Thursday, November 11th, 2010
In the Policy Forum of today’s issue of Science, a research team that includes recent Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom, issued a call for innovative interdisciplinary approaches to confronting major environmental challenges:
Tremendous progress has been made in understanding the functioning of the
Earth system and, in particular, the impact of human actions. Although this
knowledge can inform management of specific features of our world in transition, societies need knowledge that will allow them to simultaneously reduce global environmental risks while also meeting economic development goals. For example, how can we advance science and technology, change human behavior, and influence political will to enable societies to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change? At the same time, how can we meet needs for food, water, improved health and human security, and enhanced energy security? Can this be done while also meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring ecosystem integrity?
They identified what they call five grand challenges:
(1) Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.
(2) Develop, enhance, and integrate observation systems to manage global and regional environmental change.
(3) Determine how to anticipate, avoid, and manage disruptive global environmental change.
(4) Determine institutional, economic, and behavioral changes to enable effective steps toward global sustainability.
(5) Encourage innovation (and mechanisms for evaluation) in technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability.
And their concluding message resonates with much of what I have been writing about at Global Change (emphasis mine):
These grand challenges provide an overarching research framework to mobilize the international scientific community around a focused decade of research to support sustainable development in the context of global environmental change. … Research dominated by the natural sciences must transition toward research involving the full range of sciences and humanities. A more balanced mix of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research is needed that actively involves stakeholders and decision-makers.
Reid, W., Chen, D., Goldfarb, L., Hackmann, H., Lee, Y., Mokhele, K., Ostrom, E., Raivio, K., Rockstrom, J., Schellnhuber, H., & Whyte, A. (2010). Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges Science, 330 (6006), 916-917 DOI: 10.1126/science.1196263
From the Environmental Literacy in Higher Education series:
From the Why Don’t People Engage Climate Change? series:
Image credit: woodleywonderworks
Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
There have been several critiques of geoengineering as a climate mitigation tool. Two of the most incisive, in my opinion, come from science and ethics.
The first is a 2007 paper in PNAS by Matthews and Caldeira showing that if we establish aerosol clouds or space reflectors while doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions, we run the risk of catastrophic rates of warming (2-4 degrees C per decade) if these systems were to fail.
The second is a recent piece in Slate by my colleague, Dale Jamieson, who argued that there is no moral and legal authority to know how and when to deploy geoengineering or by how much.
One proposed geoengineering tool is fertilizing the world’s oceans with iron. The premise behind this idea was developed by John Martin in 1990, who is often quoted as saying something like, “Give me a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.” Micronutrients like iron and zinc are extremely limiting to phytoplankton growth in the open ocean—orders of magnitude moreso than nutrients we typically think of in common fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorus. Dumping iron into the oceans has been shown to stimulate algal blooms, and the creation of this biomass consumes CO2 from the surface waters and atmosphere, thereby helping to mitigate rising CO2 from fossil fuels. In theory, some of this biomass should sink to the deep ocean where it is sequestered for centuries, but this has yet to be shown definitively on a wide scale.
In a forthcoming paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mary Silver and colleagues show that there is another potential risk of geoengineering resulting from ocean iron fertilization…
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010
Lots of interesting analysis in the wake of yesterday’s elections, including some surveying the dynamic political landscape and what this means for the country’s ability to deal with crises including jobs, energy, and climate.
Some have suggested that the large Republican shift in 2010 is a (over)correction of the large Democratic (over)correction in 2008. Like a water hose flailing wildly back and forth out of control, does this portend increasingly variable election cycles going forward as people become more-and-more frustrated with the inability of the federal government to confront problems?
John Judis at The New Republic offers this:
Does losing over 60 House seats and as many as eight Senate seats simply make this a below average outcome, or did something much more serious and significant happen in yesterday’s election?
Republicans might say it’s the re-emergence of a conservative Republican majority, but that’s not really what happened. What this election suggests to me is that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced. America emerged from the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, World War I, and the Great Depression and World War II stronger than ever—with a more buoyant economy and greater international standing. A large part of the reason was the political system’s ability to provide the leadership the country needed. But what this election suggests to me is that this may no longer be the case.
…Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America’s challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that can produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries require government coordination and subsidies. But the new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of industrial policy. They even oppose Obama’s obviously successful auto bailout.
Instead, when America finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country in trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public; boarded-up factories; and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These continuing trade deficits, combined with budget deficits, will finally reduce confidence in the dollar to the point where it ceases to be a viable international currency.
The election results will also put an end to the Obama administration’s attempt to reach an international climate accord. It will cripple its ability to adopt domestic limits on carbon emissions. The election could also doom Obama’s one substantial foreign policy achievement—the arms treaty it signed with Russia that still awaits Senate confirmation.
…[I]f I am right about the fundamental problems that this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician’s or political party’s victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan.
Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate. From 1950 to 1970, Japan had six prime ministers. It has had 14 from 1990 to the present, and six from 2005 to the present. That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.
[L]ike Japan, we’ve had a succession of false dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an “unstable equilibrium.” That’s not good for party loyalists, but it’s also not good for the country. America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us out of the impasse we are in, but if this election says anything, it’s that we’re not going to get it over the next two or maybe even ten years.
Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
Matt Nisbet has an excellent new post, Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?, highlighting some of the next-generation approaches to helping people engage climate change.
Why don’t people engage climate change?
Monday, October 4th, 2010
The NY Times is running a story, Military Orders Less Dependence on Fossil Fuels, that evaluates the American military’s role in green energy innovation:
Even as Congress has struggled unsuccessfully to pass an energy bill and many states have put renewable energy on hold because of the recession, the military this year has pushed rapidly forward. After a decade of waging wars in remote corners of the globe where fuel is not readily available, senior commanders have come to see overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies — which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years — as providing a potential answer. These new types of renewable energy now account for only a small percentage of the power used by the armed forces, but military leaders plan to rapidly expand their use over the next decade.
“There are a lot of profound reasons for doing this, but for us at the core it’s practical,” said Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has said he wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships.
While setting national energy policy requires Congressional debates, military leaders can simply order the adoption of renewable energy. And the military has the buying power to create products and markets. That, in turn, may make renewable energy more practical and affordable for everyday uses, experts say.
Last year, the Navy introduced its first hybrid vessel, a Wasp class amphibious assault ship called the U.S.S. Makin Island, which at speeds under 10 knots runs on electricity rather than on fossil fuel, a shift resulting in greater efficiency that saved 900,000 gallons of fuel on its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, compared with a conventional ship its size, the Navy said.
The Air Force will have its entire fleet certified to fly on biofuels by 2011 and has already flown test flights using a 50-50 mix of plant-based biofuel and jet fuel; the Navy took its first delivery of fuel made from algae this summer. Biofuels can in theory be produced wherever the raw materials, like plants, are available, and could ultimately be made near battlefields.
Photo credit: Shortbread1015DT
Sunday, October 3rd, 2010
Another post this week from the Atlantic (Daniel Fromson covering the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum) that follows up on my earlier posts last week (here and here) about turning nutrition into a bottom-up venture that engages and attracts kids. This one speaks to the challenges of revolutionizing school cafeterias:
[White House chef Sam Kass, Michelle Obama's food-policy right-hand man and a key player in her effort to combat childhood obesity through the Let's Move Initiative] told the audience that chefs should work directly with schools in order to improve the menus—but acknowledged it won’t be easy. “Chefs need to know more about how our schools operate … Schools are big, autonomous places,” he said. The chefs, he added, need to learn how to work with teachers and administrators: “Improving school lunches starts with the chefs.”
Another excerpt from the Obama administration’s health-policy adviser, Zeke Emanuel:
“A lot of schools don’t have kitchens anymore,” he said. “The other, of course, is money…. How much money you can spend on a meal is one of the biggest challenges.”
Now if more schools had chefs like flame thrower man above, kids would probably love food in the school cafeteria.
Photo credit: liber
Sunday, September 26th, 2010
The NY Times and Huffington Post are running a story by Kim Severson, Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries, lamenting how hard it is to get people to eat healthy.
The thing that struck me about this article, as its title suggests, is how nutrition in America is often pitched top-down. A strategy is bound to fail when it consists simply of government experts making recommendations about nutrition, as one of the folks interviewed notes:
“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.
…The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables.
The article explores the usual things claimed to be preventing people from eating better—convenience and cost:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said.
In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.
“Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said.
Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t, in her words, “a pain.”
“An apple you can just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?”
“It’s just like any other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook them.”
The solution is presented as a problem of overcoming access to good food:
But clear guidance probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available.
I’m a fan of nutritional literacy, as I am with environmental literacy, but only as one of several approaches in a portfolio of strategies for improving the quality of life and the environment. Nutritionists and climate change educators should team up in this regard because they face the same challenge—winning hearts and minds (or, in this case, stomachs) and changing behavior.
The problem is that a top-down nutritional literacy approach, by itself, is woefully inadequate (more information, alone, simply won’t accomplish this), and access to good food is only part of the challenge.
If you want engagement, then nutrition needs to be turned into a bottom-up venture. It’s not simply a matter of food pyramids and access to good food. People need to experience growing and cooking their own food. They need to be engaged with how good it can be, how it can be grown cheaply, and how plant-based diets are easy to prepare.
There are several ways to begin accomplishing this:
1. Start early. Make gardening and cooking a part of the elementary school experience. All kids should take an active role in planting, tending, and harvesting food. Then they should take part in preparing the foods they have grown in ways that are appealing to eat. The power of this should not be underestimated. The only thing I remember from kindergarten is making bread and butter from scratch.
2. Diffuse this knowledge to home or community gardens. When kids are taught how to prepare healthy, tasty food, they can bring what they learn home, starting home gardens and helping out with making dinner by showing parents what they learned in school (maybe accompanied by some kind of creative incentive from parents to do this). People can see for themselves that is is often less expensive to grow healthy food, especially if communities team up and share their bounties, than it is to buy junk food that makes up much of their diet.
3. Involve the community in a contest to generate a list of the most popular recipes for different fruits and vegetables. Perhaps engage the help of local chefs for fun. I have a 100% whole fruit smoothie recipe that most kids would mistake for dessert.
4. Disperse these recipes widely and incorporate them into school education programs and lunches, as Alice Waters is accomplishing in California.
5. Not only should farmers markets accept SNAP (food stamps), there should be classes/demos to show people how to prepare foods. Also, having samples and recipes that are tasty and convenient would be helpful. People should be convinced, by seeing with their own eyes and taste buds, that they can do this and that it’s worth their time.
And that’s part of the larger problem: overcoming the psychological barrier that fresh food prep is time consuming:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it.”
Although I see the point here, I think it’s a poor reason for not eating healthy. People schedule time around education, sleeping, exercising, soccer practice, vacation, being with friends, spirituality, and visits to the doctor/dentist because these things are considered necessary to living well. Is preparing healthy food not a similarly meaningful part of our lives? Is it really impossible for families to schedule 30-45 minutes preparing meals? Should leisure time or other competing interests really be that high an opportunity cost?
Perhaps that’s one lesson: So long as Americans treat preparing and enjoying healthy meals as a tradeoff with leisure time or other activities, American diets will suffer. No amount of top-down government nutrition guidelines will overcome that.
Related news: Bill Clinton now eats vegan
Photo credit: hellochris
Friday, September 24th, 2010
Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark at The Guardian have a recent post in the series examining the carbon footprints of daily life activities. Their post asks how much carbon emissions results from the direct and indirect activities of building a car.
The carbon footprint of making a car is immensely complex. Ores have to be dug out of the ground and the metals extracted. These have to be turned into parts. Other components have to be brought together: rubber tyres, plastic dashboards, paint, and so on. All of this involves transporting things around the world. The whole lot then has to be assembled, and every stage in the process requires energy. The companies that make cars have offices and other infrastructure with their own carbon footprints, which we need to somehow allocate proportionately to the cars that are made.
….The best we can do is use so-called input-output analysis to break up the known total emissions of the world or a country into different industries and sectors, in the process taking account of how each industry consumes the goods and services of all the others. If we do this, and then divide by the total emissions of the auto industry by the total amount of money spent on new cars, we reach a footprint of 720kg CO2e per £1000 spent.
This is only a guideline figure, of course, as some cars may be more efficiently produced than others of the same price. But it’s a reasonable ballpark estimate, and it suggests that cars have much bigger footprints than is traditionally believed. Producing a medium-sized new car costing £24,000 may generate more than 17 tonnes of CO2e – almost as much as three years’ worth of gas and electricity in the typical UK home.
17 (metric) tons is 17,000 kg or about 37,400 pounds. The U.S. EPA estimates that the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. emits 5-5.5 metric tons CO2e per year, assuming 12,000 miles driven.
If you do the math, this means the embodied CO2e emissions to make a car is about 3-3.5 years worth of tailpipe emissions from driving. Assuming that most people own their cars for longer than three years, this figure doesn’t jive with what the authors claim:
The upshot is that – despite common claims to contrary – the embodied emissions of a car typically rival the exhaust pipe emissions over its entire lifetime. Indeed, for each mile driven, the emissions from the manufacture of a top-of-the-range Land Rover Discovery that ends up being scrapped after 100,000 miles may be as much as four times higher than the tailpipe emissions of a Citroen C1.
If people held onto their cars for 10 years (assuming 120,000 miles), tailpipe emissions would equal 50 metric tons of CO2e, and embodied emissions would be about 34% of tailpipe emissions. If people drove their cars for 20 years (assuming 240,000 miles), the exhaust emissions would rise to 100 metric tons CO2e, with embodied emissions dropping to 17% of tailpipe emissions.
While most folks generally agree with the notion of driving their vehicle into the ground (as my recently dead 16-yr-old truck illustrates), you’d have to be driving a Toyota Prius to get a lifetime tailpipe emission that equals the embodied emissions of building it (assuming that a Prius achieves three times the mpg of a typical car, which would drop CO2e tailpipe emissions from 5 to 1.7 metric tons CO2e per year, making a 10-year total tailpipe emission of 17 metric tons reasonable).
Thus, if you drive an average car for 10 years, your lifetime tailpipe emissions (50 metric tons) will be a lot larger than the embodied emissions to build the car (17 metric tons) (for a total emission of 67 metric tons). If you drive a hyper-efficient vehicle for 10 years, tailpipe and embodied emissions may be comparable (17 metric tons each, 34 metric tons total). This means you could buy a new Prius every three years, and the embodied emissions from all of these purchases plus tailpipe emissions would roughly equal a normal car driven for 10 years.
This raises an important question: What matters here? If the goal is to reduce total emissions, the best thing is to buy a car with a very high fuel efficiency and drive it for its full life, as the above examples illustrate.
Photo credit: atomicshark
Saturday, September 11th, 2010
Here’s an interesting thought question: How much would global temperature warm if we used only the existing energy infrastructure (i.e., power plants, furnaces, motor vehicles) until these machines reached the end of their useful lives? Once they died, they would be replaced by devices that did not emit CO2.
Steven Davis and colleagues addressed this question in the current issue of Science:
We calculated cumulative future emissions of 496 (282 to 701 in lower- and upperbounding scenarios) gigatonnes of CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels by existing infrastructure between 2010 and 2060, forcing mean warming of 1.3°C (1.1° to 1.4°C) above the pre-industrial era and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 less than 430 parts per million. Because these conditions would likely avoid many key impacts of climate change, we conclude that sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to be built. However, CO2-emitting infrastructure will expand unless extraordinary efforts are undertaken to develop alternatives.
Their analysis suggests that CO2 emissions would decline linearly from 35 gigatons/year in 2010 to less than 5 gigatons/year in 2050, with the majority of the remainder being non-energy emissions from things like cement manufacture and land use changes.
On a personal level, this would mean replacing your current furnace, car, and electricity sources with ones that emitted no CO2, so we’re talking upwards of 15-20 years for a personal vehicle, 20-30 years for a furnace, and 50+ years for power stations, depending on the age of these items. The average power plant age in the U.S. is 32 years compared to 12 years in China and 21 and 27 years in Japan and Europe.
It’s encouraging to know that it may be possible to avert serious climate change without having to shut down existing infrastructure right away (especially long-lived fossil fuel power plants) but only if we plow significant funding into developing and implementing carbon-free technologies to replace them. However, Davis et al. acknowledge that this is a tall order:
[T]here is little doubt that more CO2-emitting devices will be built. Our analysis considers only devices that emit CO2 directly. Substantial infrastructure also exists to produce and facilitate use of these devices. For example, factories that produce internal combustion engines, highway networks dotted with gasoline refueling stations, and oil refineries all promote the continuation of oil-based road transport emissions. Moreover, satisfying growing demand for energy without producing CO2 emissions will require truly extraordinary development and deployment of carbon-free sources of energy, perhaps 30 TW by 2050. Yet avoiding key impacts of climate change depends on the success of efforts to overcome infrastructural inertia and commission a new generation of devices that can provide energy and transport services without releasing CO2 to the atmosphere.
Davis, S., Caldeira, K., & Matthews, H. (2010). Future CO2 Emissions and Climate Change from Existing Energy Infrastructure Science, 329 (5997), 1330-1333 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188566
Photo credit: Stuck in Customs
Saturday, September 11th, 2010
The NYT is running an op-ed by Bob Dunay and Joseph Wheeler (Virginia Tech) about a new, award-winning home design that challenges people to re-think their conception of the built environment:
Will our children’s homes be anything as comfortable and expansive as our own?
The answer is yes—though it depends on how you frame the question. Our children probably won’t be able to afford to run conventional air conditioners all day long. Nor will they likely have access to unlimited water supplies, particularly in the parched Southwest. But that doesn’t mean they have to live without the same quality of life that their parents and grandparents have grown accustomed to. The key is to use smart planning and technological advances to not merely adapt the home, but rethink its most basic design and function.
To demonstrate what such a house might look like, our team of professors and students at Virginia Tech designed and built Lumenhaus. With functional spaces and a modest size that allows for efficient energy use, Lumenhaus won the 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe, a competition that brought together 17 college teams from around the world in Madrid.