The Little Ice Age

Last week, I talked about Philipp Blom’s book, “Nature’s Mutiny.” It illustrates some of the historical impacts of global climate change, especially with regards to the stress that it has inflicted on society. The book also looks into some of the consequences that have carried over into present day. Blom is a historian and confines his scope to the Little Ice Age’s effects on European societies in the 16–17th centuries.

Ironically, the best summary of the book’s connection between historical social developments and climate change is all the way in the Epilogue. For those of you who aren’t so patient as to read that far, here is a key paragraph from this section:

At the beginning of this book, I asked a straightforward question: What changes in a society when the climate changes: For the early modern period, it appears that the crisis of agriculture following environmental cooling accelerated a social and economic dynamism carried by a rising middle class, by stronger trade, empirical knowledge, expanding literacy, growing markets, and intellectual renewal. The result was a move from feudal to capitalist societies, from the fortress to the market.

There is a strong suggestion here that the change in climate gave rise to what we refer to today as “creative destruction.” In this blog, I will look at some of the physical indicators of this period and be specific about what we mean by “destructive.”

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the first accurate thermometers and standardized their measurements at the peak of the Little Ice Age (using alcohol in 1709 and mercury in 1714). Yet we can now measure temperatures even further back by using proxies (paleothermometry in professional jargon).

Figure 1 shows temperature measurements for the past two thousand years, as reconstructed by different scientists using proxies such as ice corestree ringssub-fossil pollenboreholescoralslake and ocean sediments, etc. We can see that the results roughly agree with the variabilities in each proxy. The solid black line on the right shows direct measurements. The most recent value (2016) is also shown. The figure as a whole demonstrates the so-called hockey stick shape – approximately flat (average) variability throughout history, with a sharp rise in the 20th century when the anthropogenic contributions started to increase exponentially. We can also see the temperature profile of the Little Ice Age and the medieval warm period that preceded it.

temperature, little ice age, medieval, warm, cold, temperature, reconstruction, proxy, ice cores, tree rings, pollen, borehole, coral, sediments

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Robert A. Rohde

Figure 1 – Reconstructed global temperatures through various proxies relative to the 1860-1900 period

The way that the Little Ice Age follows the medieval warm period so quickly leaves me to think that another effect, not mentioned in Blom’s book, played an important role in the socioeconomic response from the European population at the time. This missing factor is called the “shifting baseline syndrome,” which I addressed in my April 18, 2017 blog. Most of the agricultural practices during the Little Ice Age were set earlier, in warmer times. The general impact of a baseline on many of our practices (see fishing in Figure 2) must always be considered. Namely, what worked for previous generations will not always work for newer ones, once the definition of what is “normal” changes along with the physical environment.

shifting baseline, fishing, past, future, watershed, generation, degradation, little ice age

Figure 2 – For background see the April 18, 2017 blog

I would like to address the “destruction” part of the phrase, “creative destruction.” Here is a list taken from a site that analyzes some of the consequences of the Little Ice Age:

Great Famine
Beginning in the spring of 1315, cold weather and torrential rains decimated crops and livestock across Europe. Class warfare and political strife destabilized formerly prosperous countries as millions of people starved, setting the stage for the crises of the Late Middle Ages. According to reports, some desperate Europeans resorted to cannibalism during the so-called Great Famine, which persisted until the early 1320s.

Black Death
Typically considered an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which is transmitted by rats and fleas, the Black Death wreaked havoc on Europe, North Africa and Central Asia in the mid-14th century. It killed an estimated 75 million people, including 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. Some experts have tied the outbreak to the food shortages of the Little Ice Age, which purportedly weakened human immune systems while allowing rats to flourish.

Manchu Conquest of China
In the first half of the 17th century, famines and floods caused by unusually cold, dry weather enfeebled China’s ruling Ming Dynasty. Unable to pay their taxes, peasants rose up in revolt and by 1644 had overthrown the imperial authorities. Manchurian invaders from the north capitalized on the power vacuum by crossing the Great Wall, allying with the rebels and establishing the Qing Dynasty.

Witch Hunts
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII recognized the existence of witches and echoed popular sentiment by blaming them for the cold temperatures and resulting misfortunes plaguing Europe. His declaration ushered in an era of hysteria, accusations and executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Historians have shown that surges in European witch trials coincided with some of the Little Ice Age’s most bitter phases during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Thirty Years’ War
Among other military conflicts, the brutal Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics across central Europe has been linked to the Little Ice Age. Chilly conditions curbed agricultural production and inflated grain prices, fueling civil discontent and weakening the economies of European powers. These factors indirectly plunged much of the continent into war from 1618 to 1648, according to this model.

Rise of the Potato
When Spanish conquistadors first introduced the potato in the late 16th century, Europeans scoffed at the unfamiliar starch. In the mid-1700s, however, some countries began promoting the hardy tuber as an alternative to crops indigenous to the region, which often failed to withstand the Little Ice Age’s colder seasons. It soon caught on with farmers throughout Europe, particularly in Ireland.

French Revolution
As the 18th century drew to a close, two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor in France. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking. Tensions erupted into the French Revolution of 1789, which some historians have connected to the Little Ice Age.

Writing of “Frankenstein”
In 1816, dust from volcanic eruptions and the general chill of the Little Ice Age resulted in the famously frosty “year without a summer” across the Northern Hemisphere. Like many Europeans, teenage runaway Mary Shelley kept warm by huddling around a fire with her friends. One of them, the poet Lord Byron, encouraged his companions to write and share their own supernatural tales; Mary’s was published two years later as “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”

Invention of the Bicycle
Also in 1816, a meager oat harvest forced many German farmers to shoot their starving horses. The subsequent need for transportation that didn’t require food is thought to have inspired the aristocrat Karl Drais von Sauerbronn to invent his “laufmaschine,” a pedal-free precursor to the modern bicycle.

Midwestern Population Explosion
On the other side of the Atlantic, the year without a summer convinced many New England residents to relocate. Horrified by escalating grain prices and June snowfalls, they settled in the Midwestern United States, providing a boost to the expansion movement that had begun two decades earlier.

In the next few weeks we will have a few guest blogs written by my students. Following those, I will return to the issue of how climate change is inducing global stress.

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Global Stress: Life Expectancy, Climate Change, and the Future

A few days ago I watched “One Nation Under Stress,” an HBO documentary narrated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I had no idea what it was going to be about but previous exposure to Dr. Gupta’s TV presentations was a strong inducement to view it.

The program delved into the decline in US life expectancy over the last three years. Figure 1 shows The Economist’s data for the life expectancy in five major developed countries over the last 36 years.

economist, life, life expectancy, US, Japan, Britain, France, GermanyFigure 1 – Life expectancy in five major developed countries over the last 36 years

The figure shows that the US started this period lumped together with the three European countries (Japan started and remains at the top) and ended it well below the pack. It also illustrates that the rate of increase in life expectancy in the US is significantly slower than that in all four other countries. Apparently, this rate has changed over the last three years, dipping even lower. The latest CDC numbers that I could extract for the US were: 2014 – 78.9 years; 2015 – 78.8 years; 2016 – 78.6 years; and 2017 – 78.6.

These numbers are consistent with earlier research by the Princeton professors Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case (September 20, 2016 blog). Here is the relevant paragraph from that blog:

Recent research by two Princeton economists – Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case – reports that the mortality rate of middle aged (45 – 54) white Americans, with no more than high school education, is sharply increasing compared to every other reference group in the US; in fact, it is higher than that in any other developed country they have looked at. This high mortality rate seems to be mostly related to suicide, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Deaton just won a Nobel Prize in Economics so hopefully people will pay attention to what he writes.

Dr. Gupta included an interview with Drs. Deaton and Case in his program but he used data from the CDC, which applies to the entire USA, expanding past the select groups that Deaton and Case covered.

The Guardian, after interviewing Dr. Gupta, summarized the HBO program in a way that echoes my feelings while watching this program:

In an eye-opening new film, Dr Sanjay Gupta explores the link between stress and the continuing fall in US life expectancy. By the time you finish this article, your brain will have changed. Something you read or something that happens while you’re trying to focus on these words will go on to have an impact on your day.

If that event happens to be stressful – maybe you are interrupted by loud colleagues or a loved one calls with bad news – it can trigger a series of more stressful events such as choosing something unhealthy to eat or being unintentionally rude to a friend or co-worker.

That chain reaction, if repeated, takes a toll on your overall health and wellness. Stress has been shown to be an aggravating factor in, among other conditions, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems. That might explain why US life expectancy has fallen three years in a row.

At least that’s the theory of Sanjay Gupta, one of the best-known doctors in the US, who has made stress the centerpiece of his documentary One Nation Under Stress.

Stress is an aggravating factor for nations and the world; climate change is an important accelerator to stress that has its root in other causes.

A day after seeing the HBO piece, I got an email from a dear family member in Australia:

Dear Micha, please look at this book could be of interest to you. I heard on ABC an interview with Phillip Blom. Very interesting!
The name of the book Nature’s Mutiny by Phillip Blom.

She knows my interests and she and her husband are occasional readers of the blog, so I obeyed and ordered the book.

nature's mutiny, Philipp Blom, ice ageFigure 2 – Nature’s Mutiny by Philipp Blom

A few days later, I got an email from another family member in Australia, linking to that ABC Radio story on the book:

How the Little Ice Age created capitalism – Myf Warhurst – ABC Radio

This really got me interested.

By the time that I received the second email I had already gotten the book by Philipp Blom, a historian focused on post-Middle Age European history. According to the radio show, Blom tries to examine whether our own climate change might trigger a period of creative destruction similar to the aftermath of the Little Ice Age, which peaked around the 15th – 16th centuries (he focuses on what happened in Europe). I have read the book and I will explore its ramifications in the next blog.

consequence, documentary, military, climate change Figure 3 – The Age of Consequences

Meanwhile, I happened to see another documentary, this time on the cable channel Starz. This piece, “The Age of Consequences,” examines the attitude of large factions of the US military (many of the commentators are in uniform) and other US security organizations to climate change. Namely, they portray climate change as an accelerator of instabilities that pose major security threats. In a sense, this documentary is trying to make us visualize the reports that our national security organizations publish periodically. I described the latest of these reports, “Global Trends 2035,” in my May 23, 2017 blog. The film was much more effective than the reports in highlighting the threat. I was so impressed with the documentary that I ordered the DVD and have shown it to two separate climate change classes at my school. I will describe the film and my students’ reactions in future blogs.

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Hydrogen Economy: Japan in the Lead

While exploring the global efforts to produce and use electric cars (see March 1226, 2019 blogs), I encountered a piece by CNBC about Toyota’s efforts to help Japan in transitioning to a hydrogen-fueled economy:

Earlier this month, Toyota announced a research project that could help make hydrogen an energy game changer. In partnership with the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Toyota Motor Europe is developing a device that uses sunlight to produce hydrogen from humid air. If improved and scaled up, the solid-state photoelectrochemical cell might eventually power homes or cars.

It’s one of the many promising technologies surrounding hydrogen, an energy source proponents say could help reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. While dirty energy has been used to make hydrogen, the Toyota project, which has a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, would only use sunlight and air.

The research project reflects the Japanese conglomerate’s renewed push into hydrogen. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota and truck maker Paccar showed off a hydrogen-powered fuel cell truck, the first of a series of prototypes that could help cut pollution at container terminals. But these initiatives are part of a larger effort to realize the clean-energy dreams of Japan itself.

It’s easy to see why. Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and among the top four coal and oil importers. It used to generate about 30 percent of its power from nuclear reactors before the Fukushima disaster in 2011 when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns, forcing the country to temporarily put all reactors offline. That accelerated Japan’s push toward sustainable energy. Its goal: to build a hydrogen-based society and show off progress in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.

I have spent a large part of my professional career investigating what the first paragraph describes as photoelectrochemical systems. These are chemical systems that can be triggered by light and which either produce other chemicals or act as solar devices (such as solar cells). Initially, I focused on attempts to mimic plant and bacteria photosynthetic reactions in order to produce hydrogen as a fuel. Producing hydrogen using solar radiation—in a way that could compete with fossil fuels—was the Holy Grail of the mindset that I grew up with: if we could produce hydrogen by splitting water, we would have a great fuel source. The clean product of this process is more water, making a cycle where any energy used is converted into practical work. Ideally, we would emit very few toxic products into the environment. In Israel we had an additional incentive in trying to substitute fossil fuels because most of the countries with deposits didn’t like Israel very much.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (it constitutes about 75% of “regular”—or what physicists call baryonic—matter). It is also the lightest element. On a relatively small planet like ours, the gravitational force is not strong enough to keep the hydrogen here; it evaporates into outer space. If we need pure hydrogen, we make it synthetically. The most widely used process is reacting water steam with natural gas at high temperatures (700–1100oC or 1292-2012oF) in the presence of a catalyst such as nickel. The reaction’s byproduct is carbon dioxide. Similarly to the case of fueling electric cars with electricity derived from fossil fuels, this is not exactly an environmental panacea. One can still use this hydrogen, but to make it an environmentally feasible substitute for fossil fuels we have to remove (capture) the carbon dioxide that the process produces.

In 1972, two Japanese chemists, Akira Fujishima and Kenichi Honda, published a paper titled, “Electrochemical Photolysis of Water at a Semiconductor Electrode.” It marked a major shift in emphasis in the best way to learn from the natural photosynthetic process how to produce hydrogen in an environmentally sustainable way. The paper triggered a change in emphasis from chemistry and electrochemistry to semiconductor physics. That was how I ended up in the physics department in spite of earning all my degrees in chemistry. I find it more than appropriate that Japan has led the move in policy toward a safe, sustainable hydrogen economy.

One of the major obstacles for the hydrogen economy has always been price competition with fossil fuels.

Monica Nagashima from Ifri (Institute Francais Relations Internationals) summarized Japan’s current efforts in her 2018 report, Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy and its Economic and Geopolitical Implications.” It includes the country’s pricing goals. The full report is 78 pages long; I am citing parts of the executive summary:

With the Basic Hydrogen Strategy (hereafter, the Strategy) released on December 26, 2017, Japan reiterated its commitment to pioneer the world’s first “Hydrogen Society”. The Strategy primarily aims to achieve the cost parity of hydrogen with competing fuels, such as gasoline in transport and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) in power generation. The retail price of hydrogen is currently around 100 yen per normal cubic meter (yen/Nm)[1] (90 USD ($) cents/Nm ) and the target is to reduce it to 30 yen/Nm by 2030 and to 20 yen/Nm (17 cents/Nm ) in the long-term. Toward this end, over the past six years, the Japanese government has dedicated approximately $1.5 billion to technology Research and Development (R&D) and subsidies in support of:

  • Achieving low cost, zero-emission hydrogen production from overseas fossil fuels + Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or from renewable energy electrolysis;
  • Developing infrastructure for import and domestic distribution of hydrogen;
  • Scaling up hydrogen use across various sectors, such as mobility, residential Combined Heat and Power (CHP), and power generation.

Japan’s Strategy rests on the firm belief that hydrogen can be a decisive response to its energy and climate challenges. It could foster deep decarbonisation of the transport, power, industry and residential sectors while strengthening energy security. As such, it is a holistic, multi-sector strategy aimed to establish an integrated hydrogen economy. The Strategy encompasses the entire supply chain from production to downstream market applications. Success will primarily depend on the cost competitiveness and availability of carbon-free hydrogen fuel. Japan’s state-backed approach is ambitious, as it involves domestic and overseas industry and government stakeholders on a number of cross-sectoral pilot projects.

While public funding is steadily increasing, it remains limited and reflective of caution against any long-term commitment. Decarbonization of Japan’s energy sector still predominantly rests on nuclear, natural gas, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources (RES). The prospect of hydrogen playing an economy-wide role still meets considerable skepticism both in Japan and abroad. At present, nearly all hydrogen and fuel cell technology is still highly dependent on public financial backing.

Beyond transport, industry, and building sectors, the commercial adoption of hydrogen in power generation will be an indicator of the Strategy’s success. Given that power plants would consume a lot of hydrogen fuel, an operation of several plants would indicate that the hydrogen fuel supply network is reaching price maturity. In addition to hydrogen, ammonia and methylcyclohexane (MCH) are also being studied for direct and co-fired thermal generation.

Japan’s Strategy has global implications, including the potential to trigger a new area of international energy trade and industrial cooperation. Japan and its industry stakeholders are already engaging Australia, Brunei, Norway and Saudi Arabia on hydrogen fuel procurement. Overall, international cooperation will be crucial to scale-up industrial developments, improve technologies and reduce costs. As it forms partnerships on fossil fuel-based production of hydrogen, Japan is also heavily betting on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is key to reducing emissions but at a very early stage of deployment.

In the long-term, Japan must be mindful of the net cost-benefit and environmental footprint throughout the life-cycle of hydrogen production and use this metric for comparison with alternative energy sources. For instance, without CCS, the Australian coal gasification project is equally polluting as direct power generation using brown coal. The Japanese government remains adamant that it will pursue the hydrogen economy only if large volumes of zero-carbon hydrogen can be secured in the long-term. While CCS remains unproven and carbon pricing is hoped to emerge, countries with excess and cheap renewable electricity may soon be seen as key partners for hydrogen supply to Japan.

My last blog ended this way:

All these commitments, at any level, have to do with the future—namely, the “near future,” which ranges from six to ten years. On a political time scale, this is “long” term. The changes in government within the US alone—from the 2016 election onward—are great reminders of the fluidity of such commitments (see the US’s involvement with the Paris Agreement). Such uncertainties are poison for the business community and are unaccepted/unacceptable risks for car companies throughout. For these corporations, and for the economy at large, complete change in the energy structure is a noble aspiration with many awaiting pitfalls.

The sentiment remains, regardless of the country at issue. I will follow up on Japan’s progress as we go along.

Stay tuned.

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Electric Cars: What’s Driving the Transition?

In the last two blogs I tried to show that without a parallel effort to decarbonize the power sources of electricity generators, our efforts to promote electric car fleets mean little in the scheme of progress against climate change. So—why are most of the largest carmakers in the US, China, Germany, and Japan engaging in such an expensive race to compete in that market? Government subsidies might be one factor, but in major markets such as the US and China, these subsidies are temporary—they are about to be withdrawn in the US and China is rumored to follow suit next year. A more likely reason is that most carmakers acknowledge the dangers of anthropogenic climate change are real and can foresee a call for more sustainable transportation. If they want to be players in the global transition, they have to start now.

Meanwhile, car companies are also responding to new regulations around the world. Several countries, states (in federal systems), and cities have already announced and started to implement such transitions.

The Climate Council published this first list of 11 countries with commitments to decarbonize electricity production on January 13, 2019:

Sweden: In 2015, Sweden threw down the gauntlet with an ambitious goal: to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2040 within its borders, and has ramped up investment in solar, wind, energy storage, smart grids, and clean transport. And the best part? The Swedes are challenging everyone else to join them in a race to become the first 100% renewable country. Now that’s a competition where everyone wins!

Costa Rica: Thanks to its unique geography and commitment to the environment, small but mighty Costa Rica has produced 95% of its electricity from hydro, geothermal, solar and wind over the past four years. Next on the horizon: Costa Rica aims to be entirely carbon-neutral by 2021.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua generated all its electricity from renewables in 2017. In 2012, Nicaragua invested the fifth-highest percentage worldwide of its GDP in developing renewable energy. Next on the to-do list: The country is aiming for 90% renewables by 2020, with the majority of electricity coming from wind, solar, and geothermal sources.

Scotland: Great Scot! The answer to Scotland’s energy needs is blowing in the wind. In October, wind power generated 98% of Scotland’s electricity needs.

Germany: Germany is a world leader in renewable energy and in the first half of 2018 it produced enough electricity to power every household in the country for a year. The country has also set an ambitious target to get 65% of their electricity from renewables by 2030. For a relatively cloudy country of over 80 million people, Germany is looking forward to a seriously bright future with solar energy!

Uruguay: Uruguay is now almost 100% powered by renewables almost [sic] after less than 10 years of concerted effort. The country invested heavily in wind and solar, rising from just 40% renewables as recently as 2012. The secret? “Clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment, and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.”

Denmark: Denmark gets over half of its electricity from wind and solar power and in 2017, 43% of its electricity consumption was from wind – a new world record! That’s the highest percentage of wind power ever achieved worldwide. The country aims to be 100% fossil-fuel-free by 2050.

China: Wondering how the world’s largest carbon emitter can also be a leader in renewable energy? It may seem counter-intuitive, but in 2017 China had by far the largest amount of solar PV and wind capacity installed of any country – by a long shot. China has also committed to generating 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and cleaning up its polluted air.

Morocco: With ample sun, Morocco decided to go big. Bigger than anyone else in the world, in fact. The largest concentrated solar plant earth is nearing completion in Morocco. With its accompanying wind and hydro plants, the mega-project is expected to provide half of Morocco’s electricity by 2020.

USA: In the US, a new solar energy system was installed every two minutes and 30 seconds in 2014, earning the US fifth place on the installed solar PV capacity global rankings. America also has the second-highest installed wind energy capacity in the world after China.

Kenya: Kenya believe it? This country is looking to geothermal energy to power its future and reduce reliance on costly electricity imports. Kenya gets around half its electricity from geothermal– up from only 13% in 2010. Kenya’s also betting big on wind, with Africa’s largest wind farm (310 MW) connected to the grid in October and set to provide another 20% of the country’s installed electricity capacity.

This second list of countries’, cities’, and states’ commitments to ban fossil fuel-powered vehicles comes from Quartz magazine:

commitments to ban fossil fuel-powered cars, vehicles, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Paris, India, Ireland, China, Germany, Taiwan, Belgium, Netherlands, UK, US, IsraelAll these commitments, at any level, have to do with the future—namely, the “near future,” which ranges from six to ten years. On a political time scale, this is “long” term. The changes in government within the US alone—from the 2016 election onward—are great reminders of the fluidity of such commitments (see the US’s involvement with the Paris Agreement). Such uncertainties are poison for the business community and are unaccepted/unacceptable risks for car companies throughout. For these corporations, electric vehicles are a sort of insurance policy against the upheaval that efforts to mitigate climate change can trigger.

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Electric Cars, Power Sources, and Truth in Advertising: Doing the Math

As I have often mentioned here, I teach two courses that relate to climate change at my university: the advanced Physics and Society and the general education Energy Use and Climate Change. This blog plays an important role in both classes. I try to teach advanced physics students how to relate to current events in a language that is understandable to the voting public. I also try to teach general education students how to analyze relatively complex societal issues that relate to the physical environment on a level where they can make judgements based on first principles in sufficient depth to be able to vote and participate in the political and social dialogue.

You will be the judge of the advanced physics students shortly when they submit four guest blogs on key issues that we are facing today. You have also gotten to judge the general education students on the various comments that they have posted throughout (see for example my April 7, 2015 blog).

Understanding societal issues that affect our physical environment necessarily involves numbers and data. Today’s blog on electric cars and power sources, which follows last week’s blog on the same topic, is a good example of this effort.

Last week I challenged you to address examples of two problems related to car transportation, analyzing truth in advertisement from first principles. I promised you I’d go over the solutions this week. It turns out that the solutions to these two problems open doors to much larger issues. I am repeating the figure and the table that provides the basic input to spare you the discouraging effort of flipping back and forth with the earlier blog. Here we are:

Problem 1:

In the figure below, the only parameter directly measured is fuel economy.

fuel economy, car, environment, gas, greenhouse gas

The input data include: fuel economy of 26 MPG (miles per gallon); fuel consumption of 3.8 gallons per 100 miles; $2150 annual fuel cost; savings of $1850 in fuel costs over 5 years. The environmental impact shows up on a sliding scale (1 to 10 where 10 is the best).

I asked students to quantitatively determine the assumptions needed to calculate the other numbers in the banner, using the minuscule font that reads as follows:

Actual results will vary for many reasons, including driving conditions and how you drive and maintain your vehicle. The average new vehicle gets 22 MPG and costs $12,600 to fuel over 5 years. Cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year at $3.70 per gallon. MPG is miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. Vehicle emissions are a significant cause of climate change and smog.


Fuel consumption of 26 MPG means 100/26 = 3.8 gallons per 100 miles (rounding all answers to the nearest tenths). Fuel costs of $3.70 per gallon means 3.8 x 3.7 = $14 per 100 miles of travel. With 15,000 miles/year, the annual cost for fuel will be $2100. The reference car makes 22 MPG or 100/22 = 4.5 gallons per 100 miles, so with the same 15,000 miles/year, the annual cost will be $2550. The savings will be 2550 – 2100 = $450 per year and 5 x 450 = $2250 per 5 years. This is a bit different from the $1850 in savings that the sticker advertises, albeit in a better direction. The environmental part of the sticker doesn’t provide any details and clicking on it gets us to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) site. In the almost unreadable part below the sliding scale, we learn that the environmental impact takes into account only the emissions from the exhaust, which amount to 347g CO2/mile.

This vehicle emits 347 grams of CO2 per mile. The best emits 0 grams per mile (tailpipe only). Producing and distributing fuel also creates emissions; learn more at

“Simple” calculation (the principle of which I show in Box 1) indicates that burning 1 gallon of gasoline liberates 8.3kg of carbon dioxide, which translates to 316g of carbon dioxide per mile traveled, which is closer to the number quoted in the sticker than 2250 is to 1850.

Problem 2:

The table below shows fuel costs for 100 miles of travel and carbon emissions of conventional and electric Nissan vehicles (data from The New York Times, May 29, 2011). Calculate the data in Table 2b from the data in Table 2a and pay attention to how you get there.


I will leave aside the conventional Altima, which is basically the same as the previous calculation, and concentrate on the electric car. Just comparing the numbers for the two cars in 2b,  (without getting too into the math) we arrive at a fascinating conclusion – if the energy mix for the Leaf were different, it could conceivably have a higher carbon footprint than the Altima. As it stands, three fuels that power the electricity production for the Leaf, shown in the table, emit carbon dioxide: coal, gas, and oil. I will ignore the oil here because it’s only 1% of the mix. To power 100 miles of the Leaf, I need 7.27 x 3.3 = 24 kWh (kilowatt-hours is a unit of energy). 47% of this energy comes from coal and 20% comes from natural gas. Here we need some basic background information to calculate the resulting carbon footprint. I am including Box 1 from a chapter in my book that focused on calculating energy audits and carbon footprints.

Box 1 – Calculation of carbon footprints of electricity generation

Appendix 1 tells me that 1 kWh = 3414 Btu. This appendix also tells me that 1 Btu = 0.25 Cal.

Following our previous discussion, 1kwh* (3414Btu/1kwh)*(0.25Cal/1Btu) = 3414 × 0.25 Cal = 853Cal. So my average daily electric consumption is 7.9 × 853 = 6739 Cal/day. The typical conversion efficiency of an electric generator is 30%. So the actual energy needed to supply my 6739 Cal/day of electricity usage is actually 6739/0.3 = 22,463 Cal/day. As was discussed in Chapter 11, my utility company can use many primary fuels to produce this energy. I will use natural gas as an example, so our previous calculations for natural gas become relevant. The number of moles my utility company will need to produce my daily electric energy is 22,463/210 = 107 moles/day of methane. This corresponds to 107 × 16 = 1712 g (1.7 kg) of natural gas, the burning of which will produce 107 × 44 = 4708 g (4.7 kg) CO2. The calculations will change slightly (creating more CO2) if my utility company is using coal to produce the steam and change in a major way (creating no CO2) if my utility is using nuclear energy to boil the water or hydropower to run the turbines.

(You can Google any unfamiliar terms such as mole. If that doesn’t help, let me know so I can explain them more in depth.)

My calculations show that for the given power mix we emit 35.3lbs of carbon dioxide (not 63.6lbs as marked in the table). I will also neglect the fuel production cost of the power source. If, on the other hand, we say that the only power source is coal, we will get emissions of 63lbs—almost double.

Table 2 below shows that use of 70% of world coal is concentrated in China, the US, and India. As last week’s blog showed, China and the US are two of the largest producers of electric vehicles. France gets more than 90% of its electricity from carbon-free fuels—72% from nuclear energy and 17.8% from renewables—meaning that it only gets about 8.6% from fossil fuels. In other words, it’s an ideal place to run electric cars.

Table 2 – Percentage of coal and natural gas that 7 high-power-consuming countries use
(source: BP). The world data are given in Terawatt-hours (trillion watt-hours) the rest of the data are given as percentages of those totals.

coal, natural gas, China, US, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, energy

My next blog will list the countries and cities that have announced commitments to block the sale of cars that emit carbon dioxide: no more fossil fuel-based cars. Unfortunately, the announcements have yet to include parallel commitments about changing the power sources for these cars.

Posted in Anthropocene, Anthropogenic, Climate Change, Education, Electric Cars, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Electric Cars, Power Sources, and Truth in Advertising

diesel, electric, electric car, dirty, clean, comic, energy

Artist: Marian Kamensky

Close to three weeks ago (February 24th), I watched a 60 Minutes segment on electric car production in China. I was impressed with the Chinese efforts to promote the transition, including waiving the high tax on license plates in Shanghai (see my August 18, 2015 blog). 60 Minutes explained that this was an attempt to reduce the horrendous air pollution in the country’s large cities. The opening picture, which I found on the blog EV World, summarizes the issue (although in that blog’s context, it is used ironically, to demonstrate what the authors view as a mischaracterization). Electric cars obviously run on electricity, and as long the power sources for that electricity are not clean, the environmental arguments for electric cars don’t hold. My next few blogs will focus on this issue.

Figure 1 and Table 1, taken from the Wikipedia entry on electric cars, summarize the extent to which electric cars have penetrated the market.

electric car, cars, Canada, Japan, US, China, Europe, plug in, passengerFigure 1 – Global annual sales of electric passenger cars

Table 1 – Global sales of the top electric car producers and their countries of origin

electric car, cars, Canada, Japan, US, China, Europe, plug in, passenger, France, Germany

The Wikipedia entry has a section on the environmental aspects of these cars:

Environmental aspects [edit]

Electric cars have several benefits over conventional internal combustion engine automobiles, including a significant reduction of local air pollution, as they do not directly emit pollutants such as particulates (soot), volatile organic compoundshydrocarbonscarbon monoxideozonelead, and various oxides of nitrogen.[61][62][63]

Depending on the production process and the source of the electricity to charge the vehicle, emissions may be partly shifted from cities to the material transportation, production plants and generation plants.[1] The amount of carbon dioxide emitted depends on the emissions of the electricity source, and the efficiency of the vehicle. For electricity from the grid, the emissions vary significantly depending on your region, the availability of renewable sources and the efficiency of the fossil fuel-based generation used.[64][65][66]

The same is true of ICE vehicles. The sourcing of fossil fuels (oil well to tank) causes further damage and use of resources during the extraction and refinement processes, including high amounts of electricity.

In December 2014, Nissan announced that Leaf owners have accumulated together 1 billion kilometers (620 million miles) driven. This translates into saving 180 million kilograms of CO2 emissions by driving an electric car in comparison to travelling with a gasoline-powered car.[67] In December 2016, Nissan reported that Leaf owners worldwide achieved the milestone of 3 billion kilometers (1.9 billion miles) driven collectively through November 2016.[68]

Part of my objective in teaching classes on climate change to a student population that does not necessarily have a background in the sciences (many of them have never taken any chemistry or physics) is to enable them to judge environmental claims from first principles. Below, I am giving two examples from this effort that are relevant to the environmental claims of electric cars.

Example 1

In Figure 2 below, the only parameter directly measured is fuel economy. I ask students to quantitatively determine the assumptions needed to calculate the other numbers in the banner.

 fuel economy, car, environment, gas, greenhouse gasFigure 2 – A new sticker on fuel economy and the environmental impact of cars was introduced in May 2011

Try to do it and you will quickly find that the task is impossible—not because you lack the background or haven’t taken my course but because of the size of the small print at the bottom of the sticker.

Here is what you are missing:

Actual results will vary for many reasons, including driving conditions and how you drive and maintain your vehicle. The average new vehicle gets 22 MPG and costs $12,600 to fuel over 5 years. Cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year at $3.70 per gallon. MPG is miles per gasoline gallon equivalent. Vehicle emissions are a significant cause of climate change and smog.

With this information, the exercise should be easier. Let me know in the comment section how you are doing with it.

Example 2 – Comparison of energy use and cost of an electric vehicle vs. a conventional vehicle

Table 2 – Fuel costs for 100 miles of travel and carbon emission of conventional and electric Nissan vehicles (data from The New York Times, May 29, 2011).

Calculate the data in Table 2b from the data in Table 2a and pay attention to how you get there. Let me know in the comment section what you find. Tune in next week for my take.

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Expanding Environmental Impact Statements


cartoon, mom, kid, entropy, EIS, environmental impact statement, epa, thermodynamics

Cartoon by Hugh Brown

I use the cartoon above to teach my students one of the most fundamental tenets of physics, unimaginatively called the “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” A quick Google search will tell you that thermodynamics is, “the branch of physics that has to do with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work” (Wikipedia). The law states that, “left on their own, systems tend to maximize their disorder.” Disorder in physics is measured with a function called entropy (you can Google that as well). We don’t need the exact definition of entropy here; we can all grasp the concept of disorder. One of the better-known examples is the room of a small child, when left on its own. The room, obviously can be cleaned by adults—or if the child is a bit older, by incentivizing the child to do it himself. But this kind of “fixing” doesn’t defy the law because it means the room is not being “left on its own.” The point of an Environmental Impact Statement (usually employed when a structure is scheduled to be built or a massive project is underway) is to predict how a project will impact (create “disorder” in) the rest of the system or surrounding area and what kind of intervention will be needed to mitigate those detrimental effects.

Policymaking on all levels is now (very slowly) starting to factor in the impacts climate change has (or will have) on almost every global economic activity. I have described some examples in earlier blogs (just type economic impact into the search box above). The current political climate in many countries is not exactly encouraging for productive consideration. Nonetheless, these discussions are still taking place, with the hope that global environmental considerations will play increasing roles.

In the US, federal laws and regulations require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of certain actions on the environment and to consider alternative courses of action. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) specifies when an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared. NEPA regulations require, among other things, for federal agencies to include discussion of a proposed action and the range of reasonable alternatives in an EIS. Sufficient information must be included in the EIS for reviewers to evaluate the relative merits of each alternative. The Council for Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) regulations provide the recommended format and content.

In the European Union permits are required for activities such as:

  • the mineral industry (including the production of cement and asbestos and manufacturing glass);
  • production of organic and inorganic chemicals;
  • waste management (ie, the disposal and recovery of waste); and
  • other activities, including the production of pulp, paper and cardboard, pre-treatment and dyeing of textiles, tanning of hides and skins, disposal or recycling of animal carcasses, and intensive rearing of poultry or pigs.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg terminals now include ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) information (“Integrating Sustainability into capital markets”) that can be incorporated into many economic decisions.

Perhaps the most climate change-relevant information that can be incorporated in any of these search tools is the social cost of CO2 (SC-CO2). The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently initiated discussions about possible related regulations and published a paper about it “Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide.

A recent court case examines incorporation of climate change in the EIS and is worth examining at some length. Below are selected paragraphs from the article, “Including Climate Change in Environmental Impact Analyses”:

D.C. Circuit holds federal energy regulators must consider pipeline project’s impact on climate change.

Is climate change a “reasonably foreseeable” consequence from a government agency’s approval of a natural gas pipeline? What if an entirely separate agency regulates the facilities that will actually burn the transported gas? And what if the construction of the new pipeline would enable the retirement of older coal-powered plants and thus lessen overall climate impacts?

A three-judge panel of a federal court of appeals recently grappled with these questions and determined that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—in considering and approving the construction of a natural gas pipeline project—should have considered the eventual burning of natural gas when weighing environmental concerns.

In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires that federal agencies produce an “environmental impact statement” (EIS) for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The EIS must address potential “adverse” consequences of the action and possible alternatives to it.

Shortly after FERC completed its EIS for the natural gas pipeline at issue in Sierra Club v. FERC, the agency issued a certificate authorizing construction of the project.

The environmental groups challenging FERC’s approval of the project argued that the agency failed to perform a proper EIS. The groups expressed concern that the burning of the natural gas being transported by the pipelines could “hasten climate change and its potentially catastrophic consequences,” and that FERC had failed to take those effects into account when developing its EIS. After FERC denied the groups’ request to halt construction of the project, the groups sought review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—the federal court expressly granted authority by the Natural Gas Act to hear challenges to FERC’s orders.

The question for the court was whether FERC was required—in completing its EIS—to consider the fact that the natural gas carried by the pipelines would ultimately be used in Florida power plants, which would generate electricity and emit greenhouse gas.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is an investment theory that I have discussed here before (February 21, 2017 and November 21, 2017). It states that in free markets, prices reflect all available information.

It’s high time that we make it mandatory to factor in the impact of climate change on every economic decision that we make.

Technically, this is feasible by using the dominant future scenario—currently based on the business as usual scenario (RCP8.5 in the IPCC lingo – see October 28, 2014 blog). The EIS can be examined periodically to reflect changes in the prevailing scenario. The scope of such a policy change will be narrower than that of the “Green New Deal” and it has a higher probability of attracting Republican votes and being effective in its contributions to mitigation and adaptation of climate change.

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To Make America Great Again, Please Stand Tall

I interpret standing tall as holding your head up and meeting oncoming challenges rather than burying it in a pile of sand to avoid reality (see the October 16, 2018 post on ostrich myths and the American government’s deliberate obtuseness on certain matters).

Last week’s blog focused on the “Green New Deal” and whether or not it’s viable. The proposed resolution for the new House of Representatives enumerates strategies for dealing with climate change. One of the matters Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, included in her proposed resolution was the stress that environmental refugees will impose on the United States. I added in another relevant source:

Since the resolution also directly addresses climate refugees in this ‘Whereas” and security threats to the US in subsequent ones, the authors could have also included the recent report by the US intelligence agencies (see May 23, 2017 blog)

Recently, Chuck Todd made the following pronouncement on his program, Meet the Press:

“Just as important as what we are going to do this hour is what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter, and human activity is a major cause. Period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

A few days later, The New York Times reported that the White House has taken the opposite view:

White House Climate Panel to Include a Climate Denialist

The Pentagon and federal intelligence agencies have said that climate change is a threat. Now, the White House is planning a panel to study whether that is true.

WASHINGTON — President Trump is preparing to establish a panel to examine whether climate change affects national security, despite existing reports from his own government showing that global warming is a growing threat.

The article informs us that one of the last remaining climate change deniers resides in the White House, and is about to impact official reports—ones that fortunately, up to now, had remained disconnected from politics. In related news, on the same day, the media cited sources who claimed that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, is about to be fired. The reasons given did not include the recent intelligence report that I mentioned above but rather his public statements about US interactions with North Korea. That said, nobody that I know has any doubts about what this will mean for future reports on the topic. The intelligence reports are published every four years (see May 23, 2017 blog) so the next one will come out after the coming presidential election. We will see how that will play out.

To stand tall, we have to believe our own data and act on them—not give deniers the opportunity to “objectively” refute scientific evidence. Nor is this trend of denying data restricted to the federal level. The October 16, 2018 blog, which I mentioned above in connection to ostriches, lists a few cases on the state level—including Arizona, North Carolina and Florida—that actively oppose the use of scientific findings about climate change and its impacts to create legislation that would affect essential economic activities.

It is within Congress’s power to ban such practices. A legislation directed at mitigation or adaptation to climate change has a chance to pass both houses of Congress – provided that it maintains a narrow purview. Republicans who already believe in climate change would have the chance to jump on the bandwagon—and possibly reap political rewards. Many Republican senators are facing tough elections in 2020 and public opinion now favors standing tall with regards to both acceptance of and action against climate change. As you can see in Figure 1, about 60% of Americans are either alarmed or concerned; any politician that runs against this trend might face electoral consequences.

standing tall, America, public, climate change, alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, dismissiveFigure 1 – American attitudes toward climate change

These attitudes are starting to extend to awareness of local and personal impacts in addition to the wider acceptance of those on a national and global scale. Based on a recent Pew survey, this trend should have major electoral consequences:

local impacts, climate change, survey, public, US, standing tallFigure 2 – % of US adults who see local impacts of climate change

Effective legislative action doesn’t have to be revolutionary. In next week’s blog, I will try to show that expanding and enforcing requirements for Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to specifically incorporate climate change impacts could do the trick.

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The Green New Deal Resolution: Is it Viable?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, Green New Deal, resolution, mother jones

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presents her “Green New Deal.” Image: Mother Jones

The “Green New Deal” that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, have proposed has became the talk of the town. People are alternately warning it could spell disaster and praising it as our potential saving grace. To start the discussion from a factual place, and leaving aside political considerations, I am including key excerpts from the actual resolution that Representative Ocasio-Cortez submitted to the House of Representatives. The full resolution comprises 14 pages and consists of the requisite two main sections: “Whereas” describes the background problems, and “resolved” proposes solutions. I am posting the beginnings of both sections, along with summaries of the rest:



Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.


Ms. OCASIO-CORTEZ submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on —————


Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

Whereas the October 2018 report entitled ‘‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 oC’’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report found that—

(1) human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century;
(2) a changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires,
(3) global warming at or above 2 degrees Celsius beyond preindustrialized levels will cause—

(A) mass migration from the regions most affected by climate change;
(B) more than $500,000,000,000 in lost annual economic output in the United States by the year 2100;
(C) wildfires that, by 2050, will annually burn at least twice as much forest area in the western United States than was typically burned by wildfires in the years preceding 2019;
(D) a loss of more than 99 percent of all coral reefs on Earth;
(E) more than 350,000,000 more people to be exposed globally to deadly heat stress by 2050; and
(F) a risk of damage to $1,000,000,000,000 of public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the United States; and

(4) global temperatures must be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrialized levels to avoid the most severe impacts of a changing climate, which will require—

(A) global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and
(B) net-zero global emissions by 2050;

The two reports referenced are recent and fully credible, and were approved by the current US government; I have discussed both on this blog. The Fourth National Climate Assessment was officially and directly approved by the federal administration. Separately, the American representatives to the IPCC gave their approval to the IPCC 1.5oC report.

Since the resolution also directly addresses climate refugees in this ‘Whereas” and security threats to the US in subsequent ones, the authors could have also included the recent report by the US intelligence agencies (see May 23, 2017 blog). Let me just quote the heading of the second “Whereas”:

Whereas, because the United States has historically been responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, having emitted 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through 2014, and has a high technological capacity, the United States must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation;

This paragraph also focuses on the responsibilities that the US bears for climate change. From here the resolution shifts gears to address the economy, income inequality, stagnation, general injustices, etc. within the country. It looks at our history, from the New Deal to WWII, and moving forward.

After listing the many conditions that make the resolution necessary, the document enumerates its suggestions for remedying the problems:

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives—

(1) that it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal—

(A) to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;
(B) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States;
(C) to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century;
(D) to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come

(i) clean air and water;
(ii) climate and community resiliency;
(iii) healthy food;
(iv) access to nature; and
(v) a sustainable environment; and

The first resolution covers a great deal of territory, spanning well beyond the environment. The second one, that I am not showing, specifies over 10 years’-worth of steps in national mobilization necessary to accomplish all of these goals.

The submission is a congressional resolution:

In each chamber of Congress, four forms of legislative measures may be introduced or submitted, and acted upon. These include bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate follow similar rules when making decisions on any of these actions. Both bills and joint resolutions are used when the focus is on making laws; a joint resolution can also be used to propose an amendment to the Constitution. Both concurrent and simple resolutions are used to delegate official internal Congressional business.

I assume that this is submitted as simple resolution for official congressional business, not as a bill or joint resolution intended to become the law of the land. I also imagine that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez can count probable supporting votes and thus doesn’t presume that even if approved by the House of Representatives, Senate approval will follow.

However, the resolution is now clearly entering the political dogfight:

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate would vote on the “Green New Deal” introduced by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., last week.
  • The proposal, which is not expected to pass the GOP-dominated upper chamber, could force some Democrats to make a politically awkward calculation.
  • Ocasio-Cortez welcomed McConnell’s maneuver, saying that he and the GOP are “terrified of this winning vision of a just and prosperous future.”

Omitting some of the specificity in terms of timing, the resolution resembles the UN’s “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) that I described in the October 6, 2015 blog. The resolution could be much more effective if it separated the “green” part from the “New Deal” part. Next week I will look at possible alternative strategies that might achieve similar results while possibly attracting more bilateral support.

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Wisdom from Australia: Are You Reading This?

comic, weather, denial, climate change, global warmingIn my first blog that I posted more than six and a half years ago, I described my early Holocaust experiences and their connection to my interest in climate change. I was born in Warsaw, Poland three months before the German invasion. We were liberated by units of the American army less than two months before my sixth birthday. After our liberation, I went with my mother to Israel (it was British-controlled Palestine at the time). One of my cousins who is a few years older had similar experiences in the Holocaust (September 13, 2016). After liberation, his family also emigrated to Israel. After a few years, they moved to Australia. While he was in the Israeli army, he learned to be a draftsman. After he arrived in Australia, he got married, produced a wonderful family, and started to use his army-acquired skills to become a very successful builder.

We chat regularly and sometimes travel together (the September 13, 2016 blog describes our joint trip to Malta; the August 1, 2017 describes our joint trip to Thailand). Naturally, in addition to talking about what’s currently happening, we also discuss the past and the future. Our experiences from the Holocaust come up occasionally, as does my preoccupation with climate change—usually in the context of what is going on in Australia. The northern hemisphere usually only takes note of Australian summers during the Australian Open that takes place in Melbourne in January (it’s winter in much of the northern hemisphere, but it’s scorching summer in much of Australia). The last few summers in Australia have been exceptionally rough. I described the bush fires there (January 14, 2013 and October 3, 2017) twice.

It is becoming more and more obvious that attempts to mitigate climate change are no longer just an effort to make the lives of our children and grandchildren better—we are seeing climate change directly impact our own lives. The current US government’s attitude is well known. Every time that we have a cold spell like the recent polar vortex, our president prays for some global warming; he uses the brutal winter to refute climate change (don’t be surprised if these attitudes sound a bit contradictory). The comic at the top by Drew Sheneman sums up the attitude especially well. The Australian government’s approach is a bit harder to pin down because of the much higher frequency at which it changes hands. I remember an early visit to Australia when the issue of a carbon tax was on the agenda. At the time, many of my Australian friends were of the opinion that given the the country’s relatively small population (only 25 million people) they should be left alone, unregulated. But the impact on Australia is getting worse every year. The photo below shows a devastating photograph published a few days ago.

horse, dead, brumby, Australia, heat

A mass brumby death has been discovered in a remote location near Santa Teresa. Source: Facebook/Ralph Turner

The article provides a list of key points about the context of the photo:

  • Around 20 feral horses have been discovered in a dry waterhole in remote Central Australia
  • Arrernte man Ralph Turner said it was the first time he had seen anything like it
  • The region is heading towards its 13th day in a row above 42C [107.6oF]

Independent organizations including NOAA, NASA, the UK’s Met Office, and the World Meteorological Organization all just published detailed analyses of the most recent (2018) global impacts of climate change. All of them provided quantitative proof that 2018 was one of the four hottest years in the more than 130 years since we started tracing this indicator. Table 1 lists NOAA’s results of the 10 hottest years and their anomalies relative to the 1880-2018 average.

Table 1 – Ten Warmest Years (1880-2018)

With all of that, it is not surprising that my cousin and his family often follow my blogs. However, during our last chat, he admitted to me that he doesn’t read all of them. The essence of his complaint was as follows: when the blog deals with the Holocaust or with familiar European or Australian issues that he is familiar with, he is fine; when I deal with scientific issues, he hits a wall that discourages him from reading future blogs until I nudge him. His comment hit a sensitive point with me that convinced me to write this blog and ask for your collective help.

The main reason that I write this blog is to translate the science related to climate change into more accessible terms. I want to encourage people to mitigate the consequences of climate change on themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. Specifically, I am calling for both individual and collective actions, including participation in voting wherever it applies.

Throughout the almost seven years that I have been running this blog, I have gotten hundreds of comments. Almost all of these either agree or disagree with what I have written. I don’t remember getting a single comment that was focused on better understanding what was written, that would allow me to respond and improve my writing. I promise you I will directly answer every comment that does so. I want you to get what I’m saying.

Please help by letting me know if there are points upon which you need me to elaborate. Thanks!

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