The Climate in Emergency

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


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April First

Today is April Fools’ Day, so perhaps I should have written a joke-post full of climate-denial drivel painted on thick. Unfortunately, the danger of somebody not getting the joke is just too great. Instead, I’m simply going to ask a question; why do we believe some things and not others? What makes a statement sound plausible–to you, say?

Rather than making fun of “gullible fools” as is traditional today, I invite each of you to consider how you yourself might be fooled? Under what circumstances might you be taken in?

Actually, I’ve noticed that a desire to not be taken in may be itself a potential weakness; “this is information they don’t want you to have” and “wake up, sheeple!” are both really common ways to present outlandish ideas.

A stick-figure lectures on conspiracy theories

An excerpt from XKCD https://xkcd.com/258/

So, how sure are you that climate change isn’t a vast, liberal conspiracy? Or, more precisely, presented with two groups of people each asserting mutually contradictory sets of facts (this is critical–these are not differences of judgment or analysis, which might be fairly called differences of opinion, this is factual disagreement), how do you know which one is wrong? Or do you?

Answer that one and you’ll be better equipped to talk to people who just happen, quite innocently, to be wrong.

 

 


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Your Tuesday Update: My Day Job

Hi, all.

As some of you know, this blog is not currently funded, meaning that I have to do something else to earn a living. Specifically, I’m a free-lance writer. Many of my jobs are just that–jobs. I enjoy writing for a living, but that does not mean that everything I write appeals to my personal interests. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Among these are some of the articles I sometimes write for Teletrac, a fleet-management software company. They assign me transportation-related topics. Since the transportation industry is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, many of my articles for Teletrac relate to emissions reductions.

Recently they asked me to write about a Federal program I had somehow not heard about before, the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge. It is a voluntary pledge American businesses can take to reduce their emissions by specific amounts or to otherwise do something about climate change. Really, it is a domestic parallel of the Paris climate deal, which also depends on voluntary pledges.

Apparently, some pretty major companies have signed up to take the pledge. Please check out my article on the subject and see what I do for my day-job.


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A Christmas Re-Post

Today is Christmas.

Perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people don’t–it isn’t my primary winter holiday, either, though I join the celebrations of family and friends. But WordPress tells me that the vast majority of pageviews come from the United States, so chances are Christmas is on your mind today, whether you celebrate it personally or not.

There are the TV adds, the holiday specials, the new holiday movies, the incessant Christmas carols in public spaces. For example, I’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” at least three or four times already without having sought out the song even once and I’m basically a homebody who ignores popular culture whenever possible (except as relates to climate change and a few other political and scientific issues). I am aware that some people harbor a special hatred of that over-played song.

But I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with him to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you. Merry Christmas.


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We Agree Not to Destroy the World

Last week, the climate conference in Paris sign an historic agreement–historic in the sense that is was signed, and might make some difference, something that was far from guaranteed. The agreement is largely non-binding and leaves emissions reduction targets up to each country to set for itself. The agreement will not go into effect until a critical number of countries ratify it, something that actually could take a couple of years (assuming it happens at all). The chance of the world reducing emissions enough to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius is obviously pretty small.

But our chances did just get better.

Here is a summary of the agreement itself. Yes, it’s mostly an unenforceable statement of intention, but it does include a few firm guidelines. And note that it includes a mechanism to set progressively more stringent goals–we’re not locked in to only the current agreement, we have instead the basis of further progress going forward. In addition to the multilateral agreement that the conference existed to create, the event also saw the creation of a number of important side agreements, such as the International Solar Alliance and Mission Innovation  (both aimed at increasing renewable energy capacity), plus commitments by cities, regions, organizations, companies, and private individuals. This is not inconsiderable.

My Facebook feed has been full of links and posts about the inadequacy of the conference, both in terms of its process (tribal peoples and other ethnic minorities were apparently excluded) and in terms of its results. I do not intend to refute any such criticisms, only that attacking the conference is neither necessary nor helpful. Earlier, I called on everyone to not let “great” be the enemy of “good.”  But that argument has another side, not just what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.

The thing is, this agreement is probably the best we could have gotten, for now, and it’s far from clear that even this will stick. A big part of the problem is the dominance of climate denial in American politics. The reason that the current agreement is not legally binding is that the United States Senate would not ratify a climate treaty. A minority of other countries, such as Australia, the UK, and Canada, have similar problems. We’re the hold-up, we’re the reason the agreement can’t be great, but only good. And by “we” I mean everyone who votes for climate deniers or who, through inaction, allows climate deniers to be elected. In the US, the climate-sane must take both houses of Congress and the White House in this coming election.

If you don’t like the Paris climate agreement, don’t complain about the conference that drafted it; get involved in politics and win some elections.


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Don’t Let Great Be the Enemy of Good on Climate

I’m feeling very guardedly optimistic about the climate conference in Paris. I believe that the key delegates, at least, are serious about coming to an agreement and that it is just possible it will be a turning point.

I am not encouraged by messages I see in social media condemning the agreement–that isn’t even written yet–as inadequate, complaining that the process and its leaders are hypocrites and sell-outs. Look, people; President Obama has had to fight tooth and nail to get any climate action through at all. And he has been fighting. No matter how imperfect he may be, he’s not our problem–he’s on our side. Congress is already doing whatever it can to undermine the process in Paris, though he’s already said he will veto them. Mr. Obama is the leader we’ve got.

Just as important, the Paris conference itself is far from certain to succeed, given that delegates are already dealing with a disagreement over which both sides say they will not bend. Yes, there is a corporate presence in the process that should not be there, and yes, last we heard,  nobody is really willing to cut emissions enough to get the job done. But do we want to get started in the right direction or not? Because this is our shot.

There is no good reason to protest against the delegates right now–in part because they’re busy doing their jobs and not paying a lot of attention to the protesters. I break with some authors who say we should not protest, however; we SHOULD take to the streets, it’s just that the delegates and their work should not be the target. At least in the United States, the target should be Congress, plus the Presidential candidates. We need to make up our minds to elect climate-sane candidates at all levels and we need to make it clear to our leaders that their employment depends on their taking the issue seriously. And we need to make clear to the news media that we want them to cover climate issues fairly and thoroughly so that more Americans will see evidence that this thing is real.

It’s time to step up to the plate, people.


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Thanksgiving

The following is a re-edited version of my Thanksgiving post from last year. 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? The thing is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change because everything we experience either depends on climate in some way or influences it. 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 what you have to do 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 dinner time. And yet, it is precisely abundance that serves to remind us of what we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving provides the illusion of infinite, inexhaustible resources because there is more food on the table than the assembled eaters can consume. It is that illusion we use to evoke and celebrate our abundance.

And it it is an illusion. There is no such thing as an 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 we need to give 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. We see this with fisheries, with soil health, with oil…. It’s not that we don’t have enough of what we need yet (hunger is usually a distribution  problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now). The problem is that we are using so much that the world is warming under the pressure.

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 and diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

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. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels that way, and it is that feeling that is important. 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 of abundance 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.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet 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, which is 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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Your Tuesday Update: More Pipelines?

So, they want to build a natural gas pipeline in New England that would likely involve taking some land through eminent domain and would certainly involve exposing more land and water to contamination from leaks. Remember that, even if the chance of a pipeline leaking in any given year is low, if the pipeline runs for enough years the cumulative chance of an accident rises. The bottom line is, pipelines leak–we don’t know where or when, but we know the leaks will happen.

Now, there are those who say this risks are worth it for the greater good in order to meet the energy needs of the region. I have not examined the situation in detail, so I am not in a position to judge one way or the other except that I am inclined to object to all fossil fuel infrastructure. I don’t like pipelines, to be honest.

But what I like or don’t like is not in itself important. I will look into the situation and make an informed decision as to whether to weight in, and so should you; Google “pipeline in New Hampshire” to start with and you’ll find plenty of information. But my point at the moment is to question how we as a society make these kinds of decisions. Are the things we stand to gain from pipelines like this really worth the things we have to lose?

Is building new fossil fuel infrastructure really a good idea, when our time, money, and ingenuity desperately needed elsewhere? In getting ourselves out of fossil fuel, rather than further into it?


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Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

Because I wrote a full post on Tuesday, I’m just doing an update today. Specifically, I’m updating you on the upcoming climate demonstrations on the 29th of this month.

The idea is to hold coordinated demonstrations all over the world in order to demonstrate political will ahead of the Paris talks next month. As such, it is critical–the Paris talks must must must must result in a meaningful, binding agreement. Literally, the future of our species is at stake. So we all have to go and show our elected leaders that this matters to us.

The problem is that the organizers don’t seem to be doing very much. There are, for example, three separate demonstrations planned for Washington DC and two out of the three have no contact information listed for the organizers. My concern is that we will get hundred or even thousands of demonstrations that each attract a few dozen participants and that none will draw any serious media attention at all. That could be catastrophic.

So, your mission (and mine) is to pick a demonstration to attend, talk as many people into attending with you as possible, and also contact your local and regional newsmedia and ask them to cover the event. Then check to see if they do–if they don’t, write or call in and complain.

Also, contact your elected representatives and make sure they know you are going and why.

That should help. To find an event near you, click HERE.


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Your Tuesday Update: The Day of Inaction

First of all, I want to apologize for skipping Friday’s post. I was in the process of migrating across country, had accidentally sat on my computer, was under-slept, etc. I’m on track to post as normal this week.

I had anticipated having a lot to talk about, too. Wednesday was supposedly an International Day of Climate Action and I’d planned to attend a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire–I was in Keene, New Hampshire at the time, and Manchester was the closest event. Friday’s post would therefore have been my description of that rally.

We ended up not going. The basic problem was that we’d have to drive an hour and a half each way to get to the event and couldn’t find anyone willing to car-pool with us. How much sense does it make to use that much gas to get to a climate change rally, especially when no other environmentalists in the area seem to be going? Plus, we were tired, being in the middle of our fall migration down the Eastern Seaboard. We went back and forth on whether we should go and finally realized we had not gone. It was pitiful.

And apparently most people did exactly the same as us.

I don’t know anybody who attended an event, although I started trying to spread the word a few weeks prior. The organizers never responded to my offer to volunteer, nor did they respond to my mother’s offer. The Day of Action did not make the national news. When I went hunting for information I learned that Manchester’s rally was the biggest such gathering in the state’s history, but only because the state’s history is very poor–barely 100 people showed up. Even in New York, which should, at least, have mobilized thousands, only a hundred people came out–and I learned that from a brief notice way down the page on an activists’ website. You have to hunt for it. The organizer’s own website does not even appear to have been updated after the event–no “thank you for making this day a success!”

Because this was not a success. I am reluctant to chide other people for not doing something I didn’t do, either, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t attend because I wasn’t convinced doing so would really matter. It just didn’t seem like anyone else was going to show up or that the organizers were serious about getting anyone to show up. And I didn’t want to drive a hundred and thirty miles out of my way to go have a two-person protest that nobody would ever hear about. It is the job of event organizers to convince potential participants that showing up matters and they didn’t. So we didn’t.

We have to do better, people. Demonstrations that are big enough to make the national news are absolutely critical because they show political candidates that if they take climate change seriously as a threat then we, the electorate, will have their backs. If we fail to do that then they’ll ignore the issue and if the US Government does not get behind climate action this election cycle we may well simply be out of time.

There is another event planned in November. Let’s make sure to show up.


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About Batteries

Now and then I hear battery-operated versions of various machines touted as “environmentally friendly” because they produce zero emissions. Of course, a moment’s thought shows that this is not true–or not necessarily true, anyway. A battery stores energy, and if the energy in question came from a coal-fired power-plant then the battery-powered machine is responsible for a a lot of emissions. Those emissions are simply somewhere else.

But is that the only caveat batteries carry? Between personal electronics and new “greener” technologies such as hybrid and plug-in electric cars, batteries are a huge part of the modern energy landscape–and yet, I realized, I didn’t really know much about how they work or what problems they might cause. I set out to learn the basics, and here I pass them on.

As I’ve been saying for years, rechargeable batteries only store energy, they don’t create it. Of course, nothing except whatever started the Big Bang creates energy, that’s part of the First Law of Thermodynamics, but a gallon of gas is an energy source in a way that a battery isn’t. Most people know this, but don’t seem to really think about it. For example, plug-in hybrid cars receive praise for their wonderful gas mileage even though that’s the wrong measure of efficiency for those cars. Such a hybrid could be an absolute energy guzzler, sucking down kilowatts, and still use very little gas. And if the electricity comes from a coal-fired power  plant, the carbon footprint of a plug-in could actually be higher than for a traditional car of the same weight and engine type.

But batteries do not store energy the same way a jug stores water. For one thing, electricity, by nature, moves. You can’t keep it in a box any more than you can shine a light into a closet, close the door, and expect the brightness to still be there when you get back. Instead, a battery converts chemical energy into electricity–and back again, if it’s rechargeable. That means that beyond asking where the energy comes from, we also have to ask what happens to it inside the battery and whether storing the energy is actually a good option.

I had a really hard time tracking down information, here, in part because I didn’t understand the right questions to ask. In turns out the answers are both very technical and very specific to each battery type–turns out “a battery” is something like “a sandwich” in that all the members of the category look recognizably similar and all accomplish roughly the same thing, yet the insides of two batteries might have no more to do with each other than do peanut butter and roast beef. I didn’t research all possible types of batteries, and I am very far from being an electrician, but I can give you the questions I’ve found–and a few examples of some answers.

  • How efficient is the battery?
  • Can old batteries be recycled into new batteries indefinitely?
  • What is the environmental impact of building and eventually disposing of the battery?
  • How does the battery compare with relevant energy alternatives?

 

How efficient is the battery–and its charger?

When you put energy into a battery, how much of it do you get back out again? The answer depends on the battery type, its age and condition, and how it is being charged, but it’s never 100%. First of all, every time energy changes form, some of it dissipates, as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Charging a battery converts electrical energy into chemical energy, so some is lost in that process. Some is lost again when the battery is used, converting chemical energy to electricity. And of course charging a battery requires a charger, which is also not 100% efficient for a similar reason. For example, depending on its initial state of discharge, an eight-hour charge cycle for a lead-acid battery could be anywhere from 36% to 64% efficient. That means that if you’re charging car batteries to do a job that you could just as easily accomplish with an extension cord, you could find yourself using almost three times as much electricity as you really need. The picture gets worse if you leave the charger attached too long; these batteries accept less and less charge the closer to full they get and the electricity they don’t except just makes the battery hot. It’s wasted.

Can old batteries be recycled into new batteries indefinitely?

Not all batteries are rechargeable. It is possible to make a crude battery out of half a grapefruit and those don’t need an initial charging–the energy is present in the relationship between the fruit juice and the electrodes. If commercially available batteries also don’t need an initial charge, then they are, essentially, a form of fuel and we need to ask the same questions about them as we would with any other fuel–like, are we going to run out?

I was unable to answer this question, because internet searches on charging non-rechargeable batteries yield websites all about how to recharge non-rechargeable batteries (which, by the way, is a bad idea. We tried by accident some years ago and very nearly killed out cat in the process). But it doesn’t really matter because the important question–are we going to run out–applies to all batteries regardless of when or if they are charged. To put it simply, any battery made of something that cannot be recycled back into the same type of battery indefinitely is unsustainable long-term.

As far as I can gather, at least the primary materials in many popular battery types, such as lead or lithium, are closed-loop recyclable in theory. These are metals, and metals are pretty simple to work with. But that doesn’t mean they are being recycled. The issue is whether the price of the material is actually high enough to pay for the processing. With the exception of lead, it generally isn’t. In some cases, even the carbon footprint of recycling could be larger than that for mining, though I have not seen an analysis of that. Sometimes batteries are recycled at a financial loss for environmental reasons, but this isn’t closed-loop recycling. Recycled lithium might be sold for use as a lubricant, for example. Even in the best case scenario, most batteries also have non-recyclable components, such as plastic, that recycling centers simply incinerate.

What is the environmental impact of building and eventually disposing of the battery?

Potential environmental impacts include the life-cycle carbon footprint of the battery (how much carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas it is responsible for, from mining through final disposal), physical disruption of the land associated with mining, and any toxicity related to disposal. Again, the answer depends on battery type, but we just don’t have all the answers. For example, cadmium in the ocean might have come from batteries, but then again it might not have. Life cycle energy analyses have not been done for all battery types, and some of those that have been done may be out of date. Generally, lead-acid batteries have the lowest energy footprint and are the most recyclable, but they are also quite toxic if not recycled.

How does the battery compare with relevant energy alternatives?

This question is the big one. In some circumstances, batteries are clearly the best option around. They make small-scale solar or wind power generation practical, for example. Without them, these systems would only deliver when the sun shone or the wind blew. In other circumstances, since as in the duel between a lead-acid battery and an extension cord imagined earlier, they are clearly wasteful. Still other times, they fall into a gray area of very nuanced decision-making.

Any time energy changes form, some of it is lost. Part of overall energy efficiency is therefore keeping the number of transformations as low as possible. For example, if you have several gallons of gasoline and want to boil water, your best bet is to use some kind of gasoline-burning stove. Using the gas to power a generator to make electricity to run an electric stone is wasteful because it involves so many more transformations. If everything else is equal,therefore, any kind of heating device, from stoves to baseboards to clothes dryers, are better run on gas than on electricity, if the electricity was generated by burning fossil fuel (as it often is). But everything is not always equal.

For example, how energy-efficient is gas delivery? If it has to come a long distance by truck (in which case it will probably be propane, not gasoline), the calculation might even out. The situation gets even more complex with motors since the relative weight of different designs and the circumstances of operation all come into play. For example, a battery-powered car does have emissions, it simply has them at the power station not at the tail-pipe. But if the car drives into an area that is very vulnerable to pollution, leaving the emissions behind at the plant might be important.

What does it all mean?

The bottom line is that batteries are not a panacea. In fact, they make thinking about environmental issues much more complicated. They’re handy tools for “green-washing,” as long as the public believes that battery power always means pollution-free. But they are also important tools for increasing overall energy efficiency and sustainability, especially if used in concert with electricity generation from renewable sources.

The important thing to remember is that we can’t create energy, nor do we get to decide how much energy a given task requires. If you want to accelerate a two-ton vehicle up to sixty miles an hour, that will take X amount of energy whether you use a gas engine or an electric motor to do it. The electric version might well be better in some respects, and if so then that is definitely the version we should pick. But mobilizing that energy always comes with some cost, somewhere, and if we can’t see what the cost is, we need to start asking questions..

The only way to truly go “zero emissions” is to use less energy in any form.