Off the Deep End: An inexpert guide to dealing with climate change

This is an ongoing series of blog posts that will make up a majority of this blog for a while. For an explanation of what it’s about, you can check out the initial “announcement” post and the two prefaces, or you can just go to here and find all the posts I’ve made so far in this series. The most recent addition is likely to be either directly beneath this sticky, or not far below whatever IS there.

UPDATE 09/8/2014: 

Changes coming to Oceanoxia soon, along with more regular updates! Stay tuned, and check out Skeptical Science‘s 97 Hours of Consensus event!

Playing with trains: grid level storage

One of the most important aspects of a society powered by renewable will be power storage. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait for new technology, and we don’t need to build huge chemical batteries. There are a number of grid-level storage options available that work off of potential energy alone.

Case in point: Advanced Rail Energy Storage – a company that stores energy by moving heavy trains uphill when there’s excess power, and letting them roll downhill again when more power is needed.

One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.

Off the Deep End: After we “win”

With every decade being hotter than the last, on a global scale, it seems appropriate that every climate rally is bigger than the last. The upcoming march on 9/21/14 is expected to be the biggest gathering of people in America to call for action on climate change.

And there’s a LOT of political action needed. Our government’s policy, on the whole, is still in limbo on what’s happening in our climate, with one of the two parties in power having denial as a crucial part of its science platform.

Conventional wisdom is that if we can threaten their ability to get re-elected, the Republicans will come around on the issue, and it seems likely that that’s the case. Gingrich, Romney, Bush, McCain, and many others have all acknowledged the reality of our warming climate at one point or another, so it’s clear that at least some members of the GOP are aware of what’s going on. What’s less clear is how long it will take for public pressure to override the flood of money unleashed by recent relaxations in campaign finance laws.

In time, however, we will get there. In time, and with continued pressure and protests, we will come to a national recognition that there is a problem, and that we have put it off too long for anything but drastic measures to be taken. In time, we will begin the work, as a nation, of dealing with global climate change.

And here is where climate change differs from every other important issue in history. With labor laws, there was a long, hard fight, lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed, and in the end, the battle was won, laws were passed, and employers were required to treat their workers with a minimum amount of respect and dignity. With Segregation, the battle was won, and laws were passed changing how humans were allowed to treat each other, and providing legal frameworks to give some power to those who had none, and some defense to the defenseless. With leaded gasoline, there was a nasty political fight with powerful, wealthy corporations misleading the public and politicians alike, but in time, laws were passed, tetraethyl lead was banned, and the amount of lead we were exposed to began to fall almost immediately.

On many of the problems we’ve solved there is still much work to be done, both in America and in the rest of the world, but in the end, as tangled and complex as human interaction is, these problems all improve as people stop taking certain actions. On the surface, global climate change may seem the same. If we stop burning fossil fuels, we will have “solved” the problem, right?

Wrong.

If we had addressed global warming in the 1980’s, a couple decades after the first warnings came, or even in the 1990’s, after it became unequivocal that the planet was warming and humans were to blame, then we might have been able to follow the old model. We could have passed laws, phased out fossil fuels, and been done.

Now, in 2014, it’s too late for that. The amount of CO2 we’ve added to the atmosphere would keep warming the planet for another 20 years or so even if we stopped adding to it today, but even that isn’t the whole story. The heat we’ve already added to the planet has been enough to trigger a number of feedback loops that are increasing the rate at which the planet warms. Lowered albedo, melting of the permafrost, increased evaporation through higher temperatures, and decreased photosynthesis through heatwaves and droughts – all of these may to be enough to drive continual warming for centuries to come.

So, if the protest movement is successful, and the problem is acknowledged, what comes next? If we can’t stop the warming, then is there any point in trying?

In a word, yes. There is a point. But the goal has changed. We are no longer fighting to stop the warming, we’re fighting for the long-term survival of our species, and of our civilization.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about what that means, the kinds of action we can take, and the sort of changes we need to make in how we think as a society. In this series, I’m going to cover topics like food production, energy generation, energy storage, water use, disaster preparedness, and the art of thinking generations ahead.

A Lobster Boat at the tipping point

“This decision by the District Attorney is an admission that the political and economic system isn’t taking the climate crisis seriously, and that it falls to ordinary citizens, especially people of faith, to stand up and take action to avert catastrophe,” O’Hara said.

The issue of global climate change is one of the most unevenly understood issues in the world. When Svante Arrhenius published the first calculations of man-made global warming via CO2, in 1896, he would doubtless have been astonished to hear people saying that his idea was invented in the 1980’s by a bunch of totalitarians, or in the early 2000’s by some guy named Al Gore.

And yet, that’s where we are, 118 years later, which probably explains why we have such different reactions to news on the issue. We have, on the one hand, a scientist who’s looking to move to Denmark for the future safety of his children, and on the other hand, a new hobby of deliberately increasing the amount of pollution put out by cars in an act of spiteful defiance that smacks of flushing hundred dollar bills because someone said that a savings account is a good idea.

All of this can be incredibly frustrating to those of us who work in climate change communication, which is why today’s ruling on the Somerset Lobster Boat Blockade is such a breath of fresh air.

At 6AM on May 15th[2013], after a short prayer on the dock in Newport, Ken Ward and Jay O’hara embarked on their 32′ white lobster boat “Henry David T” north towards Brayton Point Power Plant. On a cloudless morning, supported by half a dozen friends and colleagues on shore, the two piloted the “Henry David T” into the ship channel at the coal pier.  At 9AM they raised a “350” banner and another reading “#coalisstupid” alongside the American flag, dropped anchor, and called the Somerset police to inform them of their non-violent direct action.

Ken and Jay ended up blocking the coal shipment for a full six hours. Their legal strategy was to plead necessity – that climate change was a clear and present danger, that their action would make a difference in reducing that danger, and that there was no legal recourse for addressing the problem.

Today, Bristol County D.A. Sam Sutter dropped the most serious charges against Ken and Jay, and agreed to a fine of $2000 from each man, paid to the town of Somerset.

In the end, the coal was delivered, and burned, adding approximately 114,400 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere – carbon that had been buried for millions of years.

But the blockade got a fair amount of attention, and now, with this decision by Sam Sutter, has forced progress on dealing with the danger that is global climate change.

We’re not there yet, and we’ve got a lifetime of work ahead of us, but we are making progress in this fight.

“Protest works, indeed protest maybe the only thing that can save us,”
-Ken Ward

Disclaimer: Jay O’Hara and the author of this blog are friends, and have worked together on climate communication in the past.

OtDE: Micro solar, episode 2

First impressions:

I ordered the three main components on Amazon:

The PV panel is a Renology 50w “solar starter kit” at $126.99 This comes with a charge controller, mounting brackets and screws, and 20 feet of cable to run from the panel to the charge controller. The 100w kit would have been a better deal per watt at $172.99, but it would not fit in my skylight, so that wasn’t an option for me.

The battery is a generic-seeming 12v battery (billed for scooters, wheelchairs, emergency lighting, and other stuff) at $74.90. This comes with a battery. Electricity goes in, electricity goes out.

The inverter was $65.99, and provides me with two standard U.S. three-prong outlets.

Shipping on all three items was free (the battery and panel advertise free shipping, and the inverter was free thanks to Amazon prime).

I bought these based on no knowledge whatsoever, other than that Amazon said they are frequently bought together.

My goal is to have this be as simple and painless as possible, since I’m not interested in becoming an electrician at the moment.

The immediate dilemma facing me at this point in time is the materials I still need to get, and the particulars of making all the connections. That, and ensuring that there is no way for the household animals (cat and dog) to zap themselves.

In addition to what I have, currently, I need cables to connect the charge controller to the battery, and cables to connect the charge controller to the inverter.

I’m going to seek advice on this, but the inverter DID come with a cigarette lighter adapter to take power from a car, and feed it to the inverter. Given that I do not have a car, and I hope never to have one in the near future, I may cannibalize that adapter to connect the controller to the inverter, but we shall see.

Total cost so far: $266.99

Off the Deep End: Micro solar power

A few months ago, I got ahold of a little extra cash, so I decided to take advantage of the skylight in my apartment, and use it to power a small photovoltaic panel, and see what things I can replace.

The panel has arrived, along with a battery and an inverter so I can plug appliances into it.

Over the next few months, I’m going to document my experience using this system, what I use it for, what I CAN’T use it for, what the ups and downs are, and how I can use it as a platform from which to make other improvements.

I’ll use photos, review the individual pieces, and post exact prices of how much all this costs me so any readers can, if they want, figure out what’s worth copying, and what they could do better or cheaper.

Off the Deep End: What can high school students do?

One of the problems that has confronted every teenager in recent history is that it’s the age at which you are becoming aware of the world around you and the problems in it, but according to the law, you are still a child, and have no power or money to make a difference. While that perception is not entirely true (you DO have the power to make a difference), there are many ways in which it is. Continue reading