Category Archives: Building the future we want

Why a hot year matters more than a cold year or a neutral year

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

Silver Linings

As I mentioned in a recent post, some form of deliberate management of our climate is an unavoidable necessity. In reality, that’s what all the talk of reducing emissions is about. If we want to be able to control what impact we have on our climate, emissions reduction will not be enough. We’ve already destabilized things, and there is virtually no chance that they will regain stability on their own.

The key to regulating our climate greenhouse gas levels. An increase in CO2 is what caused the warming, and a significant decrease would at the very least slow it. The problem is that even if we were to cut emissions enough that we’re no longer adding to the problem, we don’t have any technology capable of efficiently pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, we don’t need a high-tech solution.

The solution is trees. There’s nothing revolutionary, controversial, or new about saying this; the tree-hugger stereotype is older than I am. As with the basic thermodynamics behind the current warming, the idea behind planting trees is quite simple. Trees are primarily made of water, drawn from the ground, and carbon dioxide, drawn from the air. As long as you have sufficient water, trees will pull carbon dioxide out of the air, and sequester it in themselves.

This same “equation” is also why the clear-cutting (and often burning) of the world’s rainforests is such a problem – all of that carbon, which had been kept in fairly stable storage by the forests – has been added to the atmosphere along with the emissions from fossil fuel use and livestock. Fortunately, that particular smoke cloud has a silver lining.

If – and only if – the world starts to work together to deal with this problem, the one of the first steps could be replanting as much of the cleared rainforest as possible. This would, of course, have to be done while fossil fuel use was phased out, but a new study has indicated that secondary tropical forests absorb carbon faster than the old-growth forests they would be replacing. In other words – a massive, world-wide replanting effort could create a significant dip in atmospheric CO2 levels, slow the warming, and perhaps even slow or stop the various feedback loops that have already started.

In order to get to the point where we could make this scenario a reality, we would have to overcome the current obstacles of politics and greed, so instead I’ll briefly focus on the obstacle of human necessity. While some of the formerly forested land goes to crops like palm oil, a significant portion also goes to growing food, and by the time we get around to planting on a global scale, the number of humans needing to eat will be even greater than it is today. That means that any effort to replant forests will have to come after an arrangement to ensure food supplies for those currently fed by the farms we’d be planting over.

Dealing with this problem would require a more equitable system of food distribution – one concerned with getting food into mouths, rather than money into pockets (though we can’t ignore the latter entirely), but it will also require new methods of food production. If we want to plant trees where farms exist today, and we want to avoid mass starvation on a scale that wasn’t even possible a few decades ago, then we will not be able to maintain the current conventions of farming, industrial or otherwise.

As the climate continues to warm, weather conditions will become less reliable from year to year. When you combine that with a need for food production to take up less space, and an increasing global population, that points in the direction of multi-story indoor farming. Thus far, it’s a concept that has remained largely in the realm of science fiction or unrealized “concept designs”, but we ought to be taking it more seriously. Moving farming indoors is not romantic, and it feels like a step away from everything we know, but as I’ve said before, we’re effectively living on an alien planet, and maybe it’s time for science fiction solutions.

Possible futures…

One of the friendlier aspects of the planet we live on is the very slow speed at which conditions change. Over time, the continents drift about, and new mountain ranges or valleys are formed, and the oceans slosh around in response, but all of that takes far, far longer than the lifetime of any species, let alone any one organism. This means that life has time to adapt to the changes

The climate moves slowly too. When we learn about the ice ages, it seems like a lot happening in not much time. From a geological perspective, that’s true. There have been periods when the climate was relatively stable for many hundreds of thousands of years, but our recent ice ages – the ones our distant ancestors lived through – happened on a cycle lasting tens of thousands of years.

What’s interesting is that while an ice age, or an interglacial period, or a hot period can last for tens to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, it takes far, far less time to get the climate rolling in a new direction. Huge, slow things tend to build up a lot of momentum, so once they get moving, they’re very hard to stop.

New research from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looks at the long-term future of our climate, and compares the present with past climate changes. The results indicate something that many of us have long suspected: Even if we were to stop all fossil fuel use today, the planet would continue warming. Not only that, but the effects of what we’ve already done are likely to last 10,000 years or more.

I came to the realization some years ago that climate change was something I would be involved in for the rest of my life, but the reality is that it’s something that every organism on this planet will be involved in. This issue will not go away in our lifetimes, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes, or their great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. While we may have had an opportunity to prevent this future, that opportunity has been lost, barring some form of atmospheric carbon capture that works faster than the rate of increase from human activity, and from the numerous feedback loops that are already in action.

Of course, we can always make the problem worse – continued fossil fuel use, continued deforestation, and continued reckless farming methods could result in a much faster rise in temperature that would last much longer. There is no scenario in which it cannot get worse, up to the point where there’s no life left on the planet, so there will never be a point at which “we might as well give up” will be a legitimate argument.

But it is no longer enough to focus on reducing emissions. In reality, that hasn’t been enough for at least a decade. We need to reduce emissions, but we also need to prepare, if we want civilization to survive. We need to plan for a future in which the seas will not stop rising – not for hundreds, or thousands of years. We need to plan for a future in which farming conditions will never be reliable year to year, or decade to decade. We need to plan for a future in which diseases are no longer limited by the climates of different geographic regions.

Like it or not, we now live on an alien planet. It seems similar to the one that gave rise to our civilization, but it isn’t the same, and it will keep getting more different with the passage of time. The longer we avoid coming to terms with that fact, the more will be added to a death toll that is already climbing due to our actions.

It isn’t fair. Nobody in my generation chose this. A majority of “boomers” didn’t either. Not any more than they chose to be exposed to leaded gasoline or chose to be expose to cigarette smoke. And as much as I feel that I’ve been handed a problem that should have been solved before I was born, I’m one of the lucky ones. My country will do OK, overall. Provided we don’t start a nuclear war or something like that, we’ll do far, far better than the billions whose countries had no real role in creating this disaster, and the billions more who will be born too late to even remember when people were trying to prevent it.

I think that, as a species, we can weather this storm of our own making. I believe that we can, in coping with these changes, build a more resilient and just global society, and have a healthier relationship with the rest of life on Earth. We’ll have to, if we’re going to avoid extinction.

Like all those who have created or consumed post-apocalyptic entertainment, I can see many paths to a desolate future. I can also see many other futures, and they’re worth working towards. As a species, we have the power to build a future in which we surmount the obstacles placed before us by our elders, and to keep climbing to something better. There’s no easy path anymore – the easy path would have been to avoid this in the first place. But I can see futures worth working towards, and I think we need that right now.

Geoengineering is dangerous, irresponsible, and unavoidable

Over the last couple decades, the world’s business and political leaders have gradually come to understand that climate change is something that cannot be ignored. Every year, the immediacy and severity of the problem have become clearer. Sea level rise, seasonal changes, and even evolutionary changes in response to the rise in planetary temperature have all made it clear that the entire planet is changing around us, and that ignoring it could have devastating results.

Living, as we do, in a society that values money so highly, some of the responses have been predictable. In particular, businesspeople like Bill Gates have been pushing
the idea of geoengineering as a solution. Geoengineering, in this context, is a catch-all phrase for deliberately tinkering with The image is a diagram showing a cut-out of a section of Earth's surface, with visual representations and text describing different geoengineering methods. The methods described are: Reflective aerosols, cloud seeding, and space mirrors (all under the heading Solar Radiation Management); forestation, CO2 capture from air plus storage, CO2 capture from fossil fuels plus storage, and ocean iron fertilization (all under the heading "carbon dioxide removal")Earth’s climate and the mechanisms that affect it. The problem with this is that the term is so broad it’s almost useless. It can apply to things like planting more trees, and it can also apply to colossal structures in space to reduce incoming sunlight.

One of the most commonly discussed geoengineering solutions is iron fertilization of the ocean. The basic idea is simple – iron is a limiting nutrient in the ocean, so putting iron particles in the ocean will stimulate the growth of photosynthetic plankton, which will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The idea is that when the plankton die, a sizable amount of their mass will sink to the bottom of the ocean taking that carbon with it.

It’s not really clear how well this works in practice. Some studies have indicated that it would work, while others indicate that it might not have much effect, and some people have raised concerns that it might actually result in eutrophication and dead zones.

Newly published research now indicates that because iron is not the only low-availability nutrient in the ocean, the algal bloom from iron fertilization in one part of the ocean might pull other nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, out of the water, starving plankton farther downstream along the oceanic currents.

It’s tempting to simply wave away geoengineering as a bad idea that we should bury and be done with. There are countless ways that it could go horribly wrong, especially when enacted by billionaires like Gates and his ilk, who have little to no understanding of the ecosystems with which they want to tamper. With the possible exception of planting more trees and creating more wild spaces (which would, without question, work), pretty much every proposal for geoengineering has the potential to have devastating side effects that could make life on Earth much more difficult.

There’s one compelling reason not to throw it away altogether. The reality is that we are already engaged in geoengineering, and there is no question that the path we’re currently on will end badly. Like it or not, humanity has become a force of nature. The size of our population and the scale of our technology mean that we exert a global influence of the chemical makeup of our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, land masses. Currently, we are engaged in the kind of geoengineering that Svante Arrhenius calculated was possible over a century ago – raising the planet’s temperature by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

For the sake of our own long-term survival, not to mention the rest of life on Earth, we need to come to terms with the fact that our species exerts a global influence, and we need to take deliberate control of that influence. We are already geoengineers, we’re just not taking responsibility for it. It’s past time to do more than simply work on reducing our fossil fuel use – we need to think about how we manage the surface of the planet we live on, and how we can manage it for the benefit of all life on Earth – ourselves included.

Because right now, we still seem to be pretending that we can just stop having a planetary impact, and with our population headed for 10 billion in just a couple decades, that is the one option that is no longer available to us.

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?


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