April 3, 2017

A war on climate is also a war on our health

Climate change and human health are inextricably linked. Stepping back from the fight against climate change will also be a massive loss for public health.

The Clean Power Plan has been a big win for health. According to the EPA, cutting exposure to particle pollution under the CPP would have averted up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 1,700 heart attacks each year.
According to the Global Burden of Disease project, more than 5 million people die worldwide each year because of air pollution — and emissions from coal-fired plants are a major risk factor here. It's one reason why health experts have been pushing policymakers to rapidly phase out of coal.
For miners, the immediate health risks include black lung disease and scarring of the lung tissue. But the pollutants emitted when coal is processed — including sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and mercury — have much more far-reaching effects on many more people.
In one large study involving 450,000 Americans followed between 1982 and 2004, researchers found that increased exposure to the particles in fossil fuel emissions increased the risk of death from heart disease — and particles from coal burning were five times more damaging than other similar particles.
Reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants also makes it easier to breathe. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change has been a significant driver of that trend. Air pollution triggers asthma attacks, contributing to lung abnormalities, particularly in the developing pulmonary systems of children.
Our health needs to be a big part of the discussion. It is not just the fate of our planet that is at risk if we scale back our commitment to fighting climate change. 

Climate Change, Water and Trees

The benefits of moving beyond our focus on energy.

When we talk about "energy", certainly in terms of policy, we usually mean what fuels our cars and heats our homes. Let's look at energy in a very basic sense, as in what happens when sunlight meets the ground. Say you have pavement, or land marked by degraded, exposed soil – the condition of much of the world's surface. When the sun beams down on that bare soil, solar energy is absorbed; it becomes sensible heat, or heat you can feel. Now amble over to a nice meadow, or well-managed rangeland with a thick carpet of grasses. Here solar energy touches down on plants that are transpiring. The solar heat is dispersed and becomes latent heat, embodied in water vapour, to be condensed and released as rain.

Climate is not a function of one sole metric; it is not a single story. And this is where we find opportunities.
When faced with an environmental predicament, it can be useful to inquire as to how nature has approached similar scenarios. For instance, in the case of wildfire, one can ask what processes used to keep that landscape hydrated and therefore resilient to fire. We learn that in the American west, beavers created wetlands and acted as "shock absorbers" that minimised fire risks. And when we ask what maintains our climate, the answer is water.
Were it not for the blanket of water vapour that buffers the Earth, our planet would be too cold to inhabit. The phase changes of water – from solid to liquid to gas, and back – represent an extraordinary transfer of heat. According to Australian microbiologist Walter Jehne, water-based processes in the atmosphere and the oceans, over land and across ice, govern some 95% of Earth's natural heat dynamics. It is the sheer immensity of water's role in climate that led scientists to conclude that humans could not have interfered with it. And yet, once we understand how water works – and how water intersects with factors we can influence, such as land use and plant cover – we can help to restore the processes that sustain the heat and energy balance, and therefore sustain our climate.
A deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Photograph: Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Image
Peter Andrews, a farmer and author in Australia, made a statement that has stuck with me: "Plants manage water. And in managing water, they manage heat." Worth noting: we have de-vegetated a quarter of the planet – including destroying most of our natural forests.
Every square metre of Earth's surface receives an average of 342 watts of solar energy a day. Because of how humans have altered the environment, we now radiate back about 339 watts per square metre – a difference of less than 1%. If we managed our ecology better, how might we make up that three-watt differential? How about if we had a lot more plant cover and a lot less bare ground?

Peak Precipitation increasing in a Warming World

A new study by Dr. Guiling Wang from the University of Connecticut and her colleagues has made a surprising discovery. Their work was just published in Nature Climate Change. They report that the peak temperature (the temperature where maximum precipitation occurs) is increasing in a warming world. 
The idea is shown in the sketch below. Details vary with location but, as the world warms, there is a shift from one curve to the next, from left to right. The result is a shift such that more intense precipitation occurs at higher temperatures in future, while the drop-off moves to even higher temperatures. 
 Increasing precipitation curves as the world warms 
In my state, we have had four 1000-year floods since the year 2000! Two years ago, Minneapolis, Minnesota had such flooding that people were literally fishing in the streets as lakes and streams overflowed and fish escaped the banks. 
It falls upon city planners and engineers to design infrastructure that is more able to accommodate heavy rains and manage water. This means designing river containment areas or flood plains, reinforcing buildings and houses, and increasing the capacity of storm drainage, just to name a few. 

Should Massachusetts go 100% renewable

The Boston Globe recently ran two editorials with the pros and cons of going 100% renewable and then asked their readers to vote. 

Here are the results. Going 100% renewable won by almost 12 to 1! 

Business Insider discovers solar's potential

There's one simple fact that may just change your thoughts on renewable power.

In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year.

Each hour 430 quintillion Joules of energy from the sun hits the Earth
That's 430 with 18 zeroes after it!
In comparison, the total amount of energy that all humans use in a year is about 410 quintillion Joules.
Clearly, we have a source of virtually unlimited clean energy in the form of solar power. 

April 1, 2017

Energy Star on the chopping block

Since it was established in the 1990s, the Energy Star program has saved U.S. consumers some $360 billion, mostly in electricity and water costs. According to a program report, consumers and business saved $31.5 billion in 2014 alone, while costs were about $57 million. That puts the return on investment for taxpayers at about 550 to 1.

The concept is simple: When someone goes to buy a washing machine (or drier, or blender, or light bulb), she looks at a number of factors — the price, the capacity, the size, maybe the brand name — and picks the one that is the cheapest while meeting her needs. But it's not always obvious what the ownership cost of a washing machine is. How much water does it use? How much electricity? In other words: How efficient is it? The Energy Star program (which has a whopping 85 percent brand recognition rate in the United States) offers that valuable information. 

And largely because of that high recognition rate, the program also incentivizes manufacturers to develop and offer more efficient products. Energy Star sells.

But maybe not for long. President Trump reportedly aims to kill the program entirely.

India and China with some good news

India is planning to cut coal consumption by dialing coal plants back so they are running less than half time over the next 5 years. 

"CEA has also estimated that all coal-based thermal power plants need to brace for drastic fall in capacity utilisation to as low as 48 per cent by 2022 as additional non-thermal electricity generation capacities come on stream." [India Times]

Beijing has announced a plan to replace all 67,000 fossil-fueled taxis in the city with electric cars. [Clean Technica]

Photos of the US before the EPA

Green Car Reports has a series of photos reminding us why the EPA was created in the first place. 

That is the George Washington Bridge below - if you can't tell. 

1970s Los Angeles smog

[Green Car Reports]

Wind and Solar are disrupting utility business models

The Economist lays out the problems and solutions of integrating renewables with the grid. Their assessment of the problem.

ALMOST 150 years after photovoltaic cells and wind turbines were invented, they still generate only 7% of the world's electricity. Yet something remarkable is happening. From being peripheral to the energy system just over a decade ago, they are now growing faster than any other energy source and their falling costs are making them competitive with fossil fuels. It is no longer far-fetched to think that the world is entering an era of clean, unlimited and cheap power. About time, too. 

There is a $20 trillion hitch, though. To get from here to there requires huge amounts of investment over the next few decades, to replace old smog-belching power plants and to upgrade the pylons and wires that bring electricity to consumers. Normally investors like putting their money into electricity because it offers reliable returns. Yet green energy has a dirty secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on. Unless the market is fixed, subsidies to the industry will only grow.

[Some see] ...this inconvenient truth as a reason to put the brakes on renewable energy. 
However, the solution is not less wind and solar. It is to rethink how the world prices clean energy in order to make better use of it. 

Their conclusion,

The bigger task is to redesign power markets to reflect the new need for flexible supply and demand. They should adjust prices more frequently, to reflect the fluctuations of the weather. At times of extreme scarcity, a high fixed price could kick in to prevent blackouts. Markets should reward those willing to use less electricity to balance the grid, just as they reward those who generate more of it. Bills could be structured to be higher or lower depending how strongly a customer wanted guaranteed power all the time—a bit like an insurance policy. 

In short, policymakers should be clear they have a problem and that the cause is not renewable energy, but the out-of-date system of electricity pricing. Then they should fix it.


Devastating budget cuts for earth science satellites

Under the draft Trump plan, NOAA's satellite program would be cut by more than a half billion dollars. 

These cuts would be particularly dangerous given that the Trump team has suggested eliminating NASA's Earth observation program and shifting its work over to NOAA.
Apparently, the only kind of satellites team Trump likes are those that point away from Earth and thus can't see and report on our changing climate. Who cares if those satellites are also critical for agricultural forecasting, disaster planning, weather prediction, and predicting the path of extreme events like hurricanes, tsunamis, and tornadoes?
"Cutting NOAA's satellite budget will compromise NOAA's mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans," former NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco told the Post. NOAA's former chief scientist Rick Spinrad said such cuts "would virtually guarantee jeopardizing the safety of the American public."

Cities Buying $10 Billion in Electric Vehicles

Dozens of U.S. cities are willing to buy $10 billion of electric cars and trucks to show skeptical automakers there's demand for low-emission vehicles, just as President Donald Trump seeks to review pollution standards the industry opposes.
Thirty cities including New York and Chicago jointly asked automakers for the cost and feasibility of providing 114,000 electric vehicles, including police cruisers, street sweepers and trash haulers, said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is coordinating the effort.

Large Sections of Australia’s Great Reef Are Now Dead

Severe bleaching last year on the northern Great Barrier Reef affected even the largest and oldest corals, like this slow-growing Porites colony. CreditTerry Hughes et al./Nature

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has long been one of the world's most magnificent natural wonders, so enormous it can be seen from space, so beautiful it can move visitors to tears.

But the reef, and the profusion of sea creatures living near it, are in profound trouble.

Huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, were recently found to be dead, killed last year by overheated seawater. More southerly sections around the middle of the reef that barely escaped then are bleaching now, a potential precursor to another die-off that could rob some of the reef's most visited areas of color and life.

"We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years," said Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia and the lead author of a paper on the reef that is being published Thursday as the cover article of the journal Nature. "In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs — literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead."

Mature stands of clonal staghorn corals on Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef could be seen destroyed by heat stress on Feb. 26, 2016, at left, and colonized by algae just a few weeks later on April 19, at right.CreditPhotographs by Terry Hughes et al./Nature

​[NY Times]