Posted by: ericgrimsrud | August 6, 2019

Climate Science and Religion

The relationship between science, in general, and religion has been pondered continuously since and probably before the development of human civilizations several thousand years ago. Therefore, what I am about to say concerning the relationship between climate science specifically and religion will certainly not be new. It will simply be my own personal feelings about what I think this relationship should be. At the same time, I believe my thoughts are of a “common sense” nature and are possibly shared by many religions and cultures.

At the very top of this web site, under the tab called Scientific Basics, I have provided a brief account of what I think are the basic and most important scientific points regarding global warming. Therefore, for that scientific information, I will simply refer you to that tab. How religion is related to this subject requires some additional basic assumptions, however, to be made concerning the tenets of the specific religion chosen for this comparison. While there are perhaps hundreds of different religions to choose from, I am going to take the author’s privilege here of choosing the one that I was raised under – that of Christianity as it was typically offered to the descendants of Norwegian immigrants to the midwestern states of America when I was a young man. A convenience of this choice is that the basic tenets of the American Lutheran Church were then and still are very similar to those of many other American synods, including those of the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists and Baptists.

So, what were those messages that are still pertinent to the subject of climate change that I received from my religious instructions? First of all, those messages were not limited to issues concerning my own personal benefit. That is, “it’s not all about me” was a central theme. Any religion whose beliefs are limited to “self” would obviously be of no assistance to a “community” problem such as global warming and, I am glad to say, my religion was not of that variety.

In addition, I will clearly state at the onset that the messages I received did not suggest that we should leave complex global phenomena – especially if partially caused by mankind – in the hands of the Lord – with the excuse that those issues are just too complex and too far beyond our comprehension to deal with. To that suggestion, I say “no way!”, that is also not the religion I signed on to. Instead, I was taught that the problems we create in our lives are ours to solve – with God’s assistance, hopefully, and not simply by watching “God’s will be done”. There was much more to the lessons I was learned than that.

I did learn, for example, that God is likely to help those who do their best to help themselves and their fellow man (note that this statement carries essentially the same meaning as that promoted by Charles Darwin, the survival of the fittest species).  And just think for a moment about the fantastic tool He has given mankind specifically for addressing difficult tasks. That tool, of course is, our remarkable brain – that has been shown to be capable of understanding and addressing exceedingly difficult problems many of which have been more scientifically difficult than those affecting our climate. In view of the enormity of this gift of human intelligence, in my book, at least, it would be nothing short of a monumental Sin to not use that gift for preserving another great gift, that is our planet Earth – as opposed to letting it degrade by scientifically ill-advised misuse.

And, we now know that we are on the very edge of committing that unforgivable Sin. We are, indeed, about to hand off to succeeding generations a planet that is horribly damaged, at the very least, and might not even be sustainable for our grandchildren and their families.

The most unforgivable part of this Sin is that we did, in fact, know better. The science associated with climate has been steadily revealed for about two centuries culminating in 1988 with the testimony by leading American scientist, Dr. James Hansen, before the US Senate concerning evidence for the rapid warming of our planet by the combustion of fossil fuels. While Hansen’s testimony prompted extensive additional research which consistently supported and enhanced Hansen’s dire predictions, that science has also been largely unheeded by the leaders of our country, who have continuously succumbed to the appeals of our business-as-usual commercial interests and the fossil fuel industries.

Thus, for the last 30 years since Hansen’s testimony, we have used our brains appropriately to understand what’s happening to our planet, but not for responding to that information. That is, we continued to sell out the interests of future human beings so that we could enjoy ever more material extravagances. Thus, our two unforgivable Sins have been the misuse of our God-given gift of intelligence and our shameful disregard of our intergenerational responsibilities.

Therefore, according to the mores instilled in me by my religious training, the inhabitants of our special planet don’t deserve God’s assistance in cleaning up the mess we’ve made of it – because we have made such abysmal use of those two great gifts he has given us. We have paid insufficient attention to the only means – scientific knowledge – we have of avoiding our environmental predicament. In fact, we have done our best to marginalize the messages provided by the most gifted of our scientifically-inclined minds.

The only remaining question is: can our “ship of fools” be overtaken and turned around immediately in the nick of time by our still suspect set of passengers. Not even my religious training provides an answer to that one. One thing I do believe, however, is that the God I envision is not going to do the job for us while the people said to have been made in his image continue to misuse their brains for the trivial purpose of increasing their material comfort well beyond the necessary and points of sustainability .

Throughout the development of the Christian religion a point of discussion has revolved around the question of whether good works or faith is more important in being accepted into the community of God. For those that have preferred the teachings of the Apostle Paul, faith has been considered to be the more important of the two. Unfortunately, this choice might lead some self-professed Christians to put less importance on the preservation of Earth because he or she might consider faith alone to be sufficient to be “saved”. But, not so by my understanding of the Christian Religion. If good works are not considered to be of primary importance by an individual, good works are still expected to follow naturally from of a faith-based conversion – if that person is truly committed to the tenets of Christianity set forth by the example of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, one cannot claim to be a true Christion simply by “talking the talk” of one’s beliefs. One must also “walk the walk” of good works and these, of course, include the fulfilment of our responsibilities to our planet and its future inhabitants. If preserving our planet for its future inhabitants isn’t the most important of unresolved deeds before us, I don’t know what is.

The science of global warming is now essentially complete.  Thus, global warming is now primarily a moral issue to be determined by our collective concern for others. This means that where this issue goes from here on resides more in the domains of religion and philosophy than science.  So yes, indeed, religion and climate are intimately related.

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | July 27, 2019

Denier’s claim concerning natural climate cycles demolished

The deniers of man-caused warming have made a major issue out of the unusual climates observed in specific regions of the northern hemisphere during the last millennium and have claimed that these unusual climates of the past prove that natural variations of climate are more important than any man-caused changes and are responsible for recently observed warming trends.

As shown in the figure below, two of these periods are known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP)and the Little Ice Age (LIA) occurring over the years indicated in the figure. Also shown are the temperatures observed over the Modern Period (approximately the last two centuries).

T over 2000 years

The deniers have claimed that some of these measurements prove that the temperature variations observed recently during in the Modern Period are very likely due to natural variations such as those that caused the MWP and the LIA, both of which occurred long before large amounts of greenhouse gases were emitted by mankind beginning with the onset of the Industrial Age in about 1850. The blue line, showing the temperatures observed specifically in London region of central England, provided the evidence used by the deniers to argue for the existence of large natural cycles. Note however that the measurements of the average annual temperatures observed over the entire Northern Hemisphere (red line) do not show unusual temperatures during either the MWP or the LIA. Thus, a remaining question has been: do the MWP and the LIA represent periods of total global warming and cooling or were they caused merely by regional weather patterns along with no net changes in the average total global climate.

Three new research papers have very recently been published that directly address this question and each of them provide strong evidence for no anomalous periods of unusually low or unusually high average global temperatures over an extended period from 2,000 years ago up to the beginning of the Industrial Age. That is, these new measurements of total Northern and Southern Hemispheric annual average temperatures most closely resemble those of the red line shown above for the last millennium and also showed no such anomalous periods during the previous millennium. This new research suggests that there have been no significant natural cycles of global climate for the last 2,000 years and that the warming observed throughout our planet during the recent Modern Period is due to a new and different, unnatural phenomenon, such as that caused by the emission of greenhouse gases by mankind.

For an account of and references to the three new research papers that has provided this new insight, I will refer you to an article in the Science News magazine.

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/global-warming-today-unlike-last-2000-years-climate-shifts?mode=pick&context=121

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | July 21, 2019

Understanding our not so representative government

In trying to address any issue of national importance, including climate change, it is essential to understand what our present political system is and where it came from. In particular, it is necessary to understand why, in a country that claims to have a one-person, one-vote electoral process, aren’t the interests of the low-to-middle income citizens more evident. Afterall, the low-to-middle income groups constitute the vast majority of Americans. So why, for example, would the bulk of workers have salaries and benefits that are typically much less than 1% of those of the CEO’s and upper management class. And since the extremely wealthy constitutes less than a few percent of our total population, why are our tax laws so disproportionally favorable to them. And why does the sum total of the bottom 50% of our population makes so much less than that of the top 5% while that bottom 50% struggles to secure basic amenities, such as health care and university educations for their children. While some might think these enormous differences are justified, it is nevertheless an enigma to ponder how we came go have this contradictory system – a one-person, one-vote electoral system along with vast differences in personal incomes and benefits. I will give that explanation my best shot here.

First, try to imagine the challenge presented to the Republican Party in preparing for  elections. Their main objective today is to keep as much money as possible in the pockets of the top 5% via the passage of legislation favorable to them. In order to do that they need to gain control of much of congress and the Presidency. But how can they do that if their main issues benefit only the top 5% of the voting public? If they were honest in expressing their real objective, they would be hammered at the polls.

The GOP’s answer to this has been to get as many votes as they can from various splinter groups in the country by endorsing the fringe issues that are of central importance to those groups. Thus, we find the Republicans leading the charge on various controversial side issues that are of little importance to the wealthy. These issues might concern abortion, religion, gender and racial inequality, gun control, and immigration policies, for examples. Some of these are hot button issues and have great potential for securing votes from the so-called “base” of our new-age Republican Party.  Thus, this new Republican Party now consists of a few multimillionaires and a massive collection of oddball, single-issue enthusiasts.

Then President Trump enters this scene and becomes a superstar within the Republican Party – because he is so widely admired by “his base” who bring in those old ball votes. While his antics in presenting himself and the phony issues of his party are viewed as deplorable by Democrats and Independents, they are a source of delight for the Republicans. The worse Trump behaves and the more irresponsible his views, the more his base loves him. In his way, Donald Trump has helped the Republicans win offices throughout the USA during the last several years and has simultaneously made our country appear to be that “basket of deplorables”, indeed. In addition, he has caused his base to vote against issues that are actually of great importance to them, such as basic health care and education for their children.

While you might wish that the traditional Republicans would be more than a little ashamed of their new President, there has been very little evidence of that, so far. After all, Trump has helped them win votes and secure offices in DC, all of which allows the main objective of the top 5% to be achieved. Thus, the traditional Republicans are hesitant to criticize this “golden goose” who provides for them the misplaced and irresponsible votes of Trump’s base.

Without use of real information, Trump has skillfully fooled his base supporters with falsehoods and one-liners repeated endlessly and with great assurance. He has perhaps not yet raised himself to the lever of our planet’s very best spellbinding BSer, Adolf Hitler, but he appears to be getting there. His mesmerized audiences do resemble those of the Fuhrer in the 1930’s and while Hitler required considerable police and military assistance to achieve the highest offices in Germany, Trump has done this merely by BSing.

In summary, our government is the way it is largely because of one well-organized political party whose main interests are merely the maintenance of the status quo and wealth for the top 5%. All of this has been accomplished by getting the votes of a vulnerable fraction of lower income Americans that don’t’ realize they are being taken for a ride by a President who cares less about them and our country than he does the maintenance of his own ill-begotten wealth and reputation.

OK, but what’s wrong with this if the Republicans have done it by totally legal means? The leaders of the Republican Party have accomplished this without landing in jail, although a few Trump facilitators have been tried and convicted. Thus, the strategy of the Republicans and Trump described would appear to have been a resounding success within our democratic system. All of this adds credence to Winston Churchill’s quotation: “The best argument against a democracy is a 5-minute conversation with the average voter” and to that of Will Rogers who added: “we have the best government money can buy”. Fortunately, Churchill also thought: “democracy is the worst form of government there is – except for all the others” and that: “Americans will find the best course of action – after they have tried all the others.”

Putting all of the above together, we should hope that someday soon we will have a representative government that is easier to understand and is facilitated by the advantages of credibility and common sense. Only if people understand and support their government can great challenges be successfully addressed. Concerning the most important issue of climate change, the only way the present Republican Party would ever support it would be if the wealthy 5% figures out a way to make a lot of money from it. Because they are so deeply invested in our fossil-fuel-saturated business-as-usual economy, however, that outcome seems very unlikely. Therefore, it presently appears that the Democrats, only, offer any hope of addressing this issue in a timely manner and we should all wish them well in 2020.

In the upcoming debates among the Democratic candidates for 2020, we should dedicate at least one of them to the single issue of climate change.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | July 10, 2019

Rick Steves needs to think again

Rick Steves has just announced his new idea for making up for the negative environmental effects of the air travel prompted by his popular PBS program, “Rick Steves’ Europe”.

His new idea can be seen at https://blog.ricksteves.com/blog/clim,,ate-smart-commitment/

Starting this year, Rick Steves’ Europe will invest $1 million a year in a portfolio of nonprofits that fight climate change and help the people it’s hitting the hardest. They figure it takes about $30 of careful investment in environmental initiatives in the developing world to mitigate the carbon emissions created by one tourist traveling from the United States to Europe and back. About 30,000 people travel on tours sponsored by Rick Steves each year. Therefore, they believe that their $1 mlllion donations will make up for the damage to our atmosphere done by their travelling customers.

Steves’ explains the rational of this program as follows: “Travelers face a dilemma: While international travel is one of the best ways to become a better global citizen, every flight emits damaging carbon into the atmosphere. Fortunately, it’s possible to mitigate this environmental toll. Each year, Rick Steves’ Europe invests $1 million in a portfolio of nonprofits that are making a big difference. That means that each traveler who takes a Rick Steves’ Europe tour can enjoy the peace of mind that they are traveling climate smart.”

Unfortunately, Steves’ logic needs at lot of work. It is not, in fact, possible to effectively mitigate enormous additional emissions of CO2. The world is on the brink of catastrophic global warming and it needs to cut global emission now! period. Steves is trying to sooth the consciences of his travelling customers while he is promoting more travel and more emissions of carbon. In addition, the carbon footprint of poor people in third world countries is already very low relative to the more developed countries. Steves’ new program will not lower the C foot prints of those poor folks. Thus, global CO2 emissions will not thereby be diminished by his program and, instead, they are more likely to be increased as more travelers learn from Steves how to overcome their consciences.

I am therefore disappointed by Steves’ witless proposal. I had hoped that he would adopt a much better plan such as the following. Rick Steves’ Europe already provides the public with many “trips” of sorts to all places in Europe. His existing TV programs provide a virtual visit to places that I am not likely to travel to because of my own interest in low C emissions. I can stay home and still undergo the virtual visits he provides in each of his programs.

So, the question I have is why is Steves doing this and why does he end each of his programs with his “keep on travelling” directive to his audience? He is doing a good job of “taking us along” via his existing PBS programs. So why is it necessary for him to encourage his multitude of listeners to literally duplicate in person the virtual trips he is providing?

Sadly, I suspect that the main reason for this is that Steves’ PBS programs are at the very least partially financed by our extensive airline and travel industries which desperately needs to keep the American public “on the move”. While I have some sympathy for industries that have painted themselves into a corner by their addiction to fossil fuels, I have much more sympathy for the rights of future generations to not have to bear the mistakes of their predecessors. Steves would do us all a great favor by releasing himself from the death grip of our fossil-fuel and travel industries and think again about how he can better serve the present needs of society.

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 14, 2019

Some overdue criticism of the airlines

The article referred to below is a “must read” for the multitude of Americans that are so in love with and/or dependent on travel by aircraft that they ignore its great contribution to global warming.  See it at:

http://www.politico.eu/article/the-popular-revolt-against-flying-climate-european-airlines-carbon-emissions/

This article explains why air travel is not about to be rescued by any of the technological developments that have been envisioned, to date.  So, if you or your institution of employment are “frequent flyers”, you will be one of the major contributors to future global warming and there is no remedy for that offense that is either in the works or in the planning stage.

Sorry, but the Earth is, indeed, a finite place that does not have the ability to rid itself of all pollutants.  Concerning that of CO2, we are already well past that limit with little chance of its removal. In case you don’t know, travel by aircraft produces a lot of CO2 and is doing so more every year. Surface transport alternatives are much better with respect to addressing this problem but, of course, that would require changes in lifestyles that might not be considered worthwhile for many.

Unfortunately, this message applies to everyone, even the extensive Studies Abroad Programs of St. Olaf College in Northfield Minnesota, for example, that apparently thinks their CO2 emissions are of an ethical type that don’t matter. It is most distressing that even our institutions of higher education need to be told this.  The reaches of the airline travel and the fossil fuel industries are, indeed, long and strong constituting a literal “death grip” on American society.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 6, 2019

Arresting the advance of global warming in 2020

The sorry state of our planet today with respect to its continuous heating by man-made atmospheric greenhouse gases can be attributed to the lack of attention given this problem by all administrations of the USA since 1988 when the scientific case for troubles ahead was clearly spelled out to the administration of George H. W. Bush by America’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen.  If action against climate had been begun then, we would have been able to avoid the worst consequences of warming. Most unfortunately for all of us and our decedents, that did not happen.

While professing concern about global warming in 1988, the first Bush administration decided to take no action at that time – that is, to “wait and see” seemed to be the prudent thing to do to George H.W.  It is also true that John Sununu, Bush’s Chief of Staff had inappropriately assumed the role of in-house science expert and believed that Hansen’s view was fraught with error (which time has shown not to be the case).  Unfortunately, the President tended to defer to Sununu’s view in this matter.

It was also most unfortunate that at that time the major oil companies, who up until then had provided some of the best research concerning greenhouse gas warming, decided to stop doing that research because it was suggesting troubles ahead for the use of their products. So, instead, they decided to use their resources for spreading doubt concerning the science being undertaken on this topic by others.  As a result of these events in that critical year of 1988, the world lost its best chance to take effective and timely action.

The following Clinton administration also expressed some concern but provided little, if any, action – in spite of the fact that Al Gore was the Vice President at that time.  The next President, George W. Bush got elected by claiming to be just as concerned as his competitor, Al Gore, but then pulled the rug from under his progressive new head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman, as soon as the fossil fuel industries pushed back on the initial actions of Ms. Whitman.

Thus, during the first critical decade of the 21st Century, essentially nothing was done to arrest the alarming increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Sad to say that during the following administration of the Democrat, Barack Obama, very little, other than talk, also occurred. Obama’s first priority was to institute a national health care system and the Republican’s opposition to that issue seemed to consume almost all national attention during Obama’s two terms.

And now we presently have a president, Donald Trump, who is probably the most ill-focused and least progressive US president of all times. One of the few things we know for sure about this man is that he is one of the world’s strongest deniers of the science behind global warming and is one of the fossil fuels industry’s greatest supporters, strongly advocating more oil and gas exploration and extraction.

Because of the above, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has now risen to about 410 part per millions – which is about 50% higher than it was prior to the fossil-fuel-driven Industrial Age.  Life as we know it today cannot be sustained with that level of atmospheric CO2 and still, we are adding an additional 2-3 ppm CO2 to it ever year. While the best science tells us that we need to reduce the atmospheric CO2 level to about 350 ppm within the next few decades, we haven’t even managed to level off man-caused annual emissions yet, much less reduce them.

So, what should be the greatest priority of a new Democratic administration should we manage to get one after the upcoming elections of 2020. In my opinion, it is obvious that it has to include very strong action against the further advance of global warming. If we are not successful in that endeavor, which now has indeed become a very formidable task, no other issues of humanity will matter within a very few decades.

Some good news is that, finally, the issue has become one of highest priorities for one of our political parties – the Democrats. Most of their candidates for the 2020 presidency appear to be of that opinion.  As usual, however, the Republicans will not be supportive and are sure to hammer the democrats for supporting the great system changes that will be required.  It is true that success in the battle against climate change will require major changes to the fossil-fuel-drenched business- as-usual system that we have become so addicted to.

So, even though this battle is sure to be very difficult, it appears, at least, that the issue will now finally be put to the electorate in the primary and national elections of 2020.  Note that in the present year, the issue of climate change will be front and center, as opposed to it not even being mentioned in the candidate debates prior to 2016. Thus, what we do about this all-important issue will finally be up to the voting public.  Hopefully, they will prove to be more responsible than their elected officials have been for the last 30 years.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | May 22, 2019

What exactly is that “seat at the table”

In attempts by myself and others to get my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, to divest itself from fossil fuel dependent industries, the president of that institution has countered with the argument that being so invested provides St. Olaf with a seat at the fossil fuel CEO’s table. Apparently what President Anderson is asking you to believe is that he and Board of Regents at St. Olaf College support action against global warming and that their partial ownership via their modest investments in fossil fuel companies will induce them to take appropriate actions against climate change.

I will admit at the onset that I view this “seat at the table” argument to be laughable and even insulting to the intelligence of the St. Olaf community. Don’t the President and the Board of Regents at St. Olaf College realize that the purpose of fossil fuel industries is first and foremost to make money for their investors by the production, sale, and use of their product? Wouldn’t any CEO of such an industry who does not promote the continued use of fossil fuels be replaced immediately by those investors. So why would the administration of St. Olaf College be so naïve as to think that they could decrease fossil fuel production simply by their presence at fossil fuel board meetings. And, why would the fossil fuel industries pay any attention to a party that talks the talk concerning the fossil fuel reductions but, in fact, is thoroughly addicted to them themselves and is promoting increased fossil fuel use.

And the logic behind this “seat at the table” nonsense gets worse. St. Olaf College is actually a major consumer of fossil fuels even though, like many other businesses and even private residences, they are also increasing their use of alternate means of electricity generation (wind mills and solar panels). These latter changes are relatively easy to make because they are now financially competitive with electricity generation by fossil fuel combustion. The net carbon footprint of St. Olaf College remains very high, however, due to other functions dependent of fossil fuel, such at the heating of their campus facilities and their unusually high level of international travel associated with their studies abroad programs.

By their own admission the studies abroad programs of St. Olaf send more students, faculty, alumni and friends to the far reaches of our planet than any other college or university of its size. In addition, a major goal of the college is to increase the fraction of their student body that take advantage of these travel programs. In addition, St. Olaf aggressively encourages alumni and friends to join these excursions. Without question, studies abroad programs have considerable value for those who can afford them. At the same time, however, does St. Olaf College not realize that all unnecessary activities leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions must now be rigorously reexamined as never before with respect to their environmental impacts. And does St. Olaf College not know that long distance travel by aircraft is among the greatest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions today. Does St. Olaf really think that its seat at the headquarters of Delta Airlines will lead to a reduction in the number of Delta flights while St. Olaf’s own promotional literature strongly encourages increased enrollment in their extensive travel programs. And why would St. Olaf’s plea at that table for an aggressive attack on global warming be viewed as credible when its own behavior is not in that direction.

If St. Olaf College is the center of intellectual activity and moral conviction it claims to be, it should consider standing on its own against the forces of climate change and not float the silly notion that it is doing its part by occupying some sort of poorly defined seats at various of fossil fuel related industries. It appears to me that St.Olaf College could learn a bit from the history of its Norwegian founders. Vidkun Quisling was the Prime Minister of Norway during its occupation by Germany from 1942 to 1945. By his cooperation with the Nazis, he claimed to he providing Norway with a seat at the Nazi table, but in the end was perceived to be a traitor to his country. When dealing with issues that are of central and determining importance to a given institution, one should first and foremost clearly decide which side of the issue you want to be on – even if that decision might require going up against the powerful. Cozying up to the fossil fuel industries today might be a short-term winner for St. Olaf College but is sure to eventually become a long-term looser that future Ole’s will become ashamed of.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 7, 2019

How we got from solving in 1980 to acquiescence in 2019

My career in atmospheric science began in 1973 when I began a post-doctoral position the Air Pollution Research Group of Washington State University and is now in its 46th year as an independent advocate for action on climate change (my complete resume can be seen on this web site, ericgrimsrud.org). My choice of atmospheric science as an area of concentration was a fortunate one in that so much has been learned about our atmosphere during my own working years – and much of it pertained to important environmental issues, such as stratospheric ozone depletion, photochemical smog, acid rain, and climate change. In looking back at all of the work done and insights achieved in these areas I am very pleased that it led to solutions and improvements in most of the problematic areas. At the same time, however, that research has not led to sufficient improvements concerning the global warming / climate change problem. That fact constitutes an emerging human tragedy unmatched by any other.

How that failure occurred is a story very well told by Nathaniel Rich in the August 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine. His article, entitled “Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change” can be seen at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 4, 2019

Thanks to Middlebury College!

Middlebury is a nationally top-10 ranked college, home to about 2,600 students in Middlebury, Vermont. In January 2019, it announced that it would divest its endowment of about one billion dollars from fossil fuels, thereby yielding to years of pressure by students and professors.

In April 2018, the college’s student government sponsored a student-wide referendum in which almost 80 percent of respondents voted in favor of divestment. A faculty resolution on divestment was also passed in November 2018 with over 90 percent voting in favor.

Middlebury’s divestment is especially notable because the environmental activist, Bill McKibben, who helped found the divestment movement, works as a scholar-in-residence at the college. When the matter first came before Middlebury’s Board of Trustees in 2013, the college declined to commit to divesting its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Six years later, the college is now reversing course. “This is great news because it’s one of the first institutions to reject divestment and then change its mind,” McKibben recently tweeted.

In its announcement, Middlebury committed to stopping all new investments in fossil fuels by June 2019, and pledged to phase out all of its current investments within 15 years – a timeline that it believes would protect the value of their endowment. Middlebury now joins over 100 other educational institutions worldwide that have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment (according to the Burlington Free Press).

My own alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, has told me (via its President, David Anderson) that St. Olaf has no intention of divesting its endowment funds from fossil-fuel-related industries. Nevertheless, my hope is that the example set by Middlebury College will help St. Olaf and many other colleges to reverse their courses.

Student and faculty votes on the issue provide a useful starting point. Afterall, who other than students and faculty are in a better position to define the fundamental purpose of their colleges. While the college trustees and upper level administrators generally view their institutions as “businesses” requiring primary attention to their financial bottom lines, the students and faculty of high quality institutions tend to view their institutions as “centers of academic excellence”. The actions being taken by Middlebury College affirm that Middlebury is, first and foremost, a center of academic excellence.

So, as an alumnus of a college that has not made that affirmation, I congratulate Middlebury College for still knowing itself in an era when the “business model” has been applied to far too many institutions of higher education. It has been suggested that by making that choice, Middlebury will lose its “seat at the fossil fuel table” (as St. Olaf President David Anderson has put it). If so, good! As history has repeatedly shown, behaving in a credible, responsible, and forceful manner has great benefits in difficult times. That is how real progress is usually made. Martin Luther, for example, was not asked by the Catholic Church to reform it.  He set an example all by himself that others then followed.

Go Middlebury!

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 25, 2019

Underappreciated point made by Greta

Concerning her scientific knowledge, Greta Thunberg appears to know a lot more than most. For example, at about 3.4 minutes into her speech, Greta made a very important comment that I believe is not generally understood by many. Therefore, I will take this opportunity to explain it further.

While addressing the paucity of media coverage concerning global warming, one of her examples was “nor does anyone in the press mention that existing air pollution is hiding a warming effect – which when we stop burning fossil fuels, will add an additional increment of warming, perhaps as high as 0.5 to 1.1 degrees Celsius”. Wow! Think about that for a moment. If true, and there is no reason to think it is not true, even if we stopped all fossil fuel combustion today, we would then immediately add the amount she states to the 1.0 degrees C of warming we have already caused. That would mean that the new global temperature average would immediately be between 1.5 and 2.1 degrees C of warming! Wow again!

So, what exactly was she scientifically referring to by that profound statement? It is this. In addition to the greenhouse gases, our lower atmosphere today also contains pollutants in the form of particulate matter. They have been formed primarily by the oxidation and then condensation of the sulfur dioxide that is emitted from fossil-fuel-burning power plants. Ironically, these sulfate particulates actually have a beneficial cooling effect. They increase the reflection of incoming solar radiation, thereby cancelling out roughly one-third of the heating caused by our excess greenhouse gases. Therefore, as we manage to reduce and then eliminate fossil fuel use, we must also realize that we will be progressively losing that cooling effect – resulting in an increase in temperature on top of that produced by the greenhouse gases.

In addition, increased particulate matter also affects our clouds, causing them to also reflect more incoming solar radiation back into outer space. The effect of these clouds on heating constitutes one of the least well understood aspects of global warming. This fact leads to the large uncertainly of expected additional heat stated by Greta, from 0.5 to 1.1 degrees C. In any case, that is a lot of additional expected heating – as a consequence of stopping fossil fuel use – something we must nevertheless do in order to prevent increased levels of CO2.  Oh what a web we have woven!  No wonder Greta is so concerned – she knows the science involved.

My point in this post is to compliment Greta on her consideration of even the scientifically complex aspects of climate change.  Hopefully, discussions such as this one of Greta’s comments will increase the public’s knowledge of the global warming problem.  Perhaps even the media is now aware of the very important point Greta made’.

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