The Climate in Emergency

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


Leave a comment

What the Frack?

I heard a few days ago that Pennsylvania had recorded its first earthquakes caused by fracking. I’ve been hearing for a while that fracking causing earthquakes and all sorts of other mean, nasty stuff, but I didn’t know exactly how. I figured this was a good opportunity to read up on the matter and write a neat little science-explainer post.

Except it turns out fracking doesn’t cause most of the earthquakes we’ve been hearing about. Fracking is bad, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the situation is more complex.

The story in Pennsylvania is that there were a series of very small earthquakes almost a year ago. They were too minor to even notice without the help of instruments and nobody would have cared except that they were centered right next to  fracking operation. So, the authorities investigated and decided that yes, the fracking probably caused the shaking.

No, it didn’t, said the Daily Caller, a website about which I knew nothing and was frankly suspicious. I poked around on the site, and offhand, it looks to be a legitimate newspaper with a conservative, anti-environmental bias, but so far I haven’t seen anything too far off that wasn’t on the opinion page. More to the point, they’re almost right about fracking.

Fracking can cause earthquakes, but they are typically too small to feel, just as the quakes in Pennsylvania, were. The Daily Caller’s contention that the story is some kind of liberal media conspiracy seems off-base at best. But they are correct in noting that the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that fracking does not cause strong earthquakes.

As the USGS explains, induced earthquakes are caused by the injection of fluid into rock near faults capable of producing earthquakes, but how much fluid and when it is injected both matter a lot.

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) means using water and chemicals (mostly acids, lubricants, and poisons–the poisons are used to kill microbes that might otherwise damage the equipment. And yes, you can look up these chemicals) to break up deep rock layers so that oil or natural gas can flow more easily into the well. Once the fracture occurs, it doesn’t have to be done again, not for that well. Extraction commences, and most of the fracking fluid comes back up, along with the oil or gas. Because the injection operation is brief, involves relatively little fluid, and normally occurs in rocks that have already had some of their oil extracted by conventional means (thus freeing up some space) the resulting earthquakes are small.

What causes the big earthquakes is wastewater injection.

When oil or gas are pumped out of the ground, water comes, too. It may be a little water or a lot of water–usually, the proportion of water increases as the well starts to empty out. Wells are often abandoned, not because there isn’t any more hydrocarbon down there, but because there is to much water and separating it out gets too expensive. The water can come from a number of sources. Some of it was pumped into the well as part of the drilling process (either for fracking or for other forms of drilling), and then withdrawn again along with the oil. The water picks up substances from the rock in the process an becomes salty and toxic. Water can also leak into a well when the bore hole passes through an aquifer–though drilling companies try to prevent those leaks because the water causes various expensive complications for them. Sometimes when oil or gas are pumped out of the rock, water from nearby flows in to take up the newly emptied space. But oil and gas pockets generally contain their own water as well, because the organic ooze that became the hydrocarbon and the sediment that surrounded it were wet. Some of that water is salty because it’s seawater. Sometimes it’s fresh. For some reason I find the idea of underground pockets of ancient seawater charming.

But no matter how the water gets in there, it’s not safe to drink when it comes back out. Water is very good at dissolving things, and while it’s underground, it usually picks up several different toxins or radioactive substances. There are various ways to dispose of this stuff (some places spray it on roadways to control ice and dust, a practice of questionable wisdom). Injecting it back underground is not a new idea, and has obvious advantages–if it’s injected into the space that used to contain oil, the water can prevent subsidence. But if the wastewater is injected into rock that hasn’t had anything removed, it can cause earthquakes. Serious ones.

Wastewater disposal involves a lot more fluid than fracking does, and it continues as long as the oil pumping. Its impact on the rock is therefore much greater. And yet, even then, most wastewater injection wells don’t cause earthquakes. For the rock to move, there must be a pre-existing fault capable of causing earthquakes either near the injection site or somewhere the water can flow to from the injection site–sometimes the earthquake is up to ten miles away. So, the take-home message is that injection can’t cause an earthquake in a place where no earthquake could happen otherwise, but it can make those earthquakes much more likely. Like, hundreds of times more likely, as is happening in Oklahoma, and will likely continue happening for years after the injection stops.

The other take-home message is if someone ten miles away agrees to put an injection well on their land, the earthquake might happen under your house.

But there is a connection between fracking and strong induced earthquakes.

Scientists have known for decades that wastewater injection can cause earthquakes under some circumstances. They’ve known that there are some places where these wells just shouldn’t go. But in recent years, the economics of exploiting certain very wet carbon deposits has simply gotten too good to pass up–and fracking and horizontal drilling together have made it so. The result is more injection wells where they’re not supposed to be. So far, Pennsylvania has not had many injection wells, which is part of why it hasn’t had many induced earthquakes, but that could change.

As long as large volumes of wet hydrocarbons are being exploited, there will be large volumes of wastewater to be disposed of, somehow. It may be difficult to restrict disposal wells to those places that are not going to cause earthquakes. And as bad as injection is, all the other forms of disposal seem to be worse.

So it comes down to a societal choice–how much are we willing to pay to have oil and gas? Ad are the people making the decisions really the same people who end up paying the cost?

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Imagining Post-Petroleum

I’m working on a novel set in the relatively near future (decades, not centuries ahead) in a post-petroleum society. As the author, I get to make certain decisions about the world of this novel, and one of the things I’ve decided is that although internal-combustion engines still exist, they are only used for emergency vehicles. Most people walk or use horses or oxen to travel over land and a combination of sails and solar electricity to go by water. My thinking is that the most viable alternative fuels–ethanol, biodiesel, and liquified biogas–would be prohibitively expensive for everyday use.

My logic is that fossil fuel mobilizes dramatically more energy than any sustainable source can yield.

However, I’m not an expert on such things, and I have never encountered a similar guess in anybody else’s writing. Perhaps that’s because few people like the idea of losing fast transportation–although I actually think the change would be a net social good, provided that emergency vehicles and the Internet still exist (which, in my book, they do).

In any case, the book is a novel, a story about people and about ecology, it’s not about economics. I never actually researched my assumptions about my fictional society’s energy economy. And, truth to tell, I am not going to invest the time to do so thoroughly. But how would I go about doing that research? How difficult would it actually be?

The question to start (and maybe end) with is how much land does it actually take to grow the raw ingredients for each type of fuel? After all, the more land the process takes, the greater the opportunity cost involved in growing the fuel instead of, say, food. Although the final cost of the fuel would be the result of market forces I will not even try to predict, the cost in land might be a reasonable rough proxy.

Ethanol

I started with ethanol because it is already used as a fuel and because I knew one of its possible sources–corn–would be easy to get a per-acre figure for. To be clear, there are other ways to make ethanol, some of which, such as wheat straw, are potentially waste products from other endeavors, meaning that the cost in land might be very low but very complicated to calculate. I wanted something simpler.

And actually, it’s simpler than I thought. After some back-of-the-envelope math (literally on the back on an envelope) and online searches, I realized I don’t need to calculate gallons per acre–I need to calculate how much food a gallon of ethanol could have been.

Now, the articles I found on the ecological footprint of ethanol all focused on whether ethanol as it is produced today is a properly “green” fuel. We’re after a slightly different question, so I chose a different angle–I looked up a recipe for corn whiskey. Whiskey is, after all, ethanol.

Turns out, with a recipe that uses only grain, water, and yeast (no sugar or syrup), a five-gallon whiskey run uses almost nine pounds of corn, plus some barley.  It yields one to two gallons of shine. So, to make our numbers simple, we can say ten pounds of corn for two gallons of ethanol, or five pounds per gallon. We’re just trying to get in the right ball-park here.

One pound of corn has almost 400 calories and 15 grams of protein, so we can say that each gallon of fuel could have been one person’s daily food ration instead. So we’re looking at a one-to-one ratio here. I don’t mean that making fuel necessarily would take food out of people’s mouths–there might already be enough food. But the cost of a gallon of corn ethanol will always be above whatever it costs to eat corn all day (because you have to pay for processing also).

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is basically oil, usually vegetable oil, that has been processed so it can run in a Diesel engine. Ordinary oil works as a fuel also, but requires a converted engine. Many different kinds of oil will work, though soybean oil is the most popular in the US at present and Canola is most popular in Europe. Yields for Canola are significantly higher than for soy, and happens to be the crop I found information on–it averages around 160 gallons of oil per acre, depending on where it grows.

So, what is the cost? Canola oil is edible, but it’s not something you could live on alone for a day (yech!). Instead, choose some food crop that likes the same climate as Canola (corn does not) and compare the per-acre yield.

The same source lists a 48 gallon-per-acre yield for soybeans. Now, estimating the food value of that many soybeans if they aren’t pressed for oil is difficult for several reasons, not least of which being that humans generally process soy before eating it. I don’t feel like trying to figure out how many servings of tofu per acre a soybean field yields….but soy does grow in the same climate as corn and farmers often alternate the two crops in the same field (I live in a rural area that mostly produces corn and soybeans and chickens, so I see this rotation up close). So we can express the cost of fuel oil derived from soy in corn–corn yields roughly 6,200 pounds per acre, or 1,240 human-days of food. That’s almost 26 human-days per gallon–expensive, especially as compared to ethanol on a gallon by gallon basis (although oil is a more efficient fuel).

Of course, biodiesel can be made from waste fry oil, in which case it has no cost at all, apart from the expense of processing and transportation.

Liquified Biogas?

I listed this one without actually knowing if it exists. Liquified natural gas (LNG) is a popular (though debatable) alternative fuel. Natural gas is methane from fossil sources. Since biogas is methane from non-fossil sources, liquified biogas (LBG?) should be a possibility. And it is! They make it in Sweden!

Calculating the cost in land of (LBG) is somewhere between very simple and very hard. Hard because it can be made of almost anything, easy because biogas is already being produced by anything rotting anaerobically. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is, so it is better for the planet to burn the stuff than to release it–which is why you can actually get a negative carbon footprint by using waste methane (from landfills or from livestock waste pools) to generate power.

In my post-petroleum society, the problem with biogas is therefor not how do you produce it but how do you gather up and use the gas being produced anyway. Its cost in land is therefore essentially zero. But to use it as a transportation fuel you have to liquify it (why? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing its volume is way too large in gaseous form) and that means chilling it to -259° F. How? That’s some serious refrigeration. Does the chilling have a cost?

Liquifying methane involves a 10% energy loss. That is, however much methane you want to liquify, you need 10% as much again to power your freezers. Once chilled, however, the methane will stay liquid indefinitely at no extra cost, provided it is properly insulated (I assume you’d need to use some kind of refrigerant chemical for this, but while commercial refrigerants are all currently greenhouse gasses themselves, climate-sane refrigerants are possible and we can assume our futuristic society has one).

Of course, 10% of nothing is nothing, but if our futuristic society is depending on waste methane its total supply is limited–and if liquified, is 10% smaller than it might otherwise be.  And if you’re transporting it by truck, you’ll lose even more fuel powering the truck. That might become a factor in the final cost of the product.

Bringing it all together

For full disclosure I ought to say I’m terrible at basic math. Curiously, calculators don’t help because the problem is that I sometimes change numbers without knowing it. So my calculations here are not guaranteed to be free of error–my objective is not to provide finished numbers but to suggest a way of thinking about energy costs in a post-petroleum world.

And as I’ve said, at-the-pump prices in such a world would depend on so many factors that I’m not even going to try to make a guess–except in my capacity as a novelist.

In my book, the US no longer uses the dollar as its currency but the share. “A share,” in this context, is theoretically equal to survival rations for one person for one day–food, water, and everything necessary to maintain adequate shelter, all at a very basic level. In practice, one share pays for basic room and board at a hostel. Having stayed at many hostels and seen their variation in price, I’d say a share is equal to about $20.

Now, the concept of a “human-day in food” is very similar to a share, except a share also includes water and a roof. Put all this together, and I can actually get rough prices for how much the raw materials for each of these fuels would be in my fictional societies:

  • Corn ethanol: .6 share, or $12 per gallon
  • Waste biomas ethanol: free but not unlimited
  • Canola biodeisel: 3 shares, or $60 per gallon
  • Soy biodeisel: 12 shares, or $240 per gallon
  • Waste oil biodeisel: free but not unlimited
  • Liquified biogas: free but not unlimited

Remember, these are raw material prices. Pump prices would be higher and would vary a lot from place to place depending on how much free raw material was available in your area–transporting fuel long distances might be prohibitively expensive. Ball park, I’d say we’re looking at pump prices at $20 or more a gallon, though, so you’re not going to have a private automobile.

(Unless it’s electric. Would there be enough electric capacity for electric cars? My novel assumes not, but that’s another discussion).

But if your house is on fire or if you need an ambulance, help will be on its way quickly. If you live near the water you can travel or ship goods by solar sailboat. You’ll shop locally and so will your neighbors, so your local economy will be strong. You’ll like it.

 


2 Comments

California Methane Leak

As you may already be aware, California is leaking.

More specifically, a giant natural gas storage facility just north of Los Angeles is leaking, and the amount of methane coming out of this thing is huge. It’s been going on since October and is likely to go right on until March. My Facebook feed has been filling up with dire warnings about Armageddon, but the nightly news has been strangely quiet.

So, what’s the story with this leak, how bad is it really, and is it really being nationally ignored?

It’s easy to find a detailed description of the problem online, so another detailed exposition seems superfluous. Here is just a quick summary to get us all on the same page.

The storage tank in question is actually the space in the rock where a huge pool of petroleum used to be. Industry pumped the petroleum out and sold it and then decided to use the empty space for temporary storage of natural gas. Basically, the owner, the Southern California Gas Company (or SoCal Gas) wanted to be able to keep a lot of inventory on hand so as to be able to respond quickly to changes in price and demand. This is a storage tank bigger than anything humans could actually build and it is accessible only by a well sunk deep in the rock.

SoCal Gas has a lot of these things, but the Aliso Canyon facility is the second-largest in the Western US. 86 billion cubic feet of capacity–that’s a cave that, if actually cube-shaped, would be almost half a mile on a side. It’s almost a mile and a half underground.

I’m not sure whether anyone knows when the leak started, but SoCal Gas found it on October 23rd. Since then, the rate of leakage has varied, and apparently it’s only measured occasionally, so no one knows exactly how much has leaked, but it’s probably around 50,000 kilograms per hour, or about 7% of the nation’s total natural gas emissions. Big.

Natural gas, remember, is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The term is used to specify methane from fossil sources, as opposed to biogas.

Methane is not toxic (though if you tried to breathe too much of the stuff you’d suffocate for lack of oxygen), so the main threat here is through the greenhouse effect. But the gas in the storage facility is mixed with mercaptan, the stuff used to give gas a recognizable odor. So the whole situation quite literally stinks, and while mercaptan is not considered dangerous, is it very mildly toxic and area residents (human and otherwise) are experiencing symptoms like headaches and nausea–and for some, more serious symptoms. Small amounts of other chemicals, present in the gas (including benzene, which is seriously dangerous) may also be contributing factors.

No one knows exactly why the well is leaking, but SoCal Gas might have been able to shut the thing off if they hadn’t decided to remove rather than replace a critical valve (and lie about it) back in 1979. For this and other reason, the company is now being sued within an inch of its life. Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency, but did so in such a way as to make sure that neither taxpayers nor ratepayers would pick up the costs. California is not playing around on this one.

SoCal has tried to pump mud down into the access well to plug the leak, but that has not worked. Now they are drilling a second well that is supposed to intersect the first–for reasons I do not understand, this is supposed to make the leak easier to plug. Drilling a well that deep will take a long time, which is why the leak might not be plugged until March.

The whole situation is bizarrely reminiscent of the Gulf oil spill, both in terms of its scale and in terms of of the technical detail of plugging the well. But there are some important differences, too–notably, methane is invisible and non-toxic, making this leak insidious. Once the well is plugged and the mercaptan disperses, it will be easy to pretend the whole thing is over. There will be no tar balls washing up on scenic beaches, no disturbing fish and dolphin kills from this one. But the methane will remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet further, for roughly a century.

So is this climate Armageddon?

Not really in any way it wasn’t before. This leak is huge, for a single leak, and it is enough to have a real impact on what strategies we use to bring our emissions down; to meet our goals, we’ll have to work even harder, now. But at the same time, the US alone is producing lots more methane–from other, smaller natural gas leaks, from landfills, and from the guts of our huge herds of cattle. And even adjusting for its greater power as a greenhouse gas, methane still only produces less than a 6th as much warming as carbon dioxide does because there is so much less of it. The real heavy-hitter is still carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that this leak is not the end of the world all by itself, but plugging it up isn’t going to save the world by itself, either. It’s just another few straws on an already badly overloaded camel. And that could explain the relative lack of news coverage.

It’s true that the California leak rarely makes the major news outlets. I have not done an exhaustive study on the subject, but a search of online records and the memories of my social media contacts does suggest it’s not being treated like front-page news by anybody. If you don’t follow environmental news specifically, and are not connected by social media to anyone who does, you might well miss the story completely. But it’s not being blacked out, either–CNN and NPR have both covered the story on their websites, though I am not clear yet whether either did so on air, and there are plenty of articles in the online/print media, including some on mainstream sites.

Broadcast media simply cannot cover as many stories as print/online media can. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And this genuinely does not sound like the top-tier disaster that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think anybody’s trying to keep this quiet in any deliberate way. Instead, I think we’re witnessing the silence of a mainstream journalism that still doesn’t consider the environment generally, or climate change specifically, very important.

Maybe we need to call or write in again and ask them to cover this? Because while the California leak is bad, media undercoverage of a major issue is far worse.

The other thing that’s far worse is that this is not the only large methane storage facility there is–and while California at least is taking steps to improve safety, at the moment we don’t know when the next leak will come or how big it will be.


Leave a comment

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?


3 Comments

And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.

 

 

 

 


7 Comments

Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.

 

 


1 Comment

Retrospective

Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.