Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On superstorms and climate change

First, of course, all of our thoughts and good wishes go out to those in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. We are all wishing you a speedy recovery.

As the cleanup begins, it is worth considering the links between strong storms and climate change.  First, let's acknowledge that there have always been megastorms, in the northeast and elsewhere. Andy Revkin has written in his indispensible DotEarth blog that severe hurricanes have been a regular feature of the northeast in the short - e.g. 100-years - and long - e.g. 5000 years - time-frames. Such events occur with a certain frequency in periods of cooler and warmer climate, and so their existence in-and-of-themselves is not evidence of a new climate.

However, you are correct if you've been thinking that exceptional weather has become, well...the norm. This year we've had the mega-drought in the midwest, west, and southwestern United States, massive wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere,  a destructive "derecho" storm that hammered states from Illinois to Virginia, and now Hurricane Sandy. Of course, these come on the heels of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which devastated nearby Scoharie County and other areas in upstate New York and Vermont.

Climate scientists, for years, have been prefacing every statement about extreme weather and climate change by saying "no individual storm can be tied to climate change." But that is changing. A host of new published studies and individual statements have made the link clearer.
Yes, we had megastorms before. But the increasing intensity of weather events - droughts, hurricanes, thunderstorm activity - are entirely consistent with what climate models have been predicting. To say that it is unrelated to climate change is no longer defensible.

Newspapers and TV, like the candidates,  are ignoring the obvious - and well-documented - connections between extreme weather and climate.

That makes it all the more remarkable that our own Gov. Andrew Cuomo made this crystal clear statement:
"There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement ... Anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality. "
And, not incidentally, denying the evidence.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ozone House & E-club go to Dionondehowa!

On Sunday the 14th of October, a caravan of cars left Union College for the Dionondehowa nature preserve in Shushan, New York. We arrived to rainy conditions and were given stern warnings about ticks by the directors of the preserve, Bonnie and Geoffrey. Even so, the situation was positive in light of all of the people who had arrived to help with the work that needed to be done around the preserve. 

Russian Olive plants had invaded part of the forest and one group was in charge terminating this invasive species which many times had small red berries. The forces in my group used clippers to cut the plants down and applied pesticide selectively so as to make sure to only kill the plants. Another group dealt with identifying other invasive species with bright orange tape for future disposal. Yet there were also American hunters on the prowl in the area. The third group patrolled the road in a pickup truck and put in place numerous ‘no hunting’ signs.

After a couple hours of work, Bonnie and Geoffrey treated us to a delicious meal of bread, cheese, soup, chocolate, and fruit. The food felt good in our stomachs on a fall day in the woods.  

Ozone House & Environmental Club take seasonal trips to    h           Dionondehowa- all are welcome!

"Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs, --
To the silent wilderness,

Where the soul need not repress

Its music."

Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792-1822), "To Jane, The Invitation," c.1820
Many Thanks to Rachel Allen for the beautiful photos.

Monday, October 22, 2012

#ClimateSilence? Blame the candidates...and the Media

Tonight was the fourth debate of the Presidential campaign - three between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama and one between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. That is about six hours of direct interaction, with the chance to discuss the most significant issues facing America's - and the world's - future. Certainly, issues related to war, peace, the economy, and health care deserve attention, and they received it. But how many questions were devoted to climate change, specifics about dealing with the threats of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, or the national security implications of a changing climate?
Zero. Zilch. Nada.

If you think that maybe climate change isn't a significant-enough issue to warrant discussion in 2012 - in a year when extreme weather events have finally made the connection between global warming and Americans' lives and the loss of arctic sea ice has happened decades faster than models predicted - consider that climate change was discussed in the debates in 2008. And 2004. And 2000. In fact, the last time that climate change was NOT discussed in the Presidential or Vice-Presidential debates was...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Congratulations to 2012-2013 Presidential Green Grant winners!

President Stephen C. Ainlay with Green Grant winners Kevin Skeuse, John Rieffel, Mary Cornelia Pinkston, Livia Carroll, David Glasser, Tom Heisinger, along with Jeff Corbin, assistant professor of biology, and Meghan Haley-Quigley, sustainability coordinator.  
Monday President Ainlay and U-Sustain announced the winners of the 2012-2013 Presidential Green Grants. Eight projects, ranging from upgrading the bicycle facilities to research of pollution from jet engines, to use of beneficial insects as an alternative to pesticides were acknowledged in a ceremony in Feigenbaum Hall. 

Embedded image permalinkWinners included Livia Carroll, Kevin Skeuse '13, David Glasser, John Rieffel, Tom Heisinger, Mary Cornelia Pinkston '15, and Ralph Cueva '13.

Presidential Green Grants support initiatives that make College operations more sustainable or research projects designed to provide regional or global environmental benefits. In the 5-year history of the Green Grant Program, more than $60,000 has been awarded to such on-campus projects as Octopus' Garden, Campus Kitchens, and a variety of initiatives to reduce energy, paper, and other resource use. Funded research projects include the design of novel wind and solar technology and pioneering of the use of aerogels as a catalytic converter.

Green Grants funding is a result of the generosity of President Ainlay's Mellon-Hewlitt Discretionary Fund, and a Mellon Foundation Grant to Union College's Environmental Science, Policy and Engineering Program.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Geoengineering for the sake of the climate?

As atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to rise, and efforts to slow emissions are stuck in "Park," schemes to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere seem like a viable solution. Of course, we already depend on tree growth, particularly in places like the tropics, or the accumulation of dead carbon in bogs and the arctic to take carbon out of the atmosphere - or "sequester" it. There are also  much more ambitious plans that fall under the general heading of "geoengineering" - manipulating geological, chemical, or biological processes so as to draw down CO2 emissions. Regardless of how we do reducing what we put into the atmosphere, the thinking goes, we'd be prudent to also try to actively take it out.

One of the more oft-cited versions of this is to "fertilize" the ocean with iron. Dump iron filings onto the ocean's surface, and plankton would bloom by the millions, taking up CO2 as they do it. (The CO2 they take up would be from the ocean, but it would be replaced by CO2 from the atmosphere). Once the plankton die, they would drift to the bottom the ocean, taking the carbon they incorporated into their bodies with them. And, presto! We've "stored" some carbon at the bottom of the ocean and reduced the amount in the atmosphere.

Actually, the science behind this seems pretty strong - several small-scale experiments have indeed seen the expected planktonic bloom and a decline in local ocean CO2 levels. And the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 dropped ~40,000 tons of iron dust, and led to a global decline in atmospheric CO2.

All of this is in the news because it was just reported that an entrepreneur has dumped 100 tons of iron dust in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Canada. He has done it in exchange for $2.5 million from a "native Canadian group" according to the NY Times. It has been criticized from numerous corners. The opposition derives from, among other things, the unregulated nature of the action - it was not cleared by Canadian, US, or International regulators - the scale of the project, and the potential harms it could cause via pollution.

But I think we're going to see more and more of this. As a price gets placed on carbon, and the market for carbon "offsets" grows, we will see more and more companies and individuals looking to offer their services to sequester C. Given how little we know about the long-term consequences of this method for the ecology or chemistry of the ocean - or even the long-term effectiveness in storing carbon - we should be worried. But I'm sure we can count on our governments to step up and properly regulate future large-scale geoengineering projects, right?...Right?...Hello???

Posted by Prof. Jeff Corbin

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Will Green Issues Affect Your Vote This November?

This election, there are many issues to consider when choosing which candidate will best lead our country. Although the candidates stance on environmental issues will not dictate who wins this election; topics such as climate change, energy, green jobs, and environmental protections are critical to all of our futures' whether we be democrat, republican or unaffiliated. These topics deserve debate time too. So far in this election, the candidates have touched on gas prices, fuel efficiency standards and pathways to energy independence. According to a study conducted by the Yale Center on Climate Change 68% of voters believe we should be making a medium to large scale effort to stop climate change, so why aren't we talking about it? So, with some reading between the lines we have tried to outline each candidates stance on the this subject-hope it helps!

The Obama Campaign:

Although he has not talked much about environmental issues so far this campaign, Barack Obama has openly stated, “denying climate change doesn’t make it stop”, and past decisions and voting history shows his support for the environmental movement. Obama is not the greenest candidate, but he has made some steps in the right direction. 

  • Earlier this year, Obama rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline’s proposed route that would go from Canada to Texas (although he suggested that a shorter pipeline proposal instead). 
  • While both candidates feel that energy independence is important, Obama has said that clean energy needs to be explored and grown and fossil fuel exploration can not be our only source of domestic energy. 
"But what I've also said is we can't just produce traditional sources of energy; we've also got to look to the future. That's why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you're going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That's why we've doubled clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels. And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years....And if we are only thinking about tomorrow or the next day and not thinking about 10 years from now, we're not going to control our own economic future, because China, Germany -- they're making these investments. And I'm not going to cede those jobs of the future to those countries. I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States." - last night's presidential debate
  • In terms of oil subsidies, Obama said during last weeks debate, "Does anybody think that Exxon Mobil needs some extra money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn't we want to eliminate that?" Romney quickly shot back that he believes in the oil subsidies.
  • Last week Obama said, “On energy, I’m big on oil and gas, and developing clean coal technology, but I also believe that if we’re ever going to have control of our energy future, then we’ve got to invest in solar and wind and biofuels, and that it does make sense for us to double our fuel-efficiency standards on cars.” It’s not the perfect answer, but this candidate’s stance is better than the alternatives.  
  • In regards to drilling permits- Gov. Romney is correct that the number of permits has declined during the Obama administration. This has happened for two reasons: 1) Permits that had been granted to oil companies were not being used- use it or lose it! 2) And after deepwater horizon deep water drilling froze and shallow water drilling slowed. We are now approaching pre-spill levels. 

The Romney Campaign:

Mitt Romney has openly made a mockery of Obama’s plans to slow climate change. At the Republican National Convention, Romney said, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans — [bites lip and pauses for audience laughter] — and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” 

  • While Romney tries to avoid discussing the issue any further, his running mate Paul Ryan has made it clear that he does not think the environment is of concern and has even questioned the motives of climate change scientists. 
"Ryan questions the reliability of climate science, and in 2011 he opposed an amendment recognizing "that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare." Beyond the scientific questions, Ryan also has a history of opposing legislative action on climate change, voting against the cap-and-trade initiative in 2009, saying "This bill is not about science, it's not about costs and benefits; it's about ideology." " - Hayley Dunning, The Scientist
  • Ryan recently said in Ohio two weeks ago that Day 1 in office they would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline as the pipeline is the key to building jobs. 
  • The Romney campaign has attacked the Obama campaign for investing in green energy and companies and failing. Romney has ignored renewable energy, pushed the need for only coal and oil, and ignored environmental issues all together.
"In the energy sector, Ryan supports the idea of reliable renewable energy sources, but thinks federal funding is not the way to go, repeatedly arguing that government should not "pick winners and losers." He consistently voted against federal funding for energy initiatives such as research into wind and solar energy and improving the design of nuclear and "clean coal" plants. He did, however,suggest in 2000 that opening federal land, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas drilling could raise some funds for alternative energy research." - Hayley Dunning, The Scientist
  • Loss of wildlife is not a concern of Gov. Romney's: 
"Mr. Romney, to illustrate his charge that Mr. Obama was hostile to the oil industry, said that the Obama administration had criminally prosecuted oil companies working in North Dakota for killing migratory birds. True. In September 2011, the United States attorney for North Dakota charged seven oil and natural gas companies for killing 28 migratory birds found dead near oil waste lagoons" - John M. Broder, reporter, NY Times

With due respect to both candidates- neither has spent time discussing the issue of climate change.

Our questions for the candidates:

  • What is clean coal?
  • Romney claims he can make us energy independence in 8 years - but at what cost?
  • When did we start using our own facts? Shouldn't something be indisputable? 
Treehugger has questions too! 

Here's # 8
 NASA climatologist James Hansen has said that exploitation of the Canadian tar sands means "game over" for the climate, due to the massive amount of stored carbon contained in this unconventional fossil fuel source, yet both Governor Romney and President Obama have essentially giving support for efforts to expand its importation into the United States. What's your position on increasing use of unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Union welcomes noted climate scientist Michael Mann to campus - Wed Oct 10 @7:30 in Nott Memorial 
"The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars Book
Dr. Michael E. Mann

Dr Michael Mann is a Professor at Penn State University and Director of the Earth System Science Center. He was a lead contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessments which won the Nobel Prize. He is a leading figure in the field of paleoclimate and in understanding how past climate change informs current climate trends.

He is also the author of books that present climate science in a way that is easily understood by non-scientists, and is a co-founder of He will be discussing his latest book, "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars," in which he details his development from an academic who communicated primarily with fellow scientists to a direct target of a coordinated slander and disinformation campaign orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry and others who oppose action on climate change. Dr. Mann is now a leading bridge between academic science, policy-makers who must understand the nature of climate change in order to design responses, and the general public.

Mr. Mann will be available to sign copies of his books, which will be on sale at the Union College Bookstore this week and in the Nott the night of his talk.

For more: