The Climate in Emergency

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


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Dearly Beloved

Tomorrow is Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, fake blood, and sex (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in my example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the age of the relevant stands. Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to be extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably it’s still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has killed or gravely endangered many other amphibians world wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well. There are a few other examples. Probably there are some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Consider whether a hypothetical animal hunted to extinction for the international exotic meat trade is a victim of climate change? It’s hard to send meat across the world without fossil fuel, after all. Or, what about habitat destruction due to human over-population, when humanity wouldn’t have gotten this big without lots of cheap energy? Does it really make sense to say climate change causes extinction only by changing the climate? Or do these other factors that would not exist if climate change did not also count?

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, whether the proximate cause of an extinction is over-hunting, habitat loss, the presence of an invasive exotic pest or disease, the use of pesticides, or something else, it usually traces back to the use of fossil fuel somehow. Because fossil fuel is part of the biosphere and free carbon dioxide is not–burning the stuff therefore shrinks the biosphere, and biospheres lose species when they shrink. That’s physics.

So, it’s a good bet that most extinctions over the past century or so have something to do with climate change, directly or indirectly.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will not have any more children.

I did find a list of historical extinctions today. It is only partial, but fairly inclusive. You can look it up here, but there are too many for me to copy over all of them. I’ll just focus on those that have been lost since my birth.

The Honor Roll

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

 

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

 

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

 

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

 

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

 

Po’o-uli

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

 

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

 

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

 

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

 

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

 

Nukupuu

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

 

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

 

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

 

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

 

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

 

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

 

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

 

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

 

Kaua’i ‘O’o

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

 

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

 

Ua Pou Monarch

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

 

Amistad Gambusia

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

 

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

 

San Marcos Gambusia

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

 

Kama’o

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

 

Guam Flycatcher

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

 

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

 

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

 

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

 

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

 

White-eyed River Martin

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

 

Little Hutia

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Vote Here Part 2

With the general election just a week away, it’s time to make good on my promise to write about lesser-known elected offices that may (or may not) nonetheless have a bearing on global warming.

In the first How to Vote post, I demonstrated how to research candidates’ stances on climate issues, using a few of the bigger races in my state (Maryland) as examples. I’m not going to repeat the process for the other races (except privately for my own edification). Just to recap:

  • Incumbents for offices with national significance (e.g., Congresspeople) are rated by the League of Conservation Voters according to their voting records on environmental issues.
  • Challengers who have previously served in public office have service records, but these might require some digging to find. It’s important to understand local environmental issues, otherwise it might not be clear which is really the record of climate sanity. Be prepared to sort through political spin.
  • In the absence of relevant records, look at the candidate’s own advertizing to determine whose vote he or she is trying to get. Campaigns are famous for what Mary Poppins called “pie-crust promises–easily made, easily broken,” but if the candidate isn’t even trying for environmentalist votes, he or she is unlikely to fight hard for climate.

In this post I’m going to go through the offices being contested in my district and explain what each of them do; some voters (in the past, me included) ignore some local races to the point of not finding out what the positions involve. Not all of these bear on climate change, but some do–and all are opportunities for candidates to develop name recognition so they can run for something else, later. My ballot might or might not have all the same offices on it as yours, but this should help.

I’m looking at races for the following positions:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor
  • Attorney General
  • Representative in Congress
  • State Senator
  • House of Delegates
  • Comptroller
  • Judge, Court of Special Appeals at Large
  • County Commissioner
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Sheriff
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphans’ Court

Governor/Lt. Governor

This is, of course, two separate positions; in Maryland, the two run on a combined ticket, as the US President and Vice President do. This is not the case for all states. Delaware, for example, elects its Lieutenant Governor separately. Some states actually have no Lt. Governor at all.

The position of Governor is, more or less, similar for all the States and familiar to most people, but Lt. Governor varies a lot between states and even from one administration to the next. In some states, including Maryland, the Lt. Governor is a purely ceremonial post, unless and until the Governor is temporarily or permanently unavailable. In others, the job includes substantial legislative duties. Sometimes the Governor can delegate duties to the Lt. Governor and these might be minimal or major, depending on the Governor’s personal judgment.

In other words, the office of the Lt. Governor might be at most a springboard to possible higher office, or a position with direct bearing on policy, depending on the state in question.

Attorney General and State’s Attorney

These two are not elected together, but I’m covering them as a pair because the easiest way to describe the two is to contrast them with each other. The Attorney General is the state’s lawyer and the state has only one. There are many State’s Attorneys, one per county, and each serves as his or her county’s lawyer. The Attorney General does not supervise the State’s Attorneys, nor do the various State’s Attorneys necessarily coordinate with each other, since each is elected separately by his or her own county (or by the City of Baltimore, which in some ways functions as its own county).

Both offices are involved in deciding how laws are enforced, and so are potentially very important from an environmental perspective; they get to decide whether the book gets thrown at polluters or at protesters. All US states have an Attorney General, though his or her duties vary somewhat, but only a minority have State’s Attorneys.

Legislators

The Representative in Congress, the State Senator, and the House of Delegates are all legislative positions. I don’t know why the ballot lists “House of Delegates,” rather than “State House Delegate,” or something similar. Both the State Senate and the House Delegate are members of the State Assembly, the legislative body of Maryland. The Representative in Congress is, of course, the one we send to Washington. Maryland sends Senators to Washington, too, of course, but neither of ours are up for election this year.

The County Commissioners are also legislators–and executives, a combination of governmental functions usually kept separate. Not all states have them, and it is possible for a state to have Commissions in some of its counties but not others. Some states refer to the same position by different terms, such as “Supervisors” or “Chosen Freeholders.” Some states that do have county-level governments use different systems that separate out the executive and legislative functions into different offices. Where county governments exist in whatever form, they have responsibility for various land management functions including pollution control, parks management, and sometimes planning and economic development.

In other words, a lot of environmental issues hinge on the County Commissioners or their equivalents. Though not all of those issues have direct bearing on climate, some do, either in terms of lowering emissions or in terms of preparing for seal level rise and other such problems. These are not people to ignore.

Comptroller

The Comptroller is the state’s treasurer and accountant. They hardly ever make the news, and many people don’t even know how to pronounce the title (the “p” is silent). However, this is the person in charge of the state’s money–not someone to ignore, either. The Comptroller can even suggest fiscal policy and the State Assembly can and sometimes does draft law on the basis of these suggestions. Some Comptrollers, such as New York’s, even have environmental initiatives that address climate change.

Judges and Related Positions

The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which means that it hears appeals from trial courts  but its decisions can be appealed in turn to the state’s version of a Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals. The judges are appointed, not elected, as vacancies appear, but each judge must stand for an uncontested election after appointment and then at ten year intervals thereafter. Judges who lose one of these votes of confidence are then replaced by a new appointment. The judges represent specific court circuits or serve “at large.” There are fifteen in total, though they usually hear cases in panels of three. This year, two such judges, both “at large” are up for confidence votes.

The Orphan’s Courts exist at the county level in Maryland (though not all counties have them) and deals with both wills and the guardianship of minors. Its judges are elected for four year terms and one is up for election in my county.

The Register of Wills is likewise elected for a four year term, one per county,

The Clerk of the Circuit Court is also a county-level position and essentially handles judicial paperwork, including archiving documents and helping litigants file the proper forms.

All of these apply to Maryland courts. Other states have their own systems for electing or appointing judges and other court officials. Of course judges sometimes can decide cases that bear on climate change, and it is possible to make policy from the bench to some extent, but much of their work–while very important–does not bear on our topic.

Sheriff

Sheriffs in Maryland are responsible for enforcing the law, providing security in courts of law, and administering correctional facilities. Depending on the area, the Sheriff may work alongside the organized police force or may be the only law enforcement around. This state has 24 sheriffs, each elected in his or her jurisdiction. The duties of sheriffs vary from one state to another.

I have, for the most part, left out links to my research sources here, because I used a combination of multiple websites and my own prior knowledge on almost every office and citing such combinations is complicated. Looking up the positions on your sample ballot for your own area is not complicated–an internet search for “what does [this office] do in [this state]” should do it.

Now, the only thing left is for you to go VOTE on November 4th!

 


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Solutions that Aren’t

Occasionally, we hear nuclear power, natural gas, or even cold fusion advanced as solutions–or at least partial solutions–to the climate crisis. It is true that each of these has the potential to give us energy with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or petroleum products. It’s also true that each has obvious drawbacks–existing forms of nuclear power plant blow up occasionally, natural gas is fracking awful, and cold fusion might not even exist. But, proponents assure us, all these are surmountable problems and we shouldn’t hesitate to use all available tools when the climate is on the line.

Yes, I’m being flippant on purpose.

But as obvious as the drawbacks are, the argument for giving all available options a try does have a certain merit; the drowning should not question the life-preserver, after all. As usual, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, because it allows two conflicting arguments to each be framed in terms that appear to make complete sense.  That’s why I want to go into detail about all the various reasons why these solutions aren’t really solutions at all–and what the real solution is.

Nuclear Power

Yes, nuclear power plants–technically, nuclear fission plants, because their energy comes from atomic nuclei breaking apart–do sometimes blow up. They don’t do so very often, so there is an argument to be made that the small risk of catastrophic failure is worth the certainty of low-carbon energy. The counter-argument is that even a small risk of catastrophe is too high. We can leave that debate to philosophers, because even a perfectly functioning nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with. In other words, there’s going to be a disaster even if the plant functions perfectly–it will just be a slower and less dramatic disaster.

Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, nuclear power isn’t free of greenhouse gas emissions. While it’s true that a plant in operation produces only heat, steam, and nuclear waste (the steam spins turbines, generating electricity), virtually every other step in the process, from mining uranium to building and eventually de-commissioning the plant, releases greenhouse gasses. Estimates of how much nuclear power plants actually add to the greenhouse effect vary a lot,  though the extremes on either side suffer from clear methodological problems. 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour (gCO2e/kWh) is a reasonable, middle of the road figure. That’s about a tenth of fossil fuel alternatives, but it’s not nothing.

True, as long as fossil fuels power most industry and transportation no power installation of any type is greenhouse-free, but wind farms only have about 10 gCO2e/kWh. That’s one sixth of nuclear’s figure, and wind farms  never blow up.

And on top from the shortcomings nuclear has in the abstract, the practical limitations of the real world create two more serious problems. First, uranium, like fossil fuel, is not a renewable resource. Eventually, we’ll run out of it. As supplies start to run low, the nuclear industry would find itself in the same position the fossil fuel industry is now–forced to exploit ores of poorer quality or that are harder to get to.  The harder ore is to mine, and the more ore must be processed for the same amount of energy, the higher the carbon footprint of nuclear power will be.

Second, switching from fossil fuel to nuclear fission would involve building a lot more nuclear power plants., something like a new plant every week for decades on end. Since 12% of a nuclear plant’s carbon emissions come from its construction alone (not counting mining and processing its initial supply of fuel), it’s not at all clear that building all those plants that quickly would really reduce our collective carbon footprint much. More importantly, building a nuclear plant is incredibly expensive and time-consuming–a new 1,000 megawatt facility takes ten years and three billion dollars. And that’s after the plant’s owners have  found a location willing to host a political hot potato that could blow up. These things are not good investments. Nobody is going to build enough of them to replace fossil fuel any time soon.

Natural Gas

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, has been touted as a bridge fuel, a lower-carbon option that we can use until we can get off fossil fuel entirely. It is true that burning methane produces much less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels do, but its carbon footprint is still pretty big–six times that of nuclear, for example. Methane is also itself a greenhouse gas, and as such is much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Exploiting natural gas inevitably results in some of the stuff leaking–in fact, about a tenth of the United States’ current methane emissions come from leaks at a single cluster of facilities. I don’t know whether anyone has figured the greenhouse effect of leaked methane into the carbon footprint of natural gas, but it’s a good bet this fuel is not the panacea it’s claimed to be. And then there is fracking, the dominant technique for acquiring natural gas, which carries its own high environmental cost.

To be clear, burning methane for energy is not always a bad thing. Once methane is at the surface and about to be released into the sky, burning it is the best thing to do, since that converts the methane to carbon dioxide, which is a weaker greenhouse gas. Electricity generated by burning landfill gas, which is what my husband and I buy, actually has a carbon footprint of less than zero as a result. Also, methane produced by decomposition recently–biogas or landfill gas, not natural gas–generally doesn’t change the planet’s carbon budget much because those carbon compounds were in circulation already (there are exceptions, of course). Methane has a place as a fuel in a post-petroleum world. It is only its fossil fuel form–natural gas–that doesn’t.

The big problem with natural gas is not even fracking or the details of its carbon content. The big problem is that the more natural gas we harvest, the cheaper it will get. Low costs drive more consumption. We could end up burning more fossil fuel than we otherwise would, offsetting the value of a switch from coal to natural gas. Investing in new natural gas infrastructure would also make it harder and more expensive to switch to renewable fuel later. As a bridge fuel, it’s a bridge to nowhere because using natural gas makes switching to renewables less likely.

Cold Fusion

Cold fusion is a form of nuclear power in which energy is harvested from the combination of small atomic nuclei, rather than the splitting of large ones, as in standard fission power plants. The trouble with it as a power source, is that fusion needs very high temperatures in order to get going–like the inside of a star or a hydrogen bomb. Cold fusion involves somehow persuading this reaction to occur at more reasonable temperatures (not necessarily cold by human standards) so we can put it inside a power plant. Science fiction writers have long assumed that someday this puzzle will be solved and we will then have cheap, abundant energy with no pollution or radioactive waste forever.

Whether the technology is anything more than a sci-fi trope hasn’t been clear. Every few years, a team announces it has a cold-fusion device, but none actually pan out.

All that could be changing. Cold fusion (sometimes referred to by other names) has received more attention from researchers in recent years, with some apparent success. So cheap, abundant energy with no pollution of any kind might really be a thing soon. That’s great, right?

Maybe not.

The problem is that at least part of the issue with fossil fuel is precisely that it is a cheap and abundant energy source, and altering the energy balance of a complex system (like the biosphere) always alters the way that system functions and not always in a good way. Most if not all of our current environmental problems are a direct result of our species having an energy budget out of proportion to our other resources, like arable land, potable water, and the various mineral ores. More energy means we can use resources faster, which in the short term provided the illusion of having more resources. Our population ballooned into the billions and the lucky among us became the wealthiest people the world has ever known. In the longer term, faster resource use has come with a huge cost in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, soil exhaustion, and everything else.

Here is an analogy.

Let’s say you have a large pasture with a stream running through it in which you want to keep horses. The number of horses you can keep is limited by the amount of grass your pasture can grow. Fine, but you want more horses, so you buy hay to supplement your grass. Now, your pasture can hold more horses and you like that, so you keep adding more hay. If you add an infinite amount of hay, can you have an infinite number of horses? No, because growing grass wasn’t the only thing your pasture was doing–it was also providing your animals with drinking water and room to move around, plus recycling their feces and urine into fertile soil. If you keep adding horses and more hay, at some point your pasture is going to get overwhelmed and stop providing its other services. Your animals won’t starve, but they’ll end up standing knee-deep in their own waste, with nothing but sewage to drink and hardly any room to move around.

Adding more energy to the human economy is like adding more hay to the horse pasture–by removing one limitation, we free ourselves to exceed the other limitations that are still there. Global warming is the most obvious sign that fossil fuel is destabilizing the planet, and it is possible to imagine alternate energy sources, like cold fusion, that don’t change the climate. But those alternatives will almost certainly destabilize the system in some other way, because that is what adding cheap, abundant energy does.

So, What Can We Do?

The thing is, we can imagine inventing social and economic structures that would allow us to use cold fusion safely. We can imagine nuclear fission plants designed so that they do not blow up and do not create nuclear waste. We can imagine natural gas installations that do not leak. All of the drawbacks for all of these energy sources could, in theory, have work-arounds such that they can live up to their promises, but those developments are in the future if they are anywhere at all.

There is only one solution that requires no additional technology and has been proven 100% effective already; use less energy.

Yes, we’ll need some infrastructure changes, and some new inventions would be useful for letting us keep at least some aspects of our comfortable lifestyles. But, basically, we could stop warping the sky tomorrow by just turning the machines off. Every day we put off that decision is a day we change the climate.

 


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Methane Surprise!

This week, the internet is full of the discovery of an unexpected methane “hotspot” in the Four Corners region of the United States. A hotspot, in this context, is an unusually high concentration of the gas in one particular area–the highest such concentration in the country, although there are several other such hotspots elsewhere on the planet.

Obviously, the big questions are where did this plume of gas come from and can we–or should we–do anything about it. After all, methane is a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The short version of the story is that the plume was discovered when researchers from NASA  and from the University of Michigan analyzed data collected by a European satellite between 2003 and 2009. They then compared that data to other data collected from a ground-based measuring station and concluded that yes, indeed, there is a lot of methane there–almost 10% of the country’s total methane output every year comes from this spot.. The San Juan Basin has been and continues to be heavily exploited for fossil fuel of various types, including natural gas, which is mostly methane. There are, of course, other areas being exploited for natural gas, but none produce so intense a methane plume. The Four Corners area is unusual simply because its equipment (and possibly its rocks as well) are very leaky. That means that yes, we can do something about it, and should; the owners of the equipment should stop the leaks.

Unfortunately, a lot of media outlets, including the venerable Associated Press, have apparently put out stories without actually reading all of the NASA press release, because they variously blame the plume on fracking, coal, or venting of natural gas during coal mining. It’s interesting to note that even generally reliable sources can sometimes be wrong. It’s best to go back to the original source whenever possible, in this case a scientific paper published in a journal called Geophysical Research Letters.

Unfortunately, I cannot access the paper because it’s behind a pay wall that I do not have the cash to scale (I am a poor, humble science writer….).  And the sources I can access, so far, leave some of my other questions unaddressed.

But the information I can access still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Perhaps most importantly, why was this gas plume such a surprise? Apparently, the researchers initially assumed the anomalous reading had to be an equipment malfunction, not a real gas plume.. The real headline here is not that this one spot has a lot of methane but that the previous estimates of methane emissions globally were wrong, possibly really wrong. But why and how? The obvious answer is that the satellites can sense things that ground-based instruments cannot, not that satellites are more accurate (they aren’t) but that they can see places that ground-based sensors cannot access for whatever reason. But in this case researchers used ground-based sensors to check the satellite’s results, so obviously the San Juan Basin is not one of those inaccessible areas.

If we don’t know how much methane is coming out of the ground, our predictions for climate change will be off. If we don’t know where the methane is coming from, we can’t find ways to turn off the flow. We have better answers now, thanks to this discovery, than we did before, and that’s a good thing. President Obama has included looking for methane leaks and addressing them in his plan to stop changing the climate. That’s also a good thing. But it’s odd that none of the sources I’ve read thought it important to report why we didn’t have this information before.

It’s also odd that petroleum industry leaders have downplayed the discovery, arguing (incorrectly) that the methane plume does not matter. After all, the leaks at the San Juan Basin amount to nearly one trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At current prices, and depending on whether we’re talking industrial or residential customers, that could be anywhere from five to seventeen million dollars worth of inventory that is just flying off into the sky there. You’d think somebody would care about that.


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Vote Here

I spend a lot of time urging people to vote on climate. Perhaps urging is not enough, however? Who is running, what the various candidates’ voting records are, even how to register and where to vote might not be obvious to everybody. This being a midterm election, there isn’t as much media attention on the individual races and it is all to easy to just sit the whole thing out.

I’m not talking here just about people who are completely unfamiliar with the political process; it’s embarrassing to admit, but more than once I’ve found myself in the voting booth looking at candidates I’ve never heard of, for offices I don’t understand–I know about Congress races and so forth, but what exactly is the Judge of the Orphans Court? Also, while I’ve always considered environmental issues when voting, this will be the first year I look up candidates’ stance on climate change even in races where the issue never came up in the campaign. I can’t be the only person not certain where to go for that kind of information.

So, let’s do this. I’ll go through the process for my own district, plus a few others for variety, and maybe the whole thing will seem a little simpler and clearer for everybody else. I am American, so I’ll focus on American voting, but hopefully voters in other countries will be inspired.

The voting process

I’m in Maryland, and Maryland has a handy-dandy website where I can type in my name and zip code and get my registration record, polling place, whether I’ll need to show ID (I will not), and even a sample ballot. If I weren’t registered already, I could get registered through this site. Every other state I’ve tried has some version of this site, though they are not all equally useful and not all feature exactly the same information, but generally if you do an Internet search on “how to vote in [my state]” you’ll get your choice of websites at your service. You’re looking for the following information:

  • What day is the election?
  • Where is your polling place?
  • Can you vote early? How?
  • Are you properly registered?
  • Do you need to bring identification or your registration card to vote?
  • Who is running for what office in your district?

If getting to the polling place is difficult, look into absentee voting or see if a volunteer group can help with transportation.

Again, some of this might seem obvious, but it’s embarrassingly easy to overlook something–like an ID requirement–and not be able to vote. It’s also possible for something important to change, like the location of your polling place. Or, your registration could have been purged through a weird clerical error. It’s important to check.

The general election is Tuesday, November 4th, by the way. That is 19 days from today.

The candidates

I looked up a sample ballot for my voting district using the website mentioned above. It lists the following races:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor (they run together, on one ticket, in Maryland)
  • Congressional Representative (no Senate race in Maryland this year)
  • both houses of the State Legislature
  • Comptroller
  • State Attorney General
  • County Commissioner
  • Sheriff
  • Judge, Court of County Appeals At Large (two of them, each up for a vote of confidence, rather than running against competitors)
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphan’s Court (the instructions say to vote for any three out of a pool of four candidates)

Plus there are two Constitutional amendments up for approval. Neither has anything to do with climate change.

Arguably, a lot of these candidates don’t have anything to do with climate change, either. I mean, Register of Wills? Of course, it’s important to research all of these races, otherwise we leave part of our power as citizens in a democracy unclaimed–and today’s Register of Wills could be tomorrow’s Senator. And sometimes unexpected people can strike a blow for climate sanity–District Attorneys, for example. But no, I’m not going to write about every candidate for every race. Instead, I’ll just focus on the gubernatorial and Congressional races.

To be clear, I’m not campaigning for anybody, and I’m not going to discuss the candidates’ records on anything other than climate.

The League of Conservation Voters compiles score cards for Congresspeople, as well as for Congress as a whole. That is a good place to start. Each score reflects the number of environmental votes, as defined by a large panel of environmental experts, plus co-sponsoring bills during periods when no such votes reached the floor. The League divides “environmental votes” into several categories–“climate” is one of those categories, but so are “clean energy,” “dirty energy,” “drilling,” “air pollution,” and “transportation,” all of which are obviously part of the climate issue as well. If there is any way to subdivide an individual’s score by category, I have not yet found it, but it is clear that climate-related issues contribute significantly to the overall score and that an individual’s climate score cannot be larger than his or her overall environmental score.

So, the incumbent candidate for Congress in my district is Representative Andy Harris. His score for 2013 is 0. A big goose-egg. His lifetime score is 5%. Our senators, Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have excellent records, but neither is up for election this year.

But what about Mr. Harris’ challenger, Bill Tilghman? (“Tilghman” is a common Maryland name; the “gh” is silent) Or anybody campaigning as write-in candidates?  Are any of the alternatives better?

I did an Internet search on “Bill Tilghman Climate Change,” and found electful.com, where you can look up candidates by state. Beside party affiliation, current job, and a brief biography, the site lists each candidate’s official stance for several major issues, including climate. It isn’t clear where the site gets its information–presumably they ask the candidates, since the profile looks like a questionnaire. Their profile for Mr. Harris is consistent with his scorecard from LCV, but  several of the questions were left blank–this suggests that the site is accurate as far as it goes but does not provide a complete picture. The site also includes candidates who were eliminated in the primary, and does not cover races for state offices, but it still seems a good place to start.

Bill Tilghman looks good, here. He believes climate change exists, supports cap-and-trade, supports EPA regulation of businesses and tax credits for renewable energy research and development, and does not support offshore drilling. Good for him. Of course, there is no way to know how he’ll stick to all of this once in office, but he’s obviously better than a goose egg. On the other hand, further searching reveals he supports fracking.  Some environmentalists do support natural gas use as a lower-carbon transitional fuel, so Mr Tilghman may be quite genuine in his opposition to climate change.

I have not found any organized write-in campaigns for District 1, though of course any of us have the option to write in whomever we want.

The gubernatorial race is harder because there is much less information already compiled. Presumably national organizations, like League of Conservation Voters, take less notice of state and local positions. I returned to my sample ballot and randomly chose the Democrat, Anthony Brown. I searched on “Anthony G. Brown Climate Change” and found a voter information site run by our regional paper, The Baltimore Sun. This site also lists Mr. Brown’s competitors, of course, as well at the other state and local races. Great! Except this site does not address climate change at all. It might be a good source of supportive information, but we’ll have to look elsewhere.

Rather than looking for other voter information sites that might be more cooperative, I’ve tried searching for information on individual candidates. I don’t want to rely on the candidates’ statements about themselves, which will likely say more about what they think the electorate wants to hear. Mr. Brown is the current Lt. Governor, and is running as Martin O’Malley’s political heir. In his own campaign materials, Mr. Brown claims O’Malley’s environmental record while in office as part of his own and he is actively presenting himself as an environmental candidate on that basis. So, what is Mr O’Malley’s record on climate change? I haven’t found anything like an objective score card, but Mr O’Malley has spoken extensively about the seriousness of climate change, and has advanced a fairly aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the next five years. So that’s encouraging.

Larry Hogan literally has no environmental record at all, according to votesmart.org. The Washington Post described his environmental plans as “gauzy at best,” during the primary race and has since endorsed Mr. Brown, who has himself criticized Mr Hogan on climate change grounds (and much else–the campaign is nasty on both sides), but none of this is especially objective. Mr Hogan is a businessman (he does not say what his business does, besides economic development) and is running largely on an economic message. Climate change is, of course, important relative to Maryland’s economy because so much of the state is coastal–we have escaped from recent storms with very little damage, but a major storm-surge could get extremely expensive. However, in the world of politics, “business-friendly” and “job creation” are often code words for opposition to environmental regulation. While the environment does get a mention on Mr. Hogan’s website, he does not appear to be campaigning as an environmentalist. There is a good chance, therefore, that he isn’t one.

Shawn Quinn is the third candidate on the ballot for Governor. As a Libertarian, he is probably a long shot, but his website is professionally done and this is not his first political campaign. He has not held political office before and therefore has no official record on climate change, but he does not mention the issue on his website. As a libertarian, he is very definite in his belief that the government should not be involved in people’s lives–he opposes Maryland’s efforts to reduce smoking, for example, as well as its subsidies to tobacco farmers. This stated reluctance to allow government to involve itself either in public health or in economic development probably means he would not provide leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or developing alternative energy, either.

This is the kind of detective work I am talking about. Some races are covered by large environmental organizations who can provide analysis of candidates’ records on climate change, but otherwise we are generally on our own. Information might be fleeting, especially for challengers who have no prior political record, but it is often possible to at least eliminate some candidates from consideration if they fail to mention the environment at all (meaning that they don’t think they need the votes of environmentalists) or if their campaigns focus on issues that are traditionally at odds with climate change, such as business.

I’ll keep researching candidates for my own knowledge and will share anything notable I find.

 


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Fighting Climate Change

The US Military has recently announced that climate change is a serious security risk. Increased natural disasters of various types will drain military resources directly, through humanitarian missions, leaving the US less prepared to deal with security problems. And such disasters will create political instability and massive migrations of refugees, conditions that provide fertile ground for extremism.

These risks are not news, of course. The big deal now is only that the military has spoken up about it. Preparing for climate change is now official military policy, as reflected in what kinds of possibly scenarios the armed forces prepare for and how they handle their logistical planning. This is doubly good news–because acknowledging reality in this way will make the US safer and because of the political value of the military getting behind the issue. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stated that defense leaders need to be part of the upcoming climate conference in Lima, in December. That implies a powerful new voice in favor of concrete, binding action.

Climate change mitigation is often in the news these days. Various communities and agencies are preparing for rising seas and unpredictable weather in various ways. I have mixed reactions to these stories, since it often sounds as though preventing the disaster is being lost in the shuffle, as though we are going from denial to despair without pausing in the middle for action.

But the military is also quite serious about lowering emissions. According to The Army Times,

A Senate committee is endorsing a Defense Department program that aims to combine new building designs, energy conservation and use of renewable energy sources to reduce the net output of greenhouse gases on military installations to zero.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s biggest worry is that the concept is so ambitious that it will be difficult to complete. The committee wants an assessment from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, on the chances of success, and whether Congress can do anything to help.

All of the services are involved in a partnership with the Energy Department in the so-called NetZero program, which by 2020 aims to have six Army bases producing as much energy and water as they consume, while sending no solid waste to landfills. The goal is to have the entire Army at a “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions level by 2030.

The program only addresses “stationary emissions,” those related to buildings and so forth, not transportation, but since stationary sources count for half the military’s emissions, this is quite meaningful. In any case, the military is also investing heavily in various alternative fuels through other programs.

This is what the rest of us should be doing–a real commitment to getting off fossil fuel as quickly as technically feasible. And since the Armed Forces hardly has a liberal reputation, their example could be important. The American history of adopting new technologies and practices from the military (the Internet, GPS, computers) also suggests this could be a good thing.

And yet even in making this announcement, The Army Times implied an ambivalence towards the issue, referring to “emissions believed to cause global warming,” just as if carbon dioxide’s heat-trapping property hasn’t been well understood for over a hundred and twenty years.

The military is not as vulnerable to political pressure as most other American institutions, which is sometimes good news and sometimes bad news. Right now, it’s good news. But it is not immune. The next president could easily reverse all of this.

Vote. Vote with climate change in mind.

 

 


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Western Pacific Typhoons

Japan can’t seem to catch a break this year.

Aside from the eruption of Mount Ontake (which was quite a disaster, but tangential to this blog), the country has had a serious problem with weather, especially flooding. Three typhoons have made landfall on the islands so far (Neoguri, Halong, and Phanfone), plus, Tropical Storm Man-yi raked the length of Japan in September, dropping almost twenty inches of rain within two days. At least one non-tropical rainstorm in August caused flooding and deadly mudslides as well. An Internet search for “unprecedented flooding Japan 2014” yields multiple results not all of them from the same storm. 

Japan is large enough that these storms have not all hit the same places, but still, it must be very difficult to be Japanese this year.

Another storm is on the way now, the startlingly monstrous Vongfong. There is some hope that it will weaken before hitting Japan itself, but it is a super typhoon and is one of the most powerful storms on record–ever. It is being compared to last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, the very existence of which convinced many that something has gone really, really wrong with Earth’s atmosphere. Well, now here’s another one.

To be clear, a typhoon is the same thing as a hurricane; different ocean basics use different names for the same type of storm. The collective term for any storm with this kind of structure is ” tropical cyclone.” A tropical cyclone that has sustained maximum wind speeds of 75 MPH or more is a hurricane, a typhoon, or a cyclone, depending on where in the world it is. Tropical depressions and tropical storms are weaker versions of the same thing. A super typhoon is the equivalent of a class 4 or 5 hurricane.

I have found little to no discussion of Japan’s troubles in general, or Super Typhoon Vongfong specifically, in terms of climate change so far. Perhaps the problem is that I can’t read Japanese and so am probably missing the vast bulk of coverage on these storms. I expect that if Vongfong causes a major disaster we may hear more about it here in the English-speaking world.

In the meantime, I am curious–when such discussions do get going, will they have a basis in fact?

Each storm basin produces slightly different storm behavior, with different storm seasons and different numbers of storms being typical per season. The Northwest Pacific basin is the most active in the world; it runs all year, though there is typically a lull over the winter, and its storms are often more powerful than those in the Atlantic. So a season that looks vicious to a writer based in the United States might be normal for Japan. So, is this an unusually powerful typhoon season?

Based on 1981-2010 data, the NW Pacific can produce anywhere from 14 to 39 storms of tropical storm strength or more, with an average of 26. Of these, anywhere from 5 to 26 are typhoons, the average being 16.5. Since 1960, the number of super typhoons per year varies from 1 to 11.

Getting a reliable list of the actual storms in this season is difficult, probably because English sources focus on the two basins that can threaten the United States and the NW Pacific cannot. By comparing several different blogs and news sites–not all of which agree with each other–I conclude that Vongfong is the basin’s ninth typhoon and its sixth super typhoon. These numbers are right in the middle of the typical range for the last several decades, but since the year still has three more months to run, this does look to be a busier than average year–but not an extraordinary one.

I am not a climatologist, so I could easily be contradicted here, but it looks like the only extraordinary thing this year–so far–is Vongfong. That might be enough. And of course, climate change does not cease to play a role in the weather when the weather is average or even calm; global warming is not an event but an element within all events. And even if the frequency of this year’s storms is not unusual, storm surges and total rainfall are higher than they would be without global warming. Recently I made a rough tally of the people who die of global warming? Get ready to add a few more when Vongfong rolls in.

Part of the reason I wanted to write about the Pacific storm season this week is simply that I know most of my readership is American, and American media (somewhat understandably) focuses on American news. I wanted to post a reminder that extreme weather still happens even when it isn’t happening here (though, of course, parts of the US are suffering from extreme weather as well).

But the other reason is that I’ve been watching the Pacific, expecting an extreme season, just as I’d been expecting a mild Atlantic season. This was supposed to be an El Niño year. As I said this spring:

El Niño refers to an unusual weakening of the trade winds, which causes warming of certain parts of the Pacific ocean. The name means “the Child,” referring to the Christ Child, because of the bad fishing the warm water causes off of Peru around Christmas during El Niño years. The pattern radically changes the weather across much of the globe. For example, El Niños partially suppress Atlantic hurricane activity but increase hurricane formation in the Pacific. A stronger trade winds and a cooling of the Pacific is called La Niña (“the Girl,” because it is the opposite of “the Boy”) and likewise alters worldwide weather. The Pacific moves between these two extremes every three to seven years for reasons no one really knows. The cycle is called ENSO, for El Niño Southern Oscillation.

When I wrote that, signs were good (or bad, depending on your perspective) that an El Niño was going to develop. It has not not happened yet, though it is still possible. Apparently, the Pacific waters have warmed, but other aspects of the El Niño pattern have not developed. I don’t know whether this year’s quiet Atlantic hurricane season is related to this almost-Niño or not. The busier than average Pacific season probably is, since the Pacific has been warmer than usual, and tropical cyclones feed on warm water.

An interesting question is whether the Atlantic is also warmer than usual? It might well be, if the relative lack of hurricanes is due to increased wind-shear (as it would be in an El Niño year). That is, warm water can cause increased storm activity, but decreased storm activity does not, all by itself, mean the water is cool.

The thing is that nobody knows what drives the ENSO, and so nobody knows its real relationship to climate change. It’s a reasonable guess that we could be in for more frequent or more severe El Niños, since both involve warming water, but we can’t be sure. Something else besides warm water might be necessary, and without that something else, more frequent El Niños might not happen.

I’m wondering if perhaps this is what the future looks like? Pools of warm water forming in the Pacific (and possibly elsewhere), causing some of the effects associated with El Niño, but not all of them? If so, Asia had better watch out.

If anyone has further insight on this, please drop me a line.