifty of them, at last count. The organizers are still soliciting more partners, so if you have a group of your own, sign on and see how you can help.

The reason it is in Manhattan, rather than Washington DC, is that the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki Moon, has called for a special international conference on climate change in New York for that week. Unlike most meetings of the UN, this one does not involve UN delegates but rather heads of state.

The march is not to be a protest but rather a show of support; world leaders (especially those of the United States, who are both democratically elected and vulnerable to lobbying by the fossil fuel industries) need to be able to see that the people will support efforts to do something about climate change. They need to know there is political will backing them up. Only then can they act.

The organizers are helping to coordinate both transportation and housing. You can go to their website for more information or to sign up for email updates. An interesting possibility involves The Great March for Climate Action, a separate event that began in March and will continue until the beginning of November–a march that literally crosses the country. They will take a break from their own route to join the march in New York, traveling in a group from Indiana and then returning. If you want to join the Great March for a while, you can therefore get to NYC by hitching a ride with them. Conversely,if you go to NYC for The People’s March, you can go Indiana with the Great March and join their trek for a while.

Obviously, you would need to speak to event organizers about this.

Besides the NYC march itself, there will be other, related events in the days before and the days after the 21st of September. If you cannot get to the United States, there will be other coordinated events in other countries–their website has information on that, too. So far, there do not appear to be coordinated events in other parts of the US, but you could probably organize one yourself. If getting to New York is difficult for you, do an internet search for “people’s march for climate [your state]” and see if any local organizations are chartering buses in your area.

If you cannot get to New York, call the White House AND your Congresspeople on that day. If it’s busy (and hopefully it will be) call back.

This is about sending a signal. I have friends who poo-poo marches and other public demonstrations as ineffective, and it is true that public figures can generally ignore them. A march cannot force action. Using a whole bunch of gas to drive to New York seems counterproductive as well (although, public transportation and chartered buses and trains should help with that!).

However, in the United States, the electorate can force action, and a really BIG march is an indication of what the electorate will do. Large demonstrations can bring a lot of pressure to bear even in non-democratic countries (as in the Arab Spring) and they have been effective in the United States in the past even when most of the marches effectively could not vote (as in the civil rights marches).

Marches matter if people show up to march in them.

I have covered other demonstrations on this blog before. In the process I’ve discovered that a lot of people who might want to go typically don’t find out about the march in time and that media coverage of the demonstration itself is generally very minimal. I therefore humbly offer the following suggestions:

  • Encourage your friends and associates–everyone you know–to go to the march
  • If you belong to a political or activist organization of some type, get involved as a group
  • Go on the march, if you can
  • If you cannot, on the day of the march, contact your elected representatives to tell them to act on climate change
  • Encourage everyone you know to also contact their elected representatives on that day
  • After the march, check your local newspapers and news broadcasts and for favorite online news sources. If any do not cover the march, write in or email them to complain. Your letters could get published, making YOU a journalist covering the event.

There are people who don’t want to do anything about climate change for various reasons. Many of them probably cannot be convinced. However, it is easy to forget that a lot of people DO take the issue seriously. A demonstration is a good time to stand up and be counted.


A Necessary Impatience

Last week the Internet was full of the tragic death of Robin Williams, a man apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: depression. The subject was off-topic for this blog, but I wrote about it anyway, addressing climate change as a mental health concern. This week the internet is full of the death of the tragic Michael Brown, a boy apparently felled by a pervasive issue no one wants to talk about: racism. Again, the issue is off-topic here, but serves as a jumping off point for an important discussion.

A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. I had, of course, heard of the letter before. It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. In essence, the local authorities had responded to civil rights protests by making protest marches and boycotts illegal. The local activists had responded by continuing to march and by asking Dr. King and his colleagues to come in and help. King did, which was why he was jailed. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.

But actually reading the text of the Letter, I was struck by how much of it sounds weirdly current. The Ferguson protests  stem from a situation that is different in many of its details, but King’s urgency, his insistence that the community he had come to serve had a right to be angry, had a right to be “impatient,” sounds very much in keeping with many of the comments coming out of Ferguson.

This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic. I can’t link to it, the current issue isn’t posted yet. It’s “How Climate Hysterics Hurt Their Own Cause,” by Charles C. Mann. The title does not quite say it all, but it comes close.

Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change, not the moderates and not the extremists. Arguably he is right, given that we aren’t making much progress, but the article is full of questionable statements. For example, he asserts that sea level rise “will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren.” He bases this statement on a timeline in which the sea only goes up by only one inch over the next century, followed by further rise later. Even assuming this timeline is correct (which it probably is not), one inch of sea level rise can be a major problem because of the extra power given to storm surges in low-lying areas. Consider that one extra inch is enough to get a flood over a door sill and into a basement. The sea level rise that has already happened flooded thousands of extra people in Superstorm Sandy who would otherwise have stayed dry. But perhaps Mr. Mann just doesn’t know anyone in New York? Indeed, he goes on to disavow any responsibility for others at all.

How much consideration do I owe my 40-times-great grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?

We might kindly assume that he actually does care about other human beings, that he is only anticipating the confusion of other people more selfish than he, but he never calls out the moral bankruptcy of the attitude he describes. It is hard to know where to start with this scientific and moral muddle.

But the charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.

The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that.

Chattel slavery didn’t end because abolitionists refrained from denouncing it as a sin and an abomination. Women didn’t get the vote by being meek and ladylike. Jim Crow was not forced underground by the patience and forbearance of black people.  Gay people didn’t win legal marriage in so many states by waiting until America was “ready.” Change doesn’t happen because people wait for it politely.

Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.

The Letter From Birmingham Jail has become a classic of American political and moral literature because many people now realize that Dr. King was right. The emergency was real and could not wait. Resistance to racial justice was not caused by black stridency, and black people could not dissolve that resistance by adopting an attitude of meek patience. In retrospect, is seems cruel and ridiculous that anyone could say ‘wait’ to people who “have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”

So, why do modern environmentalists take seriously any calls for us to step down in turn? When we see whole communities forced to relocate because of sea level rise, when thawing permafrost is literally blasting giant holes in the ground of Siberia?

Events in Ferguson seem unrelated to climate change, but in the larger picture there is a lot of intersectionality between racial justice and environmental justice. The poor and the otherwise disenfranchised are the disproportionate victims of both climate change itself and the environmental costs of yet more fossil fuel extraction.

But just as there is overlap between the problems of racism and climate, there is also some overlap between solutions. In either case, doing something constructive requires taking the needs and concerns of people you have never and will never meet seriously. It requires actually learning something about the issues (one extra inch of water is a problem and Michael Brown isn’t the first black man the police of Ferguson have attacked). And it requires a principled refusal to treat an emergency as anything other than what it is.

Because while activists do have a responsibility to conduct themselves so as not to make the situation worse, resistance is not the result of stridency–it is its cause.



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The Good News from Facebook

The other day, I saw a Facebook meme that included the following text:

There are 14.8 GW of solar currently installed in the US, which is enough to power three million homes and reduces carbon emissions equivalent to taking 3.5 million vehicles off the road or shuttering more than 4 coal-fired power plants.


The meme was created by an entity calling itself The SolarIndustry. Of course, this seems to be good news, but the phrase “enough to power three million homes” bothers me. The statement as a whole is interesting food for thought, too. So, let’s unpack this thing a bit, shall we?

First,I should say that I don’t know whether the quoted statement is true. Its accuracy is not the point of this article.

Also, please note that ‘watt’ (and therefore ‘kilowatt’ and ‘gigawatt’) is a measure of the flow of electricity, not an amount. If a pair of LED lights each use 1o watts, that means they use electricity at the same rate, but if one is on twice as long as the other it will use twice as much power. This is why I use gigawatt-hours (gWh), not gigawatts, and kilowatt-hours (kWh), not kilowatts, throughout the article, except when referring to The SolarIndustry’s statement.

How Much Is Enough for Three Million Homes?

Obviously, “three million homes” is simply The SolarIndustry’s way of helping the reader understand what 14.8 gigawatts really is. Measuring electricity use in homes is kind of like measuring area in football fields–it’s something most people can picture easily. The meme didn’t mean that there are precisely three million solar-powered homes out there.

But The SolarIndustry goes on to say that we have enough solar capacity to “shutter” four coal-fired plants. While this, too is a figure of speech, not a statement about specific power plants, the point is obviously that adding solar-generated electricity has the power to subtract a corresponding amount of coal-generated electricity. As if solar energy could chase away fossil fuels simply by existing.

Solar energy can’t do anything of the kind.

The problem is that the American energy market isn’t a zero-sum game. These kinds of claims make it sound as though a given amount of electricity could be “enough to power a household” in the same way that eight ounces of water is enough to fill a cup.

But that isn’t what ‘enough’ means in this context. If it were, then the average residential electricity customer would use about 14 kWh per month, because that’s about how much you need to replace kerosine lamps with LED fixtures. That’s what residential electricity was mostly used for, in the beginning–to replace kerosine or coal-gas light fixtures. The actual figure for an average American house for a month in 2012 was 903 kWh, because if people can afford a given amount of power, they generally find a use for it. The cup has no bottom. It can’t be filled.

Adding solar power generation capacity is an important tool in switching away from fossil fuels, but it cannot, all by itself, trigger the switch. Without other social, economic, and policy changes, the only thing that adding more solar can do is increase total electrical generation capacity–driving the cost of electricity lower and increasing demand.

The only way to shutter coal plants is to buy less electricity from coal plants.

What 14 Gigawatts of Solar Really Means

The actual figure for solar electricity generation in the US in 2013 was 9333.4 gWhs. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only .23% of total US electricity generation.

We get 13% of our electricity from all renewables combined; the rest is fossil fuel and nuclear power. We could calculate the number of houses that is “enough” for, but as we have seen, no amount of energy is really ever “enough” because demand can increase infinitely. Consider that 200 years ago, the demand for electricity was precisely zero.

To get a real sense of how far our renewable energy can go, we need to turn the calculation around–stop asking how much of current demand renewables can cover and start asking whether we can live within the energy budget renewables offer us. If we were willing to cut our total electrical usage to 13% of what it is now, we could get both fossil fuel and nuclear out of our electrical grid tomorrow.

So What Is the Good News?

Increased solar capacity really is good news, just not for the reason The SolarIndustry gave on Facebook. The issue is that we will only get off fossil fuel as a society when we limit our energy use to what other, climate-friendly, sources can give us. Probably, though will require some kind of legal changes, and it will definitely require social and economic changes. Such shifts will only be politically feasible when we have enough alternative power sources to give us a lifestyle we can accept culturally. We could try using no electricity and no machines at all except those driven by muscle power, but most people wouldn’t accept it.

But the more renewable capacity we have, the less jarring getting off fossil fuel would be. Already, cutting out fossil fuel from the residential electricity market would be doable, if the existing capacity were distributed properly (I do not know about commercial, industrial, or military use).  My husband and I, for example, use about 130 kWhs per month, which is just 7% of the national average–and in point of fact, we get all of it from renewables through our local electric company. We don’t feel deprived. We have efficient appliances, we hang-dry our wash, we heat with wood (another topic!), and we turn things off when not in use.

The argument that we somehow “need” fossil fuel because without it we’d all be back in the stone age is getting less and less tenable all the time.


When the World Looks Black

So, Robin Williams committed suicide this week. I can’t quite make myself believe it’s true. My social media feeds are filling up with tributes, sympathies, and pleas for greater awareness of depression, the condition that took Mr. Williams’ life. It’s heartbreaking. It’s also not what I want to write about–it’s rather off-topic, for one thing.

But I am mildly depressed myself, at present. The spell began before the recent bad news, so it appears unrelated, and I hasten to emphasize that it’s mild and probably transient. It’s the emotional equivalent of a cold; I’ll feel better in a few days or a week, but right now I just feel like crud for no apparent reason. So, between one thing and another, depression is very much on my mind.

But you know what else is depressing? Climate change.

It’s like that old joke–just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get ya. I mean, here we are, writing and reading all these touching posts on Facebook about how depression is a serious but treatable illness, and at this very moment scientists are not altogether sure the world isn’t ending. In the worst of the worst-case scenarios, the last generation of humans is already alive. In the slightly less frightening scenarios, millions of people could die in the coming decades of gradually increasing chaos. We may still be able to avert anything truly catastrophic, but billionaires are busy spending obscene amounts of money trying to preserve business as usual. Hopelessness and anxiety would seem to be the sane responses about now.

Not that falling apart is especially helpful, only that it’s understandable and perhaps not crazy. The thing is that alongside the floods, fires, and famines and other topics we usually cover here on this blog climate change is also causing a psychological emergency–and that crisis, too, deserves witness.

In 2009, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a report on the psychological dimensions of climate change. In the report, the task force made policy recommendations to the APA, both for how members can respond to climate change as psychologists and for how the organization as a whole can reduce its carbon footprint. The report also collects what was known at the time about everything from how people understand the risks associated with global warming to how they adapt and cope to the changes as they happen. How climate change impacts the way people think and feel, but the task force admits they don’t know much that’s definite. They guess that climate change might cause stress and anxiety and worsen both interpersonal and intergroup interactions. If that sound dry, it’s because it was written by a task force. The APA is clearly quite worried about climate change as a serious mental health threat.

Psychology, as a discipline, has fertile and useful ground in climate change. Why some people deny the problem and why so many of those who accept it still do almost nothing about it are both important avenues of study. Today, though, I’m mostly concerned with how it makes us feel.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) addresses the issue in a clear and accessible way on their website, but discusses the impact of climate change entirely in terms of how humans respond psychologically to extreme weather, cancers caused by pollution, and other assaults by the environment upon the human organism. These concerns are undoubtedly right as far as they go–Superstorm Sandy probably gave a lot of people Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That is a climate change-related mental health problem. But we’re really looking at something bigger and deeper as well.

Other writers raise more nuanced concerns, such as the intolerable conflict between the fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle we love and the planet we also love, or the difficulty of expressing anxiety that might not be socially accepted. But these, too, mostly involve actual or perceived threats to ourselves, and there is more than that.

If there were not more than that, Robin Williams would not be being grieved by strangers.

For many years, most psychologists treated the human mind as an essentially isolated system, perturbable by family dysfunction or personal trauma, but otherwise of itself, by itself. Most psychologists may yet have this bent, I do not know. Some surely do. But there is also a branch of the discipline that sees more than that. The ecopsychology movement holds that the human heart and spirit has an innate connection to its surroundings, that part of who we are is to care about the world outside ourselves, including the world outside humanity. We can, in other words, fear wounds that our not to ourselves, grieve deaths that are not our own.

See, the thing is, we are part of a really beautiful planet. We have coral reefs and butterflies, polar bears and purple martins, crisp autumn days, fresh peaches, and snow falling through the light of a back porch at night. At it is all at risk. We’re looking at losses we won’t live to see regained, guilt we cannot rightly evade, fear we are not stupid to feel.

I’m not saying we should feel bad. Feeling bad seldom impels many people to action, and action is what we need. I’m saying that many of us do feel bad.

I don’t mean that global warming caused Mr. Williams’ death; I have no idea what the specifics of his case were. His death simply got me thinking about what depression in general means, where it comes from and what it does. There are lots of reasons why people get depressed (or anxious, or any other psychological state), and there have probably always been some people who vulnerable to an exhausting melancholy no matter what fortune hands them. I don’t know that depression is on the increase, although it might be.

What I am saying is that we live in a situation that is genuinely sad and frightening. We should, of course, offer whatever aid we can to those people with mood disorders, but maybe we should not regard depression only as a problem of individuals, something that requires only treatment and support for specific sufferers.

Maybe depression will be easier to bear if we acknowledge that even the luckiest of us do have legitimate reason to feel bad. Maybe we all need to get together and build a less depressing world.

Stop causing climate change now.


















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On Natural Gas

So, this has been bothering me for a while now. One of the arguments for fracking–an environmentally destructive method of extracting natural gas–is that it is a relatively clean fuel with a lower carbon footprint than coal or petroleum products. How could any fossil fuel have a lower carbon footprint? Isn’t the chemistry of burning carbon compounds basically the same everywhere?

Well, it turns out that no, the chemistry isn’t always the same. Natural gas is relatively clean, with a lower carbon footprint. There are some complications, of course.

Some Chemistry

Natural gas is so called in contrast to manufactured gas, which was typically made from coal. Manufactured gas was very popular through the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The gas lights of gas-lit London (and elsewhere) burned manufactured gas, as did the household ovens that were so tragically easy to use in suicide–manufactured gas is very toxic. The manufacturing process for  gas was an environmental nightmare.

Natural gas, in contrast, exists in gaseous form naturally, hence the name. It burns relatively clean. A natural gas oven cannot kill a person (unless the gas explodes), so the switchover actually caused a dramatic drop in suicide rates–apparently, making self-injury just a little harder gives a lot of people enough time to change their minds..

Natural gas is mostly methane, which really does release less carbon dioxide per unite of heat released than any of the other fossil fuels.

This is because the energy released from burning any substance comes from all of the chemical reactions that occur during the fire. All fossil fuels are hydrocarbons–chemical compounds made mostly out of carbon and hydrogen. When these burn, the carbon combines with oxygen, releasing energy and creating carbon dioxide. But the hydrogen also combines with oxygen, a second chemical reaction–this one releases heat, too, but creates only water.

Because methane has the least number of carbon atoms per hydrogen atoms of any fossil fuel, burning it creates the least amount of carbon dioxide per unit of heat–but by the same principle, burning methane produces more water.

Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas.

What About Water Vapor?

Water vapor is our most important greenhouse gas. Most of it is natural; humans didn’t create the greenhouse effect, we’re just adding to it.

But human activity is adding water vapor to the sky. Besides the chemical production of water through burning fossil fuel, irrigation and other industry exposes more water to evaporation (and transpiration by plants). And, the warmer the planet gets, the more water the atmosphere can hold and so the more water is sucked up into the sky. This is part of how heat waves make droughts worse.

So, what is all this extra water vapor doing to the climate?

It’s hard to tell for sure, because there is a lot scientists still don’t know about the hydrological cycle–including how much water vapor, exactly, is in the sky. Humidity is very variable, so, depending on where and when you measure, the atmospheric concentration of water vapor could be anywhere from zero to 4%.

Climate scientists do know the feedback loop between hotter weather and increased evaporation is very serious. The more water evaporates, the hotter the planet gets, and the hotter the planet gets, the more water evaporates.  This is just one of the several feedback loops that could easily make global warming become a frighteningly self-exacerbating problem.

But the extra water vapor we add directly (through irrigation, and so forth) it more confusing. Climate scientists typically ignore this extra humidity, in part because it isn’t clear that it has a global impact. A huge amount of water goes up into the sky–the entire flow of the Colorado River and most of the Aral Sea, for example, both are sucked up by human activity and almost all of that water either evaporates or is transpired. But at least some of that water probably falls back down again pretty quickly, so the total amount of water vapor in the air might not increase all that much. Still, at least some of that water vapor probably stays up there for a while, plus both  groundwater mining (pumping well water out faster than it can recharge) and fossil fuel use add water to the cycle that wasn’t in it at all before. It seems plausible that there is at least as much extra water vapor in the sky as extra carbon dioxide. That must be having some effect.

Anthropogentic (human-caused) water vapor could be one of the things science is wrong to ignore. But on the other hand, there is a lot more water vapor than carbon dioxide up there. The concentration of CO2 has gone up by about 100 parts per million (PPM) since the Industrial Revolution, meaning that just over a third of what’s in the atmosphere is our doing. In contrast, if the concentration of water vapor has also gone up by about 100 PPM as a direct result of human activity (that is, not counting the feedback loop), then only about one ten-thousanth of the water vapor up there is our doing. The extra might well be lost in the shuffle.

The above figure assumes that the global concentration of water vapor is 1% which, as noted earlier, might well be wrong–the true figure could be anywhere from 4% to zero, but given how much of the planet is either ocean or humid landscape, 1% seems plausible. The point is that, whatever the real numbers are, we’re looking at a difference of several orders of magnitude between the concentrations of the two gases. Of course, while an extra 1oo ppm of water vapor might mean nothing over, say, a rainforest, over a desert where natural humidity approaches zero, the difference might be quite real. So, whether anthropogenic water vapor matters might therefore be a very complex question, depending on where the increase occurs and what happens to the global climate if certain areas warm disproportionately.

The reason I bring all this up is that while coal is a very dirty, destructive fuel on almost any conceivable level, burning it produces no water vapor at all. When methane (natural gas) burns, for every one molecule of carbon dioxide produced, we get two molecules of water.

Bringing It All Together

On balance, I’d say that burning methane is better for the sky than coal is, and may be better than gasoline and other petroleum products. Much of our natural gas now comes from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is an environmental horror show (flammable well-water, increasing earthquakes), but so is coal mining (mountain-top removal) and petroleum (oil spills, groundwater contamination). The EPA’s new rules for CO2 emissions will probably encourage the natural gas industry at the expense of the coal industry, and that’s ok.

But the issue with water vapor is only one place where the environmental impact of natural gas might be more complex than it sounds. Clearly, the stuff is no panacea.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuel entirely, and that is where our efforts need to go–towards renewable energy sources and energy conservation. Anything else is probably a distraction, although any step that lowers our carbon emissions is an improvement and needs support.



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The Conspiracy

There are those who claim global warming is a conspiracy. Maybe you are one of them.

Conspiracies do sometimes happen. Public figures are not always honest, ethical people, so suspecting a conspiracy is hardly crazy. But sometimes fire alarms go off by themselves, with no fire, and yet we do not routinely ignore our smoke detectors. After all, this time it might not be a false alarm.

So, let’s go investigate; IS climate change a mere conspiracy?

The Three-legged Stool

For a crime to happen, three conditions must first be satisfied: the crime must be possible; someone must have a motive; and someone must be willing to commit the act.

Impossible crimes, such as shrinking the moon in order to steal it, as in Despicable Me, obviously don’t occur. For a more down-to-Earth example, homeless pickpockets seldom pull off massive Ponzi schemes a la Bernie Madoff, because investment banking requires both membership in a certain social class and at least minimum start-up funds, and that is true whether the banker is crooked or not. For a would-be criminal with no money to start with, large-scale fraud is nearly as impossible as shrinking the moon.

And even if a crime is possible, if there is no reason for anyone to bother or no one despicable enough to try, the deed won’t be done.

Like a three-legged stool, a crime cannot stand if any one of its three parts is missing.

The First Leg of the Stool: Are There Despicable Climate Advocates?

Yes, there are probably some morally bankrupt climate scientists, though I’ve never heard of any, personally. But, on the whole, scientists are pretty honest about their work. They have to be. All science is based on accuracy and honesty, so scientists police each other pretty carefully.

Real scientists neither offer nor expect unquestioning trust. To be taken seriously as a scientist you absolutely must publish your work in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer-review means that other scientists, working anonymously so they cannot be influenced, look over your work and decide if it should be published. Scientific papers always include methods, results, and a discussion–that means, a detailed set of instructions so that anyone who wants to can repeat the study to see if they get the same results, the researchers’ own results, and the conclusions they drew from those results. If someone tries to publish conclusions unsupported by their data, the reviewers will notice and refuse to publish the piece. Anyone who fabricates their data will probably be caught and their career will be over.

Do some scientists falsify their results anyway? Yes, but it’s rare. The difference between the occasional crooked researcher and a global conspiracy to invent global warming is the difference between the occasional professor having an affair with a student and an international sex trafficking rink preying on graduate students. The former is reprehensible while the latter is laughable.

This leg of the stool is not, strictly speaking, missing, but it is very wobbly given the extremely low chance of enough people risking their careers in such a way.

The Second Leg of the Stool: Is It Even Possible to Fake Climate Change?

No, it isn’t.

This might surprise some readers, because of course it is possible to tell lies to large populations of people. Whole governments have done it. It’s also possible to suppress scientific research, at least temporarily.

However, the bigger a lie is, the more people lying and being lied to, the harder it is to keep going, because it only takes one person to reveal the truth and ruin the whole thing. And if climate change were a hoax, it would have to be a lie of unprecedented size. Thousands and thousands of climate scientists–if all researchers whose work relates to climate change are included, we could be talking about at least a million people–would all have to simultaneously have gone over to the dark side and stayed there for decades on end without the whole thing falling apart. Because, as noted, scientists check up on each other–and, just as it is career suicide to lie, it is career Miracle Grow to find credible results that fly in the face of what everybody else think is true. If the hoax only involved a few people, other scientists would have spotted the discrepancy and rushed to publish.

Something like 97% of climate scientists to say they believe in climate change means that either climate change is real or close to a million people, plus all their assistants, fieldworkers, office managers, and close friends and family have all been involved in a highly organized plot to fabricate huge bodies of data, and they have kept up the charade, without serious dissent for at least fifty years (before that, climate change was suspected,but not being researched by many people).

Where our Deep Throat? Where is Chelsey Manning? Where is Edward Snowden? Tens of thousands of people in hundreds of countries around the world plot to deceive on a scale no government agency has ever attempted and NOBODY blows the whistle?

The Normandy invasion wasn’t this well organized!

I should note that the periodic claims of climate deniers that one or another “top scientist” has confessed are not reliable. Anyone can call anyone else a “top scientist,” it isn’t an objectively definable position. And anyone can “confess” to anything they want. If climate change were a hoax and one of the perpetrators were really caught, he or she would be fired and might even go to jail. The jig would be up and the hoax would die–unless society as a whole were also in on it.

This leg is pretty well missing.

The Third Leg: Does Anyone Have a Motive?

So, even if this sort of massive conspiracy were possible, would anyone bother? Why would anyone risk a career in such a way?

The motive isn’t prestige, because, as noted, a scientist who could credibly disprove global warming would gain far more prestige by doing so than by remaining loyal to the conspiracy. And it would not simply be fear of reprisal from other conspirators-because what would motivate the other conspirators? They couldn’t all have no motive besides fearing each other.

Some might suggest money, but the reality is there is very little money in environmentalism. Most environmentalists spend half their time trying to raise just enough money to keep going. People who are lucky and good at fundraising can cover their expenses and even make a decent living. Occasionally, someone comes up with a workable green business plan or produces a very successful book or documentary on the subject and makes more than a decent living, but that’s rare.

And even when environmentalists do make money, it’s important to realize that nobody actually makes money from environmentalism as such.

They make money by fundraising, entrepreneurship, writing, teaching, or some other such skill applied to environmentalism. It’s not like making money by selling coal, where the coal itself is worth money.

Anyone who can build a wind farm can build a coal plant or a toy factory or a soft-drink bottling company. Anyone who can reach the New York Times Best Seller list with a book about climate change can get there with a book about something else. Anyone capable of a successful career in academia as a climate scientist can do so as some other kind of expert.

If you wanted to make money, would you create an international conspiracy in order to invent global warming so that you could invent a brand-new field of enterprise where most people who get involved just barely get by anyway?

Frankly, if you’re smart enough to pull off a conspiracy on the kind of scale faking global warming would require, you’re also smart enough to realize it isn’t likely to pay well. You’d go do something else instead, like forging Da Vincis or rigging the stock market. Top-notch international charlatans do not work simply for the thrill of bothering people.

One More Caveat

In all this, I’ve been assuming that the conspirators, if any, are mostly climate scientists.

But what if the conspirators aren’t the scientists themselves, but rather the media or the government? In point of fact, at least in America, both mainstream media and the Federal government are substantially less serious about climate change than most scientists are. Many scientists are busy tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to get the government or the media to take the science even a little bit seriously.

Looks like the simplest, most believable explanation is that climate change is real 




The President’s Plan, Part 2

In a previous post, I discussed President Obama’s new plan to tackle climate change. Than plan does not go far enough, but it does go farther than we’ve gone before and is an important initial step in the right direction. The centerpiece of the plan is a proposed set of EPA rules that would regulate and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

However, the plan also goes farther than some people would like. The coal industry itself as well as Congresspeople from districts where coal is a major employer are fighting the new regulations and there is a real chance they could win. That must not happen; if political leaders do not get the support they need to fight climate change now, they might not try again for a long time.

Last post I encouraged readers to comment on the proposed rules and to talk to their Congresspeople. Now, I’m following up by explaining what the EPA’s rule-making process is, how these rules came to be proposed in the first place, and HOW readers can comment

How the EPA Works

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a body within the Executive Branch of the United States Government. The head of the EPA is not a cabinet-level position because Congress has refused to make it so, but since President Nixon created the agency most presidents have seated the head with the cabinet.

As a part of the Executive Branch, the EPA serves to execute those laws that fall within its area of responsibility. The laws Congress passes are typically too vague to be enforced, so one of the things the EPA does is to make rules that fill in the necessary detail. For example, if Congress says it is illegal to pollute, the EPA gets to decide which chemicals at what concentrations count as pollution.

Because the EPA only makes rules for laws that have already passed, proposed rules do not need further Congressional approval–although Congress can influence EPA activities by manipulating its budget. The EPA does consider public opinion, and every proposed rule is published to the Federal Register so that the public can examine it. After a comment period (which is not always the same length), the EPA alters (or sometimes withdraws) the rule so as to take public opinion into account before adding the rule to the Code of Federal Regulations.

Where the Carbon Dioxide Regulations Came From

The EPA can regulate air pollutants because Congress–by passing the Clean Air Act–said it can. However, usually we think of pollution as some kind of poison and carbon dioxide is non-toxic. Very high concentrations of CO2 can kill by displacing oxygen, but basically the stuff is inert, one of the safest substances around. So, initially, the EPA didn’t bother to regulate it. During the Bush Administration, the Agency specifically refused to regulate CO2, arguing that it did not count as a pollutant and therefore was not under the EPA’s authority.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts vs. the EPA, that CO2 could indeed count as a pollutant if it was dangerous. The Court ordered the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide can endanger public health or the environment and, two years later, the EPA admitted that, yes, CO2 is harmful.

CO2 is harmful because it is a greenhouse gas and is currently warping our climate and acidifying our oceans.

That finding means that the EPA can and must regulate carbon dioxide in order to protect the American people. Unfortunately, there is no way to burn fossil fuels for energy without releasing carbon dioxide. That’s the simple chemistry of the situation. The fossil fuel-based American economy is now on a collision course with the government’s duty to protect the nation, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation for any political leader. Of course, the EPA didn’t create the problem–it simply noticed and admitted a problem that had existed in plain sight for decades.

However, there is some low-hanging fruit the EPA can pick. The more efficient a power plant is, the more power it can produce for the same amount of fuel–and hence the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions. A good place to start is therefore by insisting that power plants become more efficient, and that is what the EPA is doing. It has already set high standards for any new plants, but most of the nation’s existing coal-fired power plants are decades old and very inefficient. According to the new rule, these facilities will have to improve (or close).

The rule primarily effects coal-fired plants, but some natural gas-fired power plants may also have to upgrade.

How Will the New Rule Work?

The rule sets emissions targets that states can meet by requiring power-plant upgrades, by switching to natural gas-fired plants (which tend to emit less CO2 than coal-fired plants), or by focusing on sustainable energy sources and improved efficiency. The EPA will finalize the new rule next year and, after that, the states will then have a year to figure out what strategy works best for them. If any states do not come up with their own plan, the EPA will do it for them.

Do the Objectors Have a Point?

Primarily, it is the coal industry objecting to the new rules. This is not surprising. Industries don’t like being regulated because regulations make business more expensive, at least initially. However, there is no inalienable right to make as much money as possible. When a business practice or industrial process is harmful, it is right and proper that the law step in and do something about it. In one sense, some regulations are actually very good for businesses; business leaders who choose to pay extra for a good cause often cannot compete with those who are not so scrupulous. Regulation lowers the playing field so that no one has to choose between doing the right thing and staying afloat.

But there are also concerns that the new rule could cost jobs or damage the American economy as a whole. These kinds of concerns are sympathetic but do not always have much basis in fact. In this case I do not know whether the concerns are well-founded, but any harm that might be caused by winding down the coal industry is dwarfed by the harm that not addressing climate change would bring. Consider the tens of thousands of extra people flooded in Superstorm Sandy’s surge because of sea level rise due to global warming–and how a similar storm in another densely populated area, such as Boston, is only a matter of time. Consider that heat waves already kill more Americans than all other forms of natural disaster combined–plus the many more people every year year who die from other causes that heat makes worse.. I could go on.

The reason we have a government to begin with is so that we have some process whereby we can do difficult, painful things for the greater good of the country as a whole. The bottom line is that if we address climate change, we can probably afford, as a nation, to compensate the losses of the coal industry in some way. We cannot afford the losses unaddressed global warming would bring.

So, How Do We Get Involved?

Contact the EPA and comment in support of the proposed rule regulating carbon dioxide. Here is a link to detailed instructions on how to do so. They accept comments through their website, by email, by regular mail, by fax, and by hand-delivered note (really!).

Then, contact your Senator and Representative and tell them that you support action on climate change and will vote anyone out of office who attempts to block or de-fund the EPA’s regulation.  If your state is considering taking its own action against the regulation, contact your state officials and tell them to stop or you will turn them out of office.

And mean it.

Our chance of winning this without the support and leadership of the government of the United States of America is very small.