Thank you for visiting!

February 27, 2012

This checklist was labor of love and feverish activity in 2008 and 2009.  But then this blog quieted down as I shifted my energy toward radically remaking how I do my business, how I build buildings – finding in the process, the Passive House building standard, and it is fair to say, a new phase of my life began.  

PHI

Working as an architect, a promoter, an activist, an organizer and an importer of stuff – my focus on climate change mitigation is narrower and deeper,  a better explanation as David Deutch might say, of my concern about the climate crises and a more useful action toward addressing it.  

All this is to say that while I’ll likely leave this webpage up for some time – I encourage you to find out more about Passive House and high-performance building generally.   Check out my new business that is solely focused on helping people achieve high performance, Four Seven Five.  Because a truly high performing building, a building operating at Passive House levels is perhaps the biggest and most profound bite we can take out of our carbon emissions – putting us on a carbon reduction trajectory that is proportionate with the crisis at hand. 

Visit:

These, and the organizations and business working with them are changing the world.   I encourage you to find out more and get involved.

Sincerely,

Ken

Compost: a weapon of mass destruction?

December 2, 2010

In another example of how climate change is going to ask us to redefine much of our natural environment – two new studies highlight a growing threat to life as we know it – THE COMPOST BOMB. From Science Daily:

The compost bomb instability is a runaway feedback that occurs when the heat is generated by microbes more quickly than it can escape to the atmosphere. This in turn requires that the active decomposing soil layer is thermally-insulated from the atmosphere.
Catherine Luke explains: “The compost bomb instability is most likely to occur in drying organic soils covered by an insulating lichen or moss layer.”

Similar to the fears of sudden release of methane hydrates from the Arctic Ocean bottom – such a runaway feedback from peatlands will lead to rapid release of carbon, providing yet another (unaccounted for) positive feedback.

The scientists are now working on accounting for this “compost bomb” risk.

The Exeter team is now modelling the potential impact of the compost bomb instability on future climate change, including the potential link to the Russian peatland fires. It is also working to identify other rate-dependent tipping points.

Pee On Ice

November 8, 2010

New research seems to finally be acknowledging the obvious: that water runoff from initial glacier melt is triggering much more dramatic, accelerated melting. Science Daily reports:

melt water in Greenland

“We are finding that once such water flow is initiated through a new section of ice sheet, it can warm rather significantly and quickly, sometimes in just 10 years, ” said lead author Thomas Phillips, a research scientist with Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. CIRES is a joint institute between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Contrary to the right-wing-noise-machine’s protestations, the climate science has been, again, overly conservative:

Conventional thermal models of ice sheets do not factor in the presence of water within the ice sheet as a warming agent, but instead use models that primarily consider ice-sheet heating by warmer air on the ice sheet surface. In water’s absence, ice warms slowly in response to the increased surface temperatures from climate change, often requiring centuries to millennia to happen.

Ironically even the scientists must put some softening caveat into the news, saying:

“However, this process is not the ‘death knell’ for the ice sheet. Even under such conditions, it would still take thousands of years for the Greenland ice sheet to disappear…”

That may be so, but even if the ice doesn’t disappear, our coastal cities will be under 20 feet of sea water.

A bit more from this important article:

To quantify the influence of melt water, the scientists modeled what would happen to the ice sheet temperature if water flowed through it for eight weeks every summer — about the length of the active melt season. The result was a significantly faster-than-expected increase in ice sheet warming, which could take place on the order of years to decades depending on the spacing of crevasses and other “pipes” that bring warmer water into the ice sheet in summer.
“The key difference between our model and previous models is that we include heat exchange between water flowing through the ice sheet and the ice,” said Rajaram.
Several factors contributed to the warming and resulting acceleration of ice flow, including the fact that flowing water into the ice sheets can stay in liquid form even through the winter, slowing seasonal cooling. In addition, warmer ice sheets are more susceptible to increases of water flow, including the basal lubrication of ice that allows ice to flow more readily on bedrock.
A third factor is melt water cascading downward into the ice, which warms the surrounding ice. In this process the water can refreeze, creating additional cracks in the more vulnerable warm ice, according to the study.

So the next time you have an opportunity to pee on ice, don’t be surprised if it reminds you of our world’s polar ice melt catastrophe.

Western Antarctic Glacier Passes Tipping Point

January 14, 2010

The game changer that many feared is now unfolding in Antarctica. The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) is poised to suffer catastrophic collapse according to a new study by Richard Katz of the University of Oxford. The largest of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), PIG has long been the focus of worried scientific attention. Joe Romm gave an exhaustive summary in August 2009 of the importance and tenuousness of PIG here.

Area of Pine Island Glacier


But now with this study, it seems Mr. Katz has identified PIG’s tipping point, and unfortunately, it seems, we’ve past it.

As reported in New Scientist by Shanta Barley, the tipping point mechanism is a lip in the continental shelf. An extended excerpt to explain:

Climate change is warming the Amundsen Sea, which is at the southern margin of the Pacific Ocean. As rising sea levels push the warm water beneath the ice shelves, it melts them from below, pushing the grounding line higher up the continental shelf.

By raising sea levels, and therefore the grounding line, in their model, Katz’s team were able to find the point of no return beyond which the glacier would be unable to recover. That’s because the Antarctic sea bed has a small lip in it: it rises slowly up the continental shelf, then makes a slight dip before rising again to the shoreline. The researchers found that as long as the grounding line is on the outer rise of the sea bed, before the lip, small changes in climate lead to correspondingly small changes in the glacier’s ice volume.

But as soon as the grounding line moves over the lip and starts to move down into the dip in the sea bed, the situation changes critically. “Once the grounding line passes the crest, a small change in the climate causes a rapid and irreversible loss of ice,” says Katz.

So when will the grounding line pass the crest you ask? Try 1996!

Katz’ study estimates a 50% collapse by 2100 contributing about 24cm to sea rise. But by his own estimation they are being conservative and underestimating the potential melting.

Ominously Barley reports:

This assumes that the grounding line does eventually stabilise, after much of PIG is gone. In reality, PIG could disappear entirely, says Hindmarsh. “If Thwaite’s glacier, which sits alongside PIG, also retreats, PIG’s grounding line could retreat even further back to a second crest, causing sea levels to rise by 52 centimetres.” The model suggests Thwaite’s glacier has also passed its tipping point.

Not good.

This Is Analysis We Can Believe In

January 7, 2010

While President Obama sets about attempting to fix our national counter terrorism analytic machinery – we learned this week via William J. Broad and The New York Times that the CIA is playing a very important assist in top climate change scientific analysis. In C.I.A. Is Sharing Data With Climate Scientists, Broad reports:

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests.

East Siberian Sea

When you read it, it’s almost a “duh, of course” type of moment – why wouldn’t they and why shouldn’t they? And why haven’t they been doing this all along?

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

Notice the dates? Now with W. and Dick out of the way – the scientists are getting back to this critical work.

“There are no other data available that show the melting and freezing processes,” the report said. “Their release will have a major impact on understanding effects of climate change.”

And real understanding really seems possible:

“I’m extremely pleased with what’s been happening,” said Michael B. McElroy, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University and a senior member of the group. “It’s really first-rate.”

Among the program’s first responsibilities has been to assess earlier Medea projects to see which, if any, produced valuable information and might be restarted or expanded.

To add insult to injury the tea bagging Republicans can’t even complain about pork barrel spending because the cost is about as low as it gets:

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the monitoring team, said the program was “basically free.”

What’s the nitty-gritty?

About 60 scientists — mainly from academia but including some from industry and federal agencies — run the effort’s scientific side. All have secret clearances. They obtain guidance from the National Academy of Sciences, an elite body that advises the federal government.

Dr. Cicerone said the monitoring effort offered an opportunity to gather environmental data that would otherwise be impossible to obtain, and to do so with the kind of regularity that can reveal the dynamics of environmental change…The C.I.A. runs the program and arranges for the scientists to draw on federal surveillance equipment, including highly classified satellites of the National Reconnaissance Office.

Makes you want to see some of these images yourself, doesn’t it? You can at the USGS Global Fiducials Library.

Sadly, I can’t help but be left thinking about all the lost knowledge of the Bush/Cheney years – a travesty.

I want to report a mugging

January 1, 2010

To the Editor of The New York Times:

I want to report a mugging. I thought I was enjoying a quiet and safe New Years at home.
Re “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It” (opinion article, Jan 1).

Mr. Dutton, provided an entertaining and benign exposition on human fascination with Apocalypse and it’s counterproductive nature, speaking of Y2K, religion, UFO cults and “Frankenstein” – noting:

“Such end-time fantasies must have a profound, persistent appeal in order to keep drawing wide-eyed crowds into movie theaters, as historically they have drawn crowds into churches, year after year.”

Mr. Dutton’s theme is clear. And having read 90% of his 1,332 word article, never once encountering climate change, Mr. Dutton decides to pivot, and magically concludes in 77 words:

“This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism. Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment. As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.” Repent and recycle!”

Suddenly I was no longer reading at my dining table but felt as if standing in Times Square, just conned by a Three Card Monte street hustler – and the hopes for the New Year were just sucked out of the room. I sit, mugged by the New York Times.

Yes, I realize Mr. Dutton has written an opinion piece and that he is a “controversial” libertarian figure – although the paper’s one line bio gives no hint. However, The New York Times must realize that this opinion piece does great damage to the public understanding of climate change.

Mr. Dutton does more damage than just executing an “elegent” con on The New York Times and its readership in presenting what amounts to little more than a one sided political screed masquerading as observations of the human pyche. Mr. Dutton presents the BIG LIE.

Perhaps other readers noticed as I, that in his 1,332 words, Mr. Dutton spends not a single one explaining why he thinks climate science is based on eschatology. One might expect such libelous assertions to be presented with some form of basic, sound, scientific underpinning. But no, he provides nothing to support his outrageously wrong-headed assertions about climate science. He instead leaves us to infer that “climate catastrophism” – the mainstream position of business-as-usual climate science – to be somehow deserving of categorization with the likes of Y2K, and End of Days cults and providing an almost sublime rhetorical service to climate change deniers the world over.

I don’t expect The New York Times to be an advocate of climate change energy policy but at a minimum it would be nice to get from the paper a greater understanding of climate science and the catastrophic risks facing me and my family.

Instead, on this 2010 New Years Day morning, the paper is a mule, smuggling counterfeit information into our homes.

Vietnam Puts the Pedal to the Metal – Germany Pumps the Brakes

December 5, 2009

Mongaby.com in Highest rate of CO2 emissions growth since 1990 reports:

Between 1990 and 2005 Vietnam had the highest rate of emissions growth among countries that emitted more than 100 million tons of CO2 in any year during the past three decades, according to mongabay.com’s analysis of emissions data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC).

Vietnam’s emissions from fossil fuel use, cement manufacturing, and gas flaring increased 376 percent from 5.8 million metric tons of carbon to 27.8 million tons between 1990 and 2005. Malaysia ranked second with a 224 percent increase.

(General Note: It is maddeningly confusing when people switch between CO2 and carbon tonnage in the same breath – they are very different! 3.67 tons of CO2 equals 1 ton of Carbon.)

Of course Vietnam with a population of 86 million is accelerating to a paltry 1.2 tons of CO2 per person per year. While us Americans as well as the Australians and the Canadians (Yes, the Canadians! Their emissions are terrible and politics worse.) clock-in at a trance inducing 22 tons per person.

If not as dramatic, more worrisome is China’s emissions growth of 133% and India’s 106% growth. In a desperate (and futile) attempt to retain our title, “The World’s Biggest Emitter” the U.S. grew at a galloping 20%.

And so China is now The World’s Biggest Emitter – as Mongaby.com notes their tear upward has only gained steam:

China’s emissions have since climbed by another 25 percent to 1.923 billion tons of carbon in 2008, according to preliminary figures from CDIAC.

And it is the growth rate in India, China and Indonesia (120%) that should give us all pause. Because as their populations are growing, with world population passing 7 billion momentarily on its way to 9 billion, so are their per capita emissions and soon they will need to not just slow their growth but reduce their emissions. (Of course we need to drop ours by 90% – now. Minor detail!)

On the flip side of the coin, Germany reduced overall emissions by 3% and Belgium by 7% between 2000 and 2005. Tiny but

So the good news is it can be done – it’s not required that we be maniacs. Let’s hope Copenhagen illuminates a path for all the countries of the world to start applying the brakes on emissions.

And so China and India’s recent announcements on carbon intensity reductions – China saying 40% by 2020 and India, 24% by 2020 – are welcome news…if tentative, non-binding, baby steps.

Oh Canada, say it ain’t so!

December 3, 2009

Until now I believed that the nation that has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States. I was wrong. The real villain is Canada. Unless we can stop it, the harm done by Canada in December 2009 will outweigh a century of good works.

That’s one of many scathing passages in George Monbiot’s recent article Canada’s image lies in tatters. It is now to climate what Japan is to whaling. Ouch!

How bad is Canada behaving? Try worse than Saudi Arabia. Smack!

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

They not only sound worse than Saudi Arabia but they sound a lot like W. Baaam!

In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada’s obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth.

The apparent reason for the madness are the vast western tar sands, a mommoth repository of oil. As Monbiot describes it:

It’s actually a filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals. The tar sands, most of which occur in Alberta, are being extracted by the biggest opencast mining operation on earth. An area the size of England…

Tar sands are pernicious. Zaap!

Refining tar sands requires two to three times as much energy as refining crude oil. The companies exploiting them burn enough natural gas to heat six million homes. Alberta’s tar sands operation is the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions.

And while us piggy Americans may find some joy in Canada being called out as the piggiest – we must acknowledge that, of course like the drug wars of Mexico and our drug consumption driving it, the tar sands north of the border, are undoubtedly here to serve America’s unquenchable thirst for oil.

And lest we worry about there not being willing investors for this ghg emissions barn burner, none other than our folk heroes Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have shown growing interest – saying “Wow, this is neat.”

I can’t help but make the side note that it’s no coincidence that Gates and Buffett are also being feed the same horseshit dished out via SuperFreakonomics by Nathan Myrhvold, former Microsoft executive, polymath, and purveyor of climate science (dystopian) fantasies. But I digress.

Monbiot concludes with astonished perplexity.

It feels odd to be writing this. The immediate threat to the global effort to sustain a peaceful and stable world comes not from Saudi Arabia or Iran or China. It comes from Canada. How could that be true?

Storms of my Grandchildren

December 3, 2009

Jim Hansen, the preeminent climate scientist and now political activist has recently emailed out a new note, Never-Give-Up Fighting Spirit: Lessons From a Grandchild. The note was adapted to an article in Sunday’s Observer, and is in part publicity for his new book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity and part a call-to-arms in the run-up to Copenhagen.

Hansen writes:

The most foolish no-fighting spirit statement, made by scores of people, is this: “we have already passed the tipping point, it is too late.” They act as if a commitment to a meter of sea level rise is no different tha a commitment to several tens of meters. Or, if a million species become committed to extinction, should we throw in the towel on the other nine million? What would the plan be then – escape to Mars? As I make clear in “Storms of My Grandchildren”, anybody who thinks we can transplant even one butterfly species to another planet has some loose screws. We must take care of the planet we have – easily the most remarkable one in the known universe.

Hansen asks:

“Is There Any Real Hope of Cutting Global Carbon Emissions?”

His answer, in line with his recent statements and political actions remains radical:

Absolutely. It is possible – if we give politicians a cold hard slap in the face. The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach – “goals” for emission reductions, “offsets” that render even iron-clad goals almost meaningless, an ineffectual “cap-and-trade” mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics-as-usual.

Hansen notes that coal must be phased out in 20 years, yet we are cutting deals to increase our coal imports from Canada. And he calls for a progressive, uniform, rising price on carbon, collected at the source as the only real leverage to ignite the required transition to clean energy.

Hansen is an invaluable vanguard pushing the envelope out and forward. However, I wish Hansen could find a more constructive frame for the argument than to call Copenhagen a fraud. It is a counterproductive position – easily used by those wishing to thwart any progress.

Copenhagen is a weak next step to be sure – but that is the political reality. However flawed Copenhagen is, it will be a fundamentally important international consensus, becoming a new floor on which we must rapidly build.

Given the tipping points we face, the current emissions reductions goals for 2020 and 2030 are horribly laughable – but the goals will accelerate…they must accelerate. Otherwise our children and grandchildren will face a world of unmitigated horror.

It is time Americans and others internalize the fact that we are not talking about preventing horrors on the Maldives, or Bangladesh or some other far away land, we must act to save our own children and grandchildren from a life of misery, and so we must act to save the climate for all the world’s children and grandchildren.

With the realization that we face a truly existential threat to all, to us! – then maybe society’s consensus will be radicalized, like Hansen’s – and demand rapid carbon emissions cuts – demand the elimination of coal.

The lesson, as stated by Hansen’s 5-year-old grandson, Conner, is a simple one:

“I don’t quit, because I have never-give-up fighting spirit.”

The Problem with Offsets

November 18, 2009

Carbon offsets are an alluring commodity to compensate for our consumption. But as Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions by Elisabeth Rosenthal on the cover of today’s NY Times illustrates, carbon offsets may cause as many problems as they claim to offset. As the article notes, offsets have the counterproductive byproduct of allowing us to feel we can emit CO2 and pay our way out of the problem. Like ubiquitous weight-loss programs carbon offset companies are selling false hope.

Don’t get me wrong I think carbon offsets can be useful – truly getting mitigation for ineradicable activities. But it is a razor’s edge – useful like electric shock therapy is useful…not for everyone. Buy credible offsets – but only after you have meaningfully reduced your carbon footprint. Then look to reduce more still. Instead, all too often, offsets are becoming a ready excuse to not change our behavior. Why eat less when you can just take this little pill? So we fly as much or more and offset.

For Mr. Francis of Responsible Travel, the final straw came when he noticed that carbon offsets were being offered by private jet companies and helicopter tour operators, which generate very high emissions per passenger. “The message was, ‘Don’t worry, you can offset the emissions,’ ” he said. “But you don’t really need to see Sydney from the air, do you? And you can travel in a commercial airliner.”

We drive as much or more and offset. We have pets, we insist on keeping the house too warm in winter and too cool in summer – but hey, I’ve got a carbon offset certificate that says my resulting carbon footprint zeros out – what a relief! NOT. If we are serious, whether we like it or not, no matter how difficult, we just need to consume less, travel less and reinvent a “full life” that is on a strict carbon diet. Otherwise our children’s lives will be ruined by our delusions of righteousness. More of us need to think like Mr. Dickinson:

Mr. Dickinson of the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project said that rather than buying offsets he had sharply scaled back on flying and was instead taking trains or conducting meetings by phone or teleconference. He said that if he owned an airline, he would now be diversifying into other modes of transport.

Because there is just no other meaningful way forward:

“Buying offsets won’t solve the problem because flying around the way we do is simply unsustainable,” said Ms. Kollmuss, who has researched airline offsets. A recent study in Britain concluded that one flight from London to Los Angeles produced more carbon dioxide per person than the average British commuter produces in a year by traveling by train, subway or car.

So what can I say, for peet’s sake, download Checklist Toward Zero Carbon, do what you can, edit it and make it your own and pass it on. Reduce, reduce, reduce and purchase offsets if you like in moderation.


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