The Climate in Emergency

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


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Deck the Halls

Do you have your holiday shopping done yet? Your gift list completed, your menu planned?

On the off-chance that you don’t (it’s ok, I’m not done yet, either), I thought I’d say a few words about keeping your holiday carbon footprint down. There are a lot of sites out there recommending “green” tips, but many of them don’t have much in the way of context–sure, this or that practice might be “green,” but which is the most important? Where is most of the holiday footprint located? What changes can give us the biggest bang for our buck?

I was able to find one article that provides that context–it is about ten years old and British, so there might be some discrepancies with the situation these days in the United States. But many of my readers are not in America anyway, and would have to make some adjustments even if my source material was from the same country as I am.

The reason I’m focusing on Christmas is not just an attempt to be seasonal on my part–for one thing, not all my readers celebrate Christmas. But this one holiday inspires more consumption–and thus more carbon emissions–than almost any other time of year. According to The Carbon Cost of Christmas, 5.5% of Britain’s total annual carbon footprint occurs over Christmas alone. Note that 5.5% of 365 is just over 20. Since the author of that article was counting “Christmas season” as only three days long (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day), that means cramming 20 days’ worth of emissions into the equivalent of a long weekend.

By the same token, a significant reduction in your Christmas carbon footprint could have a significant influence on your whole year.

Where Does Christmas Carbon Come From?

Cost of Christmas lists four categories of Christmas activities with their average per person carbon costs in kilograms as follows:

Christmas shopping = 310

Decorative lights = 218

Car travel = 96

Holiday food = 26

Since the article doesn’t list exactly how these numbers were derived, it is difficult to be sure how accurate they remain ten years later. I suspect the footprint of lighting may have shrunk somewhat with the popularity of LEDs–though it’s also possible that people have simply added more lights and still use just as much electricity as ever. Also, those inflatable lawn ornaments, the ones that must be constantly hooked to a running blower, have gotten popular in the last five years (at least in the US) and must be demanding a significant amount of electricity.

Still, I suspect that even if the numbers have changed, the order of these categories has not–simply because shopping and lighting each remain extravagant at this time of year (for those who can afford extravagance). That means these are the areas where reduction can give us a very satisfying bang. Not that we’re going to ignore the other two areas.

Cost of Christmas estimates that a reduction of per-person holiday-related emissions of 372 kg of carbon dioxide is not unreasonable. Since their original carbon cost estimate was 650 kg, that’s almost cutting emissions in half–which still leaves the three days of Christmas responsible for over a week’s worth of emissions, but still, that’s a huge improvement.

(Note that these kilograms of carbon dioxide probably do not all come loose during the three days of Christmas–holiday travel, for example, must occur before and after the holiday, not during–but these are emissions made for the sake of those three days.)

Lowering the Cost of Christmas

What strikes me reading the Cost of Christmas is that much of the cost is attributable to things that don’t really add to anybody’s enjoyment: Brits evidently spend a total of £4 billion every year on unwanted Christmas gifts, an average of 92 per person. More to the point, those gifts are responsible for 4.8 million tonnes (that’s almost 5.3 million American tons) of carbon dioxide, or 80 kg per person.

And those lights? A lot of people keep them on all night long, sundown to sun-up. During the majority of those hours, most people are either asleep or inside their dwellings and not looking at anyone’s outside lighting. That suggests that something on the order of two hundred kilograms of carbon emissions per person per season are emitted in order to make light that nobody looks at.

More emissions (the number is significant but much smaller) involves food that nobody eats.

Are there places we can cut our holiday extravagance that actually might involve some personal sacrifice? Yeah, sure, and since said sacrifice is not very painful (and much less painful than climate change), we should have at it. But the low-hanging fruit here is definitely the emissions that bring nobody any use or pleasure at all.

Practical Tips

As you go through your holiday preparations this year, be sure to take certain steps–or, if you’ve already made those purchases, take notes for next year. Some of these steps are fairly obvious–if your electric bill normally spikes in December, adjust your light display so that it doesn’t. My husband and I have a modest display, but we also get all our electricity from landfill gas generation, meaning that our electricity is actually carbon negative. See if something similar is available in your area.

You can get a lot of useful tips from lots of great websites. One advantage of holiday “greening” is that it’s a fairly simple way to introduce possible lifestyle changes to other people. For example, you can show up to holiday parties with gifts in reusable decorative bags, rather than wasteful wrapping paper. If the party is likely to involve plastic plates and silverware, bring your own table setting from home (yes, my husband and I do this). And so on. If people ask why you’re being weird, tell them.

As far as gift-giving goes, part of the problem is doubtless poor judgment on the part of the giver. If you have no idea what to give someone, don’t guess–ask, or give a gift card. But I suspect part of the problem is a certain sense of obligation. You don’t really want or need much, so you ask for something you don’t really care all that much about.

Am I right?

Seriously, most people I know–myself included–have to be begged for Christmas wish lists most years. This year, there are some things I want, but not many.

So, if you’re in the position of not really wanting anything, don’t ask for things you don’t really want. Don’t say “I don’t want anything” either, as no one will believe you. Instead, ask for experiences you’ll enjoy (dinner at a favorite restaurant, for example) or ask for charitable donations made in your name.

My go-to wish-list items are requests for donations to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. If I add a fourth, it’s the ACLU.

The other thing to consider is carbon budgeting–if it’s really important to you to travel hundreds of miles to go see family at this time of year (highly understandable), then go by the lowest-carbon means of travel you can, and cut back your travel at other times of year in order to leave room in your carbon budget for the holidays.

It Came Without Boxes, Ribbons, or Tags!

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the moral of the story is that Christmas does not require anything in the way of materialistic splendor. Even if you have nothing, you can have Christmas.

It’s worth noting that a lot of people pretty much do have nothing. There are a lot of people who simply can’t afford to spend large amounts of money on unwanted gifts or lights nobody looks at. I realize that being asked to scale back for the sake of the planet is very disheartening when you don’t have any back to scale.

If that’s your situation, then let me say you’re not alone. Plenty of folks don’t have a lot of fat to cut. The good news, if there is any, is that you’re already there. You’re green.

 

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Priorities

Hi, everybody.

I’m feeling under the weather this week, which is why I didn’t post yesterday and why today’s post is going to be short. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of evidence of a lot of people working very hard towards a lot of goals–to get ready for the holidays, to rid this country of rapists in high places, to figure out whether the President of the United States colluded with the President of the Soviet Union. I just watched The Imitation Game, which is all about the struggle to break the Enigma cipher during World War II.

Many of these goals are entirely noble. I’m not trying to say otherwise. What I’m trying to say is that we know what working to make something happen looks like. What I see directed towards climate change is, for the most part, not that.

Why not? We know why some people aren’t really into the struggle–some folks have a vested interest in preventing meaningful climate action. The rest of us? Why are we collectively treating the major issue of our time like a sideline?

I know why I’m not as active as I want to be. What about you? And you? And you over there? And what can we do, not only to get over our own issues, but to support each other in doing the same?

Let’s figure this out.


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Thanksgiving

The following is a re-edited version of a Thanksgiving post I originally published several years ago. 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.


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Tilting Windmills

My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


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Looking at Wind Power

Wind power has been in the news in my area lately, with the pros and cons of specific projects being argued in the papers. As often happens, these stories have raised questions for me, and inspired me to do a deep dive into the subject. Here goes.

In the News….

Remember Martin O’Malley? He ran for the Democratic nomination for president last cycle. I suspect he will try again and could well be president someday. He is still very much a rising politician. In any case, he used to be the governor of Maryland, my state, and as such racked up a very impressive environmental record. He takes climate science very seriously. And one of the things he did was to champion the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013, which incentivizes wind power in various ways. Various renewable energy companies have been attempting to take advantage of the opportunity. This spring, two companies received regulatory approval to build wind farms near Ocean City. Combined, the project would be only the second US offshore wind farm, and by far the largest.

There are a lot of issues involved in this project. Besides the hoped-for emissions reductions, there is the political value of getting a major renewable power facility up and running, and the economic value of a big manufacturing project. The turbines themselves would be made here in Maryland.

But not all issues are positive. There is concern that wind turbines can disturb or kill wildlife, and there are worries that wind power might not be as “green” as it’s made out to be. Finally, there are aesthetic concerns. Though I, personally, find wind turbines kind of cool-looking, plenty of people don’t, and the project has been pushed farther and farther offshore in order to minimize its visibility from the beach–tourism being a major source of Ocean City’s revenue. I have seen a photograph doctored to represent how the current project will look from shore when completed (it’s included in one of the articles I’ve linked to), and honestly I’m not sure whether the specks visible on the horizon are wind turbines or dust on my screen. But yet some in Ocean City remain concerned.

In comes Dr. Andy Harris, Eastern Maryland’s delegate to the US House of Representatives (and yes, he’s a medical doctor, too).

Representative Harris has sponsored an amendment (an amendment to what, I’m not sure) that would block Federal funding for site assessments for wind turbines within 25 nautical miles of the coast. This move, if approved, would effectively block at least one, possibly both of the planned projects. Not only would moving the wind farms further out take time that neither company has budgeted for, but the farther offshore a wind farm is, the more expensive it becomes. At a certain point, a project simply stops making good business sense. Representative Harris says he supports the wind farm, but is simply concerned about the business interests of his Ocean City constituents–but it’s worth noting that his overall environmental record is terrible. In general, the wind farms have a lot of public support (though less in Ocean City).

Pros and Cons of Wind

Politics aside, how do wind farms actually stand up, environmentally? The environmental cost of a wind turbine is not zero, for although there are no carbon emissions during operation, the same cannot be said for manufacture,transportation to the site, routine maintenance, and so forth. So, what is that cost? The answer depends largely on which data you include in your analysis and how exactly you ask your questions–which is one reason why it’s possible to find wildly differing conclusions on the subject, all apparently “fact-based.” With that in mind, I focused as much as possible on more scholarly sources, people who did not seem to be arguing for a specific preferred option. But it is possible I missed something. As always, this post is meant as the beginning of your research on a subject, not the final word.

Wind at Home

Most of the figures I looked at related to the large turbines used for utilities-scale generation. After all, my hunt for information was started by a proposed wind farm. It’s worth noting, though, that there are other forms of wind generation. Some turbines are small, designed for home use. Some are even portable. I expected that small-scale turbines would have a better environmental profile than large ones, partly because they just appeal to my taste (I WANT them to be better!), and partly because the absolute environmental cost of a small unit is obviously so much smaller. But the important thing to consider is not the absolute cost but the cost-benefit ratio, and according to one study, home-based wind turbines don’t always have a good ratio.

The way cost-benefit ratios are expressed in this context is payback time–how long does it take for the carbon emissions saved by using a turbine to equal the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during construction, installation, maintenance, and decommissioning of that turbine? If the payback time is shorter than the working life of the turbine, its net impact is carbon-negative (that’s good). If it’s longer, that’s a carbon-positive impact, meaning a net increase of emissions (bad).

Three figures go into determining how long payback time is for a given system: the total environmental cost of the turbine; how much electricity the turbine generates; and the environmental cost of whatever form of electricity generation the turbine replaces. Payback times in general are expected to lengthen in the future as the electricity grid, as a whole, becomes less carbon-intensive.  For micro-wind, both carbon cost and electricity generation can vary widely.

The study I mentioned analyzed several different turbines at several different locations. The “greenest” turbines were responsible for less than 200kg (441 pounds)of carbon dioxide—not good, exactly, but many people emit as much every day simply by commuting to work in the morning. Others topped 1,500kg (3307 pounds).

Meanwhile micro-turbines sited in windy areas could generate a respectable 40% of a typical home’s energy use, but turbines in large cities, where buildings block or dissipate a lot of the wind through turbulence, only generated about 2%.

So, if you live in a windy area and your house is relatively isolated, you can achieve payback in a year or so, if you choose a micro-turbine model with a low carbon cost. But in other circumstances, payback might never happen. You’re better off buying your electricity from the grid.

Wind and Birds

One of the most concerning charges against wind power is that turbines kill birds and bats and otherwise harm wildlife. Of course, so does climate change harm wildlife. As much as I don’t want anything to harm animals, a fair judgment depends on a realistic comparison.  Large number of birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change, so if wind power can slow climate change, then the birds come out ahead, unless the death toll from turbines is truly horrific.

According to a document by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the death toll from turbines is not horrific—no bird or bat populations are at risk from turbines. The number of individuals killed can be dramatically reduced by careful siting and other steps, such as locking the turbine blades when the wind is low. Bats are more active in calmer air, when turbines don’t generate much electricity anyway. Offshore turbines can negatively affect marine life, but can also create artificial reefs that help marine life, so again, proper siting is critical.

Carbon Cost for Large-Scale Wind

For a detailed look at both the environmental and financial costs of wind, check here. The article also addressed several specific common criticisms in quick detail. At present, payback time for utility-scale installations is one to two years, unless sited somewhere, such as peatlands, where the disturbance of development itself has a high carbon cost. A graph comparing the per-kilowatt hour cost of various forms of energy makes it difficult to compare the different renewables–because all of them are so low as to be indistinguishable from zero next to fossil fuel generation. Not that their emissions are zero, but it’s like trying to create a graph comparing the body weights of three different kinds of songbird, a mouse, a sheep, and a cow.

Does wind reduce carbon emissions as compared to fossil fuel? You bet.

At least wind reduces carbon if it replaces other forms of energy generation instead of adding to them. While the article does address the issue of standby generation (some people have charged that because wind doesn’t always blow, wind power requires the use of other forms of generation. The article acknowledges the point, but says the carbon emissions still end up going down), it does not address the issue of overall demand caps.

Let’s say we us X amount of electricity generated by fossil fuel. So if we bring X amount of non-fossil fueled generation online, will that mean the end of fossil fueled electricity? Or will the public just decide to use twice as much electricity?

The answer to that puzzle lies somewhere in a complex tangle of economics and policy. I am not prepared to answer it, but it must be answered. My guess is that this is a problem the free market cannot solve by itself, even assisted by subsidies. We will eventually need a cap on either total electricity use or total fossil fuel use in order to get off fossil fuel.

And get off fossil fuel we must.


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The Longest Day of the Year

Today is the summer solstice. Right around the time I post this, actually (12:24 PM, Eastern Daylight Time), the Earth will reach the point in its orbit when the North Pole points most directly at the sun. If you were standing at the North Pole, you would see the sun make a complete circuit of the sky, without dipping noticeably towards the horizon at any point (though in fact it must dip because the Pole never points directly at the sun). At lower latitudes like mine, we get the longest day of the year*.

Fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes at my latitude, not counting twilight.

The winter solstice, in December, gets more attention. I have written about it here, myself. There are songs and lights and stories and a big fuss generally made, but there is an absence of fuss today. It’s a curious thing, and it’s not because there are just more holidays in December. The winter solstice gets Yule (on the solstice itself), Christmas, Hanukkah, and several others. The summer solstice gets Litha (on the solstice), St. John’s Day (on the 24th), Juneteenth, Father’s Day–this year, Laylat al-Qadr also falls around now, although the Muslim calendar moves with respect to the Gregorian calendar of the secular world. And yet who can quickly articulate the transcultural themes of this solstice?

The problem, I suspect, is that while the winter solstice lends itself to celebrations of hope and renewal (the return of the light), at the summer solstice, the light is about to start going way. This day reminds us that all good things are temporary, all triumphs limited, all joy shadowed by the eventuality of loss. It’s just not an appealing source of metaphor.

And yet.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite books of all time. It is generally marketed to children, but I think that is because reading it first in childhood gives you the best opportunity to have the time to read it the 257 times (at least) necessary to fully understand everything in its slim and deceptively simple pages. I am hardly the only one to see depths in this book, and I’ve talked about her work at length in this blog.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a series of six books (five novels and a collection of short stories). Structurally, these look to be two interlocking trilogies, rather than a sextet, since the first three differ radically in theme and mood from the latter three. The third book, the culmination of the first trilogy, most fully explores the idea introduced by the epigraph I’ve quoted–that life and death are reciprocal and inextricable. As I wrote in a previous post:

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

Ms. LeGuin may not have intended to write about climate change–but given the depth of her subject matter, it’s fair to say her topic included environmental issues, and she clearly knew about climate change at the time she wrote it, because she described the concept in a novel published three years earlier.

To avoid environmental disaster, we must accept and respect limits. Not that sustainability involves everybody “freezing to death in the dark,” the straw-man attacked by some, nor does it really involve accepting any greater limits than any other lifestyle does–the limits are real, and we run up against them no matter how we live. But the pro-industrial, fossil-fuel dependent way of life to which many of us have become accustomed is predicated on the assumption that all limits can be transcended, so that if going after what we want creates problems, we assume that if we pursue our desires harder, those problems, too, will be solved. And that isn’t how the world works.

Acknowledging limitation allows us to make intelligent choices about how we will use the resources we actually have. Since we must bear some cost, let’s live our lives in such a way that it is a cost we can bear with a clear conscience, not something we must pretend does not exist, or something we’d rather shunt off to be borne by the people of some other country, ethnic group, generation, or species. Since the long days of summer are few, this solstice tells us, let us choose to spend them outside playing in sprinklers, or sitting in the shade with a cool drink.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

 

*Of course, I live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and the summer solstice occurs in December.


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About that Tango in Paris

Last week, a family member landed in the hospital. They’re out again, now. No, I will not go into any detail. Yes, that was why I was too busy, both physically and psychologically, to post.

Last week, too, President Trump announced his attention to leave the Paris climate pact. I’d been getting little notifications for a while that he was considering doing so, and that I should sign things or contact people to object. I signed nothing and contacted nobody. I felt like I was treading water, and there were other swimmers clinging to me. I could not spare the mental energy.

Would Mr. Trump have decided to stay in had I gotten involved? I’ll never know, but probably not. He’s been promising to pull out since he was a candidate, I’d be surprised if anything could have changed his mind. Anyway, to claim too much responsibility would seem both masochistic and arrogant. I’m only one person…but swallow too much of that comfort, and I’ll poison myself, come to believe I can’t make a difference at all.

The truth is I can’t change the fact that my family needed me in a very immediate way last week. Nor can I change the fact that I have emotional and physical limitations myself. Everybody does. We just have to hope that we’re not all limited at the same time in the same way, because what we’re up against does not appear to rest, or get sick, or go to sleep.

Had I posted last week, my post would have consisted only of the above, entirely glum admission.

Fortunately, in the intervening days, I have learned that getting out of Paris may be harder than Mr. Trump seems to think. And a growing number of people are deciding that even if Mr. Trump does pull out, the rest of us will stay in.

Still Politically Binding

Mr. Trump can’t just wish away the Paris climate agreement. No party to the pact can formally announce an intention to pull out until at least 2019, and such a decision won’t count as formal until at least 2020. So we’re still in until then.

To get out any earlier would require withdrawing from the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, which was ratified by the Senate–meaning that Mr. Trump can’t withdraw by executive order. He’ll need the Senate’s cooperation, which he may or may not get.

Of course, Donald Trump can simply direct his administration to ignore the agreement–this is exactly what he said he’s doing, actually–which has no real legal teeth. It was specifically designed not to have teeth, in order to avoid having to be ratified by the US Senate. It was designed to be politically binding, meaning that if a country ignores its obligations, everyone else will know to laugh and jeer at what irresponsible ignoramuses that country contains.

Well, prepare to be laughed and jeered at, because there is no mechanism whatever to get out of that one.

What Leaving Paris Means–And Doesn’t

Curiously, Mr. Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate Paris so that it is fairer to the US and doesn’t impose a cost on our businesses. Of course, that is baloney; under the agreement, each country is free to draft its own commitments. If we drafted commitments that won’t work for us (which I don’t believe, but that’s another subject), it’s hardly the fault of the negotiators at Paris.

France, Italy, and Germany lost no time in pointing out that climate action is an economic opportunity, and no, they will not renegotiate with Mr. Trump, thank you very much. They actually intend to put more of their own resources into fighting climate change, in order to make up for US negligence. Good for them.

But the reason I call Mr. Trump’s suggestion of renegotiation curious is that it indicates he feels the need to appease the environmental movement, to at least pretend to care about the climate, even as he makes it very clear that he doesn’t. That’s actually a good sign. It means he is feeling some political pressure, and if we push hard enough, he might actually back down a little. After all, Richard Nixon thought tree huggers were pretty stupid, but public pressure made him an environmentalist president anyway.

So, getting out of Paris by whatever means won’t allow us to escape our politically binding obligations, and it won’t improve the US economy. It might not even have much of an effect on individual US businesses (since we won’t be out for several more years, anyway), and it’s not really the bald-faced political shout-out to climate deniers that it seems, because Mr. Trump is trying to hedge his bets by claiming he wants to improve the agreement.

What, then, is the point?

An article on Politico argues persuasively that Mr. Trump is simply trying to thumb his nose at the global community. After all, he can’t demonstrate what a bad-boy strongman he is by building a wall against Mexico (turns out nobody will pay for it), so this is the next best thing, his demonstration that nobody can tell him what to do.

And at that, his action will be effective.

The State of the Country

In the meantime, a long and impressive list of states and other entities are signing on to Paris, or some version or equivalent of it, independent of Federal leadership.

There are three agreements involved. There is the United States Climate Alliance, which involves states individually committing to “achieving the U.S. goal of reducing emissions 26-28 percent from 2005 levels and meeting or exceeding the targets of the federal Clean Power Plan.” The Alliance will also act as a forum for supporting and implementing new and existing climate action generally.

The Climate Mayors’ Agreement is a publicly stated intention on the part of signatory mayors to also pursue climate action. We Are Still In is an open letter, signed by the leaders of cities, counties, educational institutions, businesses, and investors, stating a pro-climate intention in light of Mr. Trump’s planned withdrawal.

Now, the Alliance appears not to be legally binding. In fact, it can’t be legally binding, because the Constitution specifically forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign powers or each other without the consent of Congress. Each individual state can legally commit to emissions-reductions goals on its own, something Hawaii has now done. Other states could follow.

The text of the Climate Mayors’ Agreement and the We Are Still In letter do not state any concrete goals and therefore they are not even politically enforceable, as of yet. That is, without goals, it will be impossible to tell whether the signatories are acting on their commitments or not. The signatories also appear to be individuals, not government entities or organizations, meaning that if any of these people leave/get fired/don’t win reelection, all bets are off. But we can hope that the publicly stated intention is a beginning on which more concrete actions and commitments will build.

Personally, I feel a good deal better this week than last. I have more hope.

Nationally, we have work to do. We need to get on this momentum and push it farther. For example, my state, Maryland, has not yet signed on. Marylanders can push our leaders to do so–and residents of other states that have not yet signed on can also push.

Your town, your county, your school, your kids’ school, your alma mater, your employer, the businesses you patronize, push all of them.

The other thing we have to do is make plans to ensure that none of the political leaders who have signed on fail to win re-election.