Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top Down Won't Do It

I have been perusing the web sites of the leading Democratic Presidential candidates, examining their climate plans. 

Senator Sanders plan runs over 14,000 words. Just the Cliff Notes version of Warren’s plan is over 3,000 words. In contrast, I have to keep my columns down to about 750 words, which, I have to tell you, ain’t easy.

Both of them favor a top-down completely government-managed transition to push the US to a green economy inside of a decade. The plans laid out by the Sanders and Warren campaigns are especially impressive in their scope, ambition, detail and yes, cost.  I cannot fault them for any of this, given the nature of the existential threat that climate change represents. Doesn’t mean I agree with their approach either. 

One thing neither of them mention is putting a price on carbon.

What does “a price on carbon” even mean?

Basically, the concept is that the price of producing and using fossil fuels does not include the environmental and societal costs caused by the pollution these energy sources generate. We ALL pay for the health problems from fossil fuel pollution through higher health costs and lost wages. Then there is the environmental damage, which now includes climate change, reflected in the higher insurance rates; higher food costs; repair of damage from more frequent flooding and more powerful hurricanes; rising sea levels, ad infinitum.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that worldwide, the fossil fuel industry gets an indirect subsidy of about $5.3 TRILLION annually because the impact of their products isn’t reflected in the price we pay, especially from climate change.

There are a lot of ways to put a price on carbon. We could tax it. The money would then go into government coffers and lord only knows what Congress would do with that new funding stream.

A second approach is a cap and trade program which sets a limit on the amount of pollution that can be emitted per year. Polluters buy permits and get taxed if they emit more than permitted. Permits are traded if the emitter doesn’t use them. Gradually, the cap decreases and thus provides incentive to figure out how to decrease emissions. Government interference is minimized.

The Cap and trade system was used successfully to drive down sulfur dioxide pollution from power plants back in the 80s. Despite worries that it would harm the economy, the cost to utilities was only $3 billion annually and the benefits to society about $122 billion in avoided health, economic and ecological impacts. SO2 pollution is almost a thing of the past.
All the New England States and several mid-Atlantic states are now participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to limit and decrease power plant emissions. It is working. Carbon emissions have dropped 50% and generated $2.9 billion in economic benefit since 2005, not including public health improvements or avoided climate impacts.

Cap and trade works for large emitters, but the rest of us who use gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas – not so much.

Another approach is called fee and dividend. Charge an ever-increasing fee on fossil fuels at the point of production or point of entry. Turn right around and send that money back to each tax payer as a dividend. The government doesn’t keep the money, period.

Will this plan increase the cost of fuel? Absolutely. Will this cause an economic hardship on people? Yes, it will. As gas, fuel oil and electricity get more expensive over time, so will the incentive to switch to other forms of energy.

Think about it. If everyone got the same “dividend” back every year, who will it benefit the most? The least among us. Who will benefit the least? The most well off, who are probably the people who generate the most greenhouse gases. Lower income people will put that money right back into the economy. 

It’s sort of like candidate Andrew Yang’s universal basic income (which I despise) but with the benefit of incentivizing the innovation needed to transition to greener energy. Let the markets do the work.

The idea has been around for quite a while and I happen to like it – a lot. Various versions are now being debated in Congress. The concept has the backing of many conservative economists and think tanks as well as climate activists like retired NASA climatologist James Hansen.

Putting a price on carbon, then letting the market determine a path forward is a component of a reasonable middle path between doing nothing and expecting Washington to do everything. 

Above all, it’s likely to work. 

Published in the Village News November 22nd, 2019

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Think Globally, Act Locally – Support Article 11 at Westborough Town Meeting on October 21st.

I subscribe to several scientific magazines and journals such as the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Scientific American, Science News and to daily research summaries including Science Daily. I also read the science and climate sections of major newspapers such as the NY Times and Washington Post.

These information sources are among those I use to stay informed and to provide factual support for the columns I write. Over the last decade, these sources have had almost nothing positive to say about pollution, habitat loss, extinction, and especially our changing climate. It makes finding anything about which to write that is not doom and gloom a very difficult exercise.

Even worse, our current Federal Government has all but abandoned and indeed is attempting to reverse policies designed to address all these issues even when industries say they don’t want regulations rolled back. “Make America Polluted Again” is the apparent motto.

 It makes one feel helpless because these problems are so overwhelming. The United States is the only industrialized country where human-caused climate change is subject to debate and indeed, outright dismissal at the highest levels of government.

One bright spot is the growing adoption of clean or “green” energy as well as the rapidly declining costs and increasing efficiency of photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage.

The second bright spot is how state and local governments, businesses and individuals have taken up the banner of leadership that the current federal administration so heedlessly gave up.

Massachusetts has had the Global Warming Solutions Act on the books since 2008, which sets greenhouse gas reduction goals: 10 to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. It provides pecific actions that have to be accomplished.

Boston has set a goal of being carbon emission neutral by 2050. The city has laid out a strategy to get there as well.

Smaller municipalities, such as Lexington, MA, have created their own Climate Action Plans.

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” goes the old saying.

A growing number of Westborough residents have decided that it is time Westborough became part of the solution as well, to also take up the banner, and do its part to address climate change.

The Westborough Green Technology Advisory Committee started this work several years ago.

The committee’s new name is Sustainable Westborough. It is chartered by the Board of Selectmen. A main goal of this committee is to move Westborough towards 100% sustainable energy.

It is sponsoring the Climate Change Action Resolution Warrant Article 11 at the upcoming Fall Special Town Meeting. The resolution commits the Town to creating its own Climate Action Plan whose goals will be:

  • Moving municipal operations to 100% Renewable Energy no later than 2035; 
  • Considering climate change in all appropriate decisions and planning processes; 
  • Preparing for the impacts of climate change, that is, adapting and becoming resilient in the face of a changing world; and 
  • Doing our part to meeting the requirements of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act. 
The resolution is just the beginning. It means WE recognize this huge problem and that WE, as a community, need to do our part to address it.

Westborough can no longer ignore the threat of climate change and the damage being done to our planet.

If you have felt helpless in the face of the threats posed by a rapidly warming world, here is your chance to start making a difference.

Think Globally, act locally – Support Article 11 at Town Meeting on October 21st.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Frogs in the Pot

During our first heat wave of 2019, you may have heard terms on the news like “real feel temperature” or “heat index”, both of which are used to express the stress on your body from the combination of heat and humidity.  The temperature in the shade may be 90, but the temperature may feel like 113 when humidity is 80%.

Why are these indices important? If the combination of heat and humidity are high enough, sweat cannot evaporate off your skin. Sweating is how we reduce our body temperature when it exceeds normal. If sweat doesn’t evaporate, you can’t cool off. If you can’t cool off – you will get heatstroke and probably die without medical intervention.

On Saturday, July 20th, during the middle of the heatwave that smothered a large portion of the US, the high temperature in Westborough was 96 in the shade with about 50% humidity, translating into a heat index of 108, clearly in the danger zone.  Another index called the wet bulb temperature, which uses the temperature in the sun, had a value of 92, considered extremely dangerous for any outdoor physical activity in the sun of more than a few minutes duration. 

Bottom line – that heatwave was life threatening.

Only one region on the planet frequently has these deadly heat conditions – the Persian Gulf.

The rest of us just have to cope with “occasional” heat waves. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “It’s summer time, of course there will be heat waves.” That’s true as far as it goes. 

But here’s the problem – the world has had more major heatwaves during the first two decades of this century than in all of the 20th century. Three major heatwaves in the 80's, five in the 1990's, 16 last decade and 34 so far this decade. roughly a doubling every decade.

Mathematically, that rate of increase is called “exponential”: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. . . you get the picture.

So yes, more summer heatwaves, but worse, their frequency is increasing rapidly. They are longer and hotter. Heatwaves are no longer occasional. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “We have air conditioning.”  

I have air conditioning and most of you have it, but billions of people don’t and couldn’t afford it even if it was available.

South Asia just went through a brutal heatwave that lasted a month with temperatures as high as 124, compounded by water shortages due to an inadequate and late monsoon.  Even if the humidity was a bone dry 5%, just being outside in the sun would have led to heatstroke. Think of what we just went through and imagine it lasting a month. Then imagine no AC and little available potable water. Hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis did not imagine it, they lived it.  

By the way - As I write this, Europe is entering its second major heatwave of this summer, which probably will extend above the Arctic Circle.

A recent study calculates that by 2050, Boston will have 11 to 25 days like we just had EVERY SUMMER if current trends continue. And there is no reason to think they won’t as long as we do nothing. 

Al Gore, in his book “An Inconvenient Truth” likened our attitude about climate change using the metaphor of a frog in a pot of slowly heating water. The frog would stay in the pot until it was too late because it would not notice the slow temperature increase, which is actually not true. A real frog would jump out. 

We are not Al Gore’s metaphorical frog, but we are doing a damned good imitation. 

The thing is, the pot is no longer slowly heating. The burner is on high. Why are we still sitting in the pot?

Ignoring rising temperatures is no longer possible, even with air conditioning. 

Climate scientists predicted this outcome decades ago. We can’t say we weren’t warned. We were.

So, the question is: Now what?

The answer: Change course, change the trend. It is within our power to do so. 

All that is lacking is will. 

All that is lacking is leadership.

Published in the Village News, August 2nd, 2019

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The New Normal – Rising Waters

Noted author John McPhee wrote a book called “The Control of Nature” containing stories about how humans battle nature, whether by channeling the Mississippi River, stopping a lava flow in Iceland or trapping landslides in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles.

His book came to mind amidst the continual flooding throughout the Midwestern U.S. last spring. If living on the floodplains of the American Midwest is a battle with nature, nature is winning. Levees were breached, farms drowned, and towns were turned into islands.

A recent article in the Washington Post showed satellite photographs of the upper Midwest from Missouri to the Canadian border, one from Spring 2018, the other this year. Normally green, the 2019 photo displayed vast areas of brown because so much farmland was flooded that crops either died or were never planted.

In a comment on the article, a heartland farmer stated: “In my 40 plus years of farming nothing has come close to this one. Nothing will grow in floods every week. It makes all the microbes, worms, and life in our soils die.  Even the old guys 80 plus say this has never happened before.  Many of my friends and neighbors aren't going to make it financially this year, some aren't going to survive physically, lots of emotional pain.“

Towns and cities along the Mississippi and its major tributaries saw repeated flooding last spring unlike anything before. According to the NY Times, in heartland cities like Davenport, Iowa, mayors and officials are loathe to officially associate the floods with climate change - the euphemism is “weather-related challenges.”  Regardless, they are just looking for ways to deal with a new normal, but climate change is the specter looming over their shoulder though, and they know it.

Nashville, Tennessee, realizing the cost of funding flood response, initiated a new policy I have long expected cities would eventually pursue. Instead of repeatedly and futilely attempting to protect and repair all homes and businesses, they are buying out, demolishing them and turning the neighborhoods into parkland. I have no doubt that this policy, partly funded through the National Flood Insurance Program, will spread.

On the coasts, towns and cities are moving from “if” to “when” regarding rising waters. The title of another recent NY Times article says it all: “Which U.S. Cities should be saved first?” The numbers are huge. By 2040, it will take $42 billion to provide basic storm surge protection for municipalities with populations greater than 25,000. Barnstable, Mass will require over $899 million for seawalls - over $20,000 per person. The cost for Jacksonville, Florida? A staggering $3.5 billion.

Smaller towns aren’t even on the radar screen.

Where is the money going to come from? All eyes of course look to Washington DC, which has plans for $16 billion in grants to help cities, a shortfall of $26 billion. The program will be forced to perform triage, deciding which cities would be the best investment, or as the article states, the biggest bang for the buck. 

Take New Orleans, for example. The Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt its levee system after 2005’s Katrina at a cost of $14 billion. Due to subsidence, the upgrades may be useless as soon as 2023. Not sure the Big Easy would be worth further investment by the above criteria, since most of it is already below sea level and sinking fast.

Expect a competition by cities to prove they are worthy of these grants by starting local resiliency programs, including moving people out of harm’s way, like Nashville.

Another option would be to divide up the funds by the economic or historic importance of a city. Is Barnstable more important than Boston? Massachusetts will likely have to make that call in our lifetimes.

The former chair of the Massachusetts Sierra Club told me she talked to legislators in Boston, who admit that their districts are vulnerable, but their focus is still on more immediate problems demanding their attention. Very soon, the rising waters problem will be immediate. 

Ignoring rising waters is no longer possible, even if you don’t want to admit what is causing it. Governments at all levels and locations will have to confront the reality of “weather-related challenges” whether they be in Davenport, Barnstable, Boston, Jacksonville, and especially Washington, D.C. 

Welcome to the new normal folks. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Published in the Westborough News, July 19.2019

Recycling Revisited

Recycling is supposed to be good for the planet – right? It would be, if we did it correctly. Sadly, most of us don’t, that is the portion of us who even bother to do it at all. In Westborough, participation in recycling is about 20%, which is pathetic.
If you are going to be serious about recycling, you have to be serious about doing it right. It’s not all that hard, you just have to know what to do.
The Westborough Environmental Collaborative sponsored a talk back on June 2nd with Doug Harvey from E.L. Harvey & Sons, which was very instructive, even for a veteran recycler like me. Harvey’s processes recycled materials collected from throughout the region, so they are the experts.
Harvey’s has a very sophisticated single stream recycling process to sort recyclable material which is put in one large container. It is sorted via a system using mechanical and electronic machines, as well as humans. The end products are bundles of plastic, paper or metal that can be sent to factories which use them as raw materials.
In order to makes this work, there are some rules.
Rule 1 – Single stream recycling does not mean that your trash is processed. If it’s in a bag – it’s considered trash and is burned at the Wheelabrator Waste to Energy power plant in Millbury, MA.
Rule 2 – Don’t put your recyclable bottles, cans and paper in a trash bag. See Rule 1.
Rule 3 – Make sure your recyclables are clean. Leftover food or liquids in the container can contaminate a half ton bale of potentially recyclable material, making it useless for anything other than landfill or incinerator feed stock.
If the container was used for chemicals such as oil, paints, solvents, herbicides or pesticides, cleaning it is not practical and can be downright dangerous, so my strong recommendation is to toss it into the trash.
Rule 4 – Don’t crush your plastic bottles. Rinse them and put the caps back on. This goes for milk jugs, juice bottles, water bottles – all plastic bottles. Key words to remember – “RINSE THEM”. See Rule 3.
Rule 5 – Just because it is plastic does not mean it’s recyclable. Plastic bags, wrap, hoses, pipe, toys, and rope are not recyclable. These things literally gum up the sorting system.
What plastics can be recycled?
Plastic containers with the recycling triangle containing a number. Harvey’s accepts 1 through 7, but the only types that are truly recyclable are numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5.  Styrofoam (#6), PVC (#3) and Other (#7) are not recyclable and will be sent to the incinerator. Also, see Rule 3.
Rule 6 – Just because an item has a little recycling triangle on it does not mean it’s recyclable. Companies stick that symbol on just about everything. When in doubt – throw it out.
What else can you recycle? Tin cans and aluminum cans. Paper. Cardboard. Again, see Rule 3.
Harvey’s accepts glass, but not all glass – just glass bottles and jars. Not light bulbs, fish tanks, glassware, windows, or ceramics. Also, see Rule 3.
China is no longer the world’s biggest consumer of recycled materials. They stopped accepting imported recycled plastic and paper a couple of years back. It is tougher to find domestic mills or factories that will accept our recycled paper and plastic, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. These facilities are now picky about what they will accept. Any bit of contamination can lead to the rejection of an entire bale of material. See Rule 3.
Last main point, it’s not just about recycling. If you have an item you no longer want but is still usable, it can be recycled by giving it to someone else, or donating it to a charitable organization such as Savers – which can resell it. When you’ve finished a magazine, drop it off at the Westborough library. Other people will read it.
The US generates more waste per capita than any other country in the world. We can make a difference by truly adopting the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
The three Rs have been around since the first Earth Day in 1970. They are as relevant now as they were then.
Recycling by itself is not going to save our environment. We need to do much more, but it’s important.  It also reminds us that we are part of a greater whole.
“I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale
Published in the Westborough News, June 14, 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019

Ignorance is not Bliss

My sister-in-law, a physician who specializes in infectious disease, is a member of the “Outbreak Team” with the Westchester, NY Department of Health. If you hear about a disease outbreak in the news, it’s almost certain that she is in the thick of it.

The latest outbreak of measles was no different. Wow, did she have stories to tell, most of which revolved around jaw-dropping ignorance and downright stupidity.

As you should know, unless you have been living in a cave with no 4G reception, measles, which was eradicated from the US two decades ago is now back with a vengeance. Why? Because in many communities, not enough people are vaccinated to prevent its spread.

The reasons vary. Some parents believe that vaccines are associated with a high risk of autism or that side effects are more serious than the disease itself, both of which are complete and utter nonsense.

My sister-in-law told me that another excuse is the belief that actually getting the measles or chickenpox or diphtheria or pertussis or mumps or meningitis or HPV or tetanus or hepatitis or rubella or polio will make their children somehow stronger in the long run, regardless of the fact that many of these preventable diseases carry a very high risk of death or permanent debilitation.

Are there serious health risks from vaccines? Yes, but the incidence of death, life-threatening illness, or permanent disability are literally one in a million. Compare that with your lifetime risk of being in a fatal car accident, about one in 600. Yet these same well-meaning, but misinformed, parents have no problem putting their children into the family auto.

If you looked at the risks rationally, getting vaccinated should be a no-brainer.

Rationality, in this and many other issues, seem to be in short supply these days.  According to the President, wind turbines cause cancer for crying out loud.

Distrust of science and expertise is becoming the norm, not the exception. One person’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge, especially when knowing how to type search terms into Google will take you to any source you need to get support for your preconceived notions.

A few months back, I had a conversation with a co-worker, very smart man, who did not think human-caused climate change was real. I asked him how he came by that opinion. His reply? He actually didn’t know much about the issue. I offered to let him borrow my textbooks on paleoclimatology, provide links to the National Academy of Science, NASA or NOAA or provide him any of the dozens of scientific journal articles I have collected. He demurred, saying he “wanted to keep an open mind.”

Seems to me that if you want to keep an open mind, the best course of action is to actually to put something in it.

It’s tempting to just smirk at this willful ignorance, but ignorance has costs.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, just a “5% reduction in measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination coverage resulted in a 3-fold increase in annual measles cases with an additional $2.1 million in public sector costs” or about $20,000 per illness. That’s just for children aged 2 to 11. This estimate neither accounts for cost of care, time off work, or hospitalization borne by the individual or family, nor includes the costs of getting these diseases as an adult.

Not dealing with what we are doing to the climate are also costly.  US Gross domestic product is projected to decline by 10% by century’s end if we do nothing. That’s $2 trillion – per year.

But you don’t need to project 80 years, just look what’s happening NOW.

Look at California’s never-ending wildfire season, which cost the state almost $1 billion last year. Look at the spring flooding in the upper mid-west. Look at what is happening right now in the south-central US.  Almost daily repeated torrential storms dumping inches of rain in 24-hour intervals are again decimating communities big and small. And we haven’t even entered hurricane season.

The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation estimates that “. . . between $66 billion and $160 billion worth of real estate is expected to be below sea level by 2050. By the end of the century, the range is $238 billion to $507 billion”. That’s just on the US East Coast.

Billion here, a billion there. Soon you’re talking about real money.

Ignorance is costly, to yourself, to your children, to your society . . . and to your planet.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lessons from the Worst of Times

A sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough on April 14th, 2019.

First off, I am not going to repeat your 10th grade English class on “A Tale of Two Cities”. 

Rev Bev told me that one of the benefits of having the pulpit is, well, having a captive audience.

So, Instead, you are going to get a bit of a geology lesson. You’ve been warned. 

The inspiration for my talk today is a book I recently read called “The Worst of Times.” 

Before I get started, it should not be a surprise that I like to read books about science. Some of them are out of my educational background, such as a book I read by a molecular biologist about the origin of life. It’s hard to get away from the verbiage of one’s chosen field of study, so I found it tough sledding. I do remember the take away from that book – evolution is guided by a select small group of organic molecules, like Lego blocks, which can be re-arranged and re-purposed to build just about anything.

“The Worst of Times”, despite its short length of 180 pages, is written by an academic geologist, whose target audience is not the same as Carl Sagan’s or Neil De Grasse Tyson’s. It’s a book only a geologist or determined layman can get through, but it held a powerful message for me, that I will share with you today.

One of my goals here is that I want to expand your perspective on the history of the Earth.

The best estimate of the Earth’s age is 4.54 billion years, give or take 4 million years, which, believe it or not, is only 8 one-hundredths of a percent uncertainty.

To give you some perspective on how we fit into that four and a half billion-year time span, I am going to compare the Earth’s age to a 24-hour clock.

This is something I do when I lead geology walks for the students at Mill Pond School.

So, some select events of Earth’s history clock in like this:

The first evidence of life is found at about 4:30 AM
The first fish appeared around 9:30 PM
The first land plants appeared around 9:42 PM.
The first Dinosaurs appeared around 10:49 PM.
The first mammals appeared around 11:06 PM.
The Dinosaurs went extinct at 11:39 PM.
The first of our hominid ancestors arrived around 11:58 PM.
The first anatomically modern humans appeared around 11:59 and 56 seconds PM.

Wrap your head around this - human civilization from earliest Mesopotamia to today, started at 11:59 and 59.9 seconds PM. 

An eye blink is a 10th of a second, so all of recorded human history is little more than the geologic eye blink in comparison to the age of the Earth.

What’s my point here?  The Earth is vastly old compared to humanity’s brief existence on it. It’s a perspective that’s hard for almost anyone to envision unless you are a geology nerd like me. It’s a perspective that us geo-nerds call Deep Time.

Thinking this way is a hard thing for us humans to do. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, world-wide average life expectancy was 31, not a whole lot different than it was for our Paleolithic ancestors.  Even though it is now about 75, our ability to look ahead or behind for that matter, is very limited. We just aren’t wired that way.

For cryin’ out loud - deep time for the average person is the end of the last season of Game of Thrones (which starts again tonight!!!).

Life has existed on Earth in one form or another for the last 3.7 billion years. Over that vast span, life has colonized every nook and cranny of the Earth’s surface and every environment imaginable, from boiling hydrothermal vents at crushing depths in the ocean to the desolate and bitterly cold coasts of Antarctica. 

The range of life on Earth goes from 400 nano-meter-sized bacteria to 25-meter-long Blue Whales. Blue green algae to towering redwoods.

Something that most of the lifeforms that ever existed on Earth have in common is that most of them are extinct.

This brings me to “The Worst of Times”. It is about a period in Earth’s history from 260 to 180 million years ago where life suffered a series of mass extinctions, two of which were among the most devastating ones found in the geologic record. I will not bore you with the nitty gritty details of how scientists think all these extinctions occurred, but each of them coincided with the rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. My main point, though, is that they did happen.

What is a “mass extinction”? 

A mass extinction is where many forms of life, as recorded in the fossil record, suddenly disappear. Some species slowly disappear from successively younger rock layers, but in some cases, their disappearance is abrupt and coincides with the disappearance of untold numbers of other species. Their fossils appear in one layer of rocks all over the world and are gone in the next, never to be found again, anywhere.

At such layers, it becomes clear that the earth’s environment changed radically. The lower layers may show evidence of forests, to be replaced by ferns further up. It can be millions of years before the remains of trees are again found in the rocks and they are of completely different division in the Kingdom of plants than before the extinction event.

One such major event was at the end of the Permian Period, 252 million years ago. 96% of marine species and 70% of land species died out in what has been described as a “global annihilation” or the “Great Dying.” The extinction event took place over about 20,000 years, 4 eyeblinks of the 24-hour geologic clock. It took 10 million years for life on Earth to recover. The point is – it did recover. 

Life recovered after every mass extinction.

So, what’s the lesson? The lesson is that life goes on, the planet goes on. 
To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park (a fictional character by the way): “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but there it is. Life finds a way.”

Over much of the last 500 million years, the Earth has been much warmer than it is today, with the exception of three ice age intervals, one of which we are in right now. 20,000 years ago, this church would have been under an ice sheet a mile thick.

Which brings me to today.

Why do we care that the planet is warming now? It’s the rapidity of this warming that should scare the heck out of everyone.

The planet is changing and changing rapidly. We have what scientists consider radical changes in the Earth’s atmosphere which are happening at a rate unfathomable to anyone who studies the history of the Earth. The temperature of the ocean is rapidly increasing and the climate is shifting, becoming more unstable. 

We don’t know where it will end up, but most likely, the climate will end up in a place less hospitable to us, let alone ever other plant or animal. Change the environment too rapidly – and you get a mass extinction.

That is exactly what is happening right now. 

The extinction rates of life on land and in the water are accelerating. It is entirely possible that the biggest mammals on land within the next couple of centuries will be domestic cattle. Insects and amphibians are disappearing all over the world. The list goes on and on.

The reason for these changes is us. Period. End of story. 

But geological history says that despite anything we can do; the planet will not die. Life will not disappear. The kind of life – well that’s a different story. It doesn’t have to include us. 

We cannot kill the planet.

That being said, the planet doesn’t need us. Rather, and it should be obvious – we need the planet. 

The question on your mind right now may be – Are we about to join the Permian therapsids, the Cretaceous ammonites, the Carboniferous cycads, Mesozoic dinosaurs ad infinitum, buried in the rock record of geologic history?

I don’t think so.

We humans are incredibly adaptable animals.  In less than 100,000 years, humans spread to the far reaches of the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. We did so without airplanes, ships, cars, GPS or even something as simple as a compass. We survived the last Ice Age using nothing more than stone and bone tools and spears. 

But think of our impact on the planet over the last few centuries. Heck, think of what we have done in the last 100 years, the last 50.

The same adaptability that allowed us to colonize the whole planet has also gotten us where we are today, unfortunately.

I think we will survive the oncoming self-inflicted changes to our world. I personally think that the way things are going, there will probably be a lot less of us when the dust settles, but we, as a species, will still be here. Sadly, many others will not.

We were warned about this oncoming problem, but we were incapable of understanding what these warnings really meant because, in my opinion, we cannot think beyond the myopically short perspective of our own lifetimes or even the next few months.

The first US report to the President regarding climate change was put on Lyndon Johnson’s desk in 1965 and projected probabilities about what would happen at the beginning of the 21st century, but, as we all know, he did not act on it. 35 years was a long time down the road after all and Johnson was in the midst of personally directing the dropping of bombs all over Southeast Asia.

But something happened just 5 years later – the first Earth Day. 

What inspired Earth Day? 

In 1968, a professor of Public Health named Morton Hilbert sponsored a student/scientist conference to discuss the impacts of environmental damage both to people and the planet. They started planning for an Earth Day.
Then there was an environmental disaster – the Santa Barbara Oil Blow Out of 1969. Three million gallons of oil were released, killing thousands of birds, dolphins, seals and sea lions, and soiling hundreds of miles of coast line. This disaster was the first to really shock people into focusing on what we were doing to the planet.

In 1969, peace Activist John McConnell proposed Earth Day to the UN. Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the US version of Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

There is no doubt that, at least in developed countries, the environment is much, much cleaner than it was in 1970, although we still have a long way to go. 50 years later, we still celebrate Earth Day. As a people, we are far more environmentally conscious than any generation before 1970. 

Clearly though, it is not enough. The dynamics have changed – especially since what we now consider pollution includes Carbon Dioxide, which is always been a part of the air we breathe.

In fact, most of the CO2 we put into the air was added in just the last 30 years, just 2 years after NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about what was going to happen if we did not decrease those emissions.

We are in a hole. What do we do about this hole into which we have dug ourselves?

First rule of holes. When you are in one - stop digging.

We cannot stop what changes that are happening now. That ship has sailed. 

The impacts of climate change are already devastatingly clear and even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow, the impacts will last centuries. Rare flooding events will continue to become common place. Hurricanes will continue to get stronger; Heatwaves will continue to become frequent and intense. Many tropic regions of the planet will become literally uninhabitable for humans in the summer. The seas will rise, coastal cities will drown, millions of people will be displaced, even here in the US. That is a given.

Many of those impacts will come at us in the next few decades, in the lifetimes of most people sitting in the pews.

This really, really sucks.

So, what can we do? 

We must stop it from getting worse. We owe that to our children. 

Stop. Making. It. Worse.

How do we do that?

We need to look at policies at every level – first and foremost, in our homes, our town, our state and our country.

We need to think in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is not a concept that fits well in the capitalist economic model, which is always about growth and externalizing of costs in order to maximize profits.

At home, sustainability in our lives means rethinking how we live. Start to minimize our meat, especially beef consumption. Choose to get our produce from local sources. Choose foods whose production has less impact on the environment. Buy our electricity from renewable sources. Drive higher mileage cars. 

Find better ways to deal with our waste, such as composting. Some of us do all these things already, but not nearly enough of us do that to make a dent. We need to make sustainability attractive, not a chore or a sacrifice. How we do that is a big question.

At the Town level, we need push for policies that encourage recycling and reuse. We need to make buying renewable energy the first choice. We need to preserve and expand open space. We need to make pedestrian and bicycling options accessible throughout the entire town. Push to get more buildings to become more energy efficient. Partner with local businesses to encourage them to install solar arrays. 

At the state level, it’s a matter of pushing what I have just said upward. Especially energy purchasing. Mass transit is a joke in Massachusetts. Yet mass transit is major way to reduce our carbon footprint. 

We need to push the state to make alternative energy a larger and larger portion of the energy mix.

We need to make energy efficiency a major part of our building codes. In Boston, almost all the new high-rise buildings are not at all energy efficient. This is lunacy.

We need a program of reforestation. An article in last month’s Scientific American described how reforestation can suck huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  I file that one under low hanging fruit. Planting forests to suck CO2 out of the air is a lot simpler and cheaper than engineering machines to take on that task.

We need to elect people who will take big steps at all levels of government – local, state and federal. 

The biggest impediment to addressing climate change is leadership. 

Not the science, not the technology. The science is clear. 

The technology is available - the knowledge to implement the technology, whether it be energy, food, transportation, or conservation. It’s all there. 

What is lacking is leadership.

I truly believe we can innovate our way out of it with the right incentives AND by electing politicians with the guts to make it happen.

Put a price on carbon, and keep increasing it. Turn the proceeds right back to the people. Think about it. If everyone got the same “dividend” back every year, who will it benefit the most? The least among us. Who will benefit the least? The most well off, who are probably the people who generate the most greenhouse gases. Lower income people will put that money right back into the economy.

An increasing price on carbon will incentivize innovation in energy generation and use. The technologies are already there. They just cannot compete with fossil fuels in many sectors of the economy, such as transportation. That is changing, but it is not changing quickly enough.

How do we know this will work? Because it already has. The Clean Air Act and its amendments required power plants to decrease the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. The law required implementation of a pollution trading scheme that put an ever-increasing price on the sulfur emissions. It did not tell power companies how to do it. Low and behold, sulfur emissions fell, and fell rapidly. Forests and lakes recovered from decades of degradation.

There was an unintended consequence. Sulfur pollution creates particles that reflect sunlight, which has the effect of cooling the earth. If you look at a graph of global temperatures going back to the beginning of the 20th century, you will see that temperatures started increasing, then fell as industrialization increased, with the concomitant increase in coal burning. Temperatures increased during the Great Depression as the economy contracted and decreased after World War II when industrial production increased again. As a child, I remember how cold winters in the 1970s were. But they started to warm up in the 80s as sulfur pollution started to abate.

In other words, sulfur pollution that WE made, masked global warming. 
So, don’t let anyone tell you that humans have not changed the climate. We have and we are.

Before you get any ideas, we cannot pollute our way out of global warming by burning more coal, so don’t even think about it.

We can tell power companies that they need to increase the proportion of clean energy required for electricity generation. Don’t tell them how to do it, just say they need to. 

Texas is already doing this and they are one of the largest producers of alternative energy in the country, surpassing California. Granted, they are blessed with a huge amount of available wind, but in Texas, wind is going to outpace coal for electricity soon, if it hasn’t already. They are already putting to rest the argument that alternative energy’s intermittency will destabilize the electric grid. Texas has already shown that it can be managed. 

Even the U.S. Department of Energy says the grid can handle up to 30% alternative energy input if just change operating procedures. No new technology required, just new thinking.

Other states, including Massachusetts, are already doing this, but not doing it fast enough.

Making these changes will not be easy to do. The special interests are entrenched. The transportation, agriculture, and energy infrastructure are all built around the use of fossil fuels. Most people do not have the interest, or in the case of the poor, the ability, to think in terms of sustainability.

But we must.

The Words of John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 speech laying out goal of going to the moon by the end of that decade, ring true in this time as well. In regard to that goal, Kennedy said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Substitute the words “go to the moon” with “fight climate change” 

“We choose to fight climate change in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Indeed, the journey to the moon in the late 1960s pales in comparison to our existential challenges today, in my opinion.

As I said before, the impediment to addressing human-caused climate change is not a lack of technical know-how. It is a lack of will.  

It is tempting to look at what is before us and quail at the immensity of the problem. Say it cannot be done. Shrug our shoulders and take it as given that we will have to leave a rapidly diminishing planet to our heirs, but we will never know if we don’t even make the attempt.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

There is not a Great Future in Plastics

“Plastics - There’s a great future in plastics”

This famous line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” was meant as advice to a clueless college graduate.

It’s apparent now that we were all clueless about the future of plastics 42 years ago. The future of plastics is here and it ain’t great.

Plastics are ubiquitous. Everything comes in plastic: wraps, containers, jars, bottles, packaging.  Plastics are light weight, moldable into almost any shape and size and made into just about any product – cat toys to car bumpers, and zillions of other things.

Plastics are cheap to synthesize, especially today with the price of oil still low by historic standards.

Many types of plastic are almost indestructible. Oh, you can break them down into tiny pieces, but they never, ever go away.

Discarded plastics are found all over the world. Recently, researchers found microscopic plastic fibers in sea creatures living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Plastic debris are found on even the most isolated deserted islands throughout the world.

I suspect that a million years from now, humanity’s presence on Earth will be defined by plastic residue encased in a layer of sedimentary rock.

Recycling was supposed to be the answer to plastic pollution, but that is easier said than done. As I said, plastics are very cheap to make, far cheaper than the cost to recycle them. The reasons that make plastics tough are the very reasons they are hard to reprocess.

Until recently, when we threw our plastic into the recycling bin, it would end up in giant bales shipped to China. Now China isn’t taking the stuff and there is little market for it domestically. Many municipalities cannot afford the increasing costs to get recyclers to accept their plastic, so an increasing volume is now going to landfills. On top of that, most of us don’t recycle. Too “inconvenient.”
We are also seeing the same thing with glass, paper and other materials by the way.

In the overall scheme of things, I’d rather have plastic in landfills than in the bellies and bloodstreams of life all over the planet (including us), but that’s not a solution either.

Reusable grocery bags and refillable water bottles are good individual practices, but they do not even begin to make a dent in the plastic waste problem. 

It’s easy to say we should do our best not to use it, but a quick trip to the supermarket makes that idea laughable. You name it – juice, eggs, milk, cold cuts, cakes, bread, salad dressing – they all are either wrapped or contained in plastic.

But is the problem really plastic itself? Or is it a symptom of our culture and our economic policies?

Our capitalist economic system requires that businesses make a profit, which requires costs to be kept low. Plastic containers are cheap, light and durable, saving transport costs and increasing the amount of product that makes it to market. But once the product is sold, the business is no longer responsible for the packaging. It’s our problem to get rid of the packaging, not theirs.  What if it wasn’t?

If businesses were responsible for their packaging, cradle to grave, that could incentivize them to switch to other materials. Of course, going this route would be a logistical nightmare. But it’s a thought.

Consider that even though alternative energy industry subsidies are being phased out, alternative energy is now economically self-sustaining.

Maybe we should be incentivizing startups to find new ways to reprocess plastics with tax breaks and subsidies. There are all sorts of successful experimental processes to break down plastics into raw manufacturing materials or even fuel.
These processes just need to be scaled up, which takes investment.

Maybe we should lobby retailers and manufacturers to move to different modes of packaging. Imagine if Walmart told all its suppliers to switch to non-plastic or biodegradable containers.

Imagine if everyone in Westborough wrote to the CEOs of Stop and Shop and Roche Brothers demanding they sell products which minimize plastic containers.

Imagine if Westborough, which implemented a regulation banning plastic bags, did the same with plastic containers and soda cups (and straws).

We are way past the point where we can afford to be clueless about the myriad impacts of plastic on the planet.

We need to incentivize solutions. It’s time we, as a community, started to think bigger than reusable shopping bags.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lost in the Chaos

With all the chaos that passes for headline news these days, including the deadly cold snap which defined the last week of January, there were several news items over just the last month which probably escaped your notice, but to me, are far more consequential in the long run than the current scandal de jour.

President Trump scoffed at the lately departed cold snap and tweeted that we sure could use “a little of that good old-fashioned Global Warming”.

Actually, no, we don’t.

Let’s talk about that “polar vortex” cold snap. What news outlets did not tell you is that while the US dealt with record cold temperatures, vast areas of the planet recorded temperatures up to 18 degrees ABOVE normal, including Northern Alaska, Spitsbergen (at 78 degrees north latitude), Northern China, AND Antarctica. Wildfires are currently rampant in Australia, where temperatures are routinely over 110 degrees right now.

A paper in the journal Science found that the world’s oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than they thought just 5 years ago, based on a new evaluation of data collected over the last few decades. Shallower waters show an acceleration of warming, when comparing trends from before and after the turn of the 20th century.

A study just released by NASA revealed that a huge cavity, 1000 feet thick and one third the area of Manhattan, has developed under the Thwaites Glacier, which itself is about the size of Florida. This glacier is already melting at an accelerated rate, so the existence of this cavity, which held about 14 billion tons of ice, is of great concern.

Newly published reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Antarctica’s ice loss has risen from 40 billion tons per year in the 1980s to 250 billion tons per year now. The rate of loss has tripled just since 2007.

On the other side of the planet, the ice sheet that covers Greenland is losing ice at a rate of 400 billion tons per year, four times more than in 2003. Scientists are beginning to wonder if the melting of the Greenland ice cap is at a “tipping point.”

What is a tipping point?

A tipping point is when any system changes from one stable state to another. A good analogy is a glass half full of water. It is stable even if you push it around on the table. However, if you start to lift up one side of the bottom of the glass, it will eventually get to the point where it tips over completely. It enters a new stable state, on its side with the water probably running of the edge of the table. Maybe the glass rolls of the edge of the table and smashes to pieces on the floor. That’s what we call an irreversible change of state.

What is a climate tipping point? It is a point where the process Earth’s changing climate becomes irreversible. The Earth enters a new state. Tipping points include unstoppable melting of the Greenland Ice Cap, permanent ice-free summers in the Arctic ocean, or collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to name but a few. Scientists used to think this process would take centuries. Not anymore.

The other take away from these articles is that researchers are no longer talking about taking action to reverse climate change, only slow it. What some of the authors are cautiously saying is that we might have already passed the point of no return.

When will we know for certain that the Earth has arrived at climate tipping point? When we get there.

Published in the Westborough News, February 15, 2019

From Storm Surge to Fire Storm

The other day, I was looking at an aerial photo of an entire neighborhood razed to the ground. My wife looked over my shoulder and asked if the picture was from the fires in California and I told her no, this was Mexico Beach, Florida, where Hurricane Michael came ashore last October.
It seems the disasters are occurring so frequently that it’s hard to tell the aftermath of one from another at first glance.
Part of allure of living on the coastline or in forested areas such as the foothills and mountains outside of major cities is the feeling that you are closer to nature and the wilderness. Being closer to nature can have a price though, especially when nature can exact that price quickly and without mercy.
Just ask the people of Mexico Beach, Florida or Paradise, California.
Hurricanes and forest fires have always been a fact of life on the Gulf of Mexico or the canyons and hills along the California coast. However, it is not your imagination if you think that the frequency and ferocity of these events are increasing. They are.
The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes occurring in the North Atlantic has gone from 2 per decade in the 1900s to over 20 per decade in the 2000s. Climate scientists say that the evidence indicates that warming oceans are contributing to stronger hurricanes.
2005’s Hurricane Katrina rapidly grew to a Category 5 once it entered the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s Michael was almost a Cat 5 before it came ashore in the Florida Panhandle.
What will happen to Mexico Beach, Florida is anyone’s guess at this point. It was not a rich community to start with.
Last year’s Cat 4 Hurricane Harvey destroyed a major portion of Port Aransas, Texas and 18 months later, they are still figuring out how to rebuild.  The local government admits it may never be the same. Recovery won’t be easy.
Moving from storm surge to fire storms, the frequency and duration of western US wildfires has increased substantially since in the 1980s. 
Average annual temperatures in southern California have gone up by about 2.4 degrees F over the last 60 years alone. Like the rest of the southwest, the state is getting drier. Winter rains that end the fire season in early autumn are now not coming at all or coming so late that the fire “season” is pretty much year round. Currently, 75% of California is routinely in severe to extreme drought.
Combine this with people moving further into fire-prone regions and horrific disasters are now inevitable. This year’s fires spared no one, neither the very rich in the canyons above LA nor the middle class and retirees in towns like Paradise.
Can they rebuild?
The experience of Fort McMurray, Alberta is telling. 98% of it was destroyed by a wildfire that rapidly swept through the town in 2016, forcing the evacuation of 88,000 residents. As of last spring, only 20% of destroyed homes had been rebuilt.
Recovery won’t be easy.
California estimates that the frequency of extreme wildfires could increase 50% by the end of the century if temperatures continue to increase. The area burned will increase by 77%.
To be more resilient to such disasters means building to standards which would make homes and businesses more sound in the face of fire or flood, which means greater expense. Getting homeowners insurance for reconstruction will probably depend on how resilient new structures will be.
One of the only homes right on the water in Mexico Beach to survive Hurricane Michael was constructed by wealthy people would could afford such sturdy home. Similarly, I speculate that building a home that can survive a wind-driven wildfire will only be affordable by the wealthy.
California firefighters are right now battling to save homes at a cost of almost $700 million so far this year. You can’t even fight a hurricane, let alone one with sustained winds that rival an F-3 tornado.
Given the trends and recent experience, perhaps the better question is whether Mexico Beach or Paradise should be rebuilt at all. 
Maybe it’s time to rethink the allure of living close to nature’s wildlands and waters.

Published in the Westborough News, December, 2018

Fish Stories

The US is in the midst of a mass migration and it’s not hordes of Latinos storming the Texas border. Rather, it’s sea life – fish and shellfish along our eastern and western coasts.

Why? Because the oceans are getting warmer. As their habitats change, free swimming critters can move. The North Atlantic Ocean has warmed about a quarter of a degree C every decade since the early 1980s. The Gulf of Maine has warmed 3 to 5 times faster and is now 5 degree C warmer than in 1985, according to NASA.

We are witnessing this phenomenon right off the coast of New England. Shrimp have all but disappeared from the Gulf of Maine whereas lobsters are now flourishing there. Conversely, lobsters are rapidly disappearing from southern New England. Warmer waters have increased lobster disease and decreased fertility.

Cod are also moving north from the Gulf of Maine and by 2100, they will be making their home off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Warmer water species are also moving north. Striped and black sea bass are now moving in. They also like to munch on lobsters, furthering the latter’s decline.

A similar story is being told on the West Coast. Mackerel, rockfish, and pollock, are disappearing from the Pacific Northwest. By 2100, predictions are that they will live exclusively in the Aleutians or further north in Bristol Bay.

Why do fish migrate as the waters get warmer? According to an article I read in the New York Times, the reason is oxygen. Warmer waters hold less dissolved gases, including oxygen.

Think about it, when you engage in aerobic exercise, you start breathing harder and faster. Why? Because your body needs more oxygen. It’s also why if you go from sea level to Denver, you may feel dizzy. Your body is not getting as much oxygen in the thinner air.

It’s no different if you are a fish. Some fish, especially fast moving predator species like cod which are higher up the food chain, have naturally higher metabolism. The literally go where the oxygen is.

You may then ask why predator species in the tropics, like tarpon and barracuda exist there at all. Basically, they evolved in the tropics so they are used to it. In addition, at this time, the relative temperature increase in the tropics is currently not as great as it is in higher latitudes.

Warmer ocean temperatures off New England have been implicated as the reason cod populations did not recover even after commercial fishing practices were changed, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science.

Now here is the interesting, or maybe frightening, thing about the NY Times article. It wasn’t about migrating fish populations.

It was about one of the most devastating mass extinction events of the last 500 million years, called the Great Dying. The geologic record shows that 252 million years ago, 96% of all marine species, and 70% of all terrestrial species died out over a span of a few thousand years, a blink of the eye in geologic terms.

Recent research also published in Science concludes that greenhouse-gas driven global warming during that extinction raised temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean by more than 10 degrees C and depleted global marine oxygen levels by almost 80%. Terrestrial life baked and ocean life suffocated.

Jump forward 252 million years to the 21st century. Worldwide ocean temperatures are increasing. We are already seeing a decrease in ocean oxygen levels. Average air temperatures have increased by 1 degree C and because we are doing just about nothing, they will go up by about 4 degrees by 2100.

The authors of the Science article concluded that current trends in ocean oxygen loss suggest we may already be at the beginning of another oceanic extinction event.

The story of the Earth’s history is found in its rocks. With a lot of hard work scientists have been reading that story for centuries. Today, the fish migrating north along our coasts are telling us a new story. We need to start listening.

Published in the Westborough News, January, 2019