Year 4, Month 1, Day 14: Something Is Happening, But You Don’t Know What It Is.

The Albany Times-Union, on New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s approach to climate change:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has placed himself in the vanguard of public officials pledging action on climate change. He repeatedly has recognized that climate change is real and that New York is vulnerable to the extreme weather events that accompany our rapidly warming climate.

The governor has reignited a public debate on climate change, flatly stating that our nation had become distracted by an argument over the causes while failing to address the “inarguable effects” of our warming climate.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, after viewing the devastation and the damage that had been wrought, Cuomo laid down his marker when he said, “We need to act, not simply react.”

Color me skeptical. Sent January 9:

Governor Cuomo’s going to face some hard choices if his actions are to match his rhetoric on climate change. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, he noted that “Mother Nature is telling us something,” but she’s not the only one trying to attract his attention. Natural gas companies are heavily invested in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and the question of whether to allow this risky technology in New York is going to cross Mr. Cuomo’s desk very soon. But when it comes to the greenhouse emissions that are driving climate change, research has shown that natural gas extraction and processing emit significant quantities of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Given that fossil-fuel corporations have also invested very heavily in our country’s politicians, should we be surprised if the Governor responds to their messages rather than those of our endangered environment, or those of the ordinary citizens of New York?

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 9, Day 4: Naked Self-Interest Edition

Another Canadian paper, the Melfort Journal (where? Here.) runs a version of the David Suzuki article used for yesterday’s letter:

Faced with the evidence, many deniers have started to admit that global warming is real, but argue that humans have little or nothing to do with it. Muller’s study was just one of many to demolish that theory.

Our climate has always changed, and natural variation is part of that. But scientists have long known that carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat in the atmosphere. Recent warming is occurring at an unprecedented rate that corresponds to burning fossil fuels. According to NASA, global average temperatures have been rising significantly since the 1970s, “with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.” North America just experienced the hottest July on record, and the first seven months of 2012 were the warmest, on average, in more than 100 years.

This evidence has caused some deniers to change their tune again. Yes, the Earth is warming, they say, but whether it’s from natural or human causes, we can’t do anything about it, so we might as well continue with business as usual, maybe employing technological fixes to help us adapt.

The truth is, as most of us know, that global warming is real and humans are major contributors, mainly because we wastefully burn fossil fuels. We also know solutions lie in energy conservation, shifting to renewable sources, and changing our patterns of energy and fuel use, for example, by improving public transit and moving away from personal vehicles.

Scientists have been warning about global warming for decades. It’s too late to stop it now, but we can lessen its severity and impacts. The side benefits are numerous: less pollution and environmental destruction, better human health, stronger and more diversified economies, and a likely reduction in global conflicts fuelled by the rapacious drive to exploit finite resources.

We can all work to reduce our individual impacts. But we must also convince our political and business leaders that it’s time to put people – especially our children, grandchildren, and generations yet to come – before profits.

I was glad enough that Muller changed his mind a bit, but he’s not being much help in the aftermath. Sent August 29:

Yes, Richard Muller, once a “skeptic,” is raising eyebrows among political conservatives with his recent conversion to the accepted consensus on global climate change. The erstwhile doubter finally laid his reservations to rest with his own Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study, confirming that the planet is warming significantly and that humans are responsible. But it’s still a good idea to keep adding a pinch of salt to Dr. Muller’s public statements, even as his research brings him in line with the climatological wisdom of the 1990s.

Muller’s enthusiastic advocacy of natural gas as an alternative energy source demonstrates that exceptional intellectual powers offer no protection from self-delusion. Natural gas is only cheap when you don’t count externalities like huge infrastructural costs for delivery and extraction technology, and the virtual certainty of groundwater contamination in the aftermath of the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process. Once all these factors are accounted for, it’s neither cheap nor clean, contributing almost as much to greenhouse emissions as do oil and coal.

While it may displease the arch-conservative Koch brothers (Richard Muller’s sponsors), the truth is simple: to survive and prosper in the coming centuries, the world’s civilizations must shift as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of energy. There is no time left to waste.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 9, Day 3: Vernacular, As Opposed To Classical, Gas)

The Welland Tribune (Ontario) runs an Op-Ed by David Suzuki, summing up the state of the situation, with special reference to Mr. Muller:

Most North Americans know that human-caused global warming is real, even if political leaders don’t always reflect or act on that knowledge.

According to a recent poll, only 2% of Canadians reject the overwhelming scientific evidence that Earth is warming at alarming rates — a figure that may seem surprising given the volume of nonsense deniers (many of them funded by the fossil fuel industry) spread through letters to the editor, blogs, radio call-ins and website comments.

Polling indicates more deniers live in the U.S., but they still make up just 15% of that population.

It’s getting harder to ignore the evidence: record high worldwide temperatures; increasing extreme weather events; devastating droughts, floods, and wildfires; animal and plant species turning up where they’ve never been found before; record ice loss in the Arctic and Greenland; melting glaciers …

The trends are exactly as climate scientists predicted.

Meanwhile, one of the few “skeptic” climate scientists, Richard Muller, recently reversed his thinking.

Muller and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, studied climate data dating back to 1753, then looked at possible causes of the unusual warming observed since the mid-1950s. (Ironically, the study was funded in part by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, founded by climate change skeptics with heavy interests in the fossil fuel industry.)

Their conclusion? It’s not the sun. It’s not volcanoes. The most likely cause is humans spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels. This isn’t news to most climate scientists.

Muller is a little disingenuous, methinks. Sent August 28:

While it’s true that erstwhile climate-change “skeptic” Richard Muller recently reversed his position on the existence and causes of global warming, it’s worth pointing out that Dr. Muller has only caught up with the state of climate science as of, say, 1990. After releasing the final version of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature report in which he acknowledged that those worried climatologists have had it right all along, Muller segued effortlessly into advocacy of natural gas, which he asserts is a cleaner alternative to oil and coal.

Well, maybe. Oil and coal were “cheap” until we began taking into account all the externalities associated with these fuels, like their long-term public health and environmental impacts (to say nothing of all the expensive wars they seem to require). Natural gas is only cheap if we ignore the fact that it demands both a massive industrial effort for the drilling process along with huge investments in infrastructure for pipelines and other delivery mechanisms — to say nothing of the devastating consequences of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as a means of extraction.

Muller’s “conversion” is certainly welcome news. But we need to be skeptical about the impact of his corporate affiliations on his public utterances. Natural gas is the planetary equivalent of a nicotine patch — a slightly less smelly way to deliver the same poisons. Ultimately, the only way to reduce our greenhouse emissions is to burn less fossil fuel — and that is something we shouldn’t be delaying for another minute.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 9, Day 14: If You Remember, Heroin Was Originally Sold As A Cure For Morphine Addiction. Heh heh heh.

The September 8 issue of the L.A. Times dispels some clouds of myth about the effectiveness of Natural Gas as a fuel source:

Switching from burning coal to natural gas won’t have an appreciable effect on global warming, at least not in the next few decades, a study suggests.

In fact, cutting worldwide coal burning by half and using natural gas instead would increase global temperatures over the next four decades by about one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit, according to Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Strictly speaking, coal produces more global-warming gas per unit of energy than natural gas. But the tradeoff is complicated by the types of greenhouse gases and other pollutants associated with each of these carbon-based fossil fuels.

“From the CO2 perspective, gas is cleaner, but from the climate perspective, it gets complicated,” said Wigley.

Coal burning is notoriously dirty, producing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, soot and ash, as well as other pollutants. None are too good for humans or the planet, but the sulfates can act to block incoming solar radiation, with a slight cooling effect. (Before anyone proposes burning more high-sulfur coal, the net effect of burning coal is still warming).

Meanwhile, “clean” natural gas, touted by the industry and T. Boone Pickens, can be a mess to produce. An unknown amount of methane — a potent greenhouse gas with far more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide — leaks in the process of producing natural gas.

Will our species get it together in time? Tune in next decade for the next episode of “Who The Hell Knows?” Sent September 10:

H.L. Mencken said it very well: “For every complex problem, there’s a simple solution…and it’s wrong.” For a while, natural gas seemed like an attractive alternative to coal and oil — something that would allow our civilization to make the transition away from fossil fuels without too much disruption, while simultaneously reducing the impact of irreversible climate change.

A simple solution — and, as the study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research makes clear, a wrong one. The complex problems of global heating require a complex solution: a mix of renewable energy sources, massive conservation efforts, and a comprehensive shift in our collective consumption habits. Mitigating the immanent effects of climate change is going to require more of us than simply switching to another source of fuel: we — all humanity — must change our ways of living if we are to survive and prosper in the coming centuries.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 4, Day 21: If You Hadn’t Said Anything, Ma’am, I Would Have Sworn It Was The Horse

The Pennsylvania Patriot-News runs an article on the recent study by Cornell University scientists showing that natural gas extraction is really really really bad for the planet:

Natural gas from shale deposits such as the Marcellus has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than coal, according to a study by researchers at Cornell University.

The peer-reviewed study concludes, “The large green house gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.”.

Disappointing, to be sure. But hardly surprising when you come to think about it for more than a few seconds. Sent April 12:

The climatic consequences of natural gas extraction are clearly more severe than we have been told for years, but this information should be surprising only to those who believe that the extractive industries are both inherently clean and inherently ethical. They are, of course, neither, as the repeated misconduct of oil and coal corporations has demonstrated. America’s energy policy has long touted natural gas as an energy source which contributes less to the greenhouse effect than other fossil fuels; the Cornell study should be a corrective influence on our national thinking. But there is a great distance between “should” and “will.” Instead of a new energy economy based on the realities of climate change and Peak Oil, we’ll probably get more of the same — our politicians have a long and sordid history of ignoring ideologically inconvenient facts, as witness the rejection of climate science by the entire Republican party.

Warren Senders

Month 4, Day 13: Not King Coal

I read a terrific piece at Kos about a politically viable strategy for weaning the US off its terrible coal addiction. So I appropriated a chunk of the piece, shuffled the clauses around, changed some verbs and punctuation, filed off all the serial numbers, and I’m now going to send it off to the Senators in charge of the climate bill.

Dear Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham,

As the recent tragedy in West Virginia reminds us, coal mining is a dirty and dangerous business. The true cost of coal includes places like Southeast Ohio, where even the cows have cancer; it includes hundreds of thousands of cases of black lung disease, and it irrefutably includes huge CO2 emissions which lead to global warming. And yet, these factors are never considered when we think of how “cheap” coal is as a source of energy.

In the long run, America needs to stop burning coal, and it needs to stop burning oil. The hidden costs of fossil fuels aren’t going to stay hidden much longer, now that the polar ice caps are melting and catastrophic climate change is just around the decadal corner. On the other hand, it’s not politically or economically realistic to think that we can start decommissioning these coal fired plants any time soon. A switch to natural gas would lead to massive price hikes in that commodity, creating conditions for poor people to freeze to death, and US agriculture’s total dependence on fertilizers created with natural gas would mean that food prices would closely track heating costs.

If we are to accomplish a lessening of CO2 emissions from the US energy system, we must be pragmatic. The legacy of coal and natural gas-fired electrical capacity is both a burden and a blessing. We need to focus on using coal and LNG as part of a strategy to integrate renewables into the electric grid — on thinking of renewable electricity is a way to conserve our fossil fuel resources rather than as a way to replace them. If every megawatt of power produced from renewables can keep a megawatt of coal or gas fired capacity offline when it’s available, we can start reducing our country’s grossly disproportionate carbon footprint.

If this strategy is coupled with a vigorous national push to reduce energy wastage, we might have an energy policy that actually accomplishes something. What we don’t need is a “political solution,” where our CO2 emissions are simply augmented with a lot of hot air.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders