Year 4, Month 5, Day 7: There Went The Sun

The Portland Tribune talks about coal. It’s bad stuff:

My greenhouse is covered with a thin plastic film. A few molecules of plastic are all it takes to make it 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer inside than out.

When coal, gasoline and natural gas are burned, they produce carbon dioxide that traps heat just like the plastic film of my greenhouse.

Green plants recycle carbon dioxide, but they can’t keep up with the amount that we put out. Two hundred years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were 280 parts-per-million; now they’re more than 395 ppm. Every year globally, we burn 9 billion tons of fossil fuels. None of this is disputed.

The debate is about whether there are any consequences. Six years ago, the consensus among climate scientists was that man was accelerating climate change by burning fossil fuels.

The Earth’s climate has always changed, but never as fast as now. The change we are experiencing is a response to the coal and oil we burned 50 to 100 years ago. Our average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-Industrial Age. Sea levels are rising due to thermal expansion.

The scientific consensus is that a rise of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit would be bad, but survivable. Even if we stopped burning carbon today, scientists forecast that we would blow past this mark just from what we’ve done during the past 50 years.

Each year that we continue our reliance on fossil fuels will add $500 billion to the cost of mitigation. Warmer oceans produce stronger storms, so New York is planning to build a seawall. The Clark County (Wash.) Health Department is planning for refugees coming from the hot southern states by 2030. The forecast is for the oceans and the Willamette River to rise 2 feet by 2050.

It’s all solar. The only difference is how long it’s been sitting around. April 25:

If humans are to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we need to transform the way we think about oil and coal. For too long we’ve considered them an easily-extracted source of cheap energy (just dig a hole!), while ignoring all their costly externalities (health effects, oil wars, environmental pollution, climate change). This faulty accounting has to change, of course.

But something else needs to find its way into our thinking. Fossil fuels are the remnants of the ancient sunlight which shone on the dinosaurs; when we carelessly idle our cars we are burning solar energy that is hundreds of millions of years old. Just as we are outraged when ancient cave paintings are despoiled, so should we be repelled by the profligate destruction of one of our oldest planetary inheritances in the name of convenience. We’ll do far better if we harvest sunlight when it’s fresh.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 3, Day 8: Who Dat Who Say Who Dat When I Say Who Dat?

The Denver Post marvels at the relationship between family-oriented community life and support for sustainable energy:

What might you expect to find in communities where “family values” are the strongest? More churches? More parents helping out in classrooms? Maybe more bake sales? Yes, perhaps. But there’s one thing you would definitely find: solar panels.

Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that one modern marker of communities with greater “family interdependence” — a social science term that indicates the value a person places on time spent with their family — is that more new solar energy businesses take root. Further, where state solar incentives are in place, high levels of family interdependence seem to supercharge the effectiveness of those incentives.

These aren’t just weird facts. The information is mind-blowing. It suggests that if government cares about solving climate change, or clean energy jobs, or entrepreneurship, then social norms — the unwritten rules of community conduct — might matter as much as rebates and incentives.

There’s a big difference between saying “pro-family” and being “pro-family.” Sent February 26:

It’s hardly counterintuitive to notice that vibrant, family-friendly communities are more likely to adopt renewable energy and make it work. A family is a chain of relationships extending forward and backward in time — an unambiguous argument for sustainability. It takes a village to raise a windmill or a solar panel.

For all their pro-family rhetoric, anti-environment conservatives are unlikely to believe that “family values” extend to people who aren’t just like them — and the GOP’s extreme libertarians are far more likely to adopt every-man-for-himself ideologies that discount and disrespect the crucial importance of community, inclusiveness, and long-term stability.

Equally important, the inevitable disruptions of global climate change will impact all of humanity significantly, damaging physical infrastructure and crippling agriculture. Coping with these changes will require a strengthened social infrastructure, and a recognition that America’s motto is “E Pluribus Unum,” not “what’s in it for me?”

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 1: Happy New Year, Everybody!

The Chicago Sun-Times runs an article on Prashant Kamat’s solar paint.

A team of University of Notre Dame scientists say they’ve developed a “solar paint” that can inexpensively harness the sun’s power.

The “Sun-Believable” paint moves the silicon-based solar power industry into new territory by using nanoparticles that act as semiconductors to turn sunlight into power.

The Notre Dame team — whose findings appear in the journal ACS Nano — created its paint from tiny particles of titanium dioxide coated with one of two cadmium-based substances. That’s mixed with a water-alcohol mixture to create a paste. When the paste is brushed onto a transparent conducting material and exposed to light, it creates electricity.

The paint’s best light-to-energy conversion efficiency is just 1 percent. But its developers are working to boost that.

I had originally sent a letter to the paper in South Bend, IN — but they told me if I wasn’t a local, they wouldn’t publish it. So I wound up rewriting that letter for the Sun-Times. Sent December 28:

There is no “silver bullet” to halt the slow-motion disaster of global climate change. To handle such a multi-dimensional problem, our country must harness the innovation and creativity of its citizens. The solar paint recently announced by researchers at Notre Dame is an excellent example of what our tax dollars could be funding.

For decades, our contributions have supported the fossil fuel industry with substantial subsidies and tax breaks. Oil and coal were never cheap. We are just beginning to appreciate the health and environmental costs of a century’s worth of burned carbon — not to mention the elaborate and costly machinery of war.

By contrast, government support for projects like Professor Kamat’s paint would be a natural in a sustainability-focused economy. If my tax dollars went to build a new energy infrastructure and address the threat of climate chaos, I’d feel a whole lot happier every April 15.

Warren Senders

Month 2, Day 14: John Kerry Gets a Valentine

It’s getting easier to dash these off. As I predicted, I now have a stock of rhetorical devices and constructions that can be strung together to set off whatever new material I’m including. Here, for example, I’m asking Kerry to co-sponsor Bernie Sanders’ wonderful “10 Million Solar Roofs & 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act,” and calling his attention to Bill Gates’ recent statements on energy. These two nuggets are set in a nest of apocalyptic boilerplate.

Dear Senator Kerry —

Thank you for all your efforts in advancing the cause of meaningful legislation on climate change. This issue is without doubt the most important existential threat humanity has ever faced. Yet a significant proportion of the American public doesn’t believe it’s happening.

Our population’s tragic indifference to the fate of the planet is partly the fault of the media, which is obsessed with short-term phenomena, and partly the fault of our corrupt political system. When the time lag between climate action and climate effect is five or six times longer than the electoral cycle that rules the life of a U.S. Senator, we can see why it’s always “never the right time” to deal head-on with the issue of global warming.

And when Washington is under many feet of snow and the Republicans are mocking Al Gore on the Capitol lawn? It must be incredibly frustrating.

Please don’t give up. Keep speaking out. Keep working to educate your constituents and audiences around the country. We need to have advocates for even stronger climate measures than are presently on the table; our goal should be atmospheric CO2 in the 350 ppm range. Bill Gates just stated that we should stop all CO2 emissions by 2050, and this is a laudable goal. There is no greater threat to all of us than runaway climate change; Dr. James Hansen’s worst-case scenario can be summed up in one word: Venus.

I urge you to co-sponsor Senator Sanders’ proposed “10 Million Solar Roofs & 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act” legislation. That’s a great place to begin: by putting people to work and transforming our country’s energy equation.

Thank you again for your commitment to confronting climate-change issues. It is crucial for our children’s children and their children’s children in turn that we take effective action now. There will not be an opportunity to try again if we screw it up.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders