The Climate in Emergency

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

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The Carbon Footprint of Space Flight

So, what is the carbon footprint of a rocket launch?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Because rockets inject various substances into the upper atmosphere–both on the way up and the way down–they have the potential to chemically alter the atmosphere, and thus the planet’s greenhouse effect, in addition to whatever greenhouse gas emissions are associated with construction and launch. And nobody has studied the issue yet.

Other aspects of the carbon footprint of space travel are possible to calculate, but are still not quite straight-forward.

Footprinting Rockets

Reportedly, a single Space Shuttle launch released 28 tons of carbon dioxide, but I haven’t been able to find out how that was calculated. Is that the burning of rocket fuel only? Does it include all associated ground-based transportation, from moving the shuttle out to the launch pad to the morning commute of everybody who works in Mission Control? The problem with carbon footprinting is that there is seldom an unambiguous distinction between the footprint of one activity and the footprint of a different activity. What do you include? What do you exclude? Why? The best you can do is be clear about what you did include so that a fair comparison can be made with the footprints of other activities.

Some rocket launches can be described in terms that are seriously misleading; hydrogen is a popular rocket fuel, and burning hydrogen yields water as its exhaust, not carbon dioxide. While water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere depends on how much the atmosphere can hold, not how much steam is released. Look at just the launch of a hydrogen-burning rocket, therefore, and we seem to see a carbon footprint of zero–yay! But hydrogen cannot be simply collected, like so much firewood–it must be produced. And the production of hydrogen takes energy, which comes from….

It comes from wherever the production plant gets its electricity, but it’s a good bet much of that energy comes from coal-fired plants. Not only is coal itself an incredibly carbon-intensive fuel, but look at how many times this energy must transform on the way to the rocket. The chemical energy in the coal is converted to heat, which boils water to make steam, which spins a turbine, which makes electricity, which converts water to hydrogen–that’s at least six transformations! As per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, each time energy is transformed some of it is lost, meaning there is a lot less energy in that hydrogen than there was in the coal. The rocket would have a much smaller carbon footprint if it could just burn coal directly (except coal is too heavy to use in rockets).

Ultimately, the carbon footprint of one rocket is less important than the carbon footprint of the entire space industry; are we talking about a few rocket launches per year, or are we talking about thousands, or hundreds of thousands of them? The difference matters.

The reason for the launch might matter, too.

Space flight is not only a source of carbon emissions and other pollutants, it is also a critical part of climatological and meteorological research. Without data from satellites, we would not be able to effectively model the changing climate, nor would our predictions of extreme weather events be as accurate. GPS satellites and communications satellites are also important in research, not to mention facilitating communication that would otherwise require actually going somewhere, with associated carbon emissions. Conceivably, the true footprints of some launches could be less than zero if those satellites lead to meaningful climate action policies or make possible reduced carbon footprints on Earth.

The Future of Spaceflight and Climate Sanity

The reason I began thinking about all of this is I’ve been wondering whether the carbon-sane future can include space flight.

Climate sanity is all about energy; the function of fossil fuel use has been to give us more energy than the biosphere can spare, and it is this over-use of energy that is destabilizing the climate and collapsing biodiversity. The enhanced greenhouse effect is the mechanism by which the climate is being destabilized, but the overdraft of energy is the ultimate cause. If there were a way to access just as much energy by some means other than fossil fuel use, the planet would be pushed to crisis by some other mechanism.

It follows, therefore, that humanity, to become sustainable, must go on an energy diet. The change need not be painful; greater efficiency and new technology could ensure that standards of living remain about the same, or even improve, for most people. But some energy-intensive practices will have to be left behind.

Will space flight be one of them?

I’m specifically thinking of those various research and communications satellites, not manned space flight or military applications, both of which we really can do without, and not brief trips to the edge of space and back down again. How much energy is necessary to launch a satellite into orbit, and will that energy be available under a sustainable energy budget?

Calculating the energy required to put up a satellite is fairly easy, if you happen to know the relevant equations and don’t have a learning disability involving math (meaning I’m out of luck, but maybe you’re not).

Here is an article discussing part of the process.

The short answer is that it takes over 31 million joules of energy to put one kilogram of something into orbit, except that all those joules need to come from somewhere, and the fuel necessary to deliver that much energy is going to weigh more than a kilogram, meaning you’ll need more energy to lift the fuel….It sounds as though any rocket must be infinitely large in order to lift itself and its ever-increasingly large fuel supply, and obviously that’s not true, but rockets do have to be much more powerful than casual thought might suggest–and if the payload is bigger, the rocket must be much bigger, in order to account for the extra fuel, and the extra fuel necessary to carry the extra fuel, etc.

Calculating the total energy need for a launch thus requires an extra layer of math, but the process still sounds fairly straight forward, provided you know what you’re using for fuel (so you know how much weight you’ve got per joule), have the right equations, and, once again, are not me.

Then you’d have to figure out whether that much energy is available under the new energy budget, and that involves….

A Simpler Way to Figure It

So, how does a writer who cares about science but can’t do math figure out whether the climate-sane future has rockets in it?

I don’t know how to work the various equations, but I have seen an object launched into orbit aboard the Antares rocket. The Antares, as configured for launch to the ISS, is almost 43 meters long, or about 140 feet, and about 12 feet across. Total burn time, counting both stages, is about six minutes. The first stage burns 64,740kg, or 142727 pounds, of a highly-refined form of kerosene. The second stage burns 12,815kg, or 28252 pounds, of polyurethane. It can deliver a payload of up to 5,400kg, or 11,905 pounds. That’s the equivalent of about three average-sized cars.

A gallon of kerosene weighs 6.8 pounds, meaning we’re looking at well over 20,000 gallons of kerosene. That’s a lot, but offhand it doesn’t sound like more than could exist in a post-petroleum future–and yes, aviation-grade kerosene can be made from plant-derived oils. I’m not sure how much sense it makes to attempt to calculate gallons of polyurethane, but it’s going to be much smaller than the kerosene figure. And polyurethane, too, can be made from plant-derived oils.

Some time ago I attempted to calculate the per-gallon prices of various fuels in a post-petroleum world. Because I can’t begin to anticipate market forces in such an economy, I did not calculate the prices in money but rather by comparison to food. The two main biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, can both be made out of edible substances: corn and soybeans or Canola seed, respectively. So, for every gallon of ethanol, how much corn must be removed from the human food-stream? For every gallon of biodiesel, how much soy or Canola seed must be lost? I didn’t mean that fuel must always be made from food, only that the comparison provides an intuitively accessible way to understand both the economic and ecological cost of fuel production in terms that are going to be relevant no matter what type of economy we end up using.

I have not attempted similar calculations for either kerosene or polyurethane–we’re interested in ballpark figures at present, in getting to the right scale, so for our purposes, the biodiesel figures are probably close enough.

If so, then the first stage of an Antares rocket alone burns the economic/ecological equivalent of enough food for at least 164 people–possibly as many as 657, depending on what kind of oil you start with–to eat for a year. And that’s not counting the energy involved in refining and chemically converting the oil into fuel, building the rocket, building the satellites, transporting materials or finished parts, running all necessary computers and communications equipment, and covering the loss of the occasional rocket the blows up during launch (as I saw an Antares do). And don’t forget all the people involved with all of this, who need to eat and so forth.

It’s a lot, but it’s not so much that the United States could not collect the resources for a launch every year or three, which is really all that should be necessary for satellites for science, GPS, and communication.

And this is for launch of the Antares, a launch vehicle certainly capable of delivering a good-sized payload to low-Earth orbit, but it’s certainly not the only way to get the job done. A smaller payload–or a launch vehicle made of lighter materials–would need dramatically less fuel, thanks to the issue we explored earlier of needing fuel to lift the fuel. Launching a rocket from the upper atmosphere (a balloon lifts it up to the launch “site”) reduces drag on the rocket and again reduces fuel dramatically.

Lunar colonies and space tourism are probably still out, but those applications of space flight that yield the biggest benefits to us here on Earth sound doable.

I had initially assumed that the carbon-neutral future would have to do without spaceflight. Now it looks like I was wrong.


The Green New Deal

A few days ago, the phrase “Green New Deal” suddenly splashed itself all over the news and social media. Something to do with climate change. I’d never heard of it before, but it looked promising. I wanted in–just as soon as I found out what it is.

Having done some research, I now want to share what I’ve learned and issue a Call to Action. But first, an important caveat.

What the Green New Deal Is Not

A friend of mine recently posted on social media, questioning whether the Green New Deal is economically doable. We need to be clear that such concerns are premature. The Green New Deal–let’s call it the GND–is not a bill or a policy, or even a plan. Except in a very vague way, it doesn’t have a budget, so we can’t talk yet about whether that budget makes sense. The GND is instead a group of goals.

If I announced an intention to get a PhD, “how are you going to pay for that” would be a reasonable question, but “bad idea, too expensive” would be premature because there are lots of different paths to a PhD, each path involves a different budget, and there are lots of different ways to fund pursuing a degree. Some possibilities might not be options for me, but others could be. I won’t really know until I start working out the specifics, but working out the specifics has to come AFTER forming the intention to get a PhD.

Demanding that an intention can only be entertained if it comes with a finished, workable plan is a good way to stay paralyzed.

First we have to say “averting climate disaster is our goal.” THEN we can start figuring out how to pay for it.

What the Green New Deal Is

The words “Green New Deal” refer to several different but related ideas, some rather vague, others quite specific. In general, these words are a slogan, a rallying cry towards the principle of actually taking climate change seriously–in some contexts, though, the GND is rather more than that.

The History of the Green New Deal

The phrase “Green New Deal” goes back to 2007, when two different people, one American, one British, each made vaguely similar proposals that happened to have the same name.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist of centrist politics and a self-described “free-market guy,” originally proposed the Green New Deal as a kind of large-scale investment in innovation and development in order to respond to what was then a growing financial crisis and in order to regain American dominance as an economic and scientific powerhouse–a moon shot, in other words, with all the attendant societal benefits that implies, but with the goal being environmental sustainability, not space exploration.

Mr. Friedman has updated his ideas somewhat, but he stands by the original concept. He is a committed environmentalist personally, but believes success depends on getting non-environmentalists on board, and that the best way to do so is to tie achieving sustainability to more broadly-accepted economic goals. The basic plan is to use a combination of regulation and community development (such as building a lot more community colleges) to set certain national goals and then let local government and private enterprise try things and see what works.

At around the same time, Richard Murphy, a British political economy professor, formed a loose organization of newspaper editors, economists, and environmentalists called the Green New Deal Group. Together, they discussed the possibility that a fiscal stimulus program could resolve both the growing financial crisis and the ecological crisis. The group then issued a report offering a series of suggestions. Their approach involved massive government spending (funded through various forms of borrowing) to fund renewable energy, zero-emissions transportation, energy conservation programs, and jobs training.

Both men saw their ideas taken up, in part, by their respective governments, then discarded after the national legislatures of both countries were taken over by unfriendly majorities. The GND dropped out of the public conversation for several years.

The GND returned to public consciousness, at least in the United States, in 2017, during the campaigns for the mid-term elections of 2018. A massive progressive movement had been triggered by the campaigns–and defeats–of the year before, so multiple candidates came out calling for some version of a Green New Deal.

Again, the same term was being used for multiple, sometimes very different proposals, all of which in some way combined economic development with action on environmental issues. The idea, of course, is to draw political inspiration and, to some extent, technical inspiration, from the original New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s a radical idea, in other words, but not unprecedented, and it worked last time we tried it.

The Congressional Resolution

One of those progressive candidates with a Green New Deal proposal was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her election to the US House of Representatives. She has now introduced a “resolution” for consideration by the House, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal.”

This is a resolution, not a law. If passed, it will only mean that the House (and then, hopefully, the Senate) agrees on a certain group of goals. Figuring out how to enact those goals will come later. And yet, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Resolution is not a vague leaning or a generic slogan. Her language specifies several important ideas, not all of which are part of every Green New Deal proposal out there:

  • Taking the problem seriously Climatologists tell us that we must radically cut our emissions in the next few years if we are to avoid catastrophe, so Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for making those recommended cuts–in contrast to many political leaders who, even if pro-climate, call for only gradual change that will not avert catastrophe.
  • An alliance with labor, rather than management Economic development and prosperity can be defined in any number of ways, including the size and vigor of the economy as a whole or the profit margins of the super-wealthy, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is very clear that her sympathies lie first with the economic interests of the masses. Her version of the GBD includes a massive government jobs program aimed at making sure everybody who wants to work can do so at a living wage. The original New Deal also included a massive jobs program, one that was, arguably, wildly successful.
  • A focus on justice Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for “transparent and inclusive consultation. collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities,” among others, presumably referring to racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people, all of whom are especially vulnerable to climate change. Here, they are supposed to be among the architects of the solution, not merely its hopeful beneficiaries. The language of the proposal also includes specific social justice protections, including for indigenous peoples.
  • The inclusion of government spending Not all versions of the GND involve much government spending. Mr. Friedman’s version, remember, was (and remains) largely organized around incentivizing free-market solutions. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, is proposing an unabashed massive spending program–the language of the Resolution does not specify where the money is supposed to come from, but an associated website asserts that new taxes will not be necessary. It’s worth noting, though, that taxes on the wealthy were once much higher than they are now, and the country did not seem to suffer–and there is a good argument to be made that running up a deficit as part of such an organized plan would help the country, and did help the country in the original New Deal.

I don’t know whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach will work, but I don’t know that it won’t, and it parallels an approach taken before that did work. And hers is currently the only approach being taken by anyone at the Federal level that even attempts to avert unthinkable disaster.

You can read the full text of the Resolution here.

Consider the Alternative

Whether the GND Resolution is technically or economically feasible remains to be seen. Personally, I think it can work, but as noted earlier, it’s too soon to tell. Whether it is politically feasible…?

A year ago, six months ago, I would have thought not. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach is unabashedly leftist, and the United States has been swinging to the right for a generation, now. That anyone would even propose a massive government spending program as a solution for anything seems bizarre, if only because public discourse has been dominated for so long by the assumption that small government and balanced budgets are the way to go.

But there is no real proof that a small government and a balanced budget are capable of delivering on anything promised of them. The modern era has not seen a genuine attempt at either, only a shift of government attention and spending away from regulation, research, and social safety nets and towards the military, law enforcement, and corporate welfare. So maybe “fiscal responsibility” as often defined is a good thing, but maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know.

In contrast, the original New Deal worked.

It’s also worth remembering that those who think life is expensive should consider the alternative. Climate change is expensive and getting more so all the time–and spending on disaster recovery and so forth is not an investment, it’s just a cost. There will be no return, no upside, not in the long haul.

The question we must answer–and must answer now–is what we want for the world 30 years from now? Do we want to be facing existential threats to the country from escalating infrastructure losses, public health problems, and mounting national security threats, or do we want to buy ourselves hope at any cost?

I don’t think the Green New Deal is going to trash the national economy–I think the country will be dramatically enriched, in both metaphoric and literal ways. But so what if it isn’t?

If I could guarantee my little nephew a 40th birthday only by bankrupting myself personally, I’d do it. Frankly, I don’t see why the country as a whole should not stand ready to do the equivalent.

Steps to Take

The Green New Deal as proposed by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is the first really serious attempt I’ve seen to address climate change by the United States. Given the lateness of the hour, it may also be the last. There is time and room to adjust the concept going forward, but we have to go forward now.

This is it.

The most immediate step is to contact your congresspeople and ask them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal Resolution (or to thank them, if they have done so already).

The Green New Deal is being championed by an organization called the Sunrise Movement, a generally non-partizan, “neither right nor left but forward” group with what looks like a comprehensive, multi-year plan that should result in legislation on the desk of a climate-friendly president in just a few years.

I highly recommend offering them whatever help you can. It’s go-time.

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Groundhog’s Day!

The following is a slightly re-edited version of an older, but clearly seasonal post. I’ve always liked this time of year–it feels optimistic, when optimism can be hard to come by.


This weekend was Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. But the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.