How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Climate Change

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

Photo by John Englart (flickr.com)

My Facebook feed has been abuzz lately with postings from a Progressive friend about climate change. As one might expect, the view from that side of the political street is not looking good.  One particular article put forward the ultra-gloomy contention that human-caused global warming is likely irreversible and most of the world will soon become unfit for human habitation even if we exceed the most ambitious goals proposed in the Paris Accords to curb our carbon emissions.  The crux of the authors’ hypothesis is that present CO2 levels are already so high that vast areas of permafrost in the sub-Arctic are starting to melt.  Permafrost contains huge amounts of methane, a gas with almost ten times the heat retentive capacity of CO2.  Release of even a small portion of this entrained methane will cause a warming feedback loop which will raise global temperatures at an exponential rate, melting more permafrost and releasing more methane.  The result?  Catastrophic warming that may very soon and very quickly progress beyond our ability to slow it down, let alone reverse it.

As is usually the case with climate change literature, the dire outline of the scientific problem is followed by a proposed political solution.  Our slim chance of survival, say the authors, hangs on humanity  suddenly acquiring the wisdom to reject the nationalist, capitalist economic/political model that has landed us in this frying pan and put Big Government in control of, well, everything.  The Ship of State needs to make a sharp turn, and we mean right now!

Hmm!  Putting aside the obvious inconvenience that ships, especially the State variety, are seldom capable of sharp turns no matter how urgent the need, what exactly would this course correction look like?  A possible answer comes from another Facebook post, from the same source.  It linked to a group calling itself The Climate Mobilization.  Their stated goal: To transition the US to 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years, by whatever means necessary.  I paid a visit to their website for a look at these  “means” and found they are right out of the Radical’s Handbook; boycotting and blockading businesses and whole industries, general strikes, massive protests and other “non-violent interventions”.  Their timetable warns of their intention to “escalate until we win!”  Does this sound like anarchy itching to be unleashed?  I thought the idea was to turn the Ship, not sink it. Continue reading

When Morals and Markets Align, Worlds Move

WindFarm_Fluvanna_2004Life’s too short to constantly revisit decisions made long ago, and it’s easy to root for your favorite team or stick with familiar – comfortable – old enemies.

It’s been noted before that people know some things are noble and pure, others are degrading and tainted. You don’t need a steeple-topped building to figure this out- we each have a spiritual side.

Unfortunately, we don’t all agree on what that means in practice, and it’s easy to label others as misguided, evil, “them.” Even when people do agree, it can be hard to sacrifice today for a (possible) improvement tomorrow. “You should” is always a hard argument to win.

Which is why this recent nationalgeographic article is so encouraging.

Falling prices for renewable [energy] and a growing sustainability movement from the bottom up have changed the global picture…

Solar and wind are now so competitive that they are crowding out coal in many countries. In the U.S., electric generation from coal dropped by more than half in the last decade. Utility scale solar, meanwhile, rose 5,000 percent during that same period… The pace is quickening because the transition is now driven by economics.

Government support, including tax incentives, helped get the ball rolling, but the market is taking over. Government still plays a role – California, for example, is pushing for electric cars and paying to retrofit buildings to be more energy-efficient, while demonstrating that curbing greenhouse gases doesn’t bust the economy.

But from China to India to Texas, people are discovering renewable energy is economically sound. It doesn’t matter if you’re Red or Blue when the Green makes sense.

Falling prices of renewable energy have dramatically improved the global outlook. Just two years ago in Paris, the world’s top two polluters outside the U.S. insisted they’d need lots more coal. That was especially true in India.

Today, entire regions across India are seeking 100 percent renewable power. India’s new plans for meeting future energy needs now call for far fewer coal-fired plants. China, too…

[America] withdrawing from the world stage on climate could also cede new markets, industries, and leadership on everything from international trade to geopolitics to China. That could be costly.

I believe that cutting pollution and greenhouse gases, and preparing mitigations for the changes already underway, are the right things to do for posterity. How wonderful if they become the right thing to do for me today.

And for you.

Driverless Cars? Not So Fast

Driverless cars (DCs).  The concept is everywhere these days, and according to many futurists the actual cars soon will be, too.  Every tech outfit worth mentioning has a finger or two in the DC pie and several big-name consortiums already have prototypes rolling.  A few cities have okayed test programs, and Colorado legislators, ever alert to the chance to lure more technology dollars to the state, are proposing a friendly set of regulations designed to make our admittedly deteriorating roads more attractive to robot rides.  A bill being considered in the legislature would set state standards for testing of DCs and preempt Colorado cities from enacting more restrictive rules (Boulder, for example, is rumored to favor allowing only electric vehicles; each powered, one might suppose, by its own wind turbine).  The most optimistic press releases have the technology highway-ready in five years or less.

As a lifelong technophile, I’m usually excited about this kind of forward leap.  But as a pragmatic Dilbert-type, experience has taught me to be skeptical of anyone touting some revolutionary breakthrough that will forever change the way we get around.  After all, I’m still waiting for my flying car.  So let’s take a clear-headed look at the promise of the DC.

State Sen.Owen Hill is one of the sponsors of the Colorado DC initiative.  In a recent interview, Hill hyped the safety angle of going driverless, allowing that DCs could prevent nearly all of the 40,000 highway deaths that occur each year by “removing  human error” from the equation.  This kind of statement could only come from someone blithely ignorant of the level of complication involved in building such a system, one created, initiated – and debugged – by humans.  The human error factor won’t be eliminated.  It will only be moved to another part of the process.  And humans, at least when it comes to driving, are a lot more capable that we get credit for.  Navigating an automobile through the real world is an extremely complex and variable undertaking, but 99% of human drivers handle it well 99% of the time.  The explanation for that is our ability to learn from experience.  Every mile we drive adds to our experiential library, and we have the unique ability to not just remember events but to absorb and reconstitute them to meet and deal with new, unprecedented situations.  It’s called intelligence.  We have it.  Computers, at least for the moment, do not.

So what is called for in the DC is AI.  Yep, artificial intelligence: the Holy Grail of technology, enabling a computer to do what 16-year-olds with learner’s permits have been doing since the 1920’s.  When we drive a car, we (most of us, at any rate) think and reason.  Computers in DCs execute their programming.  Staying in a lane, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead, stopping at red lights (a novel concept), avoiding old ladies walking their Pomeranians, all these actions are relatively easy to program.  Experienced drivers do them reflexively, often while texting, digging a Tic Tac from between the seat cushions, yelling at the kids or applying mascara.  But sooner or later a situation will arrive that demands who or whatever is in control of a vehicle to make a split-second decision based on maybe 10 data variables.  If the programmers have missed even one of these, tragedy will ensue.  A human driver is equipped to take in all 10 and respond effectively.  Computers are not there yet.

Continue reading

Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.

Water from the Sky, Water from the Ground

 

I grew up in New York State. If a stream ran through my property there, I could pump water out of it.

Not so in Colorado or many other states. Every drop of water out west belongs to someone: As it falls from the sky, as it runs across the land, as it sinks into aquifers. There’s a saying in Colorado that “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.” In Colorado, people still shoot each other over water. The Great American Desert never disappeared and may be coming back with rising temperatures and increased drought.

I had to learn that it’s illegal to have a rain barrel in Colorado – illegal to collect the rain that fell on my roof. Not that county sheriffs spent a lot of time searching for scofflaws – but it was unexpected for many transplant like myself.

But that’s about to change.

Danielson of Wheat Ridge and state Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo sponsored a bill in the Colorado Legislature, House Bill 16-1005 (pdf), that would allow homeowners to collect rain from a residential rooftop. The bill passed the state House with overwhelming bipartisan support on Feb. 29, and passed the state Senate 27-6 on April 1. It’s now waiting for Gov. John Hickenloope to sign it into law.

Homeowners will be limited to 110 gallons of storage capacity, but this represents a change in the state. It represents some compromises – a bad word in some people’s mind these days. But Colorado is not alone:

Record droughts and a host of other water-supply worries have prompted numerous other states [15!] to enact laws that impact the use of rain barrels

Climate change, drought, and population growth is impacting the land we love. This will force us to confront water issues whether we like it or not. I live in southwest New Mexico now, with no irrigated “yard” at all and only container-raised herbs and one or two tomatoes each year. But I still own Colorado water rights, still marvel at how cheap it is to lease water for alfalfa and how expensive it is to buy water for a home.

We have some hard choice to make in the future, some choices about priorities – lawns vs food vs hay vs tradition vs cities vs… I don’t know what. There will be losers and winners, but it’s a topic we must address.

Government Support of Rugged Individualism

VillaUncleSamBerrymanCartoonMy recent review of The Oregon Trail couldn’t cover everything – it’s a long and interesting book. But I found this fascinating:

With reference to the Pacific Wagon Road Act of 1857, author Rinker Buck notes that “among other improvements to the trail… [it] became one of the largest government-financed projects of the nineteenth century… This model of government support for a major development project became popular and was accepted as the new norm. Each new phase of frontier growth… was also supported by either outright government subsidies, land giveaways, or federally supported irrigation and bridge-building projects. That was the tradition established by the Oregon Trail and it has always amused me that the myth of ‘rugged individualism’ still plays such a large role in western folklore and American values. In fact, our vaulted rugged individualism was financed by huge government largess.”

I’m no historian, but that resonates for me.

Certainly in my own home area of southwest New Mexico, the federal government conquered Native American and Mexican lands to allow Anglo Americans to move in – perhaps not the history we most wish to brag about. But denying the role of government is simply silly.

We New Mexicans try to come to terms with some of our history – the American town of Columbus recently “celebrated” Pancho Villa’s raid 100 years ago with its Mexican neighbor-town of Palomas. Maybe “celebrated” is wrong because people died – “commemorated”, perhaps – or just found a good reason for a street fair. In 1916, the United States invaded another country to protect its citizens! But today we all remember a freedom fighter for Mexico and our ties across the boarder. BTW – Do you know that American school buses pick up American-born children in Columbus and transport them to Deming every school-day?

When traveling to Palmoas for cheaper drugs or eye-care or dentistry, I always have lunch in Mexico at the Pink Store. If you ever get down here, I recommend it.

Celebrate the rugged pioneers, taciturn cowboys, and self-reliant ranchers – they were all of those things – but remember that without government support, the American West would be a very different place. That’s still true today.

Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks

ranger confidentialEver wonder what National Park rangers talk about when they swap war stories over a beer? In Ranger Confidential, Andrea Lankford offers you a chance to find out with this collection of related stories – a wonderful view into the nitty-gritty of rangers’ lives.

National parks are small, self-contained towns and must provide all the services that implies, from jails to restaurants. As one ranger noted, they are “cops, firemen, EMTs, and game wardens! All of the fun stuff in one job.”

The format allows you to dip in and out of chapters, hearing about the lives and experiences of several rangers, including the author. As you’d expect, these stories are the “most.” Most stupid, most frustrating, most unfair, most drunk.

Park visitors bring all the troubles of society with them.

  • Many of the stories are not G-rated. Early in the book one ranger arrests a man caught masturbating over a woman who was asleep on a beach.
  • There are kidnappings, fights, and nuts trying to blow rocks off Yosemite waterfalls with home made bombs.
  • Bureaucratic frustrations abound – you can’t apply for a full time (with benefits – an important point) federal job unless you have a full time federal job.
  • Climbing accidents can be horrific, and rescue or recovery dangerous.
  • Suicides are traumatic for responders, and there was a flurry of people driving their cars off the edge into the Grand Canyon after a popular movie ended with that very act.
  • “Tombstone humor” is common. Upon finding the decomposing body of a fallen climber after a long search, one ranger comments “I don’t think he’ll make it.”
  • Locals are often angry at rangers for enforcing rules so a night off “in town” can turn unpleasant. “Pine pigs” is one taunt.
  • Concession employees who live in the park can be as dangerous as visitors, with drunken fights and rapes.

Animals figure in stories, too. Continue reading