Archive for July, 2006

Matching Problems and Solutions

Sunday, July 30th, 2006

A very intelligent people created a great computer in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “to calculate the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” After 7.5 million years, it produced the answer, 42. “Forty-two!” someone yells.

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

I often find myself wondering what the question was when I read solutions, changes in technology and behavior that will solve our problems, I can follow the logic in the policy community. Their question is, how can we cut world GHG emissions some by 2015 (US by 10%? 30%?) and 60% or more by 2050 (US by 94%).* The problem they want to solve is preventing catastrophic climate change.

An example of a different sort of answer comes from one of the environmental organizations, from their climate change page. It included much better efficiency, renewables, and carbon capture and storage for coal power plants, which together, they estimate, will cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. So what is the question? Could it be, how do we cut GHG emissions in half just in the US (but not worldwide)? (But why ask that question?) Or what can we accomplish with these technologies alone before we figure out how much else we have to do? (But they vetoed other technologies as not being OK.)

Occasionally people produce even stricter answers, requiring all changes to be behavior changes, but again, I don’t know the question. If all Americans give up cars, and make no other changes in behavior, such as taking the bus, American GHG emissions go down 27%. What was the question?

My sense is that many in the public – and I count environmental groups – are more interested in their solutions than in solving any particular problem.

Suppose some of these individuals and groups are right, that there really is a solution that doesn’t require nuclear power. That is, we can prevent catastrophic climate change and we don’t even need nuclear power. I have two questions: first, what if there is a glitch in the analysis? If worries about wind power turn out to be important, or improvements in solar power or efficiency don’t come as rapidly as hoped? Secondly, why not prevent as much climate change as we can, not just catastrophic climate change?

Reconsidering opposition to nuclear power today can still alter the future. Regretting opposition to nuclear power after 2015, or even after 2010, may be too late.

*Assumptions: if the GHG emissions worldwide are 40% of today’s level, and population increases 40%, then per capita GHG emissions are 28% of today’s level. Since the US now emits about 5 times the world average, US emissions would be 6% of today’s level unless we continue to emit more than others.

Nuclear Power — Reprocessing

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

I have been receiving a set of questions on nuclear power. I will be answering them over time in this space.

The danger of reprocessed fuel is nuclear proliferation in countries that don’t already have the bomb. Basically, reprocessing takes nuclear waste, and separates out the highly radioactive fission products, the small atoms. The uranium and transuranic elements are not very radioactive, and that portion is now safe to steal.

The plutonium in reprocessed fuel is contaminated with a large amount of Pu-240, while military grade plutonium is more than 93% Pu-239. Every country that uses plutonium to make bombs has a special reactor to make Pu-239, and all designs of bombs that have been tested use Pu-239. However, bomb specialists believe that a bomb, not very good, could be made with the contaminated plutonium, though estimates about the amount of fuel one would need are classified (as they are for bombs that have been built with military grade plutonium). The problem with too much Pu-240 is that it has a high rate of spontaneous fissions, producing neutrons. When these neutrons hit the plutonium fuel, “pre-initiation” may occur.

For a functional country, it’s easier and cheaper and more reliable to make the Pu-239, but for a dysfunctional country or a non-government, stealing may be easier. Overwhelmingly the best to steal, of course, is loose Russian nuclear weapons material. Perhaps second is stealing reprocessed fuel (not sure), if there were any reprocessing plants in countries with a loose rule of law.

The United States stopped reprocessing under Carter to “set a good example” for other countries, but neither France nor Britain, the other countries, stopped reprocessing. Additionally, US scientists believed it cheaper to toss used fuel into the ground than to reprocess. I don’t know how much this calculation has been affected by the protest (not based on the facts) of using Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, or by technology improvements, but some US scientists are now seeing reprocessing as more attractive.

Update I have no opinion yet on whether reprocessing is a good option for the United States. I am waiting for the various arguments being made in the science and policy community to sort out better in my head, or even better, among the people studying it. I have read enough to understand why people in policy promote nuclear power as one of the solutions.

For those who want to read more, I highly recommend David Bodansky Nuclear Energy Second Edition.

It Isn’t Just People

Friday, July 28th, 2006

Sharing an understanding of the heat wave that just hit us in Berkeley with people who don’t live on the coast has been a frustrating experience. Weeks of highs in the 80s and 90s, lows in the 60s, doesn’t look all that bad to people for whom summer always means warmth.

But plants and animals along the California coast settled in for the long haul — or a seasonal visit — in a climate without summer water but with highs rarely going above the high-60s or mid-70s in summer — yes, there would be a day or two during the summer of 100 or high-90s, but it didn’t last through the night. (October used to be our warm season on the coast.)

I expect that when the final count is taken, more than 100 Californians, and an enormous number of cows. will be dead. It will not be surprising if we see regional species extinction as well.

The Oakland Tribune quotes Peter Glieck, co-founder and president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment & Security:

I’ve been thinking about climate change for a long time. But even I’m a little bit shaken by the extent to which we’re seeing climate impacts in so many different ways, and in ways many of us didn’t expect.

I don’t see any good news.

The SF Chronicle article Climate change seen hurting national parks looks at a report on what may happen to Western National Parks. Temperature increases to date in the West, 3 F since 1900, are double the increases for the US as a whole (and triple increases worldwide — oceans are warming more slowly).

Proposed Coal Power Plants

Monday, July 24th, 2006

More than 100 coal power plants are proposed in the US, and far more than that in India and China.

It is important that wealthy countries build power plants only with carbon capture and storage (CCS) and help fund third world countries so that they can as well. Let’s start with US behavior first.

How do we fight the proposed coal power plants built without CCS?

It makes sense for us to write our newspapers, and contact our legislators, pointing out the advantage of a system like in California, where utilities are required in making plans to assume an ever increasing carbon tax. It makes sense to point out that increased costs of mitigation of greenhouse gases and adapting to (or just plain losing out to) climate change will swamp the small savings in electricity costs.

Other arguments? Other people to argue with, besides newspapers and legislators?

Update — responding to the comments Why the opposition to gasification with carbon capture and storage? For a century or so, this is an option (or appears to be, a large test must be run, smaller tests have worked to date). Injecting oxygen rather than air (1/5 oxygen) produces 1/5 as much waste gas, and this gas can be injected into oil wells and coal seams. While not as low carbon as nuclear power, it is much better than current coal power plants, and presents a good option for countries with a lot of coal that insist on using it.

California and Water

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

California’s Department of Water Resources has produced Progress on Incorporating Climate Change into Management of California’s Water Resources: detailed descriptions of expected challenges in water issues this century due to climate change and sea level rise.

I hadn’t considered the effect of El Nino, which blows the Pacific Ocean east and increases sea level, by 1/4 meter in January 1998. Climate models predict that El Ninos will become more frequent.

Caveat: The report focuses on the effect of a sea level rise of one foot, because the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report predicted a sea level rise of 4 – 33 inches. The 2007 IPCC report is expected to predict a sea level rise of up to 2 meters.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays
Ramsay Huntley from objected to my claims that the typical American could not offset greenhouse gas emissions for $100/year. His arguments are correct, but the mitigation costs he cites are the marginal costs of reducing GHG emissions. The average cost will be much greater, probably many hundreds of dollars per family per year for a partial reduction. offers a service to those who have reduced their GHG emissions — using more efficient cars and appliances and light bulbs, insulating more, wasting less energy on empty rooms, driving and flying less — and would like to pay for the remaining GHG emissions. This is a commendable attitude and I should not have been so critical.

I hope that a sizeable percentage of people who go this route also find their way to laboring with legislators.

Update isn’t just about offsets:

The most important thing that all of us can do to deal with climate change is to use less energy. Here at, our motto is “Reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.” Our mission is to educate people about steps they can take to reduce energy use.

Further update I used the calculator. I have a spreadsheet which I use in classes and workshops so students can look at their own greenhouse gas and oil behavior. The Carbonfund estimate of GHG emissions is about 60% of what I get using A) buses and trains as well, and more importantly, upstream costs, such as the GHG emissions from drilling, refining, and transporting oil, or natural gas leakage. Then there is an enormous amount, about 45% of our GHG emissions, which show up in industry, agriculture, water (19% of CA electricity goes to water), going to work or to the hospital or the store.

Most people should multiply the value by about 3 to get a more realistic sense of their GHG emissions.

Voluntarily Reducing Car and Airplane Use

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

People wanting to reduce car plus airplane use of oil by 10% in a year have been expressing confusion about how to compare them. We could just add up gallons of fuel, but that is misleading from a climate change viewpoint because airplanes do more damage than cars per gallon of fuel.

(T)he overall radiative forcing by aircraft (excluding that from changes in cirrus clouds) for all scenarios in this report is a factor of 2 to 4 larger than the forcing by aircraft carbon dioxide alone. The overall radiative forcing for the sum of all human activities is estimated to be at most a factor of 1.5 larger than that of carbon dioxide alone.

Additionally, there is the age complication. Using 2001 data, the typical American drives 9,347 miles, the typical licensed driver 13,476 miles.

16 – 19/7,600
20 – 34/15,100
35 – 54/15,300
55 – 64/12,000
In areas with good mass transit, the typical driver uses the car less. In the SF Bay Area, this figure is 7,600 miles; in New York City, it’s even lower.

Per capita use of airplane in 2001 was 1,990 miles.

So how do we compare these figures? While waiting for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to narrow the estimate, let’s assume that one gallon of oil in a jet produces twice the climate change problems of one gallon of oil used in a car, what with extra water vapor, etc. Assume your airplane gets 23.4 passenger miles to the gallon.

The typical American (not licensed driver) in 2001 used 452 gallons in the car (more if they were age 20 – 60, less if older or younger) and used another 85 gallons in car equivalent gallons while flying. Total: 540 gallons car equivalent.

For those deciding to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to travel by 10% this year, don’t count miles used by public transportation — we can count that in future years. Friends (Quakers) have a history of laboring together on our behavior. Does it make sense to ask those who use more than 540 gallons car equivalent to consider reducing to 10% below the American average, to 490 gallons car equivalent? What are your feelings? Your understanding, both emotional and spiritual?

After all, few people use the car and airplane as much as we in the US do. Our use of oil (includes heating oil, etc) is about double that in the EU and almost 6 times that of the rest of the world. We’ve created a universe where reducing use of the car and airplane is difficult logistically and psychologically.

I am interested in comments on the method used. Should we calculate different values for parents with young children?

I am also interested in what comes us for people emotionally and spiritually when considering flying and driving less.

Another blog: Calvin Jones left a comment on the previous post advertising his blog Climate Change Action. He has some interesting posts, and emphasizes issues relevant to the European Union.

Carbon Offsets and Airplane Use

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

I recently was asked whether it makes sense to buy individual carbon offsets to compensate for one’s own flying. A complicated question.

For most Americans, the greenhouse (GHG) emissions we are responsible for fall into the following categories:

• carbon stored over several hundred million years as coal and oil; this will be stored again over tens to hundreds of millions of years. The sun has been warming continuously, and will continue to warm, yet the Earth is much cooler today than in eons past, because of the storage of GHG as coal and oil, and the accompanying positive feedback (feedback causing change in the same direction) of increased GHG storage in soil.

• pollutants such as NOx and ozone that accompany the burning of fossil fuels.

• addition of never before seen GHG such as the chlorofluorocarbons (these also damage the ozone layer), and some less common pollutants previously seen such as nitrous oxide from agriculture (and fossil fuel burning)

• reducing the carbon stored in plants, notably trees. First, climate change has led to more forest fires (the increase in forest fires appears to be related to changes in the climate which are likely to be associated with global warming, such as more extreme weather—more fuel buildup followed by more droughts, warmer weather leading to dryer soil in general, and greater stresses on trees which allow bark beetles and other pests to damage or kill trees, making them more susceptible to burning), and these fires are hotter and harder to extinguish.

Additionally, in the far north, bark beetles can now survive an entire generation in the longer summers, and are proliferating. Additionally, as winter temperatures rise, but stay below freezing, snow increases, damaging tree canopies and making trees more susceptible to infestation. Pests are killing more trees, and forest fires in Alaska are increasing.

Also, warmer temperatures decrease the carbon and methane stored in the soil as the Earth cooled. If this moves up the list in terms of importance, we will already be in big trouble from climate change. And getting into much bigger trouble.

And exporting agriculture to the tropics especially has lead to deforestation.

For Americans and most wealthy people, the biggest part of the solution is to reduce the amount of GHG we take out of long-term storage. We need to rapidly and radically cut back on the amount of fossil fuels burned. We could do this by capping our own use and trading permits to minimize costs. This would raise the price of GHG-emitting behavior, and could include an added tax if the US and other countries sell rather than distribute permits. This added tax could A) raise revenue, and B) aid consumers in seeing the costs of their behavior, as the price begins to more accurately reflect these costs, and make more efficient cars, light bulbs, and appliances more attractive (along with paying for research and development in efficiency). Charging for permits would speed the transition from today’s carbon intensive technologies, as lower GHG technologies become more competitive.

Especially important for people who use airplanes is to see that air travel is included in future cap and trade programs.

Alternatively, we can help pay for the developing world (and some of the less well off first world) to replace planned coal plants or other fossil fuel alternatives with solar panels and wind, replace more expensive incandescent bulbs with cheaper compact fluorescent bulbs (but these cost more for the first one), and so on. We can do this by taxing our own energy use. Or there are several ways to contribute voluntarily, such as But these organizations generally state that it is possible for the average American to pay for GHG behavior with small annual fees, perhaps $100/year. Not likely.

Which is the most important, if you really need to fly? I would think that committing lots of time to laboring with national legislators (or in CA, with a few recalcitrant state legislators) on changing US behavior, making GHG cap and trade programs mandatory at a national level, along with involuntary taxes on our energy use, is important. Voluntary contributions are better than nothing, but not nearly as important as changing US behavior. (Though some of the trees projects that have been funded may have been worse than nothing.)

More on airplanes
Some discussions on air travel compare the merits of flying to driving. Airlines claim that because of higher seat occupancy, they get close to 47 passenger miles/gallon. This is misleading for two reasons. First, air travel is perhaps two to three times as bad as car travel per gallon burned from a climate change perspective, primarily because it deposits water vapor and other GHG so high in the atmosphere. See the Summary for Policy Makers and full report of Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, from 1999.

Secondly, people travel a certain number of hours, not a certain number of miles. People travel much further since airplanes have become available.

Whatever solution we each find must fit the goal. Step one of the goal is by 2015 to reduce world GHG emissions to 2005 levels, or even below. This will require major reductions in US GHG emissions and commensurate reductions in other rich countries.

Pay for Mitigating or Adapting to Climate Change?

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

Some economists have raised the question as to whether it makes more sense to pay for mitigation (reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases) or adapting to climate change. Everyone agrees we need to adapt some, as sea level rise up and changes in temperature and precipitation will require new water policies and shifts in agriculture.

Ironically, paying for adaption makes most sense if accompanied by an aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, to keep cumulative temperature increase below 2 C (2oth and 21st century): reducing GHG emissions by 2015 to 2005 levels or even lower, and reducing GHG emissions 60% or more between 2015 and 2050. This means that American per capita reductions will need to be well over 90%, unless we wish to continue the current practice that we who are richer get to emit considerably more than our share.

John Holdren has calculated that if we pay the costs of preventing catastrophic climate change (though the polar bears and coral reefs are committed to extinction soon pretty much in any scenario), we will reach 2050 levels of prosperity in 2051 or 2052.

He doesn’t count the cost of adapting to severe rather than catastrophic climate change.

If we don’t keep cumulative temperature increase below 2 C, many adaptations become too expensive. If we reach 2 C by 2050, as we are likely to under business as usual, there is a decent chance (almost a certainty?) that there will be a cumulative sea level rise of 1 meter (from 2000 levels) by some time in the third quarter of this century. This means that enormous levees would have to be built to assure that agricultural water is available in California south of the delta (east of San Francisco). But if sea level rises that rapidly, the next meter rise may take only 25 or 30 years, and it won’t make sense to build the second set of protections which will last only a short amount of time, so it won’t make sense to even build the initial levees.

Adaptation makes most sense if we confront climate change, not if we avoid dealing with it.

Of course, there will be enormous costs before we reach 1 meter sea level rise. Some are thinking about adaptation, but such considerations are not prevalent or serious enough given how rapidly the climate is changing, and is likely to change in the next few decades.

Laboring with National Legislators

Saturday, July 15th, 2006

What is it that we want our national legislators to do?

• Carbon cap and trade
• Double fuel economy for cars and light trucks and raise fuel prices so that we don’t increase driving as driving costs drop.
• Tax our own energy use to pay the developing world’s cost of reducing GHG emissions.

Carbon cap and trade, or greenhouse gas cap and trade, is the setting of caps on the amount of carbon dioxide/GHG that can be emitted in a country or economic sector such as electric power production, and then allowing the trading of permits so that industry finds the cheapest ways to reduce carbon/GHG emissions.

US per capita GDP is 30 times that in China, our share of the cumulative emissions to date is much greater than China’s, even though their population is greater. Who should pay?

Some Republicans are uncertain of the science, which if you avoid reading the science, is pretty easy. Some Democrats are more interested in making sure that solutions don’t include nuclear power, but there is no solution without nuclear power. Whatever their justifications, they have no excuses — we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels, or lower, by 2015, even as population and third world emissions increase. And then cut much more rapidly and radically by 2050. And then zero out carbon emissions.

Some legislators argue that we cannot afford these policies. John Holdren says that these extra economic burdens mean that we will not reach 2050 levels of prosperity until 2051 or 2052. What he does not say, but implies, is that without taking on these economic burdens to reduce the impact of climate change, we may never reach 2050 levels of prosperity.

What else can national legislators do? Require state policy — building codes and where people are allowed to live and water policy and… — to include adaptation to climate change. Adaptation will be required in the lifetime of buildings built today. Does it really make sense to resettle the coasts in Florida and Louisiana?

In some countries, fuel taxes are a significant source of revenue. Our legislators should at least request studies on the economic effects of phasing in high fuel taxes (on airplane fuel as well). Besides reducing other new taxes planned for January 2009, high fuel taxes lower the price per barrel paid to oil producers (European countries pay less for their oil than we do). High fuel prices provide stability, so that price increases due to political insecurity don’t have the same shock value, because prices start out high. High fuel taxes will be part of any carbon cap and trade program, but they can also be part of a more rational economic policy.

I hope to post on laboring with California legislators soon, but it may be August before I get it posted. Rule of thumb: support all of the new legislation being proposed to implement recommendations of the Climate Action Team.

Brief Comments on the Epistle

Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

• Definition of epistle from Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: a public letter of greeting and ministry – such letters are sent from a Friends Meeting or organization to other Friends groups, to supply information, spiritual insight, and encouragement.

• The nine-year window of opportunity mentioned comes from the analysis of climatologists and policy people. In order to keep cumulative temperature increase below 2 C, we must do the following:

Step 1: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to 2005 levels, or perhaps 10% lower than 2005 levels, even as population and per capita consumption continue to increase. Without success in step 1, there is no step 2 that will work.

Step 2: reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% or 60%+ or 60%++ by 2050 or earlier. Even as population and per capita consumption continue to increase.

Step 3: zero out carbon dioxide emissions to protect the oceans, which are acidifying as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The writers of the epistle wanted to keep it short, and so emphasized only the first timeline; many Friends and many in the public believe that we have less to do and longer to do it in.

• Re Bob’s comment on the last post — he is right that people deserve acknowledgment for changes already made. (Brief pause to consider these changes, whether they were easy or hard, but to take credit for either.)

However, I have cut my own emissions and see clear means of cutting my emissions by 10% or more. Perhaps others do as well. I would think that most Americans, including those who emit less than the American average, could reduce our GHG emissions 10% without substantial harm or inconvenience.

I would be surprised to learn that changing policy is considered a third option. As I understand it, all need to be done simultaneously and immediately.

• Al Gore tells us in An Inconvenient Truth to labor with our legislators, and if that doesn’t work, replace them. To get some idea where your Senator is on climate change, see how they voted on the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. If your Senator voted against it, they may have justifications. They have no excuse.

Epistle on Global Warming*

Monday, July 10th, 2006

The earth is growing hotter as a result of choices we have made. The signs are all around us in rising yearly average temperatures, melting glaciers, expanding deserts, increasing rates of extinctions, and weather extremes. There is unity within the scientific community that this is serious, that it is caused by human activity, and that the consequences of a failure to address global warming will be catastrophic.

We have a small window of opportunity. Over the course of the next nine years, if humanity fails to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, the result is likely to be a sea level rise of 10 to 13 feet per century until the level stabilizes at 80 feet above today’s level. Loss of productivity in ecosystems and crops worldwide will also occur, resulting in mass starvation.

We appeal to all Friends to make this concern a priority in our families, communities, and meetings, and to commit ourselves to learn more about this urgent planetary crisis, so that each of us may discern further actions that will be required of us.

Some actions that we can recommend at this time include:

• Reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions by 10% in the coming year by cutting driving, flying, and residential energy use. Walk and bicycle more, use mass transit and fluorescent light bulbs.

• When we have cut our own use of fossil fuel, labor with others to help them do the same.

• Labor with our legislators and if that doesn’t work, replace them.

We urge Friends as individuals and as meetings to engage the conversation and to stay with it. Meetings should institute quarterly threshing sessions to discern how we are led corporately to act.

Some of the changes that concern us deeply we can not escape. But others we can if we act responsibly now and into the future. The consequences of not acting are unthinkable for us, our children, and our grandchildren.

Friends, we urge you to attend to our call. For the love of everything you hold most dear, please take up this concern now and carry it back to your meeting.

Shared with Friends at the Concluding Meeting for Worship,
2006 Friends General Conference Gathering
Tacoma, July 7, 2006

Many references are available on this topic such as,, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found at This document can be found on

*from the participants in the Gathering workshop, Changing Climate, Changing Selves to Friends General Conference.