What I meant to say was…

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

I try to be clear when I write prose – poetry is not as straightforward by design – but I am running into a problem. I tend to use words assuming readers will apply standard dictionary definitions, but I am finding myself increasingly having to explain at length what I mean by a certain term, so as not to be misinterpreted, as I did in my recent post My (Feminist) Story.

I do understand the difference between connotation and denotation, but it is a pity that many words that usefully describe philosophical or political views have become so skewed from their dictionary definition as to be unusable in practical terms. For example, the words “liberal” and “progressive” are heard more often as epithets than as accurate descriptors of actual policies. Past conservative presidents like Richard Nixon would now be considered liberal, given the positions of those who now describe themselves as conservative.

The word whose misuse most disturbs me is “science.” Science is about data, evidence, observation, reason, leading to conclusions consistent with facts and repeatable by other scientists. In order for papers to be published in scientific journals, they first must be reviewed by peers with knowledge of the field to ensure that the study’s procedures and conclusions meet research standards. Yes, there are studies that later need to be withdrawn when errors are found after publication, but that is rare.

I frequently write comments on news articles about unconventional fossil fuel extraction including “fracking,” renewable energy, and climate change. In my home state of New York, we are in a continuing battle over whether or not high volume hydraulic fracturing will be permitted. The governor has said that science will be the determining factor. The problem is that both sides say they have the science on their side.

The pro-fracking side has industry studies, which are almost never subject to peer review, bold pronouncements from the industry and their allies that fracking is safe, exemptions from key environmental provisions that apply to other industries, gag orders on court settlements of damage claims, and regulatory agencies that are a revolving door to the industry and that use subcontractors that also work with the industry to draft environmental review documents and regulations.

What we on the anti-fracking side have is – well – science. There was a trickle of studies at first, because scientific study takes time with additional time needed for peer review, but there have been more and more studies, especially in the last eighteen months, documenting environmental impacts on air, water, biosphere, climate, and public health. There is a new compendium of research on fracking here. (I can’t resist posting the link to the compendium at every available opportunity.)

Anyone who knows the definition of science should be able to tell which side is using science in their argument. I can understand that some people who are hoping to profit from fracking might delude themselves into believing the industry over the scientists. I don’t understand the press giving equivalency to the remarks of a peer-reviewed independent scientist and an industry spokesperson/propagandist.

The press should be clear with the definition of science. I know it has become common for politicians at all levels of government to say “I am not a scientist” as an excuse not to understand issues such as climate change. Frankly, people do not need to understand all the intricacies of scientific inquiry to believe a strong scientific consensus. They do need to understand the definition of science and to discern what meets the standards of science and what does not.

Hawai’i and Climate Change

Hawai’i is the inhabited place that is most distant from any other inhabited place in the world. Because of its isolation, Hawai’i is home to more endemic species than anywhere else on earth. Endemic means that a species is found just in that one area and nowhere else on earth. In such a remote location in the middle of the Pacific, one is tempted to think that climate change won’t affect the islands, but that is a mistake. There is a reason that climate change often appears with the adjective “global” in front of it.

The ecosystems and microclimates of Hawai’i are already complicated, due to topography. There are dry leeward sides and wet windward sides. The height of some of the volcanoes creates an alpine ecosystem. The peak of Kaua’i is the wettest place on earth, averaging over 450 inches of rain a year, yet other areas are deserts. There are tropical, temperate, and dryland forests.

Yet, even here, the climate is changing noticeably. The trade winds are what keeps Hawai’i from being as hot and humid as one would expect at this latitude, yet more and more often the trade winds stop blowing. This creates longer periods of hot, humid weather, even when it isn’t summer. Most of our time in Honolulu, there was a heat wave, despite it being early May. The trades dying down exacerbates vog, which is smog caused by volcanic ash. Given that Kilauea has been erupting continuously, the airborne ash can travel to other islands and create air quality problems for them. When the trade winds die down, the ash levels build up and people with breathing difficulties suffer.

The native Hawaiians named only two seasons, the rainy season and the hot season. In our current terms, the rainy season was late fall through early spring, but, as we see in other parts of the world, weather tends to be more extreme, so the wet season tends to be wetter and longer, with more possibilities of thunderstorms, which had been very rare. Meanwhile, the hot season is hotter and can get much more humid when the trade winds die down, which is happening much more frequently than in the past.

The increased dryness of the dry ecosystems makes them more vulnerable to drought. When we were on the leeward side of the Big Island, there were many signs warning of extreme fire danger. Wildfire is especially dangerous in Hawai’i because the plants evolved there without that threat, so they are not adapted to survive or re-populate after it. The problem is made worse by invasive species, such as fountain grass which grows on relatively fresh lava flows, making them useless as natural fire breaks. When we visited Ka’upulehu , Wilds was telling us about some of the problems that climate change is causing for them in their mission to restore a native dryland forest, one of which was the need to maintain fire breaks around the perimeter to protect the native plants.

The people of Hawai’i are working to reduce their carbon footprint to help fight climate change. There are many more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles here, along with public charging stations. Rooftop solar photovoltaics and hot water are common. There is a light rail system being built in Honolulu to alleviate wasted time and fuel on the highway. There is some utilization of geothermal power, as well.

I have already been trying to do my part to combat climate change and this trip makes those efforts seem that much more important. I hope you will join me in work toward energy efficiency and renewable energy for the sake of extraordinarily beautiful Hawai’i and the rest of the world.

 

 

My response to EDF’s climate confession email

This message from the Environmental Defense Fund: http://support.edf.org/site/MessageViewer?dlv_id=65441&em_id=35201.0
really upset me. They have been giving cover to the oil and gas industry to keep fracking, so I took their invitation to write to them and sent the following:

I am distressed with your climate confession email because your hopeful graph isn’t telling the whole story. The graph only tells about carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector. It ignores other sectors and, even more disturbingly, ignores the emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and is particularly damaging in the twenty year timeframe, which is the critical time period in which we can temper climate change to make it only damaging to the planet and its inhabitants, instead of catastrophic.

It sickens me that EDF has fallen into the trap of the oil and gas industry to push ramping up unconventional fossil fuel extraction by HVHF in the name of helping the climate when what we really need to do is withdraw all support for fossil fuels and convert to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

comment to Nat’l Geographic on “green” fracking

After I had already commented on this article:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/03/140319-5-technologies-for-greener-fracking/#, a call went out from a fracktivist blogger that we should also blog our comments, so here is mine:

No fossil fuel can be green. Period. All of the things that are in this article have been around for several years and get trotted out by the industry to try to give themselves cover, but they are not widely implemented and some of them are not widely implementable. Fracking with gelled propane is not only more expensive, it is also much more dangerous and cannot be used close to people because of the explosion hazard. Most of the methane that leaks is not from the wells, although some is, but from processing and underground pipelines. The horrible explosion in NYC recently highlights the deplorable state of methane infrastructure in the US. The only green choice is to stop going after unconventional fossil fuels and use remaining conventional sources as we move to renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

Comment on methane emissions and leakage

I just sent the following comment to this article: http://theenergycollective.com/sierenernst/330521/quantifying-impact-multiple-avenues-methanes-underestimation . It’s my first time commenting on this site, so moderation may take a while. I thought I’d post here because I spent so much time on it, I figured it might as well appear somewhere.

There have been several recent NOAA-partnered studies showing high levels of leakage (from 4% to 9+%) in the Denver-Julesburg, Uintah, and Los Angeles basins. These were measured from atmospheric rather than surface instruments, so they would show leakage from drilling operations along with the immediate processing infrastructure. They also were able to categorize the methane associated with drilling from that from other sources, such as landfills and agriculture.   http://www.nature.com/news/air-sampling-reveals-high-emissions-from-gas-field-1.9982  http://blogs.agu.org/geospace/2013/08/09/scientists-observe-significant-methane-leaks-in-a-utah-natural-gas-field/   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/solving-the-case-of-californias-extra-machine/

We also need to consider that in some plays, such as the Bakken, methane is treated as a byproduct that isn’t worth the dollars and effort to capture, so it is flared or even vented for months on end while the companies concentrate on the much more lucrative oil. This contributes to atmospheric carbon dioxide with absolutely no beneficial use to society and currently unmeasured amounts of methane and other hydrocarbons and VOCs escaping to the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse gas load.

There are some studies in big cities, such as Boston, New York, and Washington, that show thousands of leaks in the distribution lines, causing leakage rates up to 3%. The distribution companies who should be maintaining these lines don’t hurry to fix them because their customers are being charged for the leaked gas as part of their rates.   http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/07/31/gas-leaks-costing-mass-consumers/5nIv3FsJaZRwscJ48jGMsI/story.html  Unfortunately, the climate comes out as a loser.

Plus, there are the thousands upon thousands of miles of pipelines and the compressor stations and other infrastructure that are venting and leaking gas, which is not being measured. Methane plumes sometimes form in areas where drilling has occurred. http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/study-airborne-methane-plume-found-near-bradford-county-gas-migration-site-1.1335347 And let’s not forget the methane emissions that are inherent in the production, storage, transport, and use of LNG.

Even if every driller used best practices with every new well going forward, there would still be much higher total leakage rates than the current EPA estimates. With so many sources of leakage, they would not be easy or cheap to fix. The comparison with coal is low-ball. Instead of comparing one fossil fuel to another, let’s compare, as the original Howarth/Ingraffea/Santoro paper does, to solar, wind, and other energy technologies. That will give us a better idea of the wisest places to concentrate our resources in the fight to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.

Open Letter to President Obama on Climate Change

http://ecowatch.com/2014/01/16/obama-climate-keystone-xl-fracking-arctic/

The letter that is part of the article above encapsulates what many of us have been saying for years. Let’s hope the President is finally in a position to take action to push renewable energy and reduce fossil fuels.

I did finally get a reply to the letter I sent to the President after his appearance at Binghamton University last August. https://topofjcsmind.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/letter-to-president-obama/  It was disappointing, as it failed to acknowledge any points that I had made, just re-iterating the accomplishments of the administration in renewables and the “all of the above” strategy that is causing us to lost ground even further on fossil-fuel-induced climate change.

Obviously, an open letter signed by so many major environmental organizations has much more sway than letters from unknown constituents such as myself. Even then, is it possible to move the bureaucracy and the Congress in the right direction?

typhoon lessons

I have been following the horrible impacts of typhoon Haiyan on The Philippines. I was moved by Yeb Sano’s speech and action at the UN climate talks in Poland. http://ecowatch.com/2013/11/11/philippines-typhoon-global-warming-warsaw-climate-talks/  When will we wake up to the extreme danger that climate change has on our planet and all its inhabitants and take the swift and strong actions we need to keep the earth (at least mostly) hospitable?

Will Haiyan, in the wake of wildfires, floods, droughts, glacial melt, heat waves, and record storms of all types across the globe finally be the motivator to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels? We have already delayed much longer than the science indicated was wise and we can’t undo the damage we have already inflicted on the atmosphere, but we must stop our dependence on fossil fuels if we are to have any hope of averting runaway greenhouse impacts, with massive melting of permafrost and methane hydrate release from the oceans.

I have been trying to do my part by opposing unconventional fossil fuel extraction, promoting efficiency, and supporting renewable energy technology, but, even with many others following the same path, we have been unable to affect change quickly enough. In the aftermath of Haiyan, I find myself thinking within a Catholic social justice framework:  about social sin, about care of creation, about the dignity of human life in community, about the responsibility I – and each of us – have to care for others and the earth.

I haven’t figured out yet how much more I can do. I pray that enough people will come together to finally move public policy in the direction necessary to save the planet before it is too late. While we need to preserve the earth for future generations, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we also need to act for present generations.

 

 

Superstorm Sandy anniversary

This week, there are a lot of reports on the one year anniversary of superstorm Sandy, much of it revolving around how slow and difficult re-building has been and how much is left to do. While these reports are true and I understand the frustrations, the situation should not have been a surprise. Recovery from major disasters is usually slow. Compare today’s New Orleans to pre-Katrina. I live in a town that was affected by the flooding of the Susquehanna with tropical storm Lee in September, 2011. Some of the FEMA buyouts in my county are just going through now, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Sandy hadn’t been so devastating that it mustered additional federal disaster recovery funding for New York State.

The sad truth is that many homes and businesses that were destroyed should not be re-built in the same location, even if they are elevated. For decades, we have been building on barrier islands, river banks, shorelines, flood plains, hillsides that are at high risk for landslides, former marshes and wetlands, and all manner of unstable topography. We built various flood walls and levees and drainage systems and sea walls and planted wind breaks and tried to convince ourselves that we could control nature, but it is becoming increasingly evident how foolish we were. Barrier islands are meant to be temporary landforms, breaking and reforming when they are battered by winds and waves. The sand on the shores is meant to migrate. Floods are meant to deposit new soil on their floodplains and to change the path of the river bed. It’s why mature rivers develop bends and meanders. Marshes and other wetlands absorb some of the excess precipitation to blunt the effects of large storms and floods.

We got away with building where we shouldn’t have and interfering with the natural topography for a while, dealing with extreme weather events when they happened rarely, and might have gotten away with it for even longer, had we not been burning fossil fuels with abandon. Given the realities of climate change and the fact that, even if we finally muster the will to stop using fossil fuels quickly, the planet will continue to heat with increased severe weather events for decades to come,  we need to stop doing the things that got us into this mess in the first place.  It means not building at all in some especially vulnerable areas and building to strict codes regarding elevation and positioning of infrastructure in others.  Restoring wetlands and salt marshes. Increasing permeable areas so there is less run-off to deal with.  The list of changes we need to make is long.

Most important of all, we must stop all incentives, subsidies, tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, etc. for fossil fuels. It’s (well past) time that we transitioned to 100% renewable fuel sources. We have the technology to do so. There are scientific studies outlining plans to do so, including one specific to New York State.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf  Bonus:  Offshore wind turbines can help blunt some of the force of hurricane winds.

We will have to weather more horrible storms and more instances of sustained bad weather, such as the stationary front that caused nine inches of rain and then-record flooding in my area in 2006 and the recent stalled storm system that recently devastated the Boulder CO area. And we will have to re-build, but we have to do it with an eye to what will be more secure in the future. And we have to keep the vast majority of the fossil fuels in the ground. No more excuses. It’s much, much too late for that.