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

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Climate Apartheid Scenario

We all saw the excruciatingly slow murder of George Floyd by a police officer indifferent to his humanity and the consequent huge protests which have rippled across our nation since then inflamed by the anger of continual justice denied to people of color, a “feature” of our country since the end of the civil war. Minorities had enough. We should all have had enough.
The Covid-19 pandemic also brutally exposed the social injustice and inequities inherent in our economic system, where minorities are still more likely to suffer from lack of access to healthcare, decent housing and good education which would break the cycle of their poverty. The stark contrast between white and black people in this country has never been clearer.
Consider a recent University of Pittsburgh study showing that in the US, “. . . black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people, and Latino people are nearly twice as likely to die . . .” If nothing else can convince you of our country’s racial inequities, this statistic should.
The inequities go much further than our broken criminal, social and health systems.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of 32 million births in the US since 2007 stated that: “pregnant women exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have children who are premature, underweight or stillborn, and African-American mothers and babies are harmed at a much higher rate than the population at large.”  As one of the study’s authors said in the NY Times – “Black moms matter.”
So, add environmental AND climate injustice to the list of racial injustices as well, which can be tied directly back to the social and economic inequities I have already listed.
“Climate injustice” you say? Yes.
Any way you look at the numbers, the world is rapidly getting warmer. We already know that heat waves kill – but they kill more minorities and the poor as a percentage of victims.
African Americans are more likely to live nearer to power plants or other pollution sources and are more likely to not have air conditioning. They are more likely to have jobs which put their health at risk due to problems like heat stress. Add in the lack of access to healthcare and the mortality and morbidity numbers should surprise no one.
Sea levels are rising and flooding is more common. We are not talking about Bangladesh or Vietnam’s Mekong Delta; we are talking about the United States and the Mississippi Delta. Even New York City falls into this category given what happened during Hurricane Sandy.
Well to-do people can pick up and move away from flood-prone areas, just as they can move to wealthier communities like Westborough from cities like Lawrence. Disadvantaged people cannot, making it likely that people of color in these vulnerable communities will end up being homeless climate refugees.
I read an interview with Philip Alston, a law professor and United Nations Special Reporter on extreme poverty and human rights. I will just quote from the interview: he warned last year in a harrowing report on the climate crisis that 120 million people could be forced into poverty by global warming by 2030 and wrote that ‘we risk a ‘climate apartheid scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer."
Ashton went on to say “There's going to be massive population displacement—the figures there are truly stunning in terms of the hundreds of millions of people who are likely to be affected, both internationally and internally.”
2030 is just a decade away. If you have young children, they will be in high school in 2030. 2030 is not an endpoint - it will just be the beginning.
If you live in the towns covered by the Village News and are reading this article from the comfort of your air-conditioned single-family home on an acre of land with its two-car garage and green lawn (that’s me, by the way), you very likely among those who will not immediately suffer from the coming climate apartheid. You will have the resources to live in a warmer world, at least for a while. Your less fortunate neighbors will not.
In the last five months, which have felt like five years, we have witnessed a global pandemic unlike anything since 1917 and nationwide protests unlike anything since the 1960s. They have laid bare social and economic inequities of our society we have so long ignored. Neither the pandemic nor social unrest are going to go away any time soon.
The climate crisis will only make these human crises more common and more severe. Blithe complacency in the face of what’s coming is no longer an option.
Published in the Village News, June 27th, 2020

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

COVID-19 and the New Normal

One of the lessons the last few weeks should have taught us is that we live in an interconnected world.

We can travel to the opposite side of the planet in hours. The internet allows dispersal of information worldwide in less than an eyeblink. Our supply chains allow goods to be created and moved across the world only when they are needed, from factories with the cheapest labor, making businesses more efficient.

This interconnectedness has a flip side. Diseases can travel from the opposite side of the world in hours. The internet allows dispersal of mis-information worldwide in less than an eyeblink. Our “just-in-time” supply chains can quickly break down when they are most needed, as crowded factories shut down.

A second lesson is that we are not as separated from nature as we like to think we are. You can live in the middle of a city and be impacted by disease-harboring wildlife on the other side of the planet.

A third lesson is that worldwide catastrophes are not only possible, they are inevitable. First world countries are not invulnerable. WE are not invulnerable.

The impact of the COVID-19 catastrophe is defined by the loss of human life, the disruption to our society, and the vast financial losses – probably tens of trillions of dollars worldwide, all of which will reverberate through society for many years to come.

COVID-19 ripped across this planet in weeks and showed how unprepared humanity is to deal with a worldwide calamity, regardless of ideology, race, religion or form of government.

The conditions which led to this one are still in place. Unfettered world travel, poor sanitation and health conditions, ongoing intrusion into regions of the world where these diseases are endemic, chaotic and inconsistent public health policies and response planning, and defunding of scientific research. The list goes on.

I cannot begin to predict where our country will be six months from now, but I can make this prediction – another pandemic like this one will happen if we do not get our act together. The consequences will be just as catastrophic.

Moving on - Let me ask you a question - Have you noticed the lack of contrails through blue skies?

The question leads to the pandemic’s impact on the rest of the planet, meaning the natural world. Air and water pollution decreased markedly. People in cities normally choked by pollution can now see for miles. Wildlife everywhere started walking the streets where people feared to tread.

I am willing to predict that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will decrease this year. In other words, the impact on the planet was positive.

COVID-19 is a fast catastrophe, occurring while the slower moving climate catastrophe continues unabated. This ongoing catastrophe is having the same impact on society, in terms of lives lost, lives disrupted and lost economic output. It’s just taking longer. Background noise. Backpage news or way-down-the-webpage news if you no longer do something as quaint as read an actual newspaper.

Unlike this pandemic – the impact of ongoing climate on the natural world, which we depend on for clean water, clean air, food, predictable weather, and stable sea level is devastating as well.

Some aspects of the climate crisis will not be slow moving. A recent paper in Nature predicts that we will reach a temperature threshold within a decade where ecosystems will rapidly collapse. Starting in the tropics then moving rapidly to more temperate regions beyond the equator by 2050. This scenario assumes we continue to do little or nothing about reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Another tipping point where the world switches to an irreversible new normal.

The rapid collapse of ecosystems will lead to starvation, loss of life, disrupted lives, all the impacts the pandemic caused. Unlike the pandemic, there will be no turning back, at least in terms of the human perspective of time. When plant and animal species disappear, they are gone for good. Increased temperatures and CO2 concentrations will take centuries to abate.

This fast-moving pandemic and the slower, but now accelerating climate crisis are both within our capacity to manage, we just need to start thinking differently about the world and our place in it. Start taking the longer view, one which spans generations, not daily changes in the S&P 500.

I will leave you with this thought.: A friend of mine wrote on Facebook about the pandemic's consequences: “We can't just ‘return to normal.’ Normal was the problem in the first place.”

Published in the Village News May 1, 2020

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Living in a Disaster Movie

At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored. – internet meme

In 1983, I attended a lecture by Richard Leakey, a noted paleoanthropologist and son of Louis Leakey, discoverer of many of our extinct hominid ancestors. I distinctly remember an answer he gave during the Q&A session after his lecture, on the biggest threats to the human race. 

Instead of nuclear war, a very real threat at that time, he said the biggest threat would be a virulent disease that spread rapidly around the world because of the ease of international travel and trade. He predicted such an event almost 40 years ago. 

He thought the disease would be spawned in a hospital environment, where constant evolution of bacteria in response to antibiotics and antiseptics would create a superbug impervious to any known treatment.

Indeed, we now are faced with such a superbug – MRSA – a staph bacterium resistant to just about every known antibiotic. Although MRSA is now common, it does not spread easily throughout a population.

Turns out that the virulent “bug” about which Leakey warned us was not a bacterium, but a virus, which jumped from bats to mammals then to people. He was not right about the source, but was right about what could happen and indeed what did happen as COVID-19 crippled the world in a matter of weeks.

Public health experts and epidemiologists have warned us for decades that a dangerous and very contagious pandemic was not a matter of if, but when, because it had happened before.

Spanish flu, which probably originated in the US, spread like wildfire in the crowded conditions of cities, troop ships and the trenches of World War I Europe, sickening 500 million and killing anywhere from 17 to 50 million. Remember that this pandemic happened when the furthest an airplane could fly was a few hundred miles. World air travel was science fiction. 

Instead of preparing for this eventuality by stockpiling the materiel needed to fight a pandemic, putting policies in place to rapidly mobilize against it, and funding medical research to create potential cures, we have done the opposite since Leakey made his prediction. 

Public health programs have been cut or defunded to the point of extinction all over the US. Even now, medical research is the target of draconian cuts under the current administration.

Adding insult to injury - President Trump ignored warnings about what was going to happen for months, because he thought it would make him look bad and tank the economy, the one thing he had going for him to justify his re-election.

Well - how did that one work out?

Shortsighted does not even begin to describe government policies which put us into this mess, but pandemic response policies are just one half of the problem.
The other half is the lack of policies to prevent the eruption of such virulent diseases in the first place.

Let’s start with a question:  Why do so many of these viruses – Marburg, Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19 originate from bats? 

The reason is the same as why staph evolved to resist antibiotics. Bats have an immune system that’s very good at battling viruses, so the viruses keep evolving to get past the bat immune system, thus becoming more virulent.

How do bat viruses turn into people viruses? The path starts with the proximity of bats to other mammals which are then captured and consumed by people. In China, there are huge markets specializing in exotic animals that have contact with bats in the wild. COVID-19 is thought to have jumped to people from a critter known as a pangolin. 

The problem isn’t “bat soup” as Senator John Cornyn opined. Not sure that pangolin soup sounds any more appetizing, but I digress.

The Chinese government has known for years that such markets are a disease tinderbox just waiting to explode. It happened before with SARS. They could have shut down trade in exotic animal meat years ago, but didn’t because consuming such meat is a cultural norm in China. The government may be a communist autocracy, but they still don’t want to piss off their people. 

The Chinese government put shortsighted government policy in the name of political expediency over the welfare of their people. What’s worse is that when COVID-19 started to spread, they covered it up for the same reason. 

The science has always been clear. Viruses don’t give a damn about public perception.

There are so many threats to people and the world that scientific researchers have identified. Some of these threats are we cannot do anything about. If the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts or a large asteroid speeds in from the dark and hits the Earth at 30,000 miles an hour, it’s basically game over for civilization.

Others we can do something about, either to prevent them or to fight them, like pandemic disease.

It was politically expedient to ignore the scientific warnings about COVID-19. As a result, we are living in a disaster movie.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Inexorable Trend

Inexorable - Impossible to stop or prevent

Among the criticisms I got when I started writing columns advocating for grid-scale wind and solar energy is that they cannot power a very energy intensive use such as the electric arc furnaces used in steel mills. The very idea was laughable.

No longer. A NY Times article from last October detailed how a steel mill is being transformed to use solar during the day and wind at night.  Overall, 95% of the mill’s energy demand will be provided by solar alone when the transformation is complete.  It’s just the first plant, but I have no doubt that it won’t be the last.

Never say never.

This transformation is possible because the cost of alternative energy has dropped precipitously over the last decade. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, according to an article in a January Forbes article, predicts that 76% of new electric energy going online this year will be solar and wind. Conversely, coal and gas plants will account for 85% of closures.

Coal can no longer compete with renewables, even as federal subsidies phase out. Solar and wind costs have dropped about 90% and 70% respectively over the last decade. Although renewables still make up a fraction of US grid-scale energy production it’s growing exponentially, while coal is collapsing.

Solar and wind are cheaper than nuclear by a factor of three. It’s now cheaper to add alternative energy to the grid than even natural gas.

Another common criticism is that because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, these sources are unreliable. This criticism also no longer valid because of the parallel precipitous drop in the price of battery storage systems, making even rarely-used natural gas-powered standby plants increasingly uneconomic.

Even more dramatic is a new technology being prototyped where excess solar and wind power is used to generate hydrogen by splitting water molecules. The hydrogen can be stored until needed. Hydrogen can be used to run a power turbine just as easily as natural gas. Burn hydrogen and you get . . . water. No batteries needed.

Given current trends, solar is projected to make up 20% of US electrical generation by 2030, up from about 3% now. Likewise, wind is expected to grow to 40% by 2030, compared to today’s 8%.

What do all these numbers mean? It means the trends have become inexorable despite the retrograde policies of the current administration.

Not only that, but the jobs in alternative energy now outstrip those in fossil fuel extraction by 3 to 1, according to Forbes, especially in solar. Given how much room there is to grow in these industries, the trend can only continue.

I also think these projections are underestimates because many states have mandated aggressive goals to “decarbonize” their energy production by 50 to 100% by 2050 or earlier. These states represent 28% of all US power demand, according to the World Resources Institute.

In addition, investor-owned utilities are pledging to do the same thing. WRI states that “These pledges suggest that power companies are beginning to recognize that the shift to low-carbon energy is inevitable and are finding it advantageous to lead in this transition.” I will say that seeing will be believing on that score.

These mandates don’t even consider what counties, cities and towns are doing, which will only increase the economic demand for low or non-carbon energy. At the municipal level in Massachusetts, many communities are making the same commitments. Last fall, Westborough Town Meeting voted to join them.

This is just the beginning. The transition should have started two decades ago, but it has started and the momentum is increasing.

As another Forbes article stated, “… it’s cheaper to save the climate than destroy it.”

This article was published in the Village News, February 22, 2020

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Corporations and Climate

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio show about Milton Friedman who advocated for a concept called “Shareholder Theory” back in the 1970’s. In short, his thesis was that a company’s main responsibility is to its shareholders, no one and nothing else. This theory has driven policy and corporate thinking for the last 40 years.

If a company’s sole purpose is to maximize profit, then it should externalize as many costs as possible. Another term for “externalize” is “avoid paying for.”  By Friedman’s logic, it is in the company’s best interest to advocate for lax pollution and clean-up laws and regulations for example. A company should not have any interest in advancing society as a whole, because that behavior does not maximize profit. That’s up to individuals, not the company for whom they might work.

The problem is that when “corporations are people” and money is free speech, as the courts have ruled, then the voice of a large business or business lobby to influence laws and regulations will drown the voice of any individual or a group of individuals, unless the person or persons have as much money as a business, like Michael Bloomberg. 99.999% of us are not Mr. Bloomberg, so we are shouting into the gale force winds of corporate influence.

A light when off in my head after hearing this story, because it was not soon after Friedman’s theory took hold in the late 1970's that big companies started lavishly funding organizations that actively discredited the findings of climate science – namely, that greenhouse gases are rapidly altering our planet to our detriment. In addition, these companies themselves actively promoted doubt about climate science and global warming.

The Heartland Institute is just one example. Founded in 1984, its funders include the Koch brothers, Microsoft, General Motors, big pharmaceutical companies, big tobacco companies, and of course, Exxon.

Heartland, to this day, continues to actively cast doubt on human-caused climate change, work to repeal clean energy mandates, and fund so-called “climate skeptics”.

Why do they do this? The author Naomi Klein concluded that big business recognized decades ago that addressing climate change represented a “profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore denying its scientific reality” was the only way to protect those systems, damn the consequences.

In other words – casting doubt on climate science increased shareholder value.

But there is now a new wrinkle in the whole “shareholder is king” story.

BlackRock, an asset management company with $7 TRILLION in investments recently decided to “make investment decisions with environmental sustainability as a core goal” according to the NY Times. “[The] intent is to encourage every company, not just energy firms, to rethink their carbon footprints.” As a major shareholder in many companies, large and small, it will “move more aggressively to vote against management teams that are not making progress on sustainability”.

Why this change in heart? Because it is now clear to BlackRock that climate change is a huge risk to investors. This firm is not turning into a tree hugger, they are still looking at the bottom line. BlackRock, according to its president, has a fiduciary responsibility to protect shareholder interests.

Used to be that saying a business is under water was a metaphor for drowning in debt. BlackRock is not interested in having the phrase become literally – drowning. Drowning is not good for the bottom line, as it were.

The other thing is the BlackRock has been behind the curve. Financial Advisor Magazine noted that investment in “sustainable” mutual and exchange traded funds increased four-fold in 2019 – to almost $21 billion.

Investors have to read the fine print on “sustainable” fund prospectuses however; because some of the companies in these funds may be more greenwash than green.

According to the Times article, if other investment firms like Vanguard ($6 trillion), Fidelity ($6.7 trillion) or Schwab ($2.5 trillion) follow BlackRock’s lead, a fundamental philosophical shift in how companies operate could be forced upon them by their biggest shareholders.

This trend is still in its infancy and may be too-little-too-late.

We just had the second warmest year on record, the Arctic is literally melting and Australia is literally burning.

Regardless, I’ll take any good news that I can. There is precious little of it in the environmental arena these days.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Population Bomb

The Population Bomb, a book written in 1968, predicted widespread famine and starvation in the following decades caused by a rapidly increasing world population, exacerbated by “other societal upheavals” (Wikipedia).

Needless to say, the “bomb” never exploded. With advances in agricultural technology, we were (and are) still able to feed ourselves. The authors were subsequently criticized for their alarmist rhetoric.

I thought about this book after last Fall’s Town Meeting, where the Town Voted to pass Article 11, the Climate Change Action Resolution. One voter, Dominic Capriole, said that as long as the world did not address the population problem, nothing we did here would make a difference.

I agree with Dominic in many ways, although I did respond that regardless, I was not going to stick my head between my legs and kiss my butt good bye in the meantime - but I digress.

Since the publication of the Population Bomb, world population has almost doubled. Four to 7.7 billion in 45 years. It will be 9 billion by 2040.

What has also gone up in lock step is atmospheric pollution – especially greenhouse gases. Most of the increase from the pre-industrial era has taken place since 1960. This correlation is not a coincidence.

Why? Because people want to be like you and me – to get the benefits of an industrialized and relatively affluent society. That takes energy – a lot of it, from the most energy dense sources of energy we have in large supply – coal, oil and natural gas.

Here is (sort of) the good news. As people become more affluent, population growth rates slow. In fact, population growth rates have already slowed by half, having peaked in the early 60s. All things being equal, the world’s population will stabilize at around 11 Billion at the end of this century.

But are all things still equal? Can we keep expecting technology to bail us out – to keep the world’s people fed clothed and housed, as was the case 50 years ago?

 I am not optimistic, because the people on this planet are changing the inhabitable portion of it so fast, sustaining ourselves, let alone every other form of life which resides in our fragile biosphere, will become mind-bogglingly more difficult and in many regions, impossible.

In fact, the process is already underway, Australia’s devastating wildfire season, burning large swaths of the country, being just the most recent example. The ecosystems of the bush and forest areas burned may never recover. Off the coast, rising ocean temperatures have permanently altered the marine ecosystems around Tasmania. Kelp forests and the fish populations they sustained are just gone, in the space of 30 years.

A new report in the journal Nature, estimates that even under the most optimistic projections of sea level rise, 190 million people will be living on land below the projected daily high tide line by 2100.

In the mostly densely populated region of the planet – South Asia, home to 1.9 billion people, summer temperature and humidity levels are projected to become deadly for weeks at a time, instead of the days they are now.

All these people are going to want to go somewhere else.

You’d be hard pressed to believe it, but even in our current administration, the military is already thinking about this question. A 2019 report by the Army War College stated the following:

Sea level rise, changes in water and food security, and more frequent extreme weather events are likely to result in the migration of large segments of the population . . .  creating massive, enduring instability.

1968: “societal upheavals.”  2019: “enduring instability.”

We humans are incredibly adaptable animals.  In less than 100,000 years, humans spread to the far reaches of the planet 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. That same adaptability has also gotten us where we are today, unfortunately.

I think humans will survive the oncoming self-inflicted changes to our world, but I suspect there will probably be a lot less of us when the dust settles.

Something to keep in mind as you think about important stuff like your kid’s sports schedule, Christmas gift returns, Tom Brady’s future, D.C. politics or kitten videos on Facebook.

Happy New Year.