Those of you who have followed this blog over the last couple years, know that I have picked on my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, several times as an example of how our colleges and universities could become far better leaders than they are in addressing the world’s greatest problem, that is, global warming. More specifically, I have criticized the administration of StO for two reasons. One is that their college’s endowment funds are still invested in the fossil fuel industries and the second is that they promote a great deal of unnecessary travel by carbon intensive means of transportation. While 20 years ago, these activities used to be environmentally acceptable, they no longer are – as our out-of-control greenhouse effect pushes us to the very edge of our planet’s range of stability.

If I can assume that StO College has not joined the ranks of climate change deniers, I find that the stances it has taken on the issues of investment and carbon intensive travel are both hypocritical and indefensible. They do not appropriately acknowledge the urgent need for the extreme action that is called for by the latest science concerning climate change. This, in spite of the fact that StO has several departments of science that could keep its administration up to date on the latest state of climate change science. Apparently, that is not happening.

It is not difficult to guess why any scientifically-challenged college administration would avoid going the full ten yards in a fight against global warming. One superficial reason is simply that “everyone else” is indulging in these carbon intensive activities and another is that any change in their investments would have only a “tiny effect” on the vast world of finance. Both of these anemic excuses are unacceptable and even irresponsible,  however, if uttered by an institution of higher learning that claims to be preparing their students for the challenges those students will face upon graduation. One of my favorite quotations concerning “education” comes to mind: “In teaching, example is not the most important thing, it is the only thing” – Albert Schweitzer.

Granted, StO College is to be commended for greatly lowering its carbon footprint on its campus by the installation of windmills and solar panels and increased insulation in its buildings. While these changes are very helpful with respect to reducing carbon emissions, they were always wise for a financial reason – the payback time for these changes is now down to less than a decade, after which the power provided by them will be free of charge for at least a couple more decades.

So if StO college is promoting the use of carbon-free sources of energy for altruistic, and not just financial reasons, why then has it not divested its endowment funds from fossil fuel related businesses? This time, the answer appears to be related only to a financial concern. StO college undoubtedly receives significant donations from fossil-fuel-dependent industries and wants that source of income to continue. Ties such as these between colleges and industries are now so ubiquitous that participating colleges have become essentially integral parts of our all-powerful industrial complexes. For this reason, most colleges can now be just as appropriately described as being “business partners” as being independent “centers of intellectual thought”.

So yes, I think I understand why St. Olaf College is not interested in assuming a distinctly higher level of leadership in the world’s fight against global warming. But what has not been so clear to me, is “HOW” StO manages to maintain a semblance of moral rectitude and self-respect while it continues to promote programs and investments that absolutely and unequivocally result in the elevation of the  main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in our atmosphere.

In communicating with President David Anderson of St. Olaf College, I have learned a bit about ‘HOW” StO tries to get away with the more hypocritical components of its climate change stances. Their plan seems to be based in the judicious “compartmentalization” of various elements of their program so that there is no one central person or even committee that is charged with deciding and defending their stance – in spite of its profound moral implications. At least I have not been able to find and communicate with that “center”.  I will provide two examples that illustrate this operational scheme below.

The first example is how StO gets maximum PR in their own “war” against climate change by highlighting their impressive efforts to decarbonize their electrical needs on campus (this does not include the heating of their buildings which I assume is provided by the combustions of natural gas). As a result of these changes, StO claims to provide a uniquely low carbon footprint per student use of electricity. While these changes are to be commended for environmental reasons, it is also recognized that they are now financial “no brainers” with respect to long-term energy use. Nevertheless, the PR value of these upgrades in their physical plant, gives StO a useful leg up in defending their other exceedingly fossil fuel intensive activities such as their extensive studies abroad programs for both students and alumni.

My second example of StO’s compartmentalization of their response to climate change concerns my own attempt to communicate these concerns to the Board of Regents at StO. About one year ago, I unsuccessfully tried to get the following letter sent to ALL of the Board’s members.

                                                                                                     March 18, 2016

To the members of the St. Olaf Board of Regents

My wife and I are St. Olaf graduates, Class of 1966 (50th Reunion this June). I spent my working years as a chemist and more specifically as an atmospheric chemist (my full resume can be seen at ericgrimsrud.org). Since retirement, I have been doing my best to bridge the wide gap of understanding that exists between our climate scientists and the general public. That is why I am writing to you now.

Since retirement from my day-time jobs, I have developed a web site in which I can relate and discuss my thoughts to and with many people in an efficient manner. One of my concerns is that even our nation’s colleges and universities don’t seem to realize how very badly we have already painted ourselves into a horrendous corner – one that our descendents will be paying for all too soon. Rather than going through all of my reasons for this in this letter, I will urge you to dial up my website, ericgrimsrud.org and read some of its posts.

In particular, I would encourage you to first read ‘The disconnect between modern climate science and St. Olaf College, for example’ which appeared in May of 2015. Also I would encourage you to read ‘Exxon Mobile continues to deceive’ posted in March 2016. And especially please have a look at ‘Why so little ethical guidance from academia?’ posted in February 2016. You might also find some of my other posts useful in assessing the gravity of the climate change problem and, more importantly, our inadequate responses to it so bluntly explained in ‘The tyranny of the contemporary’ posted in February 2016.

The problem of climate change has now moved well past the point where appropriate leadership is simply undertaking technical refinements on one’s campus in order to improve energy efficiency. Because we have waited far too long for action, we are now between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Much more strident leadership and immediate action are needed. The issue is now more a moral than technical one. As an example of such a leader, please have a look at the video I linked to in ‘StO, for example’ referred to above in which Dr. Kevin Anderson describes the challenge before us in clear and sobering terms.  

So what might St. Olaf do about all of this? For starters please read some of my posts and its many links to related information. The answers are clear, if not attractive. Divesting from fossil fuel industries and reducing carbon footprints are great starters – the low-hanging fruit, that is, that we know for sure will work and can be done. Paying more attention to the Keeling Curve than the Dow Jones Average would be another good idea. If we fail in this, Geoengineering with all of its unknown and unintended consequences will be next – while our grandchildren will be wondering why we simply rode out the party when simple corrective actions were still possible.

Thanks for considering, Eric Grimsrud

 In determining how to get my letter to all members of the Board, I asked President Anderson for help. He told me that while he could not provide me with each of their email or physical addresses, I should send my letter to him and he would forward it. I was then very disappointed to be informed by President Anderson that he would be forwarding my letter only to the investments adviser of the Board and not to the entire board. This disappointed me because the reasons for my objections to some of StO’s policies were based entirely on moral and not financial considerations. I would think that any decisions based on altruistic / moral reasons would have to be made by the entire Board and not by only one of its members. Furthermore, I would expect that the financial adviser who was sent my letter would feel responsible to advise the rest of the board only on the financial viability of any investment opportunity – a topic my letter did not address. I have received no feedback concerning the fate or impact, if any, of my letter even though the above letter was sent almost one year ago – leaving me to assume that it was simply ignored.

So that is my story concerning my attempt to get StO up to date with respect to what now needs to be done in order the prevent the worst aspects of future climate change. Overall, I have been very disappointed in this effort. Like so many other colleges, StO has learned to excel in “talking the talk” on climate change and in taking only those steps that would be financially beneficial anyway. They are not willing, however, to take the risks associated with taking the next, more difficult steps, such as divesting StO College from the fossil fuel industries and learning how to manage their special student and alumni programs in a manner that does not require the emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“Urgency” is the key word here – that StO does not seem to get yet. Mankind has painted itself into an extremely small corner with respect to its allowable future carbon emissions. That number is now commonly thought to be less than about 400 gigatons total while we are presently emitting about 10 gigatons of carbon per year. While our annual world-wide emissions are still increasing (yes, they have not even been leveled yet!), we must somehow bring them down to near zero in the next few decades. Is this “alarmist” talk? You bet it is, but is also the talk coming straight out of modern science.  And StO does a great disservice to its students by not telling it like it is and not walking the entire walk.

Obviously, StO should not think its windmills should give it a “free pass” for its future omissions and, instead, should begin to act more responsibly with respect to the greatest challenge facing the world today. In short, its time to cut back on the deceptive PR, tear down those walls of compartmentalization, get connected to the best and latest science of climate change and for the good of your students, pay attention to the comment of Albert Schweitzer provided above.

It goes without saying that the problem illustrated in this post applies equally to most of the private colleges of the USA, including our first and still most influential, Harvard College of Boston. Thus, an important component of our society is not helping nearly as much as it should and, if it chose to, St. Olaf College could become a novel exception to this most unfortunate trend.

 

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 31, 2017

“Powder keg Earth”, ready to go off

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of global warming is that we might be nearing a tipping point of monstrous importance. This point will be reached when the emissions of the Earth’s vast quantities of stored carbon begin to add significantly to our atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane. To appreciate what I am referring to, let’s start with the figure shown below.

ssc-2016-agw-handoutThis figure shows the change in average ocean bottom temperature of the Earth over the last 65 million years (that is, since the extinction of the dinosaurs). This figure shows that our average temperature has been decreasing over the last 50 million years. Over that long period, a vast amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide was converted to vegetation via photosynthesis. Following the death and oxidation of that vegetation, much of its carbon was converted back to atmospheric CO2. A large fraction of that organic matter was not completely oxidized back to atmospheric CO2, however, and instead was trapped on the Earth in the form of various organic compounds. The most abundant of these is methane (CH4) which is formed by the complete anaerobic reduction of all organic matter under oxygen-deficient environments such as those that exists in soils and ocean bottoms.

Over the last 50 million years, the products of these anaerobic processes have continuously accumulated in specific locations as the Earth’s temperature decreased. In particular, massive quantities of methane clathrates have been deposited below the ocean floors of coastal regions throughout the world. Similarly, a lot of volatile organic matter has accumulated in the permafrost of all high latitude regions of the Earth.

Thus, the Earth today can be legitimately said to be a loaded “powder keg” ready to “go off”. All that is needed to trigger this virtual explosion is an increase the Earth’s temperature to a point the initiates that process. Once initiated, the increased atmospheric level of the powerful greenhouse gas CH4 will further increase temperature causing yet more CH4 to be released. An irreversible run-away process will then occur, releasing more and more CH4 until the natural deposits have been depleted. The total amount of greenhouse-gas warming thereby caused would far exceed that which we would expect to occur by the combustion of all of the fossil fuels on Earth. To put it frankly, the “game” would indeed then be over for our species on this much warmer planet. I realize that to the lay public, talk such as this sounds like “science fiction”. Unfortunately, this is the prediction of well-documented and strait-forward science.

Nevertheless, let’s ask again, is this horrendous outcome really possible or even likely? Yes, absolutely it is – if we continue our emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Business-as-Usual projections of the Earth temperature all point to non-stop temperature increases throughout this and the next century. The only variable mankind has any control over is its cumulate total emissions of CO2 and CH4 (which is oxidized to CO2 within 10 years of its emission) over time and there are currently no indications that these emissions will be leveled, much less brought to zero as is required. Global emissions of CO2 by fossil fuel combustion are still increasing, not decreasing or even leveling. In short, there is no reason to expect that the “triggering point” of “Powerkeg Earth” will not be reached within this or the next century.

In addition, we also know that carbon explosions of this type have occurred before when the Earth’s temperature was increasing. One of these occurred about 56 million years ago and is clearly seen as a “momentary” event of about 150,000 years duration in the figure above. The temperature rise that caused this carbon explosion is thought to been the motions of continental shelves and a resulting increase in volcanism and CO2 emissions.  This thoroughly studied event is called the Paleocene -Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This event is very similar to that which is now poised to occur due to mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels.

Since the science behind all of this is now so well established, the only alternative left for those who can’t accept it will be to deny the science and the field of science itself. Many and perhaps most will probably do exactly that. After all, do you think the unfortunate souls that were herded into the barracks of Auschwitz told each other that they and their children would soon be headed for the gas chambers? No they did not. Their favored view was to promote the idea that the work they did in those “work camps” was too important to the German war effort as to allow their extermination. For that very same, understandable reason, the general public and the officials we tend to elect will continue, as they have to date, to ignore the implications of the business-as-usual “plan” we are presently on. It is profoundly unfortunate that a portion of the human anatomy has not yet evolved sufficiently as to enable our species to face its greatest problem.

Stated instead in religions terms, we have not made optimal use of the greatest gift God has given us – our brains. Instead, we are presently suffering from what I call the “hubris of mankind”. We tend to think “we have been here a long time” and have “faced some tough times before” and “can handle just about anything that comes our way” and “will surely solve this problem also when the clear need arises”. All of this is unadulterated BS, of course. On the geological time scale, “we just got here” and have not even paid due attention to what our scientists have learned in the last couple decades.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 22, 2017

America First and Climate Change

We are presently witnessing a potential change in US international policies and alliances as evidenced by recent pronouncements of our new President, Donald Trump. Along with his “America First” isolationist preference, he has declared our NATO alliance “obsolete” and has promoted closer relations with the Russian Federation. If continued, these changes would have profound effects on many aspects of American life including our attempt to fight climate change.

Perhaps naively, we had hoped that Russia and the former Soviet satellite countries would have become more open and democratic after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. However, ever since Vladimir Putin became the dominant leader of the Russian Federation in 1999, Russian policies and methods of governance have instead become increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial.

In addition, Putin has been doing his best to undo the accomplishments of the Western democracies by endeavoring to split and weaken their alliances such as NATO, the EU and even the United Nations. By his interference with the recent US presidential election, Putin has even managed to diminish the level of trust and respect Americans have in their democratic procedures.

The main reason why the international policies of the USA might be drifting back towards those preferred by Russia’s Putin is that one of Putin’s greatest admirers is the new President of the USA. President Trump has been consistently praising Putin’s style of leadership and has even claimed it to be superior to that of former President Obama, who happened to be one of the world’s strongest advocates of the liberal democratic model of governance. President Trump has also disparaged other democratic leaders of the Western democracies, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, while celebrating Putin’s “strength”.

One specific action recommended by both President-elect Trump and President Putin has been to promote the formation of an alliance against the Islamic State. Trump’s designated national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, has promoted such a “War on Islam” for years on the grounds that the “common enemy” of the Western democracies is radical Islam. By this alliance, the USA, Russia, and similarly minded countries would supposedly be the “good guys” and those countries with untethered Muslim citizens would be the “bad guys”, thereby creating a multitude of conflicts between the two new “Great Powers” envisioned by Trump, Flynn and Putin. In addition to the fact that this “good guy / bad guy” view of the world is grossly oversimplified and loaded with inaccuracies, there are several other aspects of it which, if adopted, would prove to be very problematic.

One of these is that this America First view and its War on Islam would sound the death knell of the world’s effort to solve its climate change problem. Only a world view that has a priority on linking, rather than dividing, all countries of the world has a chance of success in this endeavor. The global warming phenomenon is being caused and experienced by all people and all countries and the Earth is now much too small as to squander of its resources, energy, and focus by allowing any parts of it to engage in warfare against others. International order, peace, and cooperation are essential if we hope to address global warming. The phony war advocated by Putin and Trump would only serve to mask the greatest of problems ever faced by mankind.

In short, the world view of our new President must not be allowed to prevail. We must strive to get along with all nations no matter what their culture and religious preferences are. Given the fact that our planet will be home to some 9 billion people by mid-century, not doing these things will create a living hell on Earth by that time, shaped by institutional breakdowns, mass migrations, universal wars, and profound physical degradations of existing conditions by Mother Nature’s response to the impacts of mankind. Even within his upcoming four-years tenure in the oval office, wiser heads must prevail starting immediately.

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 12, 2017

Why Republicans take no action on climate change

Most of the Republicans elected to serve in Washington are not stupid. Most have noted the overwhelming evidence growing every year showing that the Earth is being warmed by increased levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. And one would have to be a complete intellectual moron to not pay attention to what America’s scientific experts in this area are telling us. For these reasons, I happen to believe that only a minority of serving Republicans fit that description. Yet the Republicans in Washington have done essentially nothing to help our country address this problem. Why is that?

For some time now, I have thought I knew the answer to that question and then this morning I read an op ed in the Washington Post (see it at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/republicans-want-to-fight-climate-change-but-fossil-fuel-bullies-wont-let-them/2017/01/10/177dbd4e-cc82-11e6-b8a2-8c2a61b0436f_story.html?utm_term=.9bc52a49db91 ) that reinforced my notions. This op ed was written by a person, Sheldon Whitehouse, who should know the answer: he has served in the US Congress over the last decade and has, perhaps more than any other Congressman, paid a great deal of attention to environmental issues.

In his op ed, Senator Whitehouse’s main points were the following. According to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund, the fossil fuel industries receive subsidies of about $700 billion per year and they gravely fear the loss of this revue. For that purpose, they spend several hundreds of million dollars for lobbying efforts every election cycle in order to ensure the continuation of those subsides. While such obscene levels of financial influence used to be illegal in the USA, in the post-Citizens United era in which we now live, there are no restrictions on the amount of money anyone or any corporation can “invest” in a given election. Thus, the halls of congress are literally awash with almost unlimited amounts of money to be used as needed in order to get the desired result. If an outcome in a given contest is uncertain, more money is simply poured into the fossil fuel preference. Thus, our Republican representatives in Washington and at the state levels know very well that they will be replaced in the next election cycle if they show signs of growing a conscience on the issue of climate change. Thus, they speak with each other quietly and only in private, not wanting even their staff to hear any personal thoughts they might have on this topic. In other words, they are still “bullied” into submission by the fossil fuel industries.

So yes, I believe that is about it. To argue that there is a lot more to it serves only to take needed focus off the most important cause. So yes, money does indeed matter and even determines – even when spent on the continuation of stupid and clearly self-destructive policies. In order to remove this malignant blockage, one or more of three things must happen. One would be that the shame-resistant CEOs of our fossil fuel industries step aside (and certainly not be appointed to the office of Secretary of State!). Another would be that our elected representatives either develop some intestinal fortitude or agree to single-term limits. Another would be to overturn Citizens United so that votes determine outcomes rather than dollars.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 22, 2016

“Sir, are you now, or have you ever been, a climatologist?”

President-elect Donald Trump has asked the Department of Energy to provide him with a list of their employees who have attended conferences dealing with the subject of climate change. In addition, he has asked the DOE to provide lists of all websites their employees maintain or contribute to. These requests are clearly aimed at climate scientists since most of the national DOE labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage. Thus, Trump appears to be getting ready to “cleanse” the DOE of scientists who either believe that man-caused global warming is real or, at the very least, consider the topic to be worthy of study.

This bizarre behavior of President-elect Trump is reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “commie witch hunts” of the 1950’s in which he claimed to be exposing and routing out communists from all aspects of American life in and out of government with an emphasis on the State Department and the US Army. His countless interrogations of individuals before his Senate committees invariably included the question “Sir, are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?” Although Senator McCarthy’s smear campaign eventually led to his downfall and censure by a Senate vote of 76 to 22 in December 1954, his reckless and unfounded claims did a lot of damage to both individuals and American institutions at that time.

The fact that President-elect Trump is now using McCarthyite techniques to “rout out” climate change scientists would be entirely laughable if it were not so sad. Is our future President so ignorant of US history and culture that we would not see the absolute folly and childishness of his attempt to discredit American scientists? Is he also so ignorant of world history that he does not know the result of Hitler’s campaign in the 1930’s to rid German universities of their Jewish professors?  His success in that endeavor left Germany with a second-rate set of scientists in all areas while their best and brightest migrated to England and the USA. Even though the first discovery of nuclear fission was made Germany in 1938, the rapid application of that knowledge leading to nuclear reactors and weapons occurred only in the USA. Having routed out all proponents of “Jewish science”, the German program for making a nuclear bomb never got to first base.

So the question is: is our next President so ignorant of both science and 20th Century history that he would attempt to rid or marginalize the influence of American scientists in any area and especially in the all important area of climate change? The very clear answer to that question appears to be “yes”, he is trying to do just that and, yes, he is clearly that ignorant and foolish. Furthermore, he seems to be a man who thinks that all ultimate truth is what he wishes it to be. Given his questionable attitude towards women, in general, he probably thinks that he can even grab Mother Nature by the whatever and get Her to do his bidding. Apparently, he does not know yet that She is one tough Mother and does things only one way, Her way. Since the rest of us will suffer the same fate as our new Fuhrer, however, perhaps we should do our very best to reign this intellectual moron before his administration reaches the bunker stage. In this endeavor, it would be most helpful if the majority party in both the Senate and House also did not believe that the American community of climate scientists was fatally “infected” with a Chinese virus, as Mr. Trump claims.

One wonders if we are about to enter a low point in American history in which our main contribution to the rest of the world will be the dark humor as is now reported weekly on Saturday Night Live.

 

 

Vladimir Putin is the current President of the Russian Federation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, privately owned Russian-based multinational corporations, including producers of petroleum, natural gas, and metal have merged to form a state-sponsored oligarchy in Russia headed by Mr. Putin. An oligarchy is a structure within a country in which power resides within a small number of people. Throughout history, oligarchies have commonly been tyrannical, relying on public obedience and oppression in order to exist. Mr. Putin appears to fit this mold, suspected of punishing and even assassinating journalists and political adversaries who have challenged his point of view. Having muzzled Russia’s print and broadcast media, Putin has recently focused his energies on the Internet where some of his critics have tried to challenge his control of information. Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 148 in its 2013 list of 179 countries in terms of freedom of the press. It particularly criticized Russia for the crackdown on the political opposition and the failure of the authorities to pursue the criminals (probably Putin’s henchmen) who have murdered journalists. Freedom House ranks Russian media as “not free,” indicating that basic safeguards and guarantees for journalists and media enterprises are absent.

While Mr. Putin’s brutal tactics may have their desired effect at home, on the world’s stage his main problem is that the democracies of the world tend to see him for what he has become – an aspiring brutal dictator. Therefore, the democracies of the world have been hesitant to form alliances with him just as they were with Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s. Therefore, upon observing the recent Presidential Election in the USA, Mr. Putin was understandably concerned that Hillary Clinton, who as the Secretary of State of the most powerful democracy of the world had voiced her concern over Mr. Putin’s dictatorial methods, might win that election. Thus, when Donald Trump entered the scene, praising Mr. Putin for this “strong leadership”, the stage was set for what has subsequently happened.

It now appears that Mr. Putin helped Mr. Trump win the US Presidential election of 2016 by his administration’s skillful use of the internet; that is, by hacking into the email and information systems of the USA and leaking selected information and misinformation concerning Mrs. Clinton into to the public domain. Both our CIA and FBI have concluded that this did indeed happen. Thus, Mr. Trump now owes Mr. Putin bigtime for that assistance.

And there is much more. Mr. Trump has now chosen Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, to be our Secretary of State when and if Mr. Trump takes office in January. Why did Mr. Trump make this specific choice for Secretary of State, one might ask. Turns out, Mr. Tillerson is also very highly regarded by Mr. Putin – whose country granted him the “Order of Friendship Award” in 2011, Russia’s highest honor given annually to a foreigner. And why did Mr. Putin select Mr. Tillerson for this award? Undoubtedly that is because after he became CEO, Exxon bet billions on Russia’s vast but notoriously-elusive oil resources on a bold partnership with the Russian oil company known as Rosneft. This now enormous, state-owned oil company was patched together using the assets acquired in the state-run auctions of the assets of other private oil companies all orchestrated by Mr. Putin’s oligarchy. The legality of these acquisitions, such as the one known as the “Yukos Affair”, was questioned at both the national and international levels. Thus, Mr. Tillerson’s formation of this partnership between Exxon-Mobile and Rosneft gave needed legitimacy to the Russian state-owned company and helped dilute the stench created by the thefts perpetrated in its formation.

So what does all of this have to do with the subject of climate change? Is it not obvious that none of the three persons listed in the title of this post will give a rat’s behind about effective and real action against climate change? Only CEO Tillerson has said that he believes mankind is causing global warming but then also says that scientists do not yet know what the magnitude of that warming will be (while, in fact, most scientists agree that with business as usual, the magnitude of future warming will be incompatible with existing civilizations). In short, Mr. Tillerson is also a denier of the scientific consensus on this topic offering only a more nuanced, but still fatal point of view. In short he is a BS artist seeking to prolong the use and development of gas and oil for as long as possible.  For a more complete description of Tillerson’s climate con, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elliott-negin/secretary-of-state-nomine_b_13713292.html. The CEO of Exxon knows what’s ahead for mankind if fossil fuels continue to be found and used.  He and his investors simply want to make as much money as they can in the meantime. Delay action and spread doubt on the reality of climate change – that is their motto.

Same old, same old: all too often, corporations make the profits and leave the public with the clean-up.  That is, we privatize the profits and socialize the losses – with the additional caveat that in this case “the mess” left behind is possibly unmanageable. In addition, Mr. Trump’s other selections to his cabinet will make sure that our regulatory branches of government, such as the EPA, are emasculated. Because Mr. Trump does not either care about or even recognize the myriad messes he is leaving behind, I hope our Electoral College will recognize and perform its constitutionally allowed prerogative on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.  If they don’t and it looks like they won’t, I fear that we will have two dates in December that will live in infamy.

 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 8, 2016

Senator Whitehouse on sea level rise

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island just gave his 151st speech concerning climate change to the USA Senate. This one focused on the effects of rising sea levels on our eastern seaboard. As usual, this presentation is first rate with respect to its inclusion of the best science available. He discusses many changes expected to occur well within the current 21st century. This is a “must see” video and is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9U9Cgcq-UI

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 27, 2016

Air traffic out of control even in Lake Wobegon

There is perhaps no better way to reveal the hypocrisy among people who consider themselves to be “friends of the Earth” than to bring up the subject of air travel. For that reason, I suspect many readers of this post will quickly tune out – they don’t want to hear or think about it. Nevertheless, the significant contribution of air travel to climate change is absolutely clear and needs to be understood whether we like it or not. Therefore, my objective in this post is to provide an overview of the problem with a summary of the changes required if we hope to address it.

The contribution of air travel by air craft constitutes at least 5% of the total impacts of human activity on global warming and is rapidly rising (see davidsuzuki.org/issues/climate-change/science/climate-change-basics/air-travel-and-climate-change).  Part this warming effect is due to the CO2 emissions of jet aircraft and part of it is due to their emissions of water vapor which in the cold air at high altitudes immediately condenses into heat-trapping clouds commonly known as jet contrails. While these contrails also have a slight cooling effect due to their weak reflection of incoming solar radiation, that effect is operative only during daylight hours.

A very large portion of those total miles travelled by aircraft are optional and/or unnecessary and the unnecessary component is increasing by 5 to 10% every year due to increasing incentives to fly and advertising campaigns that have become integral components of our lifestyles. Boasting rights prompted by the common greeting “what have you been up to lately” now go to those who can report on the most interesting or exotic excursion undertaken during their last spring break or long weekend. Thus, unnecessary air travel is now one of our most “out of control” as well as “most preventable” contributions to global warming.

The reasons behind the explosion in air travel

Over 130 airlines now have frequent flyer programs based on miles or points accumulated. Globally, several hundred million people participate in these programs. The benefit to airline companies is the habituation of people to air travel. Concerning business travel, the ease of both domestic and international air travel and the fact that the costs are typically met by our employers, means that globe trotting to conferences is now regarded as a perk of the job – by which the frequent flyer points also accrued provide additional personal trips. In this way, bottom-up pressure is created within a firm or government agency for what is now an obscene amount of unnecessary travel relative to a few decades ago. In addition, by using an airline-sponsored credit card to pay one’s household or business expenses, frequent flyer points can also be racked up quickly even by those of us who would otherwise not fly at all.

Another huge contribution to unnecessary long-distance air travel is now the widespread encouragement of myriad pleasure or educational excursions by various organizations and persons – including many that consider their programs to be environmentally progressive and enlightening. While examples of this abound everywhere, I will offer as examples two of my favorite “institutions” in Minnesota. One of these the college I went to and another is associated with my favorite radio program.

Take a look at the wide range of travel programs for students and alumni offered by my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, at http://wp.stolaf.edu/studytravel/. I completely understand the time-honored benefits of travel and why StO is so proud of their studies abroad programs.   What troubles me, however, about such programs today is that the bill for the environmental damage done by these carbon-intensive trips is being deferred to future generations – rather than being paid for now by its users. This leads me to wonder: Does St. Olaf College not know about the exceedingly urgent need to reduce and eliminate all combustion of fossil fuels within the next several decades? Does it not know that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere is already more than 40% greater than the natural level that existed prior to mankind’s extensive use of fossil fuels for energy production? Does it not know that because of the accumulation of CO2 emissions over the Industrial Age, we have painted ourselves into a very small corner with respect to allowed future emissions of CO2? Or does St. Olaf College think it has earned exemptions from cuts in these emissions because of all the “good things” it also does? For example, does StO think that their construction of solar panels and windmills on their campus gives them a pass on their other high carbon footprint activities? And finally, does StO not have science programs on its campus that would inform its administration of these now well-known environmental concerns?

I have tried, but failed to get a satisfactory answer to these questions from representatives of StO. In the absence of them, I can only guess that the answer is either good old sloth (the sin of avoiding responsibilities) or “but everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t we”, or “but our contribution to the total problem is so small”. Whichever the answer is, the example set by St. Olaf College for environmentally sustainable methods of travel by its students, alumni, and the general public is a very poor one.

In order to fully understand the magnitude of this problem, it is necessary to realize that StO’s story is multiplied a thousand-fold by similar travel programs offered by other colleges, universities, and private organizations. All of these compete in offering the best experiences abroad they can arrange for their students, alumni, and customers. The public has historically looked to its universities and colleges for setting examples of advanced insight in how to successfully address society’s problems. By ignoring the environmental downsides of their existing travel programs, these colleges are doing the opposite relative to what actually needs to be done – right now and within the present decade. It is much too late in this game for these colleges to boast that their travel programs are preparing its students for addressing the global warming problem later. What we do in the present decade is far more important than what we do in the next – when the game might already be over. Note that the level of CO2 in our atmosphere is still increasing every year by about 2 parts per million. Yes, the world has not yet even leveled its man-caused emissions – partly due to the increase in air travel being discussed here.

Travel programs such those offered by St. Olaf College are particularly well designed for the relatively well off and elite classes of the USA and for this reason are also very popular within the public sector. By picking on another Minnesota institution named Garrison Keillor, another good example is provided. You can sign up for one of his travel excursions at Prairie Home Companion Cruises. (see www. prairiehome.publicradio.org/features/cruise/ ). Garrison is a self-professed progressive liberal whose strong support of various causes is, in the main, in harmony with my own. Like that of most of his kindred spirits within the intellectual elite class, however, he appears to ignore his travel program’s contribution to atmospheric CO2. Again, trips such as those he offers might have been harmless in days of yore before we painted ourselves into a tiny corner with respect to mankind’s allowed future emissions of greenhouse gases. I suspect that Garrison knows this and I would love to see him adjust accordingly. We are in desperate need of examples of appropriate behavior by members of our elite classes who could afford several extensive trips per year. The desperate straits in which the world now finds itself was greatly facilitated by the bad habits set in motion by the elite classes of the Western democracies. So why shouldn’t they be a big part of the solution rather than a huge component of the problem?

I think I would be much more inclined to take a bet on the prospect for turning Garrison Keillor than one on doing the same at St. Olaf College. Our private colleges are so tightly tied to our existing business-as-usual financial powers – from which our colleges receive financial support – that they undoubtedly have little leeway in following up forcefully on some of the moral obligations they might feel. That is, they are now typically “businesses” themselves with a “go along to get along” business model rather that intellectual leaders capable of going against the financial grain if reason suggests they should. Only after an issue is relatively settled within the public sector (as occurred after the civil rights battles of the 1960’s) will the colleges typically jump with both feet into what they consider to be a “controversial” issue. Thus, the administrations of our colleges and universities are far more likely to become good “followers” than good “leaders” of needed societal changes. They can sometimes be led to hop on a progressive bandwagon when forced to do so by student protests that they cannot control. Unfortunately, we appear to be living in an era of excessively “well-behaved” student bodies, many of whom don’t even seem to realize that it is their future families that are primarily at risk.

On the future of air transport

The only way I can envision environmentally responsible air transport in the future is by use of another type of transportable fuel. Specifically, that fuel would be some type of biofuel, the combustion of which does not change the total carbon content of the biosphere. This might be a biodiesel or ethanol, for examples, made from plants. It must also be acknowledged, however, that it would be very difficult to make enough of these biofuels as to duplicate the amount of fossil fuels being used today for air transport. Also, the use of plants for biofuel production would compete with our existing methods of food production. Thus, these biofuels would be in much shorter supply and considerably more expensive than our abundance supplies of fossil fuels. With a stiff carbon fee also applied to any continued use of fossil fuels, air transport would then be considerably more expensive and, therefore, readily available only to the fraction of today’s users. The rest of us would have to use the lower cost, low carbon footprint, and slower means of surface transport driven by either biofuels, renewable electricity, and conceivably even small nuclear reactors on trains. While some of these changes would be considered inconvenient, they simply must be made if we value sustainability and the preservation of our life-supporting environment. Note, however, that the long-awaited development of fast surface transport throughout the USA might then finally occur, making life more convenient for all of us.  Note also that greatly reduced travel by high elevation aircraft would also reduce the formation of high elevation jet contrails which, of course, would be formed by the combustions of biofuels as well as petrofuels. By allowing high altitude flying only during the daylight hours, the slight cooling effect of sunlight reflection off the contrails would help negate some of the warming effect of those contrails.

But finally, some “good news” (I would like to think) for my alma mater. If the above changes in air transport could be made, the costs of St. Olaf’s wonderful international travel programs would no longer be deferred to future generations of Oles. Instead, those programs would be paid for immediately by their present users. Sounds fair and in harmony with the Christian ethical principles on which many of our nation’s colleges such as StO were founded, does it not? Yes, all of this constitutes more of a moral dilemma today rather than a technical one, does it not? My hope is that St. Olaf College finds the strength needed to do the right thing – even if their donations from the fossil fuel users and providers might be diminished. As King Olaf II’s men shouted at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, “Fram! Fram! Kristmenn Krossmenn” (English translation: “let’s get on with it!”)

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 19, 2016

On the terrifying importance of Trump’s next bet

Climate scientists around the world have been shocked by the recent election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world – largely due to his stated stance on the issue of climate change. He apparently thinks it is all merely a big hoax perpetrated by the Chinese in order the ruin our economy. Mr. Trump has to be the most ill-informed president the USA has ever elected to that office. Therefore, we must hope that some of the statements being made by a multitude of climate scientists get through to him. I wish to refer you here to one of these in which the problem is framed around “betting”, a topic of keen interest to casino owner Trump. This statement was written by Bill McKibben and appeared in the Washington Post yesterday. It can be seen at:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trump-is-betting-against-all-odds-on-climate-change/2016/11/17/8f7bf4ee-acf4-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html?utm_term=.1e4eed0b2276&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1

We are clearly at a moment in the history of mankind at which the terrible wager threatened by President-elect Trump would, if taken, ensure a long-term downward spiral of all civilizations mankind has built on this planet. It is essentially a bet against physics and the laws of nature that have been deduced by scientists over the last two centuries.  Trump clearly knows a lot about our business-as-usual world. His knowledge of the rest of human endeavors and our planet itself, however, is sophomoric, at best. It is nothing short of mindboggling and frightening to realize that the fate of mankind has fallen into the hands of such a poorly informed individual. Hopefully, the likes of Bill McKibben and other scientists will be able to help him see the unprecedented importance of his pending actions.

Our last Republican President stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Middle East by invading Iraq while wasting a decade of potential action against climate change.  Our next one will create even more chaos throughout the entire world if he chooses to invade the life-sustaining environmental system that Mother Nature has created over the last several millennia. Therefore, I will add the following message to the “victorious” Republicans. Have you no sense of shame?  This is your own species and your own descendants that you are putting at grave risk. Perhaps you could at last become part of the solution on climate change – starting by reigning in your President-elect.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 12, 2016

Our President Elect, what is he?

In trying to make any sense out of what President Elect Donald Trump has said, it is helpful to first remind yourself of this widely shared view of his basic character. Even within his own party, Mr. Trump is thought to represent much of what is crude, arrogant, garish, and classless in our country. While that might possibly be OK, it is also generally agreed that he has little respect for or even knowledge of American governance. The same goes for American science. And I am sorry to say that all of this is, perhaps why so many Americans voted for him and that is not OK. None the less, Mr. Trump won the election and he will be the next President of the United States of America.

Mr. Trump’s ascendance to the Presidency will be accompanied by several precedents – one of which will be immediately apparent in this blog. That is the use of unusually coarse and exaggerated language in describing events, people and places. Thus, for example, I could begin this post by congratulating our President Elect for “schlonging” “Crooked Hillary” – all made more impressive by Trump’s notion that he did this in a political system that is “horribly corrupt”. I suspect that some of his followers are now looking forward to watching President Trump “lock her up” as he promised to do. While his kindred spirit, Vladimir Putin of Russia, would thereby be impressed, its hard for me to imagine that Trump would actually do that.

Similarly, I doubt, as well as hope, that many of Trump’s outrageous claims and promises will amount to much. He obviously knows how to work an intellectually challenged crowd. One simply has to exaggerate and tell fibs. I would therefore not be surprised if Trump supporters will have to be contented with a few meaningless triumphs – such as their feigned relief in knowing – for the first time in eight years – that they will have a President who was born in this country and whose skin color is more to their liking. Nevertheless, I am very concerned at the moment about one inevitable long-term effect of what just happened.

Even long-standing civilizations eventually fall from positions of dominance for various of reasons. The Roman Empire collapsed due to war, overexpansion and rampant corruption. The British Empire dissolved due to cultural arrogance and imperialistic hubris. And sadly, the USA is presently devolving from a Democracy into an Idiocracy. Ruled by fools, what we wish for is increasingly unaffected by the realities of our existing conditions. The very best example of this concerns the issue of climate change. Thus, the USA may become the first world power to crumble under the weight of its own stupidity.

While there are countless reasons why many of us are concerned about the leadership (or lack of) our President Elect will provide, I will focus here on my own major concerns related to environmental and energy issues. On that front, Trump has promised that he will essentially ignore those concerns and undo all of the advances President Obama has made in these areas. That is, he has said he will cancel our commitment to the Paris Accord concerning reductions in greenhouse gases. Instead, President Trump has said that he will open up federal lands to additional oil, gas, and coal extractions. He has said that regulations and oversight by the EPA is unnecessary. He has said that he will scrap pending efforts to tighten methane controls on domestic drillers. He has also promised to pull back on the Clean Power Plan for reducing CO2 emissions at power plants. I also fear that he will give a green light to the Keystone XL pipeline project thereby opening a new long-term flow of Canadian tar sands oil to the world markets.

While the CEOs of the fossil fuel corporations are absolutely ecstatic about these unexpected turn of events, it should also be noted that these measures fly in the face of the recommendations of our nation’s climate scientists. Does President Elect Trump really have a better understanding than professional scientists of Mother Nature and of the forces She has set in motion in response to the changes mankind is making to Her atmosphere? As ridiculous as that notion is, our ruling Republican Party, its President Elect, and a huge portion of our voting public apparently think so.

In response to this and other anti-intellectual currents rising to the top in the USA, Ian Gurvitz has recently written a book appropriately entitled “Welcome to Dumbfuckistan, the Dumbed-Down, Disinformed, Dysfunctional, Disunited States of America”. While the vulgar name Gurvitz has applied to a large sector of our country might be offensive to many Americans, no apologies for crudeness to Mr. Trump and his supporters should be required. Instead we should just add this new label to the rich list of terms our President Elect has brought back into public usage. Because of the frank assessment this book provides concerning our degrading nation, I highly recommend it to all Americans.

In short, with Gurvitz’s Dumbfuckistan soon to be ruled by a scientifically illiterate fool, the damage done by this election, in the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, “will be measured in geologic time”. I will add that the greatest losers in this election were our non-voting children and the yet to be born. All of this gives new meaning to the expression, “God Bless America”. And while you’re at it, God, please help us with our multitude of dumbfucks – especially those of the self-righteous variety who claim to be seated at your side.

In spite of the pessimistic view I have provided above, there is, nevertheless, always hope that things could change very quickly. For example, there is a real possibility that Candidate Trump will change many of  his views abruptly, even before he becomes President Trump. This thought is consistent with Trump’s behavior in the past. He is a self-absorbed predator who doesn’t think he owes anything to anyone. During his long business career, he repeatedly “stiffed” his contractors and material suppliers through clever use of our bankruptcy laws. Thus, when he gets into the oval office next January, I doubt that he will feel any obligation to honor any of the commitments he has made to others. Donald Trump is clearly not a stupid person himself even though he has shown himself to be a master at getting the support of those who are. This remote possibility of Trump’s future involvement in the fight against climate change was the theme of one of my previous posts concerning a President Trump (see it in the March 2016 archives). As unlikely as this more progressive view of Trump might be, there’s no harm in crossing one’s fingers. Of all of the issues on the table, only the Climate Change Problem needs to be addressed immediately. All of the others can be addressed and solved in due or even overdue time – if our life sustaining physical environment doesn’t slip away. Who knows – maybe Trump will start learning a bit about the Father of his party and be inspired by how Lincoln saved the United States of America in the nick of time. The fact that he has so little regard for what’s left of today’s Republican Party is encouraging.

 

 

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