Thursday, October 15, 2009

Happy Blog Action Day for Climate

I'm posting this as my little contribution to Blog Action Day 2009 on tackling climate change. Let me start off by saying I am indeed happy today; I'm happy to see people pitching in all across the web to contribute to this great campaign. I'm happy that there is still some chance the world may work together at Copenhagen. I'm particularly happy that there are just so many solutions to climate change waiting to be put into practice, as soon as we all agree to stop dithering and act.

I want to reflect on the recommendations at the conclusion of Kari Norgaard's excellent essay on the psychology of climate denial, which I blogged on recently. I'll use the concise and convenient summary of six points provided by Wellsharp's nice overview of Norgaard's recommendations:

Engage with denial openly – research shows fears are less paralyzing when faced openly.
If you're one of the many people still trying to argue that CO2 doesn't cause warming, that it's "plant food", etc. - it's time to let go and face reality. Look at the planet Venus: surface hot enough to melt lead, and the reason (worked out well before anybody began debating the greenhouse effect on earth) is the huge buildup of CO2 in Venus' atmosphere. Find a better account of why Venus is so hot, and then come back; I won't hold my breath. Otherwise, you need to recognize that you're grasping at straws. Besides, if greenhouse warming weren't bad enough, CO2 emissions are also acidifying the world's oceans - already, right now, it is measurable and it's got oceanographers really shaken. (See my recent posts on Acid Test and the Monaco Declaration.)

Many people have landed in climate "denial" by way of a conservative blog, talk radio, cable news, or editorials like those from George Will or the Washington Post. Look, whatever your views on their politics, those sources just aren't listening to the science. They're 'in denial'; you may feel, like them, that liberals are trying usher in world government, and using climate change "alarmism" to scare people into compliance. Well, we're not. I don't want world government, and neither do Obama nor the Democrats in Congress, nor any center or left party in Canada's Parliament, nor Elizabeth May. Passing laws like CAFE standards, cap-and-trade, or renewable portfolio standards may not be laissez-faire, but neither are they Socialism, nor stepping stones to rule by the U.N. They're just domestic policy, same as the old kinds of policy like depletion allowances for oil exploration, or loopholes in New Source Review for coal plants.

Contradict fear by providing honest information, open discussion (e.g. acknowledgement of the risks but also hopeful examples)
If we drag on the delay and make no effort to cut greenhouse emissions, we do indeed face serious consequences - for people, not just for polar bears. Drought and stresses on the food supply are probably the biggest and "scariest" impacts. Look at Australia now; consider that scientists project similar problems setting in around the world in more temperate climate as continental interiors heat up and dry out. Poor countries will be hit first and hardest, be we won't escape such impacts in the developed world either. So we won't be able to just retreat into a wealth bubble, even if the ethical problems of doing so didn't rule that out anyway. Indeed, poor countries are already experiencing negative impacts from climate change, as documented by CARE.

Okay, now: don't panic. We can in fact cut greenhouse emissions, substantially, without moving back to the stone age. Maybe Exxon won't be the biggest supplier of energy in the future, and they won't like that, but we can have hot water, comfortable houses, mobility, and electrons for the fridge, TV and internet from 100% renewable sources. More on this below. I already get all my electricity from renewables through Bullfrog Power and soon, Ontario will be providing much more green electricity to everyone province-wide thanks to the groundbreaking Green Energy and Green Economy Act. The future for renewables in Ontario is really looking up.

Contradict helplessness through providing opportunities for effective action, including opportunities that reduce isolation, build community, and create positive frames of reference. “people must be given not only information, but something to do.” (p.47)
Okay, you are on the internet. There's plenty you can do besides changing lightbulbs. Look up what legislation is being proposed where you live, and email your representatives to tell them what you think. You'll be surprised how easy it is, and they actually keep track of what their constituents bother to write in about. You can phone and leave your views with a staffer, as well.

Vote with your wallet - sign up for green electricity; insulate (lots of tax credits for doing this, lately); boycott products that are the most negative for the environment, and tell stores and manufacturers why you are making those choices (again, emailing is quick and easy.) I read that Wallmart is aiming to post the carbon footprint of every product on their shelf pricing displays - wow!

Next, tell your friends: tweet whatever you discover about greener or smoggier product choices; join Facebook groups for action to protect rainforests, healthy oceans, whatever catches your eye and heart. You don't need to chain yourself to a smokestack to be an activist on the internet.

Combat guilt by acknowledging the present and providing opportunities to engage in more responsible behavior.
Here we are, now. We've got big fossil fuel companies, coal-fired power plants, oil pipelines, and furnaces to run. When we started building all this, we didn't realize what it could do to the atmosphere and ultimately the climate. So let's not beat ourselves up over what our parents didn't know, nor over how right now, we need coal, oil and gas to be able to function. However, good news: there are alternatives - lots of them. We won't convert everything overnight, but in a generation, we could readily replace fossil fuels with renewable sources in most sectors where it counts. Houses can be far better insulated (saving money on whatever kind of energy you buy for heat and cooling - now that's cool!) Houses can get heat from geo-exchange systems (zero carbon if the power for circulating pumps is green electricity); hot water passive solar already works and is catching on worldwide, from China to Mexico to Canada (okay, we need backup heat for grey Februaries...).

For electric power, there's small hydro (only 3% of dams in the U.S. have electric generation - retrofit even a fraction of the rest, and get more power with no new dams); run-of-river hydroelectric also avoids dams; solar PV prices are plummeting, and the industry has been growing incredibly rapidly with multi-billion-dollar investments; concentrating solar thermal like Solar 1 can also work well, and can be equipped to provide dispatchable power or "baseload" by storing the heat carrier in insulated tanks for use on demand (one of Joe Romm's top picks for green energy); wind power - already cheaper than most other new generation sources, and beats coal handily if we only make coal pay the full ride for all its externalities (CO2, mercury, particulates, smog and acid precipitation, mining impacts - yuck!)

For cars, plug-in hybrids are an exciting prospect for cutting dependence on gasoline and making the most of the kind of green electricity I just enumerated. Have a look at the great news and commentary site for the latest on electric, plug-in hybrid, and other green autos.

I could go on and on with this kind of great news; I'll save some for a future post, but for now, just stop worrying that if we agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this will somehow "cripple the economy." Instead, I foresee a great future for renewable and sustainable energy production from dozens of sources. Never again should we need to worry about "peak oil" or peak anything - we can produce more than enough for everyone if we deploy even half of the potential inexhaustable sources that are starting to prove themselves more and more ready for prime time.

Oh wait - did I mention LED lighting? Bio-char? Cellulosic and algal biofuels? Wave and tidal power? Electric rail for freight and passenger travel?

All that without even getting to controversial lower-carbon power such as nuclear or coal+carbon sequestration, either of which are still potential sources (though each likely to end up costing MORE than renewables - see

Confront and constrain the influence of the fossil fuel industry on policy debate (e.g. public information campaigns)
Good responses to this are easy to find now - we just need to get them out to the public and to policymakers, consistently. Just a few top picks:
Look on DesmogBlog for James Hoggan's new book Climate Cover-up and order your copy today. It's a powerful expose of the sorry spectacle of Big Oil and Coal laundering their dirty money through foundations and think tanks to fund mindless spin doctors and astroturf (i.e. fake grassroots) campaigns of deception. Hoggan caps off a series of such exposes that started with Ross Gelbspan's The Heat is On through Stauber & Rampton's Trust Us, We're Experts and Toxic Sludge is Good for You.

Develop other ways of appealing to national identity and national pride e.g. through emission reduction efforts
For the US: despite all the denial and delay under Bush 43, the U.S. economy has indeed achieved some measure of improvement in CO2 intensity of GDP. It will take a lot more than this to achieve absolute reductions, particularly if and when economic growth kicks back in. But the U.S. still leads in technical innovation and research.
For Canada: okay, we signed Kyoto and then punted, and the earliest we might see national carbon policy in effect is 2011. However, paradoxically, there is one jurisdiction in Canada that already has a carbon price in effect. Did you guess Alberta? No, really - check it out.
Both countries have been laggards in the global negotiating process, but the Obama administration has re-engaged and is working hard to bring in China. There could still be a productive agreement in Copenhagen this December. Contact your elected officials to urge them to make this happen.

Be positive! Don't sit around thinking "oooh, we're dooooomed." We're not doomed. We just need to pry political power from the oily hands of the fossil fools.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New NRDC video "Acid Test" on ocean acidification

Well now that I know I can embed YouTube videos so easily (in Chrome, I right-click on the video where I found it, and choose "copy embed html" - then just paste that HTML into a new blog post...

Like this:

I found this at the NRDC site where they have background information about the project.

This dovetails well with the Monaco Declaration that I've been trying to publicize. Even if the greenhouse effect were not a problem (and it is), CO2 continues to change the chemistry of the entire world's oceans, posing a huge threat to marine life, from plankton to corals to reef fish and the whole aquatic food chain. This also threatens the food supply of mammals that depend on fish in their diet - seals, grizzly bears, about a billion people ...
Let's see if I can embed a YouTube video...

Nice ad from the Sierra Club responding to the ongoing "clean coal" TV ad blitz.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Interesting articles on psychology of denial

The term "climate denial" gets some people annoyed, as though they are being lumped in with Holocaust deniers. I think that's off the mark - that's hardly the only connotation of the term "denial." Let's set aside that issue, and consider the use of the term "denial" in psychology, as in being "in denial" about a problem. Lots of thoughts are unwelcome or uncomfortable, and everyone is prone to avoiding such discomfort by trying not to think about those things.

I find it useful to be able to talk about public reaction to news about global warming, or to calls for change to deal with it, in terms of psychological denial. "Let's just hope the scientists are all overreacting"; or, "let's just hope the scientists are going to invent some great new technology that will save us all, and save us having to make big changes"; or, "let's just deflect the unwelcome messages by reading websites that say it's all not true." I think that sums up a lot of what's going on these days, right?

Here's an eloquent posting summing up an academic paper on this topic: The Social Organization of Denial. I like the emphasis on the social nature of climate denial; it's a shared behaviour, rather than a personal foible that just happens to appear in large numbers of people independently.

Well Sharp is a blog I had not come across before, by New Zealanders David Parker and Barry Larsen. Worth a look.

Something we all can do now

People say it's important to give your audience a sense of what they can do to be part of the solution, so that they don't leap from avoiding the troubling message about climate change directly to despair that nothing can be done.

So in the spirit of "at least we can do this now" I offer these tips for cutting the carbon footprint of our internet habit:

#1 Find or buy a couple of power bars that have an on/off switch. Set up one to control all your small device chargers: cellphone, PDA, laptop, Wiimote, whatever. It turns out those little "brick" transformers in chargers draw a small amount of power whenever plugged in to the wall, even when the battery-powered product is not connected(!) Clue: they stay warm all the time. If it's warm, it's functioning as a tiny baseboard heater. Save needing to plug and unplug the AC prongs by just flipping the switch on the power bar. During heating season it's less critical.
Set up another one at your computer, and plug into it all the computer peripherals you use only occasionally, including the power "brick" converters for small DC power supplies.
Leave the power bar switched off except when you need the devices. Both Macs and PCs can cope with having USB devices powered off and then turned on when needed.
If you have a router and DSL or cable modem, but you are the only user, consider if you can power these down when you're not online. They typically need no more time to sync up with your ISP than your PC needs to boot up, or come out of hiberate. (For wireless routers, this will be less appealing, but see if you can work out some plan - switching off while you're out of the house, while you sleep, etc.) Leave as little as possible powered on 24/7.

#2 Windows users: set up your PC to enable hibernation, using the Power options control panel. Then download and run this simple registry update, which tells windows to make visible the hidden Hibernate button in the Shut Down/Restart dialog box. Page explaining the registry change and link to download the .REG. Don't be alarmed by browser warnings about dangerous file type. I've tested this download, and it does what it says.

The hidden hibernate button can already be revealed by pressing "CTRL" while the box is showing, but why keep it secret? Out of sight is out of mind.
When you hibernate, Windows saves a snapshot of what's in memory, right down to what files and web pages you have open. It can then power down your PC completely. When you power up again, it does the usual BIOS 'POST', then when it starts from your hard drive, it sees the hibernate image and reloads that instead of booting windows from scratch. Loading is considerably faster, and you're back where you left off. (You'll still need to use "restart" to complete some Windows updates, security patches, etc. at times.)
I believe the appeal of this little tweak can help steer us all to take advantage of Hibernate, where we'd otherwise be tempted to leave the PC on for many hours ("I can't bear to watch it 'saving your settings' for 5 minutes, and then wait for Windows to boot when I want to get back online later") Also perfect for laptops - great for battery life. Hibernate is "off", while standby is "on but low power" and still drains your battery gradually.

You can set the Power Options control panel to hibernate your PC automatically after a chosen interval of inactivity, just as you've likely got already for screen saver and/or standby.
By itself this tweak won't save the world, but little steps in the right direction, taken by enough people on enough different fronts, can make a good start.