Tag Archives: climate

Looking On The Bright Side…(NOT The Monty Python Version)…

I get tired of posting “gloom and doom” essays–and you are all probably just as tired of reading about the precarious state of national and global institutions.  Every so often, it’s a good idea to remember the old adage that “dog bites man isn’t news; but man bites dog is”–to remind ourselves that what is newsworthy is by definition not ordinary. So today, as we head into fall, I want to focus on the other side of the equation: hopeful news–evidence that the hostile and crazy people who provide fodder for our newsfeeds and generate our ulcers are not representative of humanity writ large.

Let’s start with climate change.

Yes, political barriers have delayed a rational, co-ordinated response. But as the evidence of that phenomenon becomes too powerful to ignore, so does evidence of efforts to abate it. Take, for example, reports about floating wind turbines.

In the stormy waters of the North Sea, 15 miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, five floating offshore wind turbines stretch 574 feet (175 metres) above the water. The world’s first floating windfarm, a 30 megawatt facility run by the Norwegian company Equinor, has only been in operation since 2017 but has already broken UK records for energy output.

While most offshore wind turbines are anchored to the ocean floor on fixed foundations, limiting them to depths of about 165ft, floating turbines are tethered to the seabed by mooring lines.

Installing these turbines in deeper waters, where winds tend to be stronger,  promises  to generate huge amounts of renewable energy: reportedly, close to 80% of potential offshore wind power is found in deeper waters.

Then there’s new appreciation for algae. It can be used to make eco-friendly plastic and fertilizer,  it can be used as fuel–it can evidently even reduce the methane from cow farts ..

The World Wildlife Federation reports that low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies are on “profitable, exponential trajectories”–and if those trajectories are sustained, they should be enough to cut emissions from electricity generation in half by 2030.

Wind and solar energy now regularly out-compete fossil fuels in most regions of the world. Electric vehicle growth has the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030 if sustained, but only if strong policies support this direction.

The Federation also reports that nearly half of the country’s largest companies–some of the world’s largest energy users–now recognize a responsibility to tackle climate change and preserve the planet for future generations. (Granted, a good deal of this “recognition” is PR–it’s up to us consumers to pressure the business sector to make good on those public promises.)

More theoretical, but the subject of current research efforts, is “carbon capture,” which wouldn’t simply reduce carbon emissions, but would allow for actually sucking carbon out of the air. (Think negative emissions.) Even the most recent IPCC report--with its dire, widely disseminated warnings–had some good news tucked in.

It isn’t just climate change.

Vox recently had a report, complete with charts, demonstrating a range of improvements that have made life better for humanity. It described the decline in global poverty, the rise in global literacy, a dramatic improvement in global health, and even–despite the current backlash being  waged by various populist movements–an increase in democracy and individual freedom.

Sometimes, taking the “long view” allows us to escape from the doom and gloom of the daily news. In my lifetime, I have seen city centers and historic neighborhoods revitalized. Women’s rights have dramatically expanded (prompting the hysterical backlash that most recently gave us Texas…). Gays have emerged from the closet and married. Membership in fundamentalist churches has declined. Despite the daily episodes of racist behavior caught by our ubiquitous cellphone cameras and the morphing of the GOP into the White Supremacy Party, the country has made considerable progress against racism, as evidenced by the multi-racial composition of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches.

And we should be heartened by the enormous negative reaction to Texas’ effort to empower anti-woman vigilantes. That anger promises an energized and expanded Democratic vote.

The bigots and assorted crazies in Washington can slow down human progress, but ultimately, reality will bite them. (Hopefully in time to avert disaster…)

If people of good will focus only on the problems we face and the threats posed by the hysterical people resisting progress, we will get too disheartened to work for the continuation of positive change. Google “good news,” take a deep breath, then volunteer with a group that is working to solve a  problem you care about.

And if you can, send money.

PS If you want the Monty Python version, here are the lyrics…..

The Roads Not Taken

The other day, my husband shared a great cartoon with me: a lecturer was standing by a whiteboard containing a list of actions to combat climate change, most of which would also result in cleaner air and water. A man at the back of the lecture hall is asking “But what if we make the world better and it turns out the scientists were wrong?”

It is difficult to understand opposition to efforts to ameliorate climate change, since most of the measures being proposed are things we ought to be doing anyway. (I do understand why people who make their living from fossil fuels pooh-pooh climate change, and “explain away” the unusual number of unusually destructive hurricanes, not to mention the droughts,  the fact that it’s the end of October and in Indiana the trees have barely begun to change color…)

The problem with taking a head in the sand approach–or just making outright war on all environmental protection measures, a la Scott Pruitt–is that it is getting costly. Ignore, if you will, predictions of future crop failures and massive numbers of refugees from no-longer-habitable regions. Let’s just look at current costs and those we can predict with confidence.

Thanks to the unprecedented number and severity of hurricanes, FEMA has already had to ask Congress for billions of extra dollars. To the extent the fires in California were connected to that state’s long drought, we can add the costs of that disaster. Those disasters, however, are small potatoes next to the extra costs incurred on otherwise run-of-the-mill projects as a result of climate change.

Take road construction.

When engineers build roads, they use weather models to decide what kind of pavement can withstand the local climate. Currently, many American engineers use temperature data from 1964 to 1995 to select materials. But the climate is changing.

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change asserts that newer temperature figures are needed to save billions of dollars in unnecessary repairs. Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Shane Underwood of Arizona State University and his colleagues show that road engineers have selected materials inappropriate for current temperatures 35 percent of the time over the past two decades.

The researchers concluded that a failure to adapt the engineering to warmer temperatures is adding 3 to 9 percent to the cost of building and maintaining a road over 30 years. Those are tax dollars being wasted at a time American infrastructure is desperately in need of repair and rebuilding.

The research analyzed two potential scenarios, one in which global temperatures rose less than current estimates, and one that reflected current predictions. Their results suggest that somewhere between $13.6 and $35.8 billion in extra or earlier-than-normal repairs will be required for roads now being built if the current predictions are accurate. In the lower-temperature warming model, they calculate annual extra costs of between $0.8 billion and $1.3 billion; in the higher-temperature warming model, they predict annual extra costs between $0.8 billion and $2.1 billion.

Other findings included:

  • A road built to last 20 years will require repairs after 14 to 17 years under these models.
  • In some cases, government transportation agencies are paying too much for materials to withstand cold temperatures that do not currently (and perhaps no longer) exist.
  • Because municipal governments in the United States work on tighter road-maintenance budgets than state and federal transportation departments, the extra financial strain will largely impact cities and towns.

There are undoubtedly other expenses that will be generated by our changing climate–some that we can anticipate, and others that will come as unwelcome surprises. Scientists in a number of fields are investigating likely consequences–everything from the loss of hundreds of insect and animal species to the negative effect on coffee beans.

There will be significant and unpleasant costs to taking the road marked “Science Denial.” Unfortunately, these days–at least, in the United States– that road isn’t the “one less traveled.”