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The Deeper Meaning of Sandy

Watching the video feeds from the New York and New Jersey areas in the wake of Sandy reminded me of the images seven years ago from New Orleans being decimated by Katrina.

Other than perhaps providing a warning not to call a particular geographic area “New” anything, what do these storms tell us?

Like Katrina did, Sandy reminds us most poignantly how little most Americans think about the reliability and importance of energy – until it’s not there.  And then, they think about it – a lot.

The sight of people lining up for gasoline, and fighting about who gets to the pump first, is evidence of the dependence of our society on commodities over which individuals ultimately have minimal control.

The sight of people screaming at civic leaders about the slow pace of power restoration says volumes about the resentment about our subservience to technology – and the necessary prerequisites that enable technology to actually work.

The sight of people desperately tapping into scattered energized cell phone charging sites, so that they can maintain connectivity to others that they depend on or that depend on them, confirms the observation that our species is no longer able to be truly self-sufficient, much as some may like to think otherwise.

Sandy thus reminds us that our vehicles and our buildings and our communications need constant access to energy, whether electricity, gasoline, diesel or natural gas.  Without energy, these artifacts of modernity quickly become irrelevant.  Without energy, 21st Century humans can barely survive at all.

In turn, the supply line of energy provision is an immense enterprise that can nevertheless be easily disrupted.  The short-term consequences can be acutely tragic, with damaging economic effects that can linger for a long, long time.

One consequence of Sandy is that, like Katrina, it has elevated the topic of climate change in the national discourse.

Many advocates had been complaining about “climate silence” during the 2012 Presidential campaign, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw the issue into the spotlight in the wake of Sandy by endorsing Obama over Romney.  The endorsement came in large part because Bloomberg believed that Sandy was amplified by climate change, and that candidate Obama was more committed to taking action to combat climate change, thereby reducing the risks to low-lying places such as New York in the future.

The hand-wringing conversations occurring now are similar to those immediately post-Katrina, and I expect that the U.S. will similarly act on climate change now as it has consistently since then – with no action.

Alas, that’s because the political climate in Washington is probably in worse shape than the atmospheric climate covering the planet.

Although we can’t say for sure that Sandy (or Katrina, or any of the other mega-storms of recent years) were caused or even worsened by anthropogenic climate change, most experts agree that the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events is likely to increase as the energetic content of the atmosphere and oceans has risen with decades of carbon dioxide emissions – from consuming the energy upon which we so utterly rely.

Moreover, experts also agree that the emissions of the past decades have still yet to exert their full impact on the climate, so some additional worsening is likely baked in, even if the world (especially the U.S.) finally decides to do something to control emissions on a going-forward basis.

So:  Expect more Sandies and Katrinas.  Expect more heat waves.  Expect more droughts.

In fact, expect more blizzards too.  The average temperature of the planet may be increasing, but the probability distribution of temperatures is widening, which means cold events will still happen on occasion.  And, when they do, they may well be accompanied by more moisture – hence, blizzards.

All of this illuminates a central thrust of how the cleantech sector can best help mankind in the decades to come, in the face of what is likely to be increasing climate chaos:  adaptation.

Adaptation has many forms.  For instance, adaptation should force a re-think about the wisdom of civil construction right along ocean shorelines.  Adaption might involve people relocating to live within reasonable walking distance of their workplace, not reliant on vehicles or public transportation.

Adaptation also suggests that, given an increasing exposure to storms like Sandy (and other threats such as terror attacks), the energy system should be designed and built with greater redundancy and dispersion of assets, to be more robust in the face of overwhelming events – of which Sandy is just the latest.

Sandy should provide an impetus for increased installation of uninterruptible power systems and backup/standby generators – especially at gasoline stations, many of which in the Northeast were put out of commission due to lack of electricity – as well as an awareness NOT to situate these devices in places where they will be flooded and hence unusable exactly when they’re most needed.

More broadly, becoming more resilient in a more turbulent world implies a move away from a centralized energy topology based on large-scale refineries and powerplants, and the huge corporations that own and operate them.

Making that transition would not only be expensive, as it implies a massive change-out in the nation’s energy infrastructure, but it would be highly uncomfortable.

Although they like to think that the nation has been built largely from the bottom-up via individual initiative, Americans are stuck in an outdated “top-down” mentality when it comes to the energy sector.

Americans are complacent about their reliance on the power grid and on petroleum-fueled vehicles.  They want continuous access to any form of energy at virtually no cost.  While they prefer minimal environmental impact and detest the strategic reliance on the Middle East for oil, they heartily trade off higher emissions or ongoing geopolitical subjugation for a just few cents cheaper.

Americans may not much like Big Oil, or utility monopolies, or the dirtiness of the coal sector, but they don’t want to sully themselves by doing much to disrupt them from their current dominance.  They certainly have limited appetite for taking energy matters into their own hands by supporting novel smaller-scale distributed energy approaches being pursued by cleantech innovators that may entail a little more cost (at least currently).

In many ways, the American willingness to go along with the energy status quo mirrors the American dependence on large institutions – governments and corporations alike – that are nevertheless widely-hated and even antithetical to the idealized notion of American self-reliance.

Sandy thus has highlighted the deeply-seated fear and loathing of the United States, circa 2012, in a way that would do Hunter S. Thompson proud.  The physical damage wrought by Sandy upon New York and New Jersey is a metaphor for the salt that Sandy has thrown in the open wounds of the collective American psyche.

There is a joke that asks “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?”  The answer is “Just one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”

Whether Americans in the wake of Sandy will want to undertake the effort to change, in order to not only heal themselves but inoculate themselves against challenges posed by future storms like Sandy, is a major question.  The evidence, post-Katrina, indicates a high willingness to moan and groan, but a limited appetite for making the necessary commitments and sacrifices to effect meaningful long-term improvement.

Meanwhile, the cleantech community continues to press forward, under the forecast that opportunities for positive impact will only increase in the years to come.

Interview with Dr. Frank Ling on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Our longtime Cleantech.org portal manager, and editor of the weekly Cleantech.org newsletter is a researcher at one of the top climate change research institutes in the world, where among other projects he is editing a book on climate change. He was recently inteviewed by Green Japan on the subject of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Dr. Frank Ling on Climate Change

Frank Hiroshi Ling is a climate policy researcher. In this part of interview, he talks about what brought him to this area and analyzes the results and solutions of climate change. With the help of policy and technology, what can we and the government do to help solve climate change issue and other issues?

Frank’s bio, for those of you who haven’t met him.

Frank Hiroshi Ling is a climate policy researcher and entrepreneur. He has extensive experience in scientific research, environmental and energy policy, and media. Currently based in Japan, he is a researcher in climate adaptation at Institute for Global Change Adaptation Science (ICAS) at Ibaraki University. He also works with IGES as an editor of the forthcoming book “Transition to Low Carbon, Climate Resilient Asia: Opportunities and Challenges.”

Dr. Ling is also the host and co-creator of the Groks Science Show, a highly humorous and popular radio and podcast program, with Dr. Charles Lee. In addition, Frank oversees Cleantech.Org, a web portal for catalyzing investments in new technologies that promote environmental sustainability.

Dr. Ling received his Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Frank received his Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering from Caltech and his MS degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has received numerous awards for his research and contributions to science education. In 2006, he received the Mass Media Fellowship Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has also been a Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

National Research Council Give U.S. Climate Action Plan Roadmap

National Research Council (5/19/10)

The National Research Council issued new three reports emphasizing why the U.S. should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. The reports by the Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, are part of a congressionally requested suite of five studies known as America’s Climate Choices.

“These reports show that the state of climate change science is strong,” said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “But the nation also needs the scientific community to expand upon its understanding of why climate change is happening, and focus also on when and where the most severe impacts will occur and what we can do to respond.”
The report suggests a range of emissions from 170 to 200 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent for the period 2012 through 2050 as a reasonable goal, a goal that is roughly in line with the range of emission reduction targets proposed recently by the Obama administration and members of Congress. Even at the higher end of this range, meeting the target will require a major departure from “business-as-usual” emission trends. The report notes that with the exception of the recent economic downtown, domestic emissions have been rising for most of the past three decades. The U.S. emitted approximately 7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2008 (the most current year for which such data were available). If emissions continue at that rate, the proposed budget range would be used up well before 2050, the report says.

A carbon-pricing system is the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions. Either cap-and-trade, a system of taxing emissions, or a combination of the two could provide the needed incentives. While the report does not specifically recommend a cap-and-trade system, it notes that cap-and-trade is generally more compatible with the concept of an emissions budget.
Carbon pricing alone, however, is not enough to sufficiently reduce domestic emissions, the

report warns. Strategically chosen, complementary policies are necessary to assure rapid progress in key areas such as: increasing energy efficiency; accelerating the development of renewable energy sources; advancing full-scale development of new-generation nuclear power and carbon capture and storage systems; and retrofitting, retiring, or replacing existing emissions-intensive energy infrastructure. Research and development of new technologies that could help reduce emissions more cost effectively than current options also should be strongly supported.

NRC Reports and Free Summaries

Clean Fleet Climate Action Reports

The compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities is based on a strong, credible body of evidence, says Advancing the Science of Climate Change, one of the new reports. While noting that there is always more to learn and that the scientific process is never “closed,” the report emphasizes that multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change. The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.

“Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems,” the report concludes. It calls for a new era of climate change science where an emphasis is placed on “fundamental, use-inspired” research, which not only improves understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change but also is useful to decision makers at the local, regional, national, and international levels acting to limit and adapt to climate change.

The report recommends that a single federal entity or program be given the authority and resources to coordinate a national, multidisciplinary research effort aimed at improving both understanding and responses to climate change. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, established in 1990, could fulfill this role, but it would need to form partnerships with action-oriented programs and address weaknesses that in the past have led to research gaps, particularly in the critical area of research that supports decisions about responding to climate change.

Substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require prompt and sustained efforts to promote major technological and behavioral changes, says Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, another of the new reports. Although limiting emissions must be a global effort to be effective, strong U.S. actions to reduce emissions will help encourage other countries to do the same. In addition, the U.S. could establish itself as a leader in developing and deploying the technologies necessary to limit and adapt to climate change.

An inclusive national policy framework is needed to ensure that all levels of government, the private sector, and millions of households and individuals are contributing to shared national goals. Toward that end, the U.S. should establish a greenhouse gas emissions “budget” that sets a limit on total domestic emissions over a set period of time and provides a clear, directly measurable goal. However, the report warns, the longer the nation waits to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will likely be to reach any given emissions target.
We must manage and minimize the risks of climate change, says the third report, Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. Some impacts – such as rising sea levels, disappearing sea ice, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events like heavy precipitation and heat waves – are already being observed across the country. The report notes that policymakers need to anticipate a range of possible climate conditions and that uncertainty about the exact timing and magnitude of impacts is not a reason to wait to act. In fact, it says boosting U.S. adaptive capacity now can be viewed as “an insurance policy against an uncertain future,” while inaction could increase risks, especially if the rate of climate change is particularly large.