Archive for October, 2009

What Can I Do at Home?

Friday, October 30th, 2009

The question frequently arises: what can I change in my own life? I want a short, easy to implement list. Your question is now answered in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences report, Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce U.S. carbon emissions. They estimate we can reduce direct household greenhouse gas emissions by 1/5, and national emissions by 7.4%, “with little or no reduction in household well-being.”

Suggestions are grouped into 5 categories:

W (home weatherization and upgrades of heating and cooling equipment), particularly attic insulation, sealing drafts, installing high-efficiency windows, and replacing inefficient home heating, ventilating, and central air conditioning (HVAC) equipment. This group requires one-time investments. [In some areas, high-efficiency windows are expensive compared to the energy savings.]

By supplementing financial incentives with program elements such as energy audits, convenience, and quality assurance, the most effective programs significantly reduce nonfinancial costs of action as well as financial ones.

E (more efficient vehicles and nonheating and cooling home equipment), in a different category because the assumption is that consumers will do this at the end of the useful life of the current equipment.

M (equipment maintenance) are infrequent, low-cost or no-cost actions, but we need to develop good habits: maintaining cars and cleaning filters.

A (equipment adjustments) are infrequent, money-saving, and automatic once you’ve done them: reduce laundry temperatures, reset temperatures on water heaters).

D (daily use behaviors) require changing our habits and choices consciously, sometimes repeatedly: eliminate standby electricity, thermostat setbacks (change the setting at night or when no one is home), solar drying (clothes lines), more efficient driving, carpooling, and trip chaining).

How many will your vehicle hold?
How many will your vehicle hold?

Many of feel that using muscles and public transportation doesn’t reduce household well-being, consider adding these to the list.

How to get there from here?

The most effective interventions typically (i) combine several policy tools (e.g., information, persuasive appeals, and incentives) to address multiple barriers to behavior change; (ii) use strong social marketing, often featuring a combination of mass media appeals and participatory, community-based approaches that rely on social networks and can alter community social norms; and (iii) address multiple targets (e.g., individuals, communities, and businesses). Single policy tools have been notably ineffective in reducing household energy consumption. Mass media appeals and informational programs can change attitudes and increase knowledge, but they normally fail to change behavior because they do not make the desired actions any easier or more financially attractive. Financial incentives alone typically fall far short of producing cost minimizing behavior—a phenomenon commonly known as the energy efficiency gap. However, interventions that combine appeals, information, financial incentives, informal social influences, and efforts to reduce the transaction costs of taking the desired actions have demonstrated synergistic effects beyond the additive effects of single policy tools. The most effective package of interventions and the strongest demonstrated effects vary with the category of action targeted.


Friday, October 30th, 2009

Steven Chu was one of many people who benefited from and benefited Bell Labs, the premiere private research institution until the dismantling of AT&T. The underlying principle was to put a large number of really smart people in one space, and really good work will result. I’ve heard Chu talk a number of times, and the need to recreate a new Bell Labs is a frequent theme. There are more ideas than the group can use, so no one has to worry about their idea being stolen, and useful conversations abound. The majority of pathways lead to failure, but this is because the questions are the hard ones. Wikipedia lists 7 Nobel Prizes for work at Bell Labs, including Chu’s own.

Now Secretary of Energy Chu is overseeing Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Chu didn’t get funding for the hubs he hoped for, but DoE is funding a number of potential energy paths. Some of the projects getting funding:

• molten metal to store energy as part of the energy grid
• jet engine experts working on small scale wind turbines
• transgenic plants for cellulosic biofuels
• low cost crystals for LED lighting

No surprise: the biggies are solar, bioenergy, energy storage, carbon capture and storage, and vehicles. Also represented are building efficiency, waste heat capture, wind, geothermal, and desalination.

Chu says that he expects some projects to fail. So DoE is looking for big ideas.

Chu talking about Bell Labs
Chu talking about Bell Labs

Elementary school climate change reading material

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Update: It’s done, it’s a 5th grade reader (pdf) let me know what you think.

I’ve started an intro to climate change for 4th graders. Many of the concepts are normally introduce in higher grades (greenhouse effect in high school). It would be 5 essays, 125ish words each.

If you know of such a reader already, save me the trouble!! Tell me about it.

If you know a lot about writing for young people, please help. I’ve been working with two 4th graders for months and haven’t seen a semi-colon; I’m not completely clueless.

Public Concern and Scientific Warnings Diverge

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Thanks to the AAAS blog Science Insider:

• According to PEW, a declining number of Americans see climate change occurring, 58% in October 2009, down from 71% in April 2008. The numbers seeing climate change as anthropogenic are down to 36%, from 47% in 2008.

More people believe the problem is serious than believe it is anthropogenic.

Very Serious/Serious/Don’t Know
2008 44/29/3
2009 36/16/3

Fewer see solid evidence of global warming, from 2008 to 2009:
%2008—>%2009 (net change)
Dem 83—>75 (-12%)
Rep 49—>35 (-14%)
Ind 75—>53 (-22%)

Half of Americans favor setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions even if energy prices go up, though only 14% have heard a lot about cap and trade. Of that group, emissions limits are opposed 2 to 1.

• From the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre comes a new world map showing the effects of 4°C/7°F increase in temperature, expected some time this century, perhaps as early as 2060.

Where I live,
• Temperature would rise 6 – 7°C (increase is greater on land). Forest fires would increase.
• Some crop yields decrease 40%, perhaps more because estimates about decreases in crop yield don’t include more weather extremes.

• Assuming a population of 7.5 billion (OK, where did the others go?), 3 billion would be living with water shortage, less than 1000 cubic meters/year.
• Now, 600 million are living within 10 meters of sea level, so any rise would increase flooding and reduce freshwater availability.
• In eastern North America, the hottest day of the year could be 10-12°C, 18-22°F, warmer.
• Water runoff could decrease 70% around the Mediterranean, southern African, and large areas of South America.
• Himalayan glaciers will be reduced significantly by 2050, even at less than 4°C increase. Almost a quarter of China’s population lives in regions where glacial melt is the principal dry season water source, and 70% of the Indus river basin flow comes from glacier melt.

Middle school climate change teaching materials to be developed

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Project 2061 has received funding to develop teaching materials for climate change. Over the next 3 years, scientists, teachers, and others will work together to produce materials that will be made available online for free.

The team will use data collected by NASA and NOAA on global observations of oceans, atmosphere, land surface, and the biosphere. The team will also address common misconceptions that many students have about key ideas related to climate and climate change.

“We think that these kinds of activities—missing from most textbooks—can make a big difference in both motivating students and in helping them understand important science ideas,” [Jo Ellen] Roseman [director of Project 2061] said.

Blog Action Day 2009: Focus on the areas of disagreement

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I’ve been seeing suggestions that the way to address climate change is to tackle areas of agreement first. Large numbers of Americans agree that solar and wind are the solution? Congress should finance solar and wind because we can agree on them even if solar in particular is not an important solution (yet).

My take is different—focusing on the hard issues is more likely to get us to meaningful mitigation. First, we need to solve the hard issues anyway. And Americans are going to continue to see climate change at the bottom of the environmental list if we don’t see more people clearly moving out of their comfort zone to solutions that are important.

Here’s my list of the hard issues:

• Easiest in this category are technology choices such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and so on for those with strong feelings about particular technology choices.

• Harder is agreeing that climate change will cost, that we are going to pay for mitigation, and how. Economists estimate the cost at 1 – 3% of the gross domestic product per year for the next several decades (or forever) plus the cost of adaptation. This means in economists’ terms that we will lose one year of increased prosperity, and then the GDP will continue its upward trend. It also means that we in the US pay as much as $1400+ per capita per year. More if we insist on a strong solar component in our solution. Yes, mitigation is significantly cheaper than the alternative. Yes, our incomes would double in 29 years (instead of 28 years). Is this enough to madke negotiation easy?

[Example: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 3 (pdf, page 80) finds a cost of less than 3% of the GDP by 2030, though for lesser reductions. The number of their studies was small.]

• Hardest is finding ways to restrict our behavior. A number of people have told me that they obey the law, but find voluntary change difficult. How can we find ways to restrict flying, driving, buying big houses in the ‘burbs, and so on?

What is your list of hard behaviors?

Do you agree that we should start with the hard behaviors first?

The greedy side of green consumers

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

From the writeup at Climate Feedback, the blog:

Mere exposure to green products can make people behave more altruistically, but purchasing those same products can have quite the opposite effect, suggests a new study in press at the journal Psychological Science.

The blog entry didn’t demonstrate this, just that given two randomly assigned groups of people, those exposed to green products and those who purchased them, actually buying the products appeared to provide a “moral offset” on the next task.

Note: I see this in real life (based on people I know, this is not scientifically valid!!!) except among Prius owners, for whom the Prius purchase is part of a set of changes they make in their lives.

What do you see?
Green consumers
Green consumers photo credit

Update: Also, I wonder how accurate my impressions are, even among my very limited sample.

The New York Times, When ‘Green’ Consumers Decide,‘ I’ve Done Enough’, gives more information.

What are people’s concerns about nuclear waste?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

In a Q&A session, I asked people for their concerns on nuclear waste, numbers at risk, year when this would occur, and where they had read about this concern.

Many were proxies for actual concerns: the government lies to us or the US government will likely collapse within hundreds of years and there is no way to protect the waste afterward.

Concerns ranged from nuclear waste transport (no scenarios as to what might happen, no numbers of affected) to hundreds of thousands of years from now all North Americans would have mutated to creatures with grimaces and distorted body shapes.

Other species as well?
Other species as well? Picture credit

Everyone present, everyone, described their concern coming from their own imagination.

When I began reading about nuclear power in 1995, I had preconceptions about the dangers of nuclear waste. Those who clearly knew what they were talking about did not think that nuclear waste was dangerous, and those who agreed with me provided no numbers and no scenarios, only that nuclear waste is highly radioactive for decades and radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. I could not find any source for the numbers I worried about, or any other numbers that would make nuclear waste appear to be a serious concern.

I have seen this elsewhere. When California newspapers were full of stories about MTBE (a gasoline additive) polluting the water, I asked 10 people what harm came from MTBE. Eight told me cancer, and two birth defects. The actual known problem (pdf) is that for 15%?? of the population, MTBE makes the water unpalatable. In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks.

A second example I read somewhere or other: Mugabe rejected a US offer of food aid because it was transgenic. He told Zimbabweans that the food would make them sick, but not how. The most common concern? The donated food would cause AIDS.

I believe the group trying to explain their concerns about nuclear waste felt that the wide variety of concerns about nuclear waste reflected a number of paths to nuclear waste problems, rather than wild guesses to fill in the blanks.

Have any of you seen concrete numbers on nuclear waste: what harm would occur under what scenarios?

What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Greg Craven’s book, What’s the Worst that Could Happen?, is an excellent text on critical thinking, applied to the climate change problem. He focuses on sorting through claims which range from “This is the biggest threat in human history” all the way to “No, this is the biggest hoax in history.”

Several tens of pages are devoted to looking at the sources we use. He begins with the ways we deceive ourselves.

So now that you fear your own brain, what can you do to domesticate it? As with all problems, the first step is admitting you have one. This really is the hardest part… The higher the stakes, the greater care you probably want to take in forming your opinion, and having an alarm set up to warn you that you are on fertile ground for confirmation bias.”

Craven suggests ways to fight our own confirmation bias. These include making a list of things that could change our mind, and looking for sources more trustworthy than our biases.

He has some excellent exercises, which demonstrate his own process, different from mine, and different from yours.

An excellent reason to go to sources: to overcome the ideas I bring into the discussion. I realized that early on in my own process, that I had (and still have) preconceptions as well as ignorance, and so found sources I trust more than myself.

4 degrees and beyond, pt 2

Monday, October 5th, 2009

From the conference, Betts audio and slides (pdf) gives an overview:

• Current CO2 emissions are near (but not above) upper end of IPCC scenarios
• 4°C global warming (relative to pre-industrial) is possible by the 2090s, especially under high emissions scenario [without considering feedback]
• Many areas could warm by 10°C or more
• The Arctic could warm by 15°C or more
• Annual precipitation could decrease by 20% or more in many areas
• Carbon cycle feedbacks expected to accelerate warming
• With high emissions, best guess is 4°C in 2070s
• Plausible worst case: 4°C by 2060

Note: many areas with higher precipitation are likelier to become drier with temperature increases.

From Nayamuth audio, looking at effect of climate change on sugar cane biofuels in Mauritius, which will decrease between 24 and 62% with a 4°C increase:

Sugarcane industry highly vulnerable to CC
Adaptation impossible because of
• Increased water demand
• High costs of irrigation network
• High costs of water storage
• Less water from reduced rainfall
• 4°C beyond adaptation limit
4°C = GHG emissions = Further GLOBAL WARMING [due to lower availability of biofuels]

Karoly, slides (pdf) and audio, talks about wildfire increase:

Australian bushfires linked to climate change associated with a temperature increase of only 0.8°C in February 2009 killed more than 170 people. This year, consistent with predictions, California, Australia, and Athens experienced large fires.

Climate change doesn’t cause fire, but does change weather conditions (seasonal maximum, humidity, and winds), fuel conditions (dry due to droughts), and the frequency of lightning. While there have been large forest fires earlier, the forest fire danger index is much larger than ever before in places like Australia and southern California.

Climate change impacts on fires

• British Columbia: 30% increase in fire season,
95% increase in fire weather severity in summer
for a +3°C world (Nitschke and Innes, 2008)
• California: 12% to 90% increase in number of large
fires (depending on region) for a +3°C world
(Westerling and Bryant, 2008)

Australia’s fires in February were 50% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions this year were from fires, but for now are considered “natural” and not added to the Australia column.

Gemenne, slides (pdf) and audio, talks about population displacement:

Which impacts of climate change induce population displacements, and where?
• Droughts and desertification, water stress
In Subsahelian Africa
In Northern Asia
In Central America

• Extreme weather events
In South-East Asia and Asia-Pacific
In the Gulf of Mexico

• Sea-level rise
In coastal and deltaic regions
In small island states

> Most of these regions are very densely populated

Calculations on the impact of climate change on migration will be difficult, because of the existence of and interaction with other problems, including environmental problems. The impact of climate change on a population depends on adaptive capacities. And little is known about population reaction to environmental disruptions.

See Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios for 23 case studies. The poorest and most vulnerable often lack the resources to migrate.

See more on this conference at
Part 1

4 Degrees and Beyond

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Nature’s blog, Climate Feedback, has been covering the conference, 4 Degrees and Beyond. Slides and audio have been posted.

How soon is it coming?
As early as 2060, depending on strength of feedbacks.

To flee the sea, or not to flee?
The questions on ice sheet dynamics have still not been answered, so there is no agreed upon answer.

Adaption to what?

Audio and slides from the conference.
Schnellnhuber talks about the increase in concern with temperature increase since 2001:
burning embers diagram
burning embers diagram: 2°C increase no longer considered safe. From Proceedings of the National Academy’s Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”. (pdf)

While we don’t know sea level rise in the 21st century, in the long run, sea level was 50 m higher at atmospheric CO2 level of 2x prehistoric (note: we’re adding greenhouse gases in addition to carbon dioxide). The ocean will have oxygen holes (large areas of oxygen depletion). Key message: “Temperature rises above 2°C […] are likely to cause major societal and environmental disruptions through the rest of the century and beyond.“

To be continued