Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Interview with a Climate Scientist

Lately, discussions around these here parts have stalled for lack of a qualified climate scientist to articulate various points about global warming.

So, I went and found one. One of Lubbock’s treasures is Texas Tech Professor Katharine Hayhoe, an active climate scientist who was involved with the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She was kind enough to let me interview her via email for this blog.

Here is the unedited interview:

Can you explain the consensus view of climate change and humankind’s effect on it in lay terms?

Among scientists who study the Earth’s climate, there is no debate regarding the reality of climate change, and the fact that humans are the primary cause. The basic science that explains what is happening to our world has been well-established for more than two hundred years.
Our earth has a natural blanket around it—a blanket perfectly suited for life. This blanket is made up of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Together, these gases keep our world about 70 degrees F warmer than it would be otherwise.
So what’s the problem? Well, ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning increasing amounts of coal, gas, and oil. Every time we burn these fuels, we produce carbon dioxide. We can measure it at the tailpipe of any car, or the smokestack of any factory.
As a result of our energy habits, levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases have built up in the atmosphere far beyond their natural levels. Adding all these extra heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere is like putting an extra blanket around the Earth. And the Earth is starting to sweat.

Isn’t there still a big debate about the science?

There’s certainly a great deal of media hype about what is happening to our world. But we need to be careful how much we pay attention to propaganda that is not based on solid fact.
When an organization like NASA posts their climate data for the world to see, we must conclude that either all of NASA’s scientists and engineers have been duped, or quite possibly, there’s some truth to this warming.
In “A Climate for Change,” we provide evidence for the scientific consensus that the world is warming: from the National Academies of 32 nations, from every major scientific organization in the United States, and even from authorities such as the Pentagon, which views climate change as a serious threat to our national security.

Your latest book A Climate for Change makes the case that Christians should care about global warming. What prompted you to write this book?

Every time we turn on the TV, it seems, there’s people talking about climate change. But what we hear can be very confusing. One person may say it’s warming, while the next person tells us that it’s cooling. The first person tells us humans are causing this warming, the second says it’s all just natural cycles.
This book is the result of hundreds of conversations we have had with people who are genuinely curious about global warming, but who are confused by all the rhetoric flying across the airwaves these days. We know everything we hear can’t be true—but which part is fact, and which is fiction?
We wrote this book to tackle these questions head-on, and to provide simple, straightforward answers to many of the perplexing questions we’ve been asked, again and again. We hope our readers will see that we have no political agenda in doing so. Neither of us have any stake in whether or not certain policies are adopted. To us, climate change is not about politics: it is about sharing the truth of what we see happening to our world.

Can you summarize that position and describe the relationship between Christianity and science in general?

Climate change is already affecting our planet and its inhabitants. Its impacts are already being felt by the poor and the disadvantaged, who lack the resources to adapt. This is true both here in the United States, as well as in developing nations around the world.
As Christians, we are called to love God and love others. Recognizing the reality of climate change and reaching out to help our global neighbors is a tangible expression of this love.
Already, we’ve seen the first American refugees from climate change. Just this year, the inhabitants of Newtok, Alaska were forced to abandon their homes forever as warming temperatures caused the ground beneath them to flood, and melt away. And what has happened in Newtok is just a small “snapshot” of what we might expect over the longer term if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and argue that climate change is not happening.
At the same time, our book is not a guilt trip. As my co-author Andrew Farley points out in his book The Naked Gospel, as Christians we should be motivated by freedom and love, not guilt or duty. Climate change represents an opportunity, perhaps the greatest of our generation, to “serve one another in love.”

What is your opinion about the alleged stolen East Anglia University emails, commonly referred to as “climategate?” Does climategate disprove global warming?

A few emails written by several of the thousands of scientists who study climate change does not alter the fact that data collected from all over the world, for more than 150 years, shows a consistent warming.
In addition, this conclusion doesn’t just rest on one set of temperature data or tree rings. Sea level is rising; ice sheets are melting; spring is coming earlier in the year; insect, bird, and animal species are now seen further north than ever before. More than 25,000 of these types of changes have been seen around the world, all of them telling us that the world is warming.
So in assessing the implications of the stolen emails for the overall science of climate change, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. We have to weigh those few emails from certain scientists against an overwhelming, world-wide consensus from thousands of researchers.
I’m not defending these scientists’ actions or their words, because I don’t know them or work with them at all. What I am saying is that this is no call for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Climate change is a very real problem, and we need to move ahead by looking for solutions, not dragging our feet every time the media tells us to.

As the Copenhagen conference on climate change begins this week, what are your predictions for its outcome?

This week, nations from around the world are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss the issue of climate change, and what can be done about it.
This process started way back in 1992, when the United States and over 150 other nations ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In this document, nations agreed to take steps to prevent “dangerous human interference” with the climate system. If necessary, these steps were to include reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Today, we have reached a point where the science tells us that the potential for dangerous consequences from climate change is inevitable, if we continue on our current pathway. So world leaders are discussing ways and means to for industrialized nations, like the United States, to reduce their own emissions and help developing nations do the same.

As individuals, what are some steps we can take to solve the climate crisis?

There are many things we can do to reduce the effect we are having on our planet. Opportunity lies in every crisis. And in this case, we have an unparalleled opportunity to re-think the way we live: to transition from the constraints of coal and oil to the freedom of endlessly renewable, homegrown solar and wind energy; to replace outdated, wasteful technologies with the most efficient state-of-the-art alternatives; and to better our environment and, with it, our own welfare.
We can start with small, simple steps. If every household in the U.S., for example, replaced one of its old incandescent light bulbs with a new compact fluorescent bulb, each of us would save $30 in electricity over the lifetime of the bulb. We would also achieve the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.
We can do what our grandparents told us to and turn off or unplug anything we’re not using: our lights, our TVs, our computers, and even our cell phone chargers. When we make large purchases, such as appliances, cars, and even houses, we can pay attention to how much energy they use. These are just a few of the many things we can do that have the potential to greatly reduce our personal impact on the planet.
Ultimately, however, we need to implement the many technological solutions—many of these already well within our grasp—that will radically reduce our reliance on dirty, outdated, and foreign sources of energy. Protecting our environment is about living in more intelligent and more sustainable ways. The challenge of climate change calls for creative solutions and the discovery of previously unimagined ways of doing, living, and being. We already know how to do so many extraordinary things. Now we need to do those kinds of things more, and in smarter ways.

Thanks again to Professor Hayhoe for agreeing to the interview. She did say that she would respond to followup questions, so feel free to leave those in the comments.

Katharine Hayhoe website
Purchase A Climate for Change

The People’s Watchdog: Jeff Weems for Railroad Commissioner!

Jeff Weems announced his candidacy for Texas Railroad Commissioner today in Austin, and he was in Lubbock tonight for his very first campaign house party. I got a chance to meet him, and I am impressed.

With Jeff Weems we have a candidate who knows the oil and gas industry inside and out from the point of view of all the involved parties — the companies, the rights owners, the citizens. He is running to return the Texas Railroad Commission to its proper regulatory, unbiased role. He will make the Commission do its job.

The Texas Railroad Commission was created as a watchdog for the people (originally farmers vs. railroad companies, but now utilities in general vs. the little guy). Under Republican rule it has become a do-nothing agency that always rules in favor of the pipeline company or utility company (in that order) — 59 decisions in a row, even.

Jeff spoke passionately about the need to regulate out-of-control fracking that’s going on in Texas. Fracking is where a million+ gallons of water are pumped underground to crack underground rock formations and release trapped natural gas. (The Bluedaze blog by TXSharon is one of the best resources out there for discovering the many dangers of fracking.) This technique is used commonly in the Barnett Shale area around Ft. Worth, and it’s causing all kinds of problems — even earthquakes. The water used in fracking is so chlorinated and otherwise polluted that it can never be potable, and in fact is so toxic that it can’t even be used for subsequent frack jobs. On top of all that, eminent domain claims — which go unchallenged and unregulated by our TX Railroad Commission — are literally running allowing pipelines to run through people’s front yards in the Ft. Worth area.

Weems also talked about the epidemic of wasted natural gas caused by aging equipment in the field. Such waste is bad for the companies, bad for the environment, and deprives the State of Texas of millions of dollars in tax revenue — enough to cover all of SCHIP, in fact. This is another area where a regulatory nudge from the TX Railroad Commission could do wonders for our State.

The negotiations between cities and utility companies on natural gas prices are another area where the Commission needs to change its ways. If a municipality and a utility company can’t work out a price, the dispute comes before the Commission, which hasn’t met a utility company it didn’t like. This phenomenon explains why Houston’s natural gas costs consumers 4 times what ours does out here in Lubbock.

Another major area of reform is with the Commission itself. Texas Railroad Commissioners can accept campaign contributions any time except when the legislature is in session. They serve six-year terms. That means that they can accept money years before or after elections. I believe that it gives the appearance of bribery and corruption, especially with the current Commission receiving big donations from the companies it rules in favor of. Weems wants to make the Commission obey contribution rules like judges, who can only accept contributions near an election.

Weems took a couple of appropriate jabs at his opponent Victor Carrillo. His inaction on the above concerns was mentioned, as was his unethical use of campaign funds to travel to Israel with Governor Perry in 2006.

There is a lot of damage to be undone and positive work to be accomplished on the TX Railroad Commission. The Commission is a powerful check on abuses of power by the energy industry, and the Texas GOP knows this. They run candidates for Commisisoner who do nothing while waiting to run for higher office (e.g. Michael Williams), and they take every opportunity available to limit, shrink, or eliminate powers of the Commission. In the last legislative session, they were nine votes shy of putting a constitutional amendment up for vote that would replace the 3-member Commission with one lone Commissioner.

Jeff Weems is who we need fighting for the people on the Texas Railroad Commission.
Jeff Weems on Facebook

No-gebauer: No Cap and No Cattle

Today our Republican Congressman Randy No-gebauer (Neugebauer) took a rare turn at the microphone to oppose the current proposed emissions trading (aka cap and trade) bill. I could have guessed his position without watching him speak, but at least he reminded us that he exists, even though it was to bleat “no” yet one more time.

Reducing mankind’s harmful effect on the environment is not going to be easy, but it must be done. The science is quite clear on this matter, and anyone can observe industry’s many negative consequences, whether it’s mountaintop removal coal mining, man-made earthquakes from overzealous oil drilling, or a sky full of black smoke that’s melting our glaciers and warming our planet.

I believe that cap and trade is a good way to proceed with limiting harmful emissions and nudging industry in the direction of renewable energy. (The smart ones like T. Boone Pickens are already headed that direction anyway.) However, we should proceed carefully.

Since 2005, the EU (particularly the UK) has led the way in emissions trading as a way to reduce carbon emissions. It hasn’t been a perfect start by any means, and US lawmakers should study the successes and failures of the EU approach before passing a carbon cap and trade bill for our nation.

In particular, I think the EU made three crucial mistakes that we would be wise to avoid:

1) Instead of auctioning off all of the credits at the outset, the EU hooked up well-connected companies with free carbon emission credits, which were promptly sold to competitors at a huge profit. We can’t afford to play favorites and jeopardize a new and necessary system like that.

2) There were no penalties/tariffs against energy imported into the EU from other countries with no emissions control laws, or on companies who use carbon-emitting raw materials generated in other countries. We won’t tolerate lead paint on toys made in China; we likewise should not tolerate rampant pollution from Chinese — or any other nation’s — industry.

3) The EU allowed too much of the cost (which will be high initially but decrease over time) of emissions trading to be passed on to the consumer. I believe an equitable solution to this problem can be found. Energy companies clearly should not be allowed to make record profits by gouging consumers in the name of increasing costs from cap and trade (this is what happened in the EU), but neither should we put energy companies out of business. Of course, the former scenario is much more likely than the latter, and we should guard against it.

Ultimately, the whole world will have to take emissions regulation seriously, whether through cap and trade or through some other system. The survival of humanity depends on it. In the meantime, first-world nations have a moral obligation to lead the way by cleaning up their own act. And we should go forward with confidence, remembering our successes with closing the hole in the ozone layer and with reducing the problem of acid rain (through a cap and trade system on sulfur dioxide emissions, in fact).

Once we have removed the carbon splinter from our own eye, we can help our neighbors do the same.

Toxic Burritos

Where do we put millions of tons of toxic mud? Why, West Texas of course!

New York’s Hudson River is full of carcinogenic waste in the form of now-illegal PCBs dumped into the river by industry, and it’s coming our way in the form of choo choo trains full of oversize toxic burritos:

Tom W. Jones III, a vice president of Waste Control Specialists, said the Hudson River sludge would be wrapped in heavy plastic, like a burrito, loaded onto open railcars and shipped to the landfill in trains at least 80 cars long. By the third year of the five-year plan, which has been approved by the E.P.A., two to three trains a week will arrive.

Waste like this has to go somewhere, I guess. Certainly it’s better off in the middle of nowhere than in the Hudson river. My biggest concern is that the site is too close to the Ogallala Aquifer (wikipedia entry). Contaminating our only source of water is probably the worst thing that could happen to West Texas.

Just as West Texas is poised to be the wind and solar energy capital of the world, we are also becoming America’s dumping ground for toxic sludge, radioactive waste, and who knows what else on down the line. And hey, while in Texas, why not mine some uranium, inject waste water into oil wells, or build a few more coal-fired plants? Ugh.

You can learn more and get involved over at the Lone Star Sierra Club.

Farewell, My Subaru

I saw Sarah Vowell speak at Texas Tech last night (she was fabulous!), and hot off the heels of that event comes another that I would like to attend:

Living Locally and Reducing Fossil Fuel While Still Living Like an American

On Thursday, March 5, at 6:30 p.m. the International Cultural Center (601 Indiana) will host a lecture and book-signing by Doug Fine, author of Farewell, My Subaru.

Fine, an N.P.R. contributor who has appeared on CNN and The Tonight Show, addresses mainstream Americans who want to do their part to protect the environment but find themselves strapped for time and puzzled about where to begin. Fine uses humor, not guilt, to let his audience realize that reducing one’s carbon footprint can be done one step at a time. The talk will be followed by an award ceremony during which the first G.r.e.e.n. (Grass Roots Efforts to Ecologize Neighborhoods) Award will be presented to Debbie Zak for her recycling efforts at North Ridge elementary school.

(emphasis mine)

Doug Fine’s website is worth a visit as well, especially his short film about the Farewell, My Subaru concept.

Is it possible for every American to live off-grid as Doug does? Probably not. Is it possible for every American to live locally and reduce our carbon footprint — without sacrificing most of our amenities?

Absolutely yes.

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is the most succinct summary (20 mins) of our complex problem of consumption I have ever encountered. I’m just now discovering it for myself, so I thought I’d share. Over 4 million have already discovered this charming, compelling video narrated by Annie Leonard. Everybody needs to see it. It ought to be shown in schools, even.

A few of the problems addressed in this video include:

  • You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.
  • People are missing from the cookie-cutter explanations of how we get our stuff.
  • Corporations are becoming more powerful than nations.
  • Sustainable communities become slums over time.
  • Externalized costs — both economic costs and human costs — are killing us.

We need sustainability, equity, and a system of production and consumption that doesn’t kill us and our planet. If we focus on the big picture as well as the specific ways we can take action, then we can solve this crisis.

Seriously, if you only watch one video this week, make it The Story of Stuff.

Watch Car of the Future Online

Just wanted to report back about the two events I attended this week. Last night’s speech by Carl Coon, former US Ambassador to Nepal, was a pleasant reflection on the promise of US diplomacy hinted at in Obama’s inauguration speech. The question-and-answer section was lively, and he had some great stories of his time serving our country overseas.

Wednesday night’s screening of “Car of the Future” was excellent as well. This episode of Nova is the most concise explanation of where we stand now with car+fuel technology and where we could go in the next few years. The NPR Car Talk guys cover it all: hybrids, ethanol, fuel cells, plug-ins, engine efficiency, ultralights, and plenty of wisecracking humor to wash it all down.

The best part is that you can watch the whole thing online for free. Give it a look and I guarantee that you will find some aspect of green automotive technology to get excited about.

Continents of Floating Trash

Our ocean is turning into plastic soup.

Plastic Ocean

Circular Pacific gyre subsurface currents are creating two continent-sized floating dumps of mostly plastic (80% of 3.5 million tons according to this article). These plastic soups don’t quite float and don’t quite sink either. Wind and sun break the plastic down into smaller bits that continue to hang around near the surface. Within these floating continents of trash, plastic particles are more prevalent than plankton. Oxygen levels are too low to support most ocean life.

Brave New Leaf offers some facts about ocean plastic:

1. Plastic is made of oil, a diminishing resource.
2. It *never* goes away. It just breaks into smaller and smaller plastic pieces.
3. 20% of the plastic in the ocean fell off boats. The rest washed in from land.
4. Much of the ocean’s plastic is the little pellets that plastic things eventually get made out of. When you buy plastic things, you support these pellets being shipped across oceans, and dropped into them.
5. When you throw plastic away, some will seep out of the landfill and find its way back to the ocean.
6. The average sea-bird has thirty pieces of plastic in their stomach.
7. Plastic cups have been found scattered amongst the wreck of the Titanic.

Sea Turtle Deformed We’ve known about the effects of plastic trash on ocean life for years; what is less obvious but becoming more apparent is the effect of oceanic plastic waste on us. As all this plastic breaks down (it never goes away), one wonders what effect it’s having on human health. Little bits of plastic enter our food chain starting with the birds and fish that eat this stuff. Over time, human bodies will contain more and more plastic, possibly leading to obesity, infertility, and worse.

Our throwaway lifestyle is to blame for this mess.

So, what can be done? There’s no realistic way to clean up all this trash right now. What we can do is each do our part to prevent these trash continents from growing. Use less plastic in your life; for starters, take reusable bags with you when you shop. If you end up with plastic bags around the house, you can find ways to reuse them without throwing them away as well.

Just as important as our individual efforts to reduce our reliance on disposable plastics is a society-wide effort to reduce disposable plastics. This will require social pressure as well as supply-side regulations. In other words, disposable plastic has to become uncool before it becomes illegal.

Let’s do our part.

Missouri Town Powered Totally by Wind

Brief post today — just want to make sure no one misses this great news about a Missouri Town that is completely wind-powered.

Al Gore’s challenge to be on 100% renewable energy in 10 years looks more likely with news like this!

Katharine Hayhoe: Earth Day at Texas Tech

I’m looking forward to a talk Tuesday night at Texas Tech’s Allen Theatre — renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe will speak at 7:00 pm as part of Texas Tech’s Earth Day celebration.

From the news release:

A Nobel Laureate will speak as part of the Earth Day event presented by Texas Tech University’s Grassroots organization at 7 p.m. April 22 in the Allen Theater.

Katharine Hayhoe, a research associate professor in the Department of Geosciences and part of the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. panel on climate change, will give a speech about climate change and the effects it has on Earth. She will discuss how seemingly contradictory theories about the cause of climate change can all be rooted in scientific truths established for more than a century. Hayhoe will also discuss small, everyday changes that can better the world for future generations.

I have heard Dr. Hayhoe speak before, and she’s great.

I would be thrilled if global warming skeptics would attend this free talk and see if their blustering stands up to real science. I’m looking at you, Robert Pratt and Donald May.

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