Left to Louisiana's tides, a village fights for time

Stunning and informative piece in the NY Times on Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and its causes and consequences. 

Jean Lafitte may be just a pinprick on the map, but it is also a harbinger of an uncertain future. As climate change contributes to rising sea levels, threatening to submerge land from Miami to Bangladesh, the question for Lafitte, as for many coastal areas across the globe, is less whether it will succumb than when — and to what degree scarce public resources should be invested in artificially extending its life.

US solar power is still growing fast — but it's about to hit a speed bump

Solar only accounts for a small 0.6% of U.S. electricity but since the mid-2000s, thanks mostly to Federal tax credits and cheaper (Chinese) panels, solar instillation radically increased (mostly in California). In 2017, the Federal tax credits expire and as Brad Plumer explains, U.S. solar photovoltaic growth might hit a serious speed bump, particularly for residential installation. 

 Image via vox.com

Image via vox.com

Will the solar boom be another false start–like the 1970s–or will the Federal government reinstate the subsidies before they expire in 2017? Will panels prices continue to fall, making unsubsidized or lower subsidies panels affordable? Will Obama's Clean Power Plan make the States pick up the slack? Question to be determined in the coming years.

Apple's Real Carbon Footprint Is In Manufacturing and It's Dirty

Apple Inc. released its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report this week. In the report, Apple proudly claims that their data centers are running on 100% renewable energy and that their new headquarters in Cupertino will run entirely on renewables (solar plant in nearby Monterey County). Apple is proud to claim that building operations in the USA are moving to 100% renewable. That's great. However, Apple's real carbon footprint is in the vast, vast amount of energy used and CO2 released in manufacturing all of its physical products, mostly in China. 

For example, of the 34 million metric tons of CO2 Apple claims responsibility for in fiscal year 2014, 24.8 million metric tons are in manufacturing and only 0.4 million tons are in facilities. Put another way, 73% of Apple's carbon footprint is in manufacturing, whereas only 1.1% is in facilities. Sorry Apple, switching facilities to renewables is great optics (and still worthwhile) but it is a drop in the bucket of their CO2 footprint. For Apple to meaningfully contribute to reducing global warming they will need to begin to transition their manufacturing partners to renewables. It seems they are now just taking small steps in that direction.

For now, Apple and other manufacturers, and consumers, are contributing both to the localized pollution crisis in China as well as global CO2 emissions. If Apple wants to be a leading corporate environmental steward, as statements by CEO Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives indicate, then it needs to more fully and quickly address the source of their real carbon footprint: the manufacturing of physical products.

CSU Chico Commits to Full Divestment of Fossil Fuel Holdings

Right before the Fall 2014 semester ended big news on the fight against fossil fuels came out of CSU Chico, where I teach: 

Chico State University showed immense leadership as one of the first public universities in the nation to commit to fully divesting from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies within four years. The resolution, authored by members of Fossil Free California State University, was passed 8 – 4 by the CSU Chico University Foundation.

United States and China Enter Into Bilateral Energy Transition Agreement

An historic deal. We'll have to monitor closely to see what actually happens. Here is the gist as reported by Jeff Spross at ThinkProgress:

The pledge commits the U.S. to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. This builds on the current target of a 17 percent reduction below that baseline by 2020, and could actually double the pace of emission cuts set by that initial goal — from 1.2 percent a year to as high as 2.8 percent per year. The White House has actually been looking into the possibility of expanding beyond the 2020 target since 2013, and has been involved in occasional interagency meetings to that effect.

For its part, China is committing to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, and to peak its overall carbon dioxide emissions that same year. China’s construction of renewable energy capacity is already proceeding at a furious pace, and this deal will require the country to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy by 2030. For comparison, 800 to 1,000 gigawatts is close to the amount of electricity the U.S. current generates from all sources combined.

In the US, with virtually no solid Congressional support, it will be interesting to see how such a commitment will fair in the short-term, let alone spanning multiple Congressional and Presidential terms. China, on the other hand, with a centralized one-party rule might be able to enable a more consistent and coherent energy transition strategy. It's also important to remember that most of the carbon in the atmosphere now was put there by Europe and the United States over the past 150 years or so. 

Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind

This is a great overview of the energy transition thesis (energiewende, in German). It focuses on the German example and highlights the major disruption renewables will have on utilities markets and business models. Many drastic changes and challenges lie ahead. 

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

See also "While Critics Debate Energiewende, Germany is Gaining a Global advantage."  

 

Elegy for a Country's Seasons

A beautiful, moving essay by Zadie Smith on climate change and mourning a world we lost: 

Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar—essentially religious—cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation. This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help—the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse. In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved.

California Snowpack January 2013 Versus January 2014

 
 California snowpack January 2013 and January 2014. Image via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

California snowpack January 2013 and January 2014. Image via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not good. Not good at all.

Pregnant Pause

Hillary Rosner: 

Pregnancy has allowed me for the first time to understand how hard it is to tell good information from bad. As a science journalist, I make my living by being able to decipher the two, but all these warnings bewilder me. As a result, I feel like I can see a bit more clearly how misinformation can become epidemic, leading to collective panic and seriously bad policy making.
And suddenly, I began to understand something else: exactly how — and why — so many people opt to ignore the looming threat of climate change. Or to cherry-pick the facts that convince us that environmental problems are vastly overstated. Or to think that those preaching the most alarming outcomes are being melodramatic.

In Case You Need to Hear this Again

Ninety-seven percent of scientists support the scientific consensus that human induced climate change is happening, according to a new paper by Cook et al (2013)

Sixty-three percent of those polled in the US also support the scientific consensus, which is down 7% last year, and only about 50% of those who support the consensus think humans are causing it, according to Yale School of Forestry

Via Tom Zeller Jr at Huffington Post.

Why Global Warming Won't Go Viral

The global warming meme is this web of cultural expressions about the human relationship with nature (Harmony), with one another (Cooperation), and the threat of extinction for the human race (Survival) that evokes a wide diversity of sentiments about expert authority and political power (Elitism). 
And yet the core themes of the global warming meme evoke exactly this kind of crippling anxiety.  Are we out of harmony with nature?  Is it going to kill off everyone we have ever loved?  Does this mean there is something wrong with us?  Who has the audacity to claim that humans have the power of gods to shape the planet in such profound ways?  Questions like these cause people to react defensively or shut out the conversation entirely.  Our research shows that these are the questions that arise when climate memes enter the minds of people, explaining why both denialists and advocates respond so strongly to the different threats they perceive from the global warming meme. 
This is why global warming won’t go viral.  It is psychologically toxic to the human mind and won’t spread on its own. 

Worth a look at this study and their conclusions about what could be done to further the conversation of global climate change and specific action.

Climate Change: End of Social Science?

A new article by Clive Hamilton argues that climate change reveals the long Western notion of the separation of humans from nature (nature/culture dualism) to be a sham. Climate change, he argues, lays bare that humans are and always have been embedded within natural systems, which at this point in time, we are so entangled we cannot epistemologically and ontologically separate the two. Hamilton writes, 

Climate science is now telling us that such a separation can no longer be sustained, that the natural and the human are mixed up, and their influences cannot be neatly distinguished.

This is an idea that has been circulating in environmental history (William Cronon) and political and urban political ecology (e.g. Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swengedouw, among many others). Recently, the hybrid thesis is moving into mainstream writing with the help from writers like Emma Marris.

Hamilton declares the social sciences to be on the way out. Why? He argues that since nature and society are not separate categories there is no longer a need for a dedicated social science. He writes,

So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.

It's a bold argument. But I think he's wrong.

Environmental sociologists and other environmental studies folks, far from fading into oblivion, have an unique position in these matters because of their understanding of cultural, political, and economic systems, which analyzed properly are not siloed away from nature, but rather the society-nature hybrid is integrated into an overall analysis. Multi-disiplinary and trans-disciplinary collaboration, such as the Sustainable Engineering and Ecological Design institute at my alma matter. 

Furthermore, Hamilton oddly enough makes an environmental determinist claim, which goes against his overall argument:

From hereon our history will increasingly be dominated by “natural processes”, influenced by us but largely beyond our control. Our future has become entangled with that of the Earth’s geological evolution...it can no longer be maintained that humans make their own history, for the stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.

He wants to argue that social science is going away, that the Modernist human-nature duality is crumbling, but then makes a statement that subsumes society into the totality of nature and puts us at the complete whim of nature. This is not hybrid socio-nature thinking that I and others, and Hamilton, up until that point, make.

Environmental studies requires systems thinking rather than category thinking. We may be embedded within natural systems, but it is incorrect to argue that we are now at the whim of nature. It is not enough to just turn Modernity on its head, as Marx once turned Hegel on his head, replacing base with superstructure. We need to continue to push the boundaries and dissolve the categories towards new socio-ecological studies. Down with dualisms, old and new.

"Nature" More Persuasive Than Sceintists

A new poll shows that extreme weather events have more impact on changing the perceptions of climate change in respondents than scientific studies. Natural and socio-natural events, and our perception of them, can shift society's attitudes more than rational discourse and science. Perception/experience vs. rational thought. What does this mean for climate change politics? Well, as more and more climate events transpire, whether due to anthropogenic climate change or not, it's possible that public attitudes and perhaps politics will begin to shift even further in favor of concrete steps to reduce CO2 emissions. Yet, it is also possible that more frequent and extreme weather events, with death and destruction, will only fuel the politics of despair and give more weight to the secular Dooms Day environmentalism that is so popular. 

What Do We Owe to the Next Species After Us

The central question of this provocative piece by Emma Marris:

Climate change may not be forever, but it’ll be for a long, long time. Who—or what—will be around thousands or millions of years hence, when the consequences of our casually massive carbon emissions are still playing out? And do we owe them anything?

What Could Disappear

Interesting NY Times maps showing large US coastal cities and the portions of them that could be submerged underwater if different climate change scenarios play out (5-ft, 12-ft, and 25-ft sea rise scenarios). 

Near where I live, it surprised me to see Sacramento, which is at least 90 miles from the ocean, so vulnerable because of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta.

 Boston, MA Image NY Times

Boston, MA Image NY Times

 Bay Area, CA and Sacramento, CA Image NY Times

Bay Area, CA and Sacramento, CA Image NY Times

Greenhouse Gases at Historic High

United Nations' World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that greenhouse gases reached a recored high in 2011. 

Carbon dioxide levels reached about 390.9 parts per million last year, which is 140 percent of the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million and nearly 2 parts per million higher than the 2010 carbon dioxide level, according to the WMO report.

Via: Yahoo! News

The Great Dithering

Presidential debates do not determine actual policy, but they do set conversation agendas. After three debates this year, global climate change was not mentioned once. It's increasingly clear that the US political machine is incapable at this time to address the threats posed by climate change. Global climate change is not even on the conversation agenda.

Further, the US political elite have zero coherence on matters of an energy transition. Striking evidence of this fact is that typically celebrated capitalist entrepreneurialism, in the form of renewable, green energy technology companies, are openly ridiculed and lambasted by right-wing pundits and politicians. Yes, some of these companies received government loans and subsidies, and yes a few of them failed, but almost all US businesses benefit form direct and indirect subsidies (roads, highways, tax codes, etc).  

Global climate change is a dead policy issue in Washington, but the end around energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is also so politicized that no policy coherence seems possible. The nascent US wind turbine industry is poised to collapse if congress doesn't renew subsidies for the industry. Contrary to the ahistorical accounts from pundits and politicians, all energy transitions involved policy guided capitalism (see English industrial revolution, or US automobile, oil boom). 

Sadly, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is probably right, in 200 years our period will be known as the Great Dithering.

Geoengineering, Let's Just Fiddle with the Earth

Businessman from the US conducts unregulated geoengineering experiment off the coast of Canada, dumping 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean. Native American communities were told it was a salmon enhancement project. It was not.

Businessman says of international regulations:

George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a "mythology" and do not apply to his project.

We are going to see more of these kinds of geoengineering stories and the international governance institutions need to agree on rules, norms, and regulations for these kinds of activities.

Update: The Guardian now reports that members of the Canadian government knew about and was complicit in this experiment.

The chief executive of the company responsible for spawning the artificial 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom in the Pacific Ocean has implicated several Canadian departments, but government officials are remaining silent about the nature of their involvement.