The Climate in Emergency

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


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Novel Excerpt 2

I’d like to write an article on the children’s climate strike, but such a topic will take time to do well–and today is my wedding anniversary. So I’m giving you another excerpt from the essay at the back of my next novel, since that is already written. I’ll cover the children later this week if I have time, or next week.

In the meantime, you enjoy the following, while I enjoy dinner with my husband.

Essay Excerpt 2: Predicting the Future of the Climate

Readers familiar with New England may notice that the weather in this book seems odd. It is hot in May, the people are preoccupied with the possibility of flooding, and there are a lot of storms. The characters think it all normal. Am I, the writer, trying to depict climate change? Yes and no.

Yes, I had climate on my mind when I wrote this book. The New England climate in the story is not the one that exists today, and I wanted readers to notice. Fiction in the present Age of Rapid Climate Change needs to acknowledge climate as a function of time as well as space: no writer would give Seattle the same climate as Miami, so why depict the past or future with the same climate as the present?

Climate is the set of patterns that weather makes over time, and this story takes place over less than a year: not enough time for any patterns to become clear. That the characters think hot weather in May is normal—not the hot weather itself—suggests the climate has changed, and even that is a poor indicator. Humans are notoriously bad at identifying trends based on personal experience; that is one reason why record keeping and statistics were invented.

It is just as well that the story does not give the reader a good view of the climate. Constructing a scientifically plausible fictional climate—which I would sorely like to have done—is fiendishly difficult if not ultimately impossible. The problem is that climate cannot be predicted by ballpark estimations and back-of-the-envelope calculations. One of the curious traits of complex systems is that no detail can be guaranteed to be too small to matter. The phrase “butterfly effect” describes how the flap of an insect’s wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. In a picturesque way, the phrase describes a problem that cropped up with the earliest weather simulations: two simulations with nearly identical starting numbers often yielded radically different results (Curtin & Allen 2018). Attempting to simulate a climate without the aid of a supercomputer and a lot of data is, at best, an exercise in fantasy.

If the story were set in a version of the future that climatologists consider likely, my job would be rather more straightforward: just look up the climate projections that have already been done and attempt to synthesize. I did just that for a piece I published online several years ago. But the abrupt, near-term end of fossil-fuel use in my novel has not been subject to much in the way of simulation because no one thinks it likely.

Since I could neither invent nor look up a scientifically plausible climate to use as setting for the story—and since the plot does not allow for depicting the climate directly anyway—I simply wrote any scenes involving weather with three adjectives in mind: “warmer”, “wetter”, and “more extreme”. These are consistent with contemporary predictions for the region over the next century (see e.g. van Oldenborgh et al. 2013), as well as loosely plausible for the various scenarios implied by my story.

Science can’t tell us what the climate for the setting of the book should be, but it can shed light on what Andy thinks it is doing—an important part of his emotional landscape, given who he is. Remember that the field of climatology in his time is very limited. Most of what he understands about the climate is what he remembers from Before.

The reader might think that, since fossil fuel use has stopped, levels of greenhouse gases and average temperatures should both fall—but what might seem obvious is not necessarily true.

As of 2010, combustion of fossil fuels was responsible for about two-thirds of total greenhouse-gas emissions by weight. There are other sources of carbon dioxide however, and there are other greenhouse gasses: notably methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), but also nitrous oxide and two related groups of gases, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFs) (Edenhofer et al. 2014). In my scenario, carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use are over and have been for twenty years. That does not mean, however, that other kinds of emissions, such as methane from landfills or melting permafrost, stop – at least, not instantly. For reasons I will go into later, some could increase.

To understand the total concentration of each gas in the atmosphere—and how it is likely to change over time—it is not enough to know emission rates. One must also look at rate of loss, which will be different for each gas. Picture running a bathtub with the drain open; whether the tub fills or empties depends on inflow versus outflow.

For most greenhouse gasses, loss (“outflow”) is primarily by chemical degradation occurring at a more or less set rate per gas (Ehhalt 2001). Carbon dioxide is a little more complicated, because it does not degrade this way. Rather, it is absorbed through a number of processes, each with its own rate and capacity.

The fastest way for carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere is absorption by the oceans’ surface waters. A large amount can be absorbed in just a few decades. Unfortunately, water can only absorb so much, and the oceans’ surface waters have already absorbed a lot; that is why they are becoming increasingly acidic. Of course, a lot more water lies beneath the surface, but the ocean mixing required for it to absorb carbon dioxide does not happen on a human timescale.

After ocean surface waters reach capacity, the next fastest way out of the atmosphere is the chemical weathering of rock, but that, too, does not play out on a human timescale. A big carbon dioxide spike takes tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to flatten out (Ciais et al. 2013).

Scientific articles on potential recovery from climate change tend not to mention absorption of carbon by organisms, even though it is organisms that sequestered the carbon in fossil fuels in the first place. I would guess this is because the sequestration processincluding the accretion of new oil, gas, and coal depositsis so very, very slow.

Andy confidently asserts that carbon dioxide levels are falling—quickly enough that he expects to be able to study the ecological results of the change himself. He is very excited. Presuming he is right, that could be taken to mean that ocean surface waters have not, in fact, reached capacity; but another possibility presents itself.

While the formation of fossil-fuel deposits takes place on a geological timescale, living plants are a different matter. They, too, sequester quantities of carbon, and many of them, including large trees, can grow relatively quickly. Individual plants are not considered carbon sinks because, when the plant dies, all that carbon is released again; but entire plant communities can, indeed, be carbon sinks. Where one tree in a forest dies, another can grow and take up the carbon in turn. Indeed, deforestation is considered an important source of carbon dioxide emissions—so, logically, the growth of large, new forests should have the opposite effect.

I have never heard reforestation suggested as a way for carbon dioxide levels to drop, but perhaps that is because relevant discussions typically assume that the human population is going to stabilize—not fall. With so many people and associated agriculture and infrastructure in the way, there is not much room for new forests to grow. But Andy has experienced a radical reduction in the population—the reader learns that, at least in the US, the population is about one tenth of what it had been; the rest of the world is presumably similar. Per capita resource use also appears to have fallen. That leaves a lot of room for new trees.

Could continental-scale reforestation cool the climate? There may be precedent.

When Europeans first came to the Americas, they brought along diseases to which the Americans1 had no immunity. This was not germ warfare (that came later), but the result was dramatic, continent-wide population loss and widespread societal collapse (Wessels 1997). Forests grew in places that had previously been cleared. The idea that North America was a pristine wilderness prior to European conquest is partly due to the overgrown, depopulated mess that colonial explorers found in the wake of the terrible pandemics (Wessels 1997).

The post-contact pandemics are history’s closest analogue to the present story. Contagious disease really did cause the end of a world. It also caused a large-scale reforestation event coincident with changes in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels and a global drop in temperatures (Dull et al. 2010), the second, more severe, phase of the so-called Little Ice Age. The first phase may be partially attributable to the Black Death in Europe, another pandemic that triggered large-scale reforestation (Hoof et al. 2006).

The timing of events does not support either pandemic as the sole cause of cooling. Other explanations and possible contributing factors have been advanced, and it is far from clear what role—if any—each played. Nevertheless, respected experts have taken seriously the idea that continental-scale reforestation could be enough to cool the planet, suggesting that global reforestation now could change the climate.

Of course, carbon sequestration by reforestation only works if the forests that once existed can grow back. History offers examples of cleared forests that did not return, despite apparent opportunity, for reasons like soil loss (Curtin & Allen 2018), and forests all over the world are starting to die from climate change itself, or from stresses made worse by climate change. Some forests—notably in the tropics—already have become net producers of carbon dioxide, and many more across the world may follow suit as climate change worsens and dieback exceeds growth (Allen 2009). Dying forests could even release enough carbon dioxide to speed climate change and kill even more forest, but whether we have reached that nightmare bifurcation point, or might reach it soon, is unclear.

So, in Andy’s time, the global greenhouse effect may or may not be weakening, depending on various interacting factorssome of which I have mentioned and some not. Several of the relevant questions might well be answerable by anyone with the appropriate mathematical skill and enough data. Others are only answerable with a supercomputer. Still others might not be answerable at all.

Even assuming that the greenhouse effect is weakening in Andy’s time, whether the planet is cooling yet is another question. If greenhouse gas levels simply stabilize, warming will continue for several decades, perhaps 30 to 50 years (Mann & Kump 2015), because the climate needs time to adjust to a stronger greenhouse effect. If the greenhouse gas levels then drop, cooling will occur—but I have not been able to learn how quickly that cooling happens. Logic suggests that if the greenhouse effect weakens before the temperature stabilizes, cooling will begin sooner than it otherwise would, but I have not found confirmation of that principle, either.

But even the onset of cooling will not necessarily undo the damage done by rapid warming. In fact, Earth may continue to deteriorate for some time. Biodiversity loss, like climate change, has a time lag. Evidence from Europe suggests that extirpations peak at least a hundred years after major habitat loss, a delay referred to technically as extinction debt (Curtin and Allen 2018). Ice, likewise, requires time to melt, as anyone knows who has ever enjoyed a drink with ice on a hot day. Big chunks of ice take longer than small ones, and so the massive glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica could go on melting for a very long time before the “melting debt” already accumulated is paid. Undoing such damage might not be possible on any time-scalewhen complex systems change, the change is often permanent.

But the irreversibility of change is not the same thing as hopelessness. The sooner the greenhouse effect weakens, the less debt will accumulate and the sooner the new anti-entropic phase can begin. We cannot go back, but we can go on.

So here is Andy, twenty years after the collapse of the world he once knew, in a climate that seems vaguely consistent with the predictions he remembers, but it’s hard to be sure. He knows that soon the world must diverge from prediction, if it hasn’t diverged already. Perhaps the planet will cool, wildlife habitat will expand dramatically, and he will live to see the beginnings of regrowth. Then all Andy’s losses, all the personal tragedy and tumult he has been through, will mean something: the unavoidable side effects of repairing the world that he loves. Alternatively, forest die-back, or some other destructive feedback loop, could render rapid climate change self-perpetuating. The sacrifice of nine-tenths of humanity might yet prove to be too little, too late.

Andy is aware of these possible alternatives, but in the year in which we meet him, he does not yet know which scenario is playing out.

References

Allen C.D. 2009. Climate-induced forest dieback: an escalating global phenomenon? Unasylva 60: 231—232, 43—49.

Curtin C.G., T. F. H. Allen. 2018. Complex ecology: foundational perspectives on dynamic approaches to ecology and conservation. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Dull R.A., R. J. Nevle, W. I. Woods, et al. 2010. The Columbian encounter and the Little Ice Age: abrupt land use change, fire, and greenhouse forcing. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100: 4, 755—771.

Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al. 2014. Technical summary. Pages 33—108 in Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al, editors. Climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Ehhalt, D., M. Prather, F. Dentener, et al. 2001. Atmospheric chemistry and greenhouse gasses. Pages 241-280 in Houghton J.T., Y. Ding., D. J. Griggs, et al, editors. Climate change 2001: the scientific basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

van Hoof T.B., F. P. M. Bunnik, J. G. M. Waucomont et al. 2006. Forest re-growth on medieval farmland after the Black Death pandemic: implications for atmospheric CO2 levels. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 237: 2—4, 396—409.

van Oldenborgh G. J., M. Collins, J. Arblaster, et al, editors. 2013. IPCC, 2013: Annex I: Atlas of global and regional climate projections. Pages 1313—1390 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York.

Mann M. E., L. R. Kump. 2015. Dire predictions: understanding climate change. 2nd American Edition. D. K. Publishing. New York, New York.

Ciais P., C. Sabine, G. Bala. et al. 2013. Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. Pages 465-544 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G. -K, Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (465-544). Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wessels T. 1997. Reading the forested landscape: a natural history of New England. Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.

Wessels T. 2006. The myth of progress: towards a sustainable future. University of Vermont Press, Lebanon, New Hampshire.

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Novel Essay Excerpt

My second novel should be out later this year–I have just finished final editing, so the book now moves into publication. To celebrate, I’m posting an excerpt from the essay on science at the back of the novel. The following is based largely on material I learned from Tom Wessels and Charles Curtin, either in class or in personal discussion–and yes, I thank them in the book.

Essay Excerpt 1: On Exoskeletons and Ox-carts

Ecological Memory depicts a world that includes both ox-carts and robotic exoskeletons. Some readers might ask why. Yes, this is a world without fossil fuel, but it is clearly a technologically advanced society, so why are the people stuck using ox-carts? Why not use renewable energy?

The short answer is that they can and do, but if they used enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels fully they would just wreck the world again. Where energy comes from is generally less important than how much is used.

People are used to hearing, and telling, the story of technological progress in terms of innovation. Cars are more advanced than ox-carts because they go faster. The other—often forgotten—side of the story is energy. A car that ran on a few bales of hay could not go much faster than an ox, no matter how advanced it was. Advancing technology has allowed the use of more and more energy, and that—not innovation alone—is what gives us our unprecedented power.

Fossil fuel has made increasing energy consumption possible because it is energy dense, easily portable, and abundant (or, at least, used to be). Fossil fuel also causes climate change and ocean acidification; and it indirectly causes several other ills, such as loss of biodiversity. The mechanisms involved should be roughly familiar to most readers. The surprise is that drawing the same amount of energy from other sources would likely cause similar problems; only the mechanisms would be different. Understanding why requires exploring the science of complex systems.

Complex”, here, has a specific, technical meaning: a system is complex if it has certain properties, such as self-organization and a nested or hierarchical structure (complex systems can have other complex systems inside them). I am a complex system, and so are you. So are cells, ecosystems, and entire biospheres. Books have been written about these systems, and they are worth a read, but the important thing to know is that systems science is all about the flow of energy. Complex systems can fight entropy and win. Readers may remember that entropy is the tendency for everything in the universe to run down as energy dissipates. Complex systems do lose energy to dissipation, but they do not run down, because they actively draw in energy from outside themselves. If a system is drawing in more energy than it loses, it is anti-entropic. Think of a baby, eating and eating, turning all those calories into growth and development, or a young forest, rapidly increasing in biomass and biodiversity. Eventually, the complex system reaches a point of equilibrium where energy inputs equal losses, and growth stops: that is maturity. From the standpoint of systems science, individual human beings remain mature only briefly. Almost as soon as people reach full size, our metabolisms slow and we start losing energy. We enter what is called the entropic phase. More colloquially, it is called aging, though injury or illness can trigger an entropic phase before maturity, too. A system that stays entropic long enough will cease being complex. That is death.

All complex systems go through these phases, though not all become entropic automatically with age. Forests never die of old age, but they can become entropic. A forest on fire, for example, is losing energy (in the form of heat and light) at a fantastic rate. If the fire is not too severe, the forest will survive and become anti-entropic again as it regrows. As Andy explains in the story, size, complexity, and stability increase and decrease together. A mature forest has more biomass and is more complex than either a young, recently-sprouted forest or the pile of ash and cinder left behind by a forest fire. Similarly, adult people are not just bigger than babies; they are also smarter and more resistant to disease. There is a reason people sometimes call the latter part of the human entropic phase a second childhood: bodies shrink, becoming less capable and less healthy as they lose energy.

All this energy must come from somewhere. Complex systems draw energy from the larger systems they are nested within. My cells draw energy from me. I draw energy from my society by working for a living and buying things. My society draws energy from the biosphere. The catch is that if the smaller system draws too much energy, it can force the larger system into an entropic phase. The larger system can even collapse—cease to exist—leaving the smaller system floating loose in whatever system the larger one was nested within. Think about why cancer kills if it is not successfully treated. Think about how unsustainable logging kills forests. Think about what follows from the rapid burning of fossil fuel.

The biosphere, too, is a complex system, and it, too, has had anti-entropic phases when it was actively growing, becoming more complex and more stable. The biosphere draws its energy (mostly) from the sun, through the process of photosynthesis, which gives us all our free oxygen and most of our biomass as well. And the carbon at the heart of that biomass remains part of the biosphere as long as it is part of chemical compounds that store energy captured by plants—which means that fossil fuels still count as biomass. When Earth was young, the growth of the biosphere, including the growth of its fossil fuel deposits, drew down the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. When the biosphere entered its mature phase, the carbon dioxide level more or less stabilized. Now that we’re burning fossil fuels, we’re liberating that stored energy and the CO2 concentration is rising rapidly as carbon leaves the biosphere—this loss of both biomass and energy means that the biosphere is now entropic.

Let me repeat that: Earth’s biosphere is currently entropic because of human activity.

Loss of stability, complexity, and size always accompany loss of mass and energy as a complex system starts to die. In human beings, that means poor health, increasing disability, and the wasting away of various tissues. Erratic weather, changing climate, and loss of biodiversity are simply the same pattern applied to the biosphere as a whole.

That burning fossil fuel should trigger a global entropic phase should not be surprising, given that the whole point of fossil fuel use is to access a lot of energy, quickly. Earth receives a certain limited amount of solar energy every year, and plant and animal life, as well as the movement of wind and water, takes place within that energy budget. If the human species confined itself to the same annual budget, living on sustainable forestry, agriculture, and renewable energy sources, most of the consumption that people take for granted today would simply be out of reach. Fossil fuel makes the more we want possible, and does so by delivering energy at a higher rate than the biosphere receives. Biospheric entropy is the inevitable result.

If the human species stops using so much energy, the biosphere will re-enter an anti-entropic phase and recover—though it will take a very long time for full recovery, possibly millions of years. That’s better than not recovering at all, and the sooner we reach carbon neutrality, the more likely we are to have a livable planet during the recovery period. Hope remains, though time is getting short.

Giving up fossil fuel entirely is probably a necessary step towards sustainability. What is the alternative, some complicated global carbon rationing system? Who would administer or enforce it? And why would anyone bother? Truly sustainable fossil fuel use would—by definition—yield no more energy than renewables can.

But the end of the Age of Fossil Fuel alone will not rescue us. Should we ever find and use an alternative way to draw more energy than the biosphere has to spare, the system will be back in the same entropic muddle it’s in now. Imagine replacing a Stage Four cancerous tumor with a six-mile-long tapeworm. The patient still dies; the only difference is the mechanism.

Energy is energy. Using too much has consequences.

One way or another, human over-use of resources will end. Unsustainable processes do end, by definition. We can survive only by shifting to an energy budget similar to what existed prior to the Industrial Revolution—a change that will impose real limitations on what the species can do and how it can do it. But a return to pre-Industrial limitations need not mean a return to pre-Industrial life.

An energy budget is not a time machine. There is no mechanism by which limitation alone can erase scientific and cultural advances or prevent further advances. Where those new advances might lead, I cannot say. I have simply imagined one possibility—one that includes both exoskeletons and ox-carts.


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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.


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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.

-C.

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.

Now.


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How Do You Know?

We’re in the deep freeze, thanks to a destabilized polar vortex, and predictably, certain people are publicly complaining that the cold disproves climate change, not realizing that this weather pattern is, in fact, a symptom of change.

Old news.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty, and how climate deniers sometimes use the fact that climatologists don’t know everything to argue that they don’t know anything.

Actually, it’s a fair question. While no one could fairly expect any expert to literally know everything in their field, how can climatologists be so sure of some things and so unsure of others? When a climate denier makes a wild claim (for example, that climate change on Earth can’t be due to carbon dioxide emissions because other planets are warming, too–which, by the way, they mostly aren’t), how can the rest of us be sure it is wild?

I thought of an analogy.

Imagine someone says to you “I just saw someone walk by the window, but I can’t be sure who it is.”

So, you start asking questions–what gender, what age, what clothing–and the person isn’t sure. “I think it was a man, but I’m not sure. Dark hair, blue clothing? I really didn’t get a good look.”

You then ask “OK, what about skin color? Was the skin purple?”

Even though your informant knows very little, the question is ridiculous, because humans can’t have purple skin. Three nipples, sometimes. Four kidneys, occasionally. But not purple skin, and we’re all familiar enough with our own species that we never ask if barely-glimpsed people have purple skin.

Knowledge comes in different levels–for any topic, some types of information are superficial, while others are fundamental. If you know those fundamentals, and a claim violates those fundamentals (as any suggestion that rising carbon dioxide levels aren’t causing warming does) then you don’t need to do any research on the specifics to know the claim is false.

Now, most of us don’t know the fundamentals about climate–it’s not difficult to study up, but not everybody has the energy or the time. If that’s your position, then you can’t identify wild claims as balderdash on your own–but you can trust that the genuine experts are not being arbitrary when they call foul.

This trust is important. I do not mean thoughtless trust, I mean informed trust, based on a carefully-developed capacity to identify which people have the fundamental knowledge and the understanding that such knowledge isn’t universal. There are things we really do need experts for–like performing surgery, flying airplanes, and sorting out real science from hooey.

Such trust makes us smarter, not dumber, because it means we don’t have to make sense of the world alone.


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The Carbon Footprint of a Beagle

So, we just got a beagle.

We already had one beagle, but after the death of her co-dog (a Lab/pit mix) last month, she’s been lonely, so we got her a companion. His name is Reilly, and he is sweet and affectionate and already causing trouble in his distinctively charming and beaglish way.

This seems like a good time to cover a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, the relationship between climate change and pets

The Carbon Footprint of Pets

Turns out, there have been serious scientific studies of the carbon footprint of dogs and cats. Results vary, but the general consensus tends to be that pets, collectively, have a large carbon footprint because there are a lot of them and dogs and cats eat mostly meat, which is a carbon-intensive food.

There are a couple of interesting points, here.

First, these studies may be studies of the carbon footprint of pet food, not pets. One research team is quoted as having looked at dog food only, based on the assumption that other aspects of dog care have minimal impact. Their assumption may be correct, but personally I’d like to see a study that examined all aspects of dog (and cat) care so we could check the accuracy of that assumption. I’m also amused by their conclusion, that big dogs have a larger carbon footprint than small dogs, since big dogs eat more. Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would assume the non-food aspects of dog care have minimal impact (a complicated question involving lots of data most of us don’t have) but then perform and publish a formal study on whether big dogs eat more than small dogs do.

Second, sorting out the carbon footprint of food may be trickier than it appears. For example, pet food is often made, in part, from meat by-products, which humans can’t eat. By-products are essentially waste for which a market has been created, stuff that would not exist if the primary product (muscle meat for human consumption) were not being produced. So is it really fair to assign the carbon footprint of the meat by-product to the dog who eats it rather than to the human whose demand for steaks created that steer in the first place?

The carbon footprint of food can vary a lot, as we know from studies of human diets. For example, beef and lamb are much more carbon-intensive than chicken. I’d like to see a detailed break-down of several different kinds of pet food and the different aspects of their production.

To Pet or Not to Pet

What does the question “what is the carbon footprint of a pet?” really mean? We could ask about the carbon footprint of Reilly and what we, his guardians, can do to make him a “greener” dog. Alternatively, we could be asking about our own carbon footprint and whether not having Reilly would make my husband and I “greener” people.

And since Reilly’s personal impact on the climate would presumably be about the same no matter who had him, the latter question really boils down to the draconian “should Reilly be alive?”

In a similar spirit we might debate, or refuse to debate, the lives of human children. Indeed, since humans have huge carbon footprints, especially in the so-called “developed” world, some list “having a child” as the worst thing a person can do to the planet, even worse than airplane travel, car travel, or eating meat.

My husband and I don’t have children, and environmental impact is part of the reason, but phrasing the decision as a measurable reduction of our carbon footprint as a couple seems very wrong.

What if the child in question were the next generation’s Rachel Carson?

The very idea of reducing a child to a carbon footprint is offensive. Reducing Reilly in such a way is less so, but still pretty bad.

But Haven’t There Always Been Dogs?

There is an argument to be made for having fewer dogs and cats in total. Their collective environmental impact is not negligible, and most humans could get along without them quite well (I said most, not all). But if all dogs and cats suddenly vanished, would the carbon footprint of humanity really shrink? Or would some other use be found for meat by-products?

Perhaps more to the point, would climate change really slow?

This whole line of questioning reminds me of cows. There is an argument to be made for having fewer head of cattle, too, after all, since their environmental impact is quite large, and we can eat other things. But when I brought up such an argument a while back, a friend of mine posed an interesting question; haven’t there always been cows?

And yes, cows are not new. I’m fairly sure there are a lot more now than there used to be, but surely before the modern mountain of moo there were other ungulates, bison and caribou, antelopes and takhi and quagga, to take up the slack.

Ok, those last two aren’t exactly ruminants, but you get the point. The only way large herds of cattle could actually change the climate would be if the total number of ruminants, domestic or otherwise, had grown–and how would such increased stock find enough to eat if something else hadn’t changed?

The same question applies to dogs and cats. If these animals have not simply replaced their wild counterparts but actually exist now in excess of the total historical animal mass, where did the excess food come from and why isn’t it accounted for in the historical carbon balance, where the carbon each animal releases came ultimately from plants and returned to plants again for no net change?

Some other source of energy must be fueling the swelling populations, something from outside the old balance–fossil, presumably, in one way or another. In other words, if the total population of dogs (or cattle or humans) has grown too large for the planet, it is a symptom, not a cause, of our problem.

As useful as carbon footprint calculation can be, it’s possible to get lost in the weeds here and miss the larger picture, which is that the climate is changing because the concentration of greenhouse gasses is rising, period.

Reilly can’t introduce additional carbon to the system. He just can’t. If he is alive because of such an introduction, his death at some shelter would not begin to solve the problem.

Take Home Messages

Yes, certainly it makes sense to feed pets the most climate-friendly diet possible. And people who are bound and determined to buy a pet from a breeder might seriously consider a little vegetarian, like a rabbit, instead of a big carnivore, like a retriever–shift the market in a more climate-friendly direction.

But you are not going to fight climate change by not getting that beagle from the shelter.

Let’s keep our collective eye on the ball, the ball being to get off fossil fuel completely as soon as possible. Only then can we fix the problem that causes all the other problems.


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Giving Thanks

Here is my Thanksgiving post. I wrote it several years ago, but it’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows. Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that pat up. It’s just physics.

But yes, tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful without something to be grateful for. At Thanksgiving we revel in abundance in order to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as a land of abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. Fishing fleets use ever more powerful technology to find and capture every last fish. Ever-deepening wells chase falling water tables. Oil companies prospect in nearly inaccessible areas that would have been too expensive to bother with a generation ago. For the most part, we humans aren’t going without, yet–hunger is usually a distribution problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. But already the world is warping under the pressure of our need.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy, diversity, and stability.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. They are about abundance–about the way the illusion of inexhaustibility makes us feel. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

We can do the same thing as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.