Thursday, January 13, 2022

Just Hope for the Best

If you heard a strange noise coming from your car’s engine which won't go away, would you 1) take it to a mechanic, 2) wait until the noise increased to loud grinding and burning oil was coming from your tailpipe, or 3) just hope for the best?

If you've read my posts, you know where this analogy is going, but I'm taking you there anyway.

The first UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment was published in 1990. It was equivalent to the car’s engine noise. Something is going on. We think we know what it is but are still not completely sure.

The gist of the sixth report issued last August was equivalent to loud grinding and burning oil coming from the tailpipe. The problem is real, damage is happening and the longer we wait, the bigger the repair bill. I am not exaggerating. The 1,800 page report, written by 234 authors, and containing over 14,000 references, can be boiled down to these headline statements:

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land . . . The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since [2014].

Last November, the 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) was held in Glasgow. Representatives of 200 countries, including 120 leaders attended. The purpose was to decide what to do next about what is now the climate crisis.

During COP26, over 270 climate scientists from academic and research institutions around the world wrote an open letter to the conference. The letter stated, in no uncertain terms “. . . that immediate, strong, rapid, sustained and large-scale actions are necessary . . . to hold global warming to well below 2 degrees C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C, and thereby limit future risk and need for adaptation over the next decades to centuries.”

Their words fell on deaf ears. The final conference agreement did not come even close to what those scientists recommended. It won't make a dent in current trends.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the agreements were inadequate, given the enormity of the problem detailed in the latest IPCC report. “It’s not enough” given that “we are in the fight of our lives.”

There were a lot of carefully crafted statements about countries doing their share, but with enough weasel words to make those commitments essentially meaningless. It contained vague promises to cut emissions, but countries either cannot or will not accurately determine their carbon emissions in the first place.

The tasks countries need to take on, like ending fossil fuel subsidies, getting rid of coal, and an extensive list of other actions, were missing. India and China changed the final language of the agreement so that coal use will be “phased down,” not “phased out.”  The U.S. declined to join a pledge to phase out coal. The agreement did not even mention oil and gas.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “COP26 [was] the moment humanity got real about climate change”. One climate science expert described Johnson’s assertion as “pure unadulterated [male bovine excrement].”

The way I see it, countries are still doing what they see as best for themselves in the short term. Nations trying to raise their standard of living see fossil fuels as the most expedient way to get the energy they need. For energy exporters like Russia and Saudi Arabia, fossil fuels get them the money they want.

After 30 years of increasingly detailed warnings, nations and businesses are still slow-walking this whole process, hoping for the best. But the best is not what’s happening.

During 2021, The U.S. experienced eighteen $1Billion plus weather-related disasters, totaling $99 billion in losses. According to Climate Central, “The average time between billion-dollar disasters . . . has dropped from 82 days in the 1980s to just 18 days on average in the last five years (2016-2020).

What is also troubling is that scientific predictions are being outpaced by reality. For example, an Antarctic ice shelf is holding back a Florida-sized glacier from flowing into the sea. A few months ago, its breakup was predicted to be decades away. It is now expected to breakup in 3 to 5 years as satellite photos show massive cracks appearing this year.

The ever-increasing frequency and intensity of weather disasters are the predictable and predicted result of a warming planet.

This planet’s leaders cannot say they were not warned. Regardless, they have made a consensus decision to accept the “future risk and need for adaptation over the next decades to centuries” on behalf of the rest of us.

This is our planet. Cherish it. Happy New Year.

Published in the Village News Online January 26th, 2022

A New Look at Nuclear Power

 James Hansen is probably the most well-known climatologist in the world. Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft and author of “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. They both think that nuclear power is the surest path to “decarbonizing” electric power generation. Neither think that solar and wind technology will be sufficient to achieve that goal because of their intermittent nature. Many scientists and engineers disagree with that assertion, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I think nuclear power is a great idea, but I also think that in its current incarnation, nuclear power won't do the job. The majority of the world’s nuclear power plants are pressurized water reactors. They are expensive, take years to build, are complicated and labor intensive to maintain, and if something goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong. In short, they are money-losing propositions compared to natural gas and oil-fired power plants and in the last few years, commercial-scale wind and solar.

However, the recently passed $973 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains two provisions which focus on nuclear power.

First, it contains $6 billion for the Civil Nuclear Credit Program, which will provide 4 years of subsidies to nuclear plants that are economically uncompetitive and otherwise likely to shut down. It’s a tacit admission by the Federal Government that the nuclear power industry cannot survive on its own.

Second, the act contains $3.21 billion for small modular and advanced nuclear reactors (ANRs). Conceptually, ANRs will have the virtues of nuclear power, with many fewer of its vices.

ANRs by definition need to produce less waste, have more safety measures to prevent meltdowns in case cooling systems fail, and provide greater reliability. They need to use a modular design so they can be built, deployed and certified in less time. ANRs need to be smaller so that they can be used to power industrial facilities such as smelters and smaller communities, or combined to create large electric power generation facilities. Last they need to be more responsive to rapid changes in grid energy demand.

Startup companies such as NuScale, TerraPower, and X-energy have ANR designs on the drawing board. They are getting funding for construction of pilot plants via the infrastructure act and private investors (Bill Gates is backing TerraPower). Each company’s approach is different. I won't get into the nuts and bolts of their technology because this is a local newspaper, not an engineering journal.

NuScale and X-energy have already submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their reactors are small enough to be built in a factory. According to The Atlantic, NuScale, with US Government support, will soon install five reactors in Romania as well as one in Wyoming. TerraPower is going to build a pilot plant in Hanford Washington.

The ANRs I have discussed above are fission reactors. They split atoms of Uranium-235 to generate energy. But there is another type of reactor that falls into the ANR category – a fusion reactor. Unlike fission, fusion reactors fuse Deuterium (an isotope of Hydrogen) into Helium, the same process that powers the sun.

And therein lies the problem. Fusion requires maintaining a sustained temperature of over 100 million degrees C. Until recently, the only way to do that is at the center of a detonating nuclear bomb. Needless to say, the idea is to power a city, not blow it up.

Since I was a child, fusion power has always been 40 years away. The technology to safely create and contain such extreme temperatures was always beyond our engineering capability, but not anymore. The problem now is to get more energy out of the reactor than it takes to maintain the reaction.

Experiments to create sustained and controlled nuclear fusion have been so expensive that only governments can fund such endeavors. ITER, in France, is funded by 35 nations and costs $25 billion. The reactor weighs 23,000 metric tons and is 240 feet tall.

Seventeen private companies are attempting this feat on a much smaller scale. They have about $2.4 billion in funding, according to the journal Nature. The reactors have names like Mini-Tokomak, Colliding Beam, Magnetized Target, and Stellerator. Sizes range from a single family house to a large high school gymnasium.

Instead of 40 years away, the ever-shifting timeline to commercial fusion is now a 10 to 20 years away. It still doesn't mean we are close.

I’d like to see any of these technologies succeed, because current nuclear power technology, dating back to the late 1940s, is way past its expiration date from an engineering and economic perspective. It cannot meaningfully contribute to a decarbonized energy future. Maybe ANRs can.

The New Energy "Crisis"

About a year ago, I wrote that activists were dancing on the grave of the petroleum industry. Prices were so depressed that drilling had all but ceased. Smaller companies that specialized in fracking had gone belly up in job lots. Crude oil tankers were idling off the California coast because they couldn’t unload their cargos, in the same way container ships are today. I also said that it's not dead yet.

Over the last few months, the price of crude oil has gone up by 106%, natural gas by 58%, gasoline by 56%, and coal by 35%.

Ouch. Why is this happening?

There are many factors at play which will plague the energy markets for quite a while. It’s pretty much another Covid-inspired supply chain problem, seasoned with geopolitics, sprinkled with poor planning (of course), and leavened by bad weather worldwide.

Fossil fuels are commodities traded on the futures market. Prices shift based on expectations, and currently, markets expect that supply will outstrip demand for quite a while, perhaps another year, I suspect.

The petroleum industry is not dead, but it’s not running sprints either. It takes time to bring back idled drilling rigs and hook up wells to the infrastructure needed to bring oil and gas to market. Category 4 hurricanes which shut down oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico don’t help either.

Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic points out that natural gas has become the go-to fuel of choice. Over the last decade, countries integrated natural gas into the world’s energy system because it was cheap, reliable, and plentiful. Today, gas is none of these things because everyone wants it and wants it NOW.

First, Meyer observes that liquified natural gas (LNG) is now shipped around the world, so gas markets are not limited by pipeline transport and distribution systems. LNG is treated as a tradable commodity just like crude oil. As their economies recover, Europe and Asia are competing for the same limited supplies currently on LNG tankers, driving prices up.

 Russia is also making trouble by limiting the amount of gas it sends to Europe through its pipelines as part of its foreign policy.

Second, coal is still the king of power production throughout the world, but coal markets are as screwed up as other energy commodities. Bloomberg estimates that US coal production has dropped by 40% over the last six years due to the continued shift to natural gas. According to Reuters, China cannot get enough coal to run its power plants and is instituting blackouts. A trade dispute with Australia shut down that source. China is now buying coal from Europe and South Asia, which means those regions don’t have enough for their own needs.


Third, Meyers says that oil, the main transportation fuel, is also an alternative fuel for power plants. For some reason, like making more money, OPEC decided that maybe it’s not going to open its spigots as fast as needed to meet the rising demand, something it could do quite easily.

Fareed Zakaria, in a recent Washington Post column, discussed another problem contributing to this situation. Investment in fossil fuels has plummeted. Investment funds, large pension systems, and endowments have mostly turned away from them for environmental reasons or because they are a bad bet in the long run. As I wrote a year ago, even oil companies are writing off reserves. Existing Federal leases are either unused or have no takers. It’s hard to drill when no one will finance you.

Zakaria observed that at the moment there is nothing to fill the void left by a fossil-fuel energy sector disrupted by the pandemic and long-term investment decline. Grid-scale wind and solar energy are experiencing exponentially rapid growth. They contribute 12% of US annual energy production according to the US Energy Information Agency, but it’s not near enough right now. Zakaria wrote that “it would require a 2,500 percent increase in production and deployment to have wind and solar fully replace fossil fuels [worldwide], which is not going to happen in the next few years.”

 In my opinion, nuclear power cannot fill the gap either. The industry has been stagnant for decades. The years-long lead times to build very complex plants which have historically been uneconomic make it a poor choice.

 Natural gas has long been considered a transitional fuel because it’s much cleaner in all aspects than coal. The problem is that we never seriously started the transition away from gas to green energy. In the US, we’ve been patting ourselves on the back because we reduced our national carbon footprint by switching from coal to gas. How’s that working out for us today?

Winston Churchill said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Now that an energy shortage has put us in a bind, perhaps we can hurry the transition along?

Alternative energy technologies cannot fill the void caused by this particular extraordinary and rapid convergence of events, but so what?

With high energy prices, now is the time to invest in scaling up alternative energy, making our electric distribution grids better at getting generated energy from source to consumer, as well as storing it. We have the technology. An analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that this transition could be accomplished within a couple of decades in an affordable manner. It’s engineering, not wishful thinking.

This “energy crisis” is a crisis of poor planning and risk management on all levels. It’s also an opportunity. We probably won’t, but we could take advantage of it if we wanted to. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Questions with No Easy Answers

There was so much news about what is happening to the planet at the moment that it’s hard to keep up. Over the 30 day period ending the first week of September, the US had massive wildfires in California, simultaneous heat waves on the East and West Coasts, Tropical Storm Fred, and Hurricanes Henri and Ida. On top of that, July was Earth's hottest month in 142 years of modern record keeping. I'd run out of room if I listed all the other events worldwide.

Although the fast-moving remnants of hurricanes Henri and Ida blew through Massachusetts quickly, they dumped a lot of rain in a very short period of time. In Central Massachusetts, they were rated as 25-year storms, or storms that have a 1 in 25 chance of occurring in a given year (I know, it’s confusing). These storms occurred less than two weeks apart. There's no statistical reason why that cannot happen . . . but it’s happening more often.

Tropical depression Ida killed 5 times as many people in the Northeastern US, than Category 4 hurricane Ida did in Louisiana. The reason is flooding. 150 mph winds notwithstanding, the city of New Orleans was spared flooding due to its $14 billion Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. Northeastern Cities – not so much.

NY City got 6 to 9 inches of rain at a rate of up to 3 inches an hour. For NY, Ida was a 500-year event. The storm sewer systems, some built a century ago, could not handle anything like it, so flash floods, water fountaining from manholes, people drowning in basements or their cars, and cascades flowing into subways were the result.

NY city wasn’t prepared for Ida. It could be decades before another 500-year event hits the city . . . or not. Research by scientists at Rutgers University estimates that 500-year events may start coming every 24 years. Given that the number of Category 4+ North Atlantic hurricanes per decade have increased 10-fold over the last century, another Ida this year is not out of the question.

The reason we are not prepared for 500-year storms is because it’s a numbers game, a risk assessment. Is it worth spending to prepare for a low probability-high impact event?  Historically, the answer has been no.

Massachusetts requires stormwater systems be built to withstand a 100-year event. Over the last decade, we’ve seen several years where there have been multiple 100-year storms in Massachusetts. Are 100-year storms now 50 or 25-year storms?

Both academic institutions and government agencies have reported the trend toward more frequent and intense storms in the Northeast for over a decade. As the atmosphere gets warmer, the trend is very likely going to get worse because warmer air can hold more water. As an aside – it could also mean more intense snowfall events in winter.

Clearly, we need to recalibrate the definition of a low-probability event.

Because of Ida, state and local governments are now adamantly vowing to strengthen infrastructure and prepare for these more frequent and intense storms. Resilience! Adaptation! Cities big and small will want new protection like the New Orleans system which took years and billions of dollars to complete.

About that New Orleans system . . . outside of it, coastal Louisiana was completely devastated from floods and storm surge. In addition, the system is expected to be obsolete within the next few years, due to subsidence, rising sea levels and stronger storms.

A couple of years back, Boston evaluated building a massive system to keep storm surges and sea level rise out of Boston Harbor. Due to huge cost and quick obsolescence, the city opted out.

Resilience is about springing back to the way things were before, and adaptation is about conforming to new or changed circumstances. We will have to decide where, when and how we choose one over the other.

How large an area can you protect? How high can you build your walls? How big can you make your pumps? How many people and businesses can you protect? How much do you want to spend? When is it time to call it quits and just move out of the way?

None of these questions have easy answers. But these are the questions we as a society need to start asking ourselves.

Published in the Village News (Massachusetts), Friday, October 1, 2021

Saturday, July 31, 2021

You know it’s bad when . . .

You know it’s bad when the AARP Bulletin has an article entitled "What you Need to Know About Climate Change” with a subtitle of “How it’s already affecting your health, home and safety – and what you can do about it.”

You know it’s bad when Consumer Reports has an article entitled “Best Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke.”

The articles are not bad in and of themselves. What they reveal is that the impacts of climate change are finally making their way into people’s everyday lives. Of course, the articles don’t say anything about what you can do to slow or stop climate change, just what you can do to deal with it.

The articles suggest ways to adapt. Your air is choked with wildfire soot? Get a better air conditioner filter. Planning to retire in the sunbelt? Maybe Toledo is a safer place. Possibility of power loss is growing? Buy a backup generator. Your bucket list travel destinations are endangered (think Glacier National Park)? Don’t put that trip off. The list goes on.

What these recommendations all have in common is the assumption that you can afford to do any of these things - that you have retirement savings, that you have an air conditioner, that you can move or buy a backup generator. The list goes on.

According to Market Watch, the median American household has $11,700 in savings. The bottom 20% of households have no savings. The Economic Policy Institute states that about 50% of families have no retirement savings. Of course, the numbers skew even lower the less education you have or your race. Picking up and moving, or buying a better air conditioner (let alone having one in the first place) is a luxury for a lot of Americans.

There is no doubt that people lower on the economic rungs of our country are now struggling with the social and economic impacts of the long-predicted increase in extreme weather events. Second and third world countries have been dealing with impacts for a couple of decades now. We just don’t hear about it much.

But the affluent are no longer immune. Take this headline from the July 18th edition of the Boston Globe: “’No one is safe’: Extreme weather batters the wealthy world.” A sentence in the article struck me: “The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change nor live with it.”

Seattle, home of Amazon, broiled at the end of June, with temperatures exceeding 35 F above normal. Germany, the most affluent and industrialized country in Europe, suffered extreme flooding unlike any in living memory. Both were due to stagnant weather systems which used to be rare but not anymore. Both caused the deaths of hundreds of people.

Most of us living in the fairly affluent suburbs and exurbs of Boston are probably not too concerned about catastrophic floods, raging wildfires or deadly heat waves, but as events of the last few weeks demonstrate, we cannot be complacent.

As I write this, the skies above Westborough are hazy with smoke from wildfires 3,000 miles away in Oregon. Commonwealth officials have issued an air quality alert for Eastern Massachusetts. Clearly we are not immune to far-away events.

Events elsewhere can impact the flow of electricity to our homes, the food delivered to our supermarkets, the fuel for our SUVs, the cost of our insurance, and all the other little things we take for granted in our comfortable lives.

Complacency got us into this mess. It won’t get us out of it. 

Published in the Village News, Westborough, MA, July30th, 2021

Saturday, July 10, 2021

It All Comes Down to Sweat

My cousin Steph and I constantly needle each other on Facebook about the climates where each of us live. She’s in Tucson, AZ. She’ll remark about how the cold water coming out of the tap is the same temperature as the hot or how her backyard weather station said yesterday’s maximum temperature 127 F. I will ask her to tell me again why she lives there. Steph replies that “you can’t shovel sunshine and besides it’s dry heat.” My comeback: “The inside of an oven set to broil is also dry heat.”

In Tucson, summer average high temperatures are in the low 100’s. Residents don’t bat an eyelash because that is the climate in the desert southwest. And it’s dry. If the relative humidity exceeds 50%, that’s sticky. Normal humidity is less than 25%. But as a friend of mine in Las Vegas tells me, “I don’t care if it’s dry heat. When it’s 120 F, it’s just [expletive] hot.” 120 F is definitely heatwave territory out that way, even if it’s dry as dust.

Here in the humid Northeast, it’s a heatwave when the temperature exceeds 90 F for three days. What gives? To paraphrase James Carville – “It’s the humidity, stupid.” 

If it’s 92 F and 10% humidity, the heat index or real feel temperature is 87 F. Change the humidity to 89% and the real feel temperature is 130 F, extreme danger, heat stroke territory. We can get both during a New England heatwave.

Of course, high temperatures with or without humidity will kill you. It’s the combination of both that determines deadly conditions. It all comes down to sweat.

When our distant ancestors lived in Africa 3 million years ago as it became more arid, they evolved to efficiently dissipate heat by losing body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands. As sweat evaporates from our bodies, it cools our skin. Problem is, sweat is mostly water. Since we cannot store water like a camel, when it’s hot, we need to constantly replenish the water we lose to cool ourselves.

Humans are between 55 and 65 percent water. If you sweat without replenishing water, bad things start to happen pretty quickly. If you exercise vigorously, you can sweat two pounds of water in an hour (a pound is equivalent to about a 16-oz glass of water). This means that dehydration can occur very quickly, especially if sweat rapidly evaporates. The more water you lose, the less you can regulate your body temperature. You lose 10 glasses of water; you’ll damage major organs. 14 glasses and you're dead.

You can also die from heatstroke just by sitting outside doing nothing when the real feel is 130 F. Sweat cannot evaporate, so your body temperature can rise to fatal levels in minutes.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, using data from NOAA, Massachusetts had about 4 days above 90 per year until the year 2000. Now, it’s 10. Projections range to an additional 6 to 22 days by 2050 and an additional 9 to 52 days by 2100. Imagine up to two months per year above 90. This is basically the climate of Atlanta, Georgia now and the future climate of southern New England.

These shifts are not limited to the Northeastern US. We already know what’s going on in the American Southwest. Blistering high temperatures leading to long-term drought and longer and more vicious wildfire seasons are the norm. Siberia is in a heatwave for the second year in a row, with hundreds of wildfires.

Worldwide, the projections get even uglier. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:

“. . . depending on scenarios of population growth and warming, over the coming 50 y, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 y. Absent climate mitigation or migration, a substantial part of humanity will be exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today.”

The increase in land area subject to heat/humidity levels which make it life threatening just to be outdoors will span major portions of southern Asia within the next few decades, where clean water and air conditioning are an extreme luxury. Currently, we see a few days of such conditions in this region, but they are predicted to span weeks in the coming decades. Those billions in less developed countries will simply not be able to adapt. They will move. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Published in the Village News (Massachusetts), July 1, 2021

Friday, June 11, 2021

Wither the Monarch


Photo attribution:  By Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The other night, I watched a short documentary about John J. Audubon, after whom the National Audubon Society is named. His life’s work was to make a complete pictorial record of all species of North American birds. He was a detailed observer of nature, keenly aware of the world around him.

One portion of the film struck me. During his later journeys, Audubon noted how rapidly the American landscape was changing, how clearing and development of former wildlands had led to habitat fragmentation and disappearance of formerly abundant bird species in the space of a few decades during the early 19th century. It was the story then; it is the story now. This is what we do.

Which brings me to the Monarch butterfly. North American Monarchs are famous for their continent-spanning migrations. The eastern population mostly migrates south to Mexico and parts of Florida. The Western population flies to coastal sites in California as well as Mexico. It takes three generations of Monarchs to make the roundtrip journey. Why do North American Monarchs migrate in the first place? Scientists are still not sure. Monarchs elsewhere on the planet don’t migrate.

Monarchs are thought to have evolved in Central America over a million years ago. Their longevity means that the species survived at least eight glacial epochs during their time on Earth AND have been around longer than modern humans.

Sadly, as with many species on the planet, North American Monarchs are now dealing with the same pressures we have subjected to many other lifeforms over the centuries, because … that is what we do.

Their steep decline in North America is alarming. In Mexico, the eastern population’s overwintering number from last winter was about 45 million, compared to 250 million just 25 years ago. The Western population was down to 2,000 from 1.2 million just 24 years earlier.

What are we doing to cause this decline? Lots of things: GMO crops resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds which kill milkweed, the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs; long-term drought along their migratory routes and habitat loss at their overwintering sites in Mexico, the result of illegal logging in sanctuary areas. Our rapidly changing climate also features prominently.

Although Monarchs have been able to weather climate change in the past, the rapidity of change now is another thing entirely. Monarchs are among 450 butterfly species whose Western U.S. populations have been steadily dropping for the last 40 years, according to research recently published in the journal Science. The paper concludes that warmer autumns are a significant contributor to this decline. Furthermore, it’s not enough to preserve open space, create butterfly gardens and in the case of Monarchs, plant milkweed.

The good news for Monarchs, such as it is, comes from other newly published research which noted that despite the jaw-dropping decline of Western US Monarchs observed in their historical overwintering sites, “... large populations of monarchs were found breeding in San Francisco and Los Angeles areas ...” Normally, Monarchs don’t breed at that time of year and not in those locations. The author stated that "It seems that Monarchs are evolving or adapting, likely to the changing climate, by changing their breeding patterns."  The author thought that the Monarchs could be adapting and doing it quickly.

The article also stated that Monarchs in Australia saw precipitous population declines in the 1970s. However, the species did not go extinct, it just adapted. Furthermore, this result occurred without any overt attempt at preservation, since Monarchs are not native to Australia. That’s the good news.

The bad news?

According to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) life on Earth is being challenged in ways not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The authors stated that “Nature is under siege [and that] most biologists agree that the world has entered its sixth mass extinction event.” The paper concluded that “… a biodiversity crisis is accelerating as the planet’s human population grows, increasingly exacerbated by unprecedented recent climate changes and other anthropogenic stressors. Time is not on our side, and urgent action is needed on behalf of nature.”

The beautiful, delicate Monarch may be able to dodge the extinction bullet, but that may end up being cold comfort in the grand scheme of things.

Published in the Village News, June 4th, 2021

Monday, April 26, 2021

Think Circular not Linear

I have some T-shirts that I probably got over 20 years ago. I don’t replace my blue jeans until the knees are worn out (which for some would be a fashion statement) When I was a kid, I used to patch them up with denim from even older jeans. In the 70s, that was an OK thing to do.

I try not to buy clothes unless I really need them, which maybe makes me unusual (or just a typical American male?). Even so, I think I still have more clothes than I need when I look in my closet.

Why am I telling you about my sartorial deficiencies? 

What inspired this column were studies done by Patagonia, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the United Nations and others which estimate that the amount of clothing manufactured worldwide doubled between 2000 and 2015, but the number of times an item was worn has actually decreased by 36%. Clothing is considered disposable. Worldwide, over $500 Billion in perfectly good clothing is thrown away each year, one garbage-truck every second.  73% of clothing ends up landfilled or incinerated. By any measure – this is an insane waste.

$500 Billion is just the retail price. Then you have to consider the factors like raw material to make the fabrics, the dyes, the energy to manufacture the clothing, the transportation costs. Environmental impacts, detailed in a peer-reviewed post in Climate Feedback, include “’ . . . intensive water use, water pollution through dying and textile production, and pesticide and herbicide pollution through the agricultural production of cotton. Microplastics, which are shed primarily from synthetic textiles during washing, are also polluting the oceans, potentially negatively impacting human health and natural ecosystems.”

According to the study, “total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion metric tons annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined” which is between 8 and 10% of global annual emissions.

So, what’s the solution? A rethink of the whole textile and fashion industry: “Making Fashion Circular”. The three components of this concept are 1 -design products to be used more, 2 – make them in a way “to be made again” and 3 - make them from safe, recyclable or renewable material.

“Used more” means “manufactured to last”. Garments should be easier to repair and users should have the ability to maintain their purchases.  You can extend this concept to renting instead of owning clothing.

“Made to be made again” means that garments should be made to be easily disassembled, allowing material reuse, remanufacture, recycling and ultimately, composting. The fashion and textile business would need to support the infrastructure to make this process happen.  Governments would also have to support this concept via regulation, policies and promotion of the recycling infrastructure.

“Made from safe, recyclable or renewable material” means textiles do not contain or are made from hazardous materials which can make their way into the environment. The manufacturing process, supply chain and associated technologies would focus on optimizing resources and minimizing waste, including use of recycled material.

This transition would require a partnership of both the fashion business and government, a lot of innovation, “transparency and traceability” and of course, money, also known as “investment”.

But as I think about it - why stop with clothing? The circular model could apply to cars, electronics, appliances and most any other consumer good you can think of.

Our modern material economy is linear. Raw material to product to waste. The manufacturer has no responsibility once the product leaves the factory. That’s up to us consumers. In this linear model, resources to make stuff are considered infinite.  Places to dispose of them as well. The problem is, they aren’t.

A circular economy would be material to product to material until the material could no longer be used. Waste would be minimized. Manufacturers would be on the hook to work with government to recycle products, and vice versa. On the flip side, manufacturers would get a head start on the fabrication process because they would not have to start with raw material, they’d just have to reprocess what they’d already made before.

We would no longer be “consumers”, we would be “users”. We would be part of the process, but so would businesses and governments.

A circular economy is an alien concept, but with the world’s population at 7.8 billion today and 10.9 billion by 2100, and everyone wanting the kind of lifestyle we Americans take for granted, a linear economy is no longer an option.  It’s not sustainable. 

Published in the Village News, April 23, 2021

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Freezing in the Dark

 Minot, ND, has brutal winters with temperatures of twenty below for days on end, before adding in the wind chill. Interesting thing about Minot and the rest of North Dakota, it’s rare that they lose power for more than an hour or so when it gets that cold. Strain on the grid can lead to rolling black outs, but total grid failure? No (Full disclosure, my son is stationed at Minot AFB).

The reasons are several: North Dakota power plants and gas pipelines are hardened against cold weather; its electric grid is part of the Eastern Interconnect, which is regulated by the Federal Government; interstate electric grids have to meet certain standards, like being able to operate in cold weather; and the interconnect allows North Dakota to get power from elsewhere in the country if needed.

Texas, as I am sure you have heard by now, doesn’t want to be regulated by the Federal Government, so most of its grid has no connection to the rest of the country. No regulations, no standards. No dependency on anyone else. It’s Texas after all. Had the state been connected, the power outages might have still occurred, but the grid probably would not have almost collapsed.

Also keep in mind that contrary to assertions by Governor Abbot, it wasn’t the Texas wind turbine shut downs which lead to the electric grid collapse, it was frozen gas line valves and infrastructure failures at nuclear power plants.

The disaster Texas experienced last month also happened in 2011, yet Texas did nothing to prepare for this one. To quote Winston Churchill, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Then there were all the burst water pipes, both in homes and below the streets, not only in Texas, but in many locales across the Deep South. It’s routine in the South for residential water pipes to be routed through uninsulated attics and municipal water pipes to be laid above what we hardy New Englanders would consider the frost line.

If the world is warming up, why does the subtropical US need to be prepared for cold snaps as brutal as the one last month?

Relative to the rest of the planet, the Arctic is warming much faster. It still gets extremely cold in the winters, because well, it’s the Arctic after all. With a warming planet, the polar vortex, a 600-mile wide low pressure area that sits above the North Pole, periodically destabilizes. When it does, the jet stream, the high altitude fast moving winds which circle the planet, weaken as well. Loops and waves appear in the jet stream, which allows cold air to “leak” out of the Arctic and spread south. This winter’s vortex breakdown was predicted by a European weather forecast team last October.

An unstable jet stream causes problems in other seasons. A wave or loop in the jet stream can stop moving, causing areas of high and low pressure to stay in place. If a high pressure system doesn’t move in the summer, the stagnant warm air can suck the water out of the soil leading to drought and cause persistent heat waves as well. Large storms systems skirt the edges of a jet stream loop, leading to more frequent torrential rainfalls and consequent flooding.

We are seeing more and more of what researchers call unstable weather. Not all of it can be directly tied to our warming world, according to scientists who are studying the links between extreme weather events and climate change, but a lot of it is.

Last month’s cold disaster provides a few lessons.

First, the Southern US is not prepared for cold spells any more than it is for the increasing frequency of extended droughts, floods, or heat waves.

Second, governments at all levels, national to municipal, need to plan for the kind of weather we have now and not prepare based on weather data from even a 25 years ago. We need to upgrade our infrastructure, which has been sorely neglected for decades.

Third, we need to remember that people AND governments have to depend on each other.

Former Texas Governor (and former Secretary of Energy) Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Irony is that Texas was glad to have FEMA in “their business” after last month’s disaster. I wonder how many Texans Mr. Perry speaks for these days.

Fourth, the conveniences of our modern world, like reliable electric power when we flick a light switch and clean running water when we open a faucet, should not be taken for granted. Our society depends on these basic services. When they stop and the government cannot effectively step in to fill the gap, people find out that the veneer of civilization can be pretty thin.

That folks, is not a good thing.

Published in the Village News, 03/12/2021

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Where had all the plastic gone?

 Today, I continue to discuss assertions made entitled “Apocalypse Never” by environmental policy commentator Michael Schellenberger, whose main thesis is that our environmental problems are not really that bad.

Another topic he discussed was the impact of plastics in our environment. His main thesis is that plastics degrade quickly in sunlight (a phenomenon called photo-dissociation), because ultraviolet light breaks down the bonds that hold plastic together. 

 I will note that “degrade” is not the same as “disappear”. Plastic stuff becomes microplastic stuff. Plastics never go away, they just break apart and become small - less than 5 mm (1/8 inch), or even less, a few microns, where they become known as nanoplastics.

 Schellenberger cited a scientific study where researchers found 95% less plastic at the ocean’s surface than they expected. Where had all the plastic gone? It was broken down to microplastics onto which small plankton and bacteria attached, making the particles weigh enough to sink to the ocean floor – problem solved. Turtles with straws up their noses, sea birds and whales with stomachs containing plastic junk are an excuse for alarmism, not real problems.

 Not so fast. The amount of plastic on the seafloor is now estimated at almost 200 MILLION tons. The amount of plastic entering the oceans every year is roughly 8 million tons, equivalent to 90 aircraft carriers. Most of it will break down into microplastic or nanoplastic particles. Estimates are that about 5.25 trillion microplastic particles now float in the oceans from the surface to the depths.

 But it is only in the last few years that detailed ecological risk assessments of microplastics in the oceans or coastal areas have been performed. A risk assessment determines at what concentration a substance becomes a risk to human or ecological health. 

 One study I read found no discernible risk to life in the open ocean at current concentrations, with the caveat that the concentrations are increasing and will exceed levels which will cause problems for ocean life by mid-century. In some coastal environments, those levels have already been exceeded.

 Another study stated that microplastics can be small enough to pass into the bloodstream through the intestines, even as larger particles pass through the gut undigested. Microplastics become more and more concentrated in body tissues as they pass up the food chain from plankton to crustaceans to fish to seabirds. Limited evidence suggests that microplastics are a threat to marine animals. “Suggest” is not the same as “unequivocally demonstrate” so therein hangs the problem.

 But what about us? As microplastics are now ubiquitous in the environment, we ingest about one credit card’s worth every week or half a pound every year, the equivalent of about three smartphones. 

 Eating credit cards like Doritos, even with guacamole, goes under the heading of really bad idea, but are microplastic particles actually harmful to us? We don’t know for sure.

 Research into the toxicity of microplastics is just getting started. We do not know the effects of plastics on the human body in detail because we haven’t gone looking for them in detail. 

 Plastics are more than just the polymers. They contain several thousand other chemicals, even flame retardants. In the environment, plastics adsorb toxic man made chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, bisphenol A, and organochlorine pesticides, all of which go under the heading of “really bad for you”. We get exposed to these chemicals every day, but microplastics present a new pathway into the human body.

 Once very small microplastics are ingested, they can pass into the lymph system, and get deposited in the liver, penetrate the placenta and blood-brain barrier and the lungs. Once there, the particles will accumulate. Plastic particles can cause inflammation and inflammation underlies many human ailments. Cause and effect? We don't know.

 Initial studies in labs indicate that microplastics are indeed toxic to lung, liver and brain cells, but that’s a far cry from fully understanding their interactions within the human body. As one article stated, “It could be that, as with many pollutants, there is a threshold beyond which microplastics become toxic to humans or other species.” We just don’t know what it is yet.

 So, what are we to do? Every article and study I read had the same recommendations: First, fully understand what micro and nanoplastics do to wildlife and humans. Second, stop putting plastics into the environment. Third, start using less plastic, much less. I know, easier said than done. 

 We are in a situation where we have absence of evidence. That is not the same as evidence of absence. Ignorance is not an excuse for inaction.

“It is also within our power to change cultures so that litter created on land does not become an environmental hazard in our oceans, both now and for future generations." 

- Jason Hall-Spencer, PhD, Marine Biology

Published in the Westborough Village News, 11/14/2020

Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Tale of Two Visions


Two significant headlines last week in the Washington Post caught my eye because they indicate diametrically opposed visions of the future:

“As Biden vows monumental action on climate change, a fight with the fossil fuel industry has only begun.”

“General Motors to eliminate gasoline and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs by 2035.”

It’s hard to discuss the implications of these headlines without looking at the numbers, but it’s what you have to do to understand what’s going on.

The oil industry is pissed off because the Biden Administration froze petroleum exploration leasing on federal lands and waters. I think it’s much ado about nothing, because the industry is not using 53% of the onshore and 77% of the offshore leases they already hold. Not only that, but the oil industry shunned the first auction of oil and gas development leases along the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife refuge. Only half the parcels were sold, most to the State of Alaska.

Consider also that oil companies comprised 28% of the U.S. stock market in 1980, but a tenth of that now, according to the Post. Investors are always looking at future return on investment and it’s clear they think the oil industry’s future is grim.

So, what’s with GM? In the 2000s, they experimented with electric cars, but ended up buying them back and destroying all but two. Now they want to throw $27 billion by 2025 in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and battery production, with a goal of converting 40% of their entire line of cars, vans, SUVs, and light trucks to electric by 2026 and 100% by 2035.

GM is actually a new comer here, according to the Post article. Ford is spending $11.5 billion on EVs such as the Mustang Mach E by 2022. VW will build 70 different models of EVs by 2031.

GM’s decision is hardly altruistic. The Post noted that the California economy, the fifth largest in the world, is going to prohibit sales of gasoline-engine cars by 2036. England will do so by 2030. Biden’s plans to electrify the Federal fleet of light vehicles is another incentive. The worldwide market for EVs is expected to go from 5 million today to 140 million by the end of the decade. EV sales increased during 2020, even as auto sales overall took a huge beating.

The other thing to note is that the cost of alternative energy, EV, and battery technology is declining at a rapid rate as the technology advances and commercial production scales up. The lifetime cost of EV ownership is on par or even cheaper than gasoline-powered vehicles.

You may ask why we should go electric if most of our electric power is generated by gas, coal and oil. Aren’t we just shifting the carbon pollution elsewhere? Good questions, but consider these trends:

First, The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that 39.7 gigawatts of wind and solar will “account for most new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021” while 9.1 gigawatts of “nuclear and coal will account for [the] majority of U.S. generating capacity retirements in 2021.” The EIA expects renewables to outpace natural gas by 2050.

Second, grid-scale wind and solar now account for 8.7% of U.S. power generation, up from about 0.16% in 2000. A new study indicates that they could provide 70% by 2035, especially, as is projected, the cost of grid scale energy storage continues to decline.

Bottom line - as EVs replace conventional vehicles, they will be recharged by an increasing amount of alternative energy.

The switch to EVs will not happen overnight. I expect it will take over a decade. It cannot come soon enough.

Whether you accept it or not, we are now in a climate crisis. The rate of global temperature rise, ice sheet melting, sea level rise, as well as the frequency of heat waves and wildfires are accelerating faster than projected even a few years ago. There were 22 “billion-dollar” weather-related disasters in the US alone in 2020, compared to 6 in 2010, 4 in 2000, and 3 in 1990 (numbers inflation adjusted). All these trends go under the heading of “wrong direction.”

Both the fossil fuel and auto industries see the writing on the wall. One is fighting a rear-guard action to hang on to the past and the other has decided to look towards the future.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2020 in Review - A Different Perspective

On January 21, 2020, I posted a link on Facebook to a Washington Post Article entitled “Chinese officials urge people not to travel in and out of the city at the center of the virus outbreak.” I commented “Is it just me or are current events starting to seem like the plot of a dystopian science fiction novel?”

Eleven months on, the answer is . . . yes.

It is getting harder and harder to find subjects about which to write that don’t sound like the plot of a dystopian science fiction novel. Case in point - Earlier this year, my son sent me a set of pictures comparing the fictional Los Angeles of Bladerunner 2049 to San Francisco during the height of last summer’s wildfires, which covered the region in thick blankets of smoke. It was hard to tell the difference between fictional pollution-choked skies and the real smoke-choked skies.

The pandemic and, to put it mildly, the extended and chaotic political season, drowned out what was happening in the larger world beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

From Spring to November, the US simultaneously drowned and burned.

The 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the US. Lake Charles, Louisiana was hit twice. The very last storm, Iota, reached Category 5. Four others reached Category 4.

Why all the storms? The heat stored in the North Atlantic is almost three times what it was five decades ago, about the equivalent to the energy released by almost half a million modern nuclear weapons. For comparison purposes, the US currently has 5,800 nuclear weapons.

The decade ending in 2020 had 25 Category 4 and 5 North Atlantic Hurricanes, three times as many as the decade ending in 1980, which correlates very closely with the increasing temperature trend of the North Atlantic Ocean.

As of the end of this year, about 14 million acres burned across the US, double the 10-year average. In the Western US, 10 million acres burned, three times the previous annual record. Average annual temperatures in the Western US are 1.8 degrees hotter than they were 40 years ago.

The Earth had the warmest November on record, despite the fact that the planet should be in a periodic cooling cycle called La Nina. On an annual basis, 2020 may be the second warmest year on record. 2016 so far has been the hottest, but that year was during an El Nino warming cycle. Does this mean that we will break another global temperature record when we have the next El Nino? I can’t say for sure, but the trends suggest we could.

According to NOAA, last summer was the fourth hottest on record with July the second hottest on record. The southwestern US states all had their warmest August. Average August precipitation across the US was a mere 2.35 inches, making it the third driest on record.

The extent of the summer Arctic sea ice was the second lowest on record, 23% below average. The lowest? 2016, when the world average temperature was the highest on record. The last major ice shelf (expanse of floating ice attached to land) in Canada broke up on August 6th.

The annual Arctic Report Card stated that the average Arctic air temperature was the second highest on record since record keeping started in 1900. All other record highs have occurred during the last 6 years. High temperature records were broken throughout the Arctic. As I wrote in a column earlier this year, Siberia had over 18,000 wildfires which collectively burned an area the size of New York State.

Last February, the furthest north peninsula of Antarctica had a heatwave, with temperatures equivalent to Los Angeles during the same period. It was the third such heatwave of the 2019-2020 Antarctic summer. “If you think about this one event in February, it isn’t that significant. It’s more significant that these events are coming more frequently,” said one research scientist.

I could keep going with the numbers, but I hope you get the picture.

The number of sick and dead from Covid in the US are now staggering and unrelenting, but a vaccine is on the way. An end is in sight.

The ongoing changes to our planet are also staggering and unrelenting, but unlike Covid, there is no end in sight.

Happy New Year.

Published in the Village News, January 8th, 2021

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Are Wildfires Really as Bad as They Seem?


This year, environmental policy commentator Michael Schellenberger wrote a book called “Apocalypse Never” whose main thesis is that our environmental problems really are not that bad. He had the arrogance to apologize to the world on behalf of all environmentalists for exaggerating our environmental problems. I’ll write more about this book in future columns.

Among the topics he discussed is the prevalence of wildfires. Are there really more now than there used to be? He points to a 2014 study that says globally, fires have actually been decreasing. What he didn’t say was that the biggest declines were in the tropics. Other areas of the world? Not so much.

Even the study Schellenberger cited stated “Rising temperature and frequent droughts are becoming increasingly important and expected to increase wildfire activity in many regions of the world”. His rhetorical tactic is called taking facts out of context.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the US, twice as much land area burned per year in the last 18 years than the period from 1985 to 1999. Even worse, wildfires CO2 emissions were equivalent to 22% of carbon dioxide put in the atmosphere between 1997 and 2016 from fossil fuel combustion.

Schellenberger also stated that climate change does not cause wildfires. That’s true, but no credible scientist has actually ever made the assertion that it does, a rhetorical tactic called a strawman argument. Wildfires are started by lightning or people. What is happening is that the conditions conducive to wildfires have been exacerbated by a warming planet. 

The key to a good conflagration is fuel aridity. The drier the wood, the easier it is for a fire to start and spread out of control. So, if you have an extreme drought combined with low humidity, the moisture in wood and grass essentially go to zero. 

Our President says the problem is that we need to better manage our forests (you know, rake the leaves and twigs), but it doesn’t matter if a forest is well or poorly managed, if the forest floor is free of undergrowth or the forest is thinned, as the logging industry insists is the only method to manage forests. If the entire region has turned into a tinderbox, any spark, combined with high winds, will cause the kinds of fires we have seen all over the world during the last decade. 

Twenty five percent of the Earth’ surface has a longer fire season now. Conditions have doubled the amount of land susceptible to fire. There is a strong linkage between a warming planet and occurrence of fires. Less moisture, more and larger fires. 

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of October 16th, there were still 63 wildfires burning in 11 states, only 7 of them contained, which burned over 4.6 million acres, 2.5 million of them in California alone. Total US area burned this year is over 8.3 million acres. This year isn’t yet the worst on record for the US, but it’s close and the year isn’t over yet.

And this is just the Western US, from Colorado to California.

The Pantanal region of South America is the world largest tropical wetland. This year twenty two percent of it burned, an area the size of Maryland. Fires in the Pantanal are not unusual. During the dry season lightning-triggered fires burn in the grasslands of the region. But this year, according to an article in Nature, the Pantanal is suffering from its worst drought in 47 years. Given the long-term trend of temperature increase and precipitation decrease, the region’s ecosystem could collapse.

Along the Arctic Circle in Siberia, a six-month drought and heat wave starting early this year led to over 18,000 fires, which collectively burned an area the size of New York state. It’s the second year in a row these fires have occurred. The fire risk in Siberia is only expected to increase with a warming climate. A US scientist who studies Arctic fires stated: “What you would expect is already happening, and in some cases faster than we would have expected.” 

You see the pattern here. Increased temperatures lead to increased fuel aridity increasing the fire risk and the length of the fire season, from Australia to Alaska, from the Amazon to the Arctic Circle.

And all we do is react - More fires, more firefighting. Adaption and relocation may be the only options given seemingly inexorable trends and hear-see-speak-no-evil government policies. Maybe grab a rake and head for the woods while we are at it.

Published in the Village New, September 25th, 2020

Thursday, October 8, 2020

End of Oil? Not Yet

 Today, various environmental groups are dancing on the grave of the petroleum industry. 

The pandemic has driven demand through the floor. We have a huge glut of crude oil. Tankers with as much as 20 million barrels of oil sit off the U.S. west coast, acting as floating storage tanks because onshore tanks are full to the brim. At the same time, oil producing countries have not cut back on production hoping to capture what limited market share there still is. Crude oil prices have collapsed to $36/barrel. Daily demand for oil dropped 29 million barrels per day last April compared to 2019.

In the US, small independent oil and gas companies are declaring bankruptcy in job lots. A few years back, there was not enough housing for oil field workers in the boom towns around the shale oil fields of the Dakotas. The boom towns are now ghost towns. Rigs rust and oil field workers are collecting unemployment. 

Most of these companies started up during the fracking boom and were never profitable. They were over-leveraged, owing millions to investors to keep them going. When prices collapsed, they did too. 

Even the majors, like Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron, are hurting. Their stock prices have tumbled by 50% in the last year.  Exxon has been dropped from the Dow Index. Oil and gas reserves have been devalued dramatically. Large investors are no longer interested in loaning them the funds to find new fields, let alone keep existing fields producing. Drilling in the Arctic or Atlantic is off the table.

Oil has always been a boom and bust industry. In the 1970s, oil was cheap at $25/barrel in today’s dollars. Then the price shocks starting in 1973 doubled the price in a matter of months, due to Middle Eastern wars and political instability. Everything changed - lines at gas stations, worries that the world would soon run out of oil. The “Energy Crisis” loomed over everything for many years.

In economic terms, oil demand appeared inelastic. We needed it at any price. 

In 1981, I went to work for Shell Oil when I graduated from college. A barrel of oil sold for $100. However, it soon turned out that oil demand was stretchier than we thought.

By 1986, the price of crude oil plummeted to $31/barrel. Everything had changed - fuel efficiency became a major selling point for cars. The national speed limit was set at 55 mph. Saudi Arabia flooded the market to gain market share. No surprise, I joined the ranks of unemployed oil workers and decided it was time to change careers. 

It boomed again in the 2000s. Recruiters even contacted me even though I’d been out of the industry 30 years at that point. I told them they were nuts.

The boom and the bust cycle has occurred at least 5 times since oil was first discovered 160 years ago, but this bust is a very big one. 

Is it over for the petroleum industry? Currently, the International Energy Agency predicts that demand will recover to 2019 levels within a year. Worldwide oil demand has almost always increased over time, doubling over the last 50 years from 343 to 647 million barrels a year. The question is whether this trend will continue forever. 

Oil companies themselves apparently think not. Many petroleum companies are writing off reserves, increasing investments in alternative energy and even saying that peak oil demand may soon occur. According to the IEA, even if government policies do not change, demand will flatten. If sustainable policies are adopted, demand could decrease 25% by 2040. 

In fact, those policies are changing. Many US states (including Massachusetts) and nations now mandate weaning ourselves off fossil fuels as the environmental and economic impacts of climate change become clearer to just about everyone. Big tech companies like Google and Apple have pledged to go carbon free. 

We will still need oil. Barring a massive technological change, jet aircraft will still run on kerosene. Naval and cargo ships will still need fuel oil. Cars and trucks put in service today will still be on the road 10 to 15 years from now, but even they are more fuel efficient than their 10 to 15-year-old equivalents.

The petroleum industry isn’t dead, but I don’t think it will ever be the same. I certainly could be wrong but I think that just like coal, the petroleum industry’s best days are behind it.

Published in the Village News, September 25th, 2020

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Information Apocalypse

 “Do you remember, before the internet, that it was thought the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? . . . Well, it wasn’t that.” – popular meme

When I was in college 40 years ago, writing a term paper required me to go to the library, search through various reference books and journal articles, make handwritten notes using these things called pen and paper. I would hand write a draft of my report, then type it up using this device called a typewriter. It was, as they say, all analog.

Energy was used to make the paper, print the books and journals. Once made, no more energy was used, other than the calories I burned to go to the library and do the research using my Mark 1 eyeballs and brain.

It all sounds so quaint now, doesn’t it?

Today, we have all the possible information we could ever want available at our fingertips, because it is all stored on electronically “in the cloud,” also known as huge data center buildings full of server computers connected to the world at large via a network of routers, switches and cables.

We pay a monthly fee for internet and/or wireless data services, type a few words into a search engine (aka Google) and Shazam! We are digital information prodigies. It’s easy! It’s cheap!

Well, no, it isn’t. Those data centers consume over 200 Terawatt hours of electricity per year (and growing) to power them. All those hard drives and microchips take energy and resources to make as well.

The World Economic Forum estimates that about 48 trillion billion gigabytes of information is stored “in the entire digital universe,” much of it “in the cloud.” If the average PC has a 500 gigabyte hard drive, that’s equivalent to about 96 trillion personal computers. Between 1 and 2 trillion PCs worth of data is added every day. IBM estimates that 90% of the world’s data was created in just the last decade. My math could be off – but suffice it to say, a trillion here and a trillion there and soon we are talking about really big numbers.

Worse, the vast majority is wasted. Very little of that data is even being analyzed, according to Data Intelligence firm NodeGraph.

The American Institute of Physics published a paper last month entitled “The information catastrophe” which stated that at current rates of accumulation, by 2150 the amount of power needed to sustain all this data storage “. . . would equal all the power currently produced on planet Earth”. By 2245, “half of Earth's mass would be converted to digital information mass.”  

The paper may be just an exercise in mathematical projection, but this conversion of physical and energy resources into stored data is currently proceeding unabated at an exponential rate.

I can envision it now. In 300 years, huge robotic machines will scour the Earth, with the single-minded imperative to devour everything in their way and spit out microchips to ensure that tweets, Facebook posts, and people’s Google GPS tracks from centuries earlier are preserved in all their electronic purity.

Obviously, this headlong pursuit of data storage for the sake of storing it is unsustainable. If NodeGraph is right, we aren’t even doing anything useful with most of it.

Do I have a comprehensive answer for this conundrum? Not really – other than to suggest that at some point, data will need to be “retired”.  Think about it this way - Are we really going to turn every bit of matter on the planet into one big hairy data center to store every trivial piece of anything that has made its way into digital form? That’s objectively nuts.

I cannot imagine that Amazon and Google have not thought about this “crisis”. Look at it this way, if the Earth and all its inhabitants are turned into humongous data centers, they can’t make money.

So, think about what’s actually happening when you post to Twitter or Facebook, view YouTube videos, send an email, put a document on Google Drive, watch Netflix or do any other trivial thing with whatever media device you like to use. There is more going on than you realize.

Now, excuse me while I delete a bunch of 35-year old files from my cloud storage account so I can do my part to stave off the arrival of the information apocalypse.

Published in the Village News, September 11th, 2020

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Arrogance of Eversource

 Eversource, the company that distributes natural gas through this region, wants to construct a 16” diameter high-pressure pipeline through Westborough, traversing residential neighborhoods along Flanders and Steven Road. It will pass an elementary school and two assisted living facilities.

According to their community relations “specialist”, the $21 million Worcester Feed Line Improvement Project is needed because “. . . we will lose the ability to serve existing customers and increase capacity in the region” which could happen before the decade is out.

“Increase capacity” is another way of saying “potential new customers” (their words, not mine) whom Eversource is actively encouraging to switch from oil to gas heating.

Last January, the Westborough Board of Selectmen invited Eversource to an open hearing to discuss their project. Eversource was completely unprepared to answer any kind of detailed questions from the public outside their canned presentation.

Subsequently, the Selectmen sent Eversource detailed questions to be answered at a later hearing, which took place on July 28th. Eversource again gave a canned presentation and would not provide any of the requested detailed information to support their assertion that the pipeline is an essential public need.

The question is why?

In my opinion, it’s because Eversource thinks they don’t have to. They think it will be a slam dunk to get their Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) permit application approved. Local opposition is just a piece of lint to be swept off their shoulder.

Let’s look at the pipeline from their perspective. A goal of any business is to increase its customer base. Nothing wrong with that. That’s capitalism.

But what do you do if this goal conflicts with a government’s goal, which is to protect its citizens and their property from an environmental threat caused, in part, by your company’s product or service?

Massachusetts’ goal is to “start to get off the fossil fuel rollercoaster”. By law the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy have to decrease 80% by 2050 which means Eversource’s revenues will decline precipitously over the coming decades. 

If I were Eversource, I’d increase my customer base as much as possible, thus making it more difficult to transition away from gas, as customers will already have born the cost of one conversion, making them reluctant to do it again. Will they admit that? Heck no.

The state is encouraging oil and gas heating consumers to switch to air source heat pumps, a proven technology which has been used for well over a decade AND which the state is subsidizing through the Mass Save program.

But Eversource lumps heat pumps in with “new and emerging technologies”, which is utter nonsense. Why would Massachusetts subsidize heat pumps if the technology was not proven?

Instead Eversource talked up their commitment to alternative energy – they devoted an entire slide proudly touting a pilot project at a farm in Connecticut to turn cow manure into natural gas. Wow, that’ll make a dent.

Their arrogant and dismissive attitude at the July 28th hearing insulted the intelligence of the Selectmen as well as anyone who was watching.

The Selectmen will again ask Eversource to address the Westborough’s questions in detail, which I fully expect Eversource to ignore as well. It all comes down to wanting more customers, plain and simple. They increase their customer base and profits; we deal with the pipeline’s disruptions and hazards.

What’s next?

The Selectmen have already gone on record as opposing the pipeline. The next step will be for the Town to engage a qualified consultant to review the Eversource application to the EFSB. The application will have the detailed information Eversource refuses to provide. We will have to pay for that consultant, but I think it will be money well spent.

What else can we do? Write to State Representatives Dykema, Gregoire and Kane as well as Senator Eldridge. Eversource will have to file for review under the provisions of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). This review provides for public comment, so exercise your right to comment.

Westborough committed to address climate change via Article 11 at the 2019 Fall Town Meeting. The Climate Action Plan task force will be providing recommendations to be integrated into the new Town Master Plan to lower emissions and move to alternative energy.

The pipeline project flies in the face of this goal. It will disrupt neighborhoods during its construction and present a long term hazard to residents along its route.

Westborough is not required to acquiesce to Eversource. Enough already.

Published in the Village News, August 8th, 2020

Apocalypse 2030?

 “We now hold dominion over the earth, but the planet always wins in the end.” - Richard Smith, PhD

The word “apocalypse”, is a Greek for “revelation”. Today, we associate the word with the total destruction of the world or the end times described in the Old Testament’s Book of Revelations.

In 2018, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stated that we would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about half by 2030 to prevent temperature increase above the 2.7 Degree F (1.5 C) limit in the Paris Climate Accord.

This finding was interpreted by climate activists such as the Youth Climate Strike, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion to mean that we only had until 2030 to avoid a climate change disaster.  Two years ago, I heard a teenager say that she was going to die in 12 years because of climate change (which I assured her was not true).

So, are we going to kill the planet by the end of this decade? Is humanity’s impact on Earth going to destroy the planet in an apocalypse of sudden environmental and civilization-ending collapse?

No. Neither of these things will happen. Are we going to keep making our planet less hospitable to ourselves (and everything else)? Short answer – yes.

One example - Arctic Siberia experienced a heatwave this year which a multinational scientific consortium estimated was 600 times more likely than it would have been if the Earth was not rapidly warming.

Let me make it clear - we cannot “kill” the planet. The planet and life on it have survived much worse catastrophes than anything most people could dream of.

Over the last half billion years, there have been five major extinction events which wiped out the majority of life on Earth. The causes vary from continent-sized volcanic eruptions to the well-known asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

Life always “bounced” back, if you define a bounce as hundreds of thousands to millions of years, with most animal and plant species being completely different than those which lived before the mass extinction.

Dinosaurs were a minor class of animals which grew to dominate the Earth only after a mass extinction some 200 million years ago. Same for mammalian class, which took over only after the dinosaurs were wiped out, with the exception of the feathered avian versions you see flitting about your backyard.

Modern humans have been around for the last 300,000 years. Compared to tyrannosaurs (2 million years) or wooly mammoths (5 million years), we are youngsters.

The time span of human civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to today, is only 6,000 years, not even a rounding error compared to the age of the Earth.

During this interval, the Earth’s climate has been very stable, with an average worldwide temperature of about 55 degrees F give or take. Since the mid-20th century, this temperature has so far increased about 2 degrees F, the heat equivalent to 4 million times the annual energy consumption of the US.

If nothing changes, by 2070 one third of the people on this planet could experience an annual average temperature of 84 degrees, conditions which today only exist in a small section of the Sahara, but will spread to most of the subtropical belt around the world.

This is not the plot of a post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction novel, it’s the conclusion of research published last May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) after months of peer review. The study was a collaborative effort of scientists hailing from China, the US, South America and Europe. It’s also not the first scientific study I’ve read which makes this sort of prediction.

Is this prediction apocalyptic or alarmist? Certainly, it doesn’t leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy. Keep in mind that PNAS isn’t in the habit of publishing science fiction novel plots in its journal.

It’s also not a sure thing because it assumes that we do nothing to alter the trajectory, which we still can do, to some extent.

“We now hold dominion over the earth” but it is hubris to think we are not subject to the same forces of nature which apply to all other forms of life. We forget that we are part of nature.

The only difference is that we allegedly have the ability to think ahead and a modicum of wisdom, both of which seem in short supply at the moment.

“The planet always wins in the end.” Almost every species of life that has existed on Earth has one thing in common, it is extinct.

Will humans become extinct someday? Inevitably, yes. We do not help ourselves by rapidly making the planet’s environment much harsher for us, which all the evidence shows we are doing.

Remember, we need the planet. The planet does not need us. Just ask a woolly mammoth.

Published in the Village News, August 1, 2020