Foster: A dithering attack on climate change

Editor’s note: Charlotte resident Rebecca Foster is a member of the town’s energy committee and writes a column for The Citizen, a weekly newspaper for Charlotte and Hinesburg.

“Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth,” scientist James Hansen famously said almost two years ago. “That is the equivalent of what we face now [with climate change], yet we dither.” The asteroid, evidently, has grown larger. Hansen et al.’s paper a couple of weeks ago in the journal PLOS ONE concludes that the rise of 2 degrees C in global temperatures once thought manageable would in fact spur feedback “warming of 3-4° C with disastrous consequences.”

I wonder, do we dither?

Members of town energy committees from all over Vermont convened at the annual Community Energy and Climate Action Conference on Dec. 7 to talk about food and business, poverty and politics, new technologies and energy, faith and youth. In short, all that they have been doing, and all that they hope to do in their towns to solve the climate crisis. If the dynamism and commitment of everyone at the conference were transformed like the sun into kWh, we could power a large city. Easy.

We’ve all heard of climate feedback loops. Good sense has a feedback loop as well and, with any luck, it’s equally and oppositely strong: Farmers, businesses, students, professors, landowners, religious leaders, moms, dads, and kids are becoming irreversibly enlightened about the false promise of natural gas.

 

It wasn’t exclusively energy and efficiency. At the conference I learned that it’s easier to motivate people by asking for a big, exciting change rather than something small that’s just ho-hum. I heard the most succinct argument for organic food: It’s the cheapest because you pay for it only once. And it seems sliced bread is fated to be replaced any day now for the expression, “The best thing since air-source-heat-pumps.”

We had a surprise visit from Bernie Sanders, who has introduced a climate bill with a carbon tax. Anybody knowledgeable in the field knows that we need a carbon tax to wrest control of the climate change horses charging down the icy slope of a melting glacier. “Responsible policymaking,” continues Hansen, “requires a rising price on carbon emissions that would preclude emissions from most remaining coal and unconventional fossil fuels and phase down emissions from conventional fossil fuels.” Sanders is one of the few responsible policymakers.

So…individuals are acting. Communities are organizing. Our senator, almost singlehandedly, is on the case.

Sanders, who received a standing ovation from Vermont’s energy troops, called out several times from the podium: We need to transform our energy. We need to get off of fossil fuels. Hansen agrees, all credible scientists agree, and, so, yes, I agree, too! For these reasons, first and foremost, laying down one more foot of new fossil fuel pipeline anywhere is illogical, regressive, and puts a livable future ever more out of reach. Sanders has tried to tax natural gas and other fossil fuels in general, but he has not declared a position on Vermont Gas Systems’ proposal to add 70 miles of transmission pipeline to Vermont. It’s not his decision to make.

But it does raise the question of why so many people are quiet, especially when an increasing number of Vermonters are realizing the foolishness of the pipeline enterprise. We’ve all heard of climate feedback loops. Hansen predicts in PLOS ONE that a 2 degree C rise will lead to an “ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects.” Good sense has a feedback loop as well and, with any luck, it’s equally and oppositely strong: Farmers, businesses, students, professors, landowners, religious leaders, moms, dads, and kids are becoming irreversibly enlightened about the false promise of natural gas.

The problem with natural gas is not merely that it is a fossil fuel, but that it emits a greenhouse gas — methane — of the highest order.[1] The gas that comes to Vermont is fracked in someone else’s backyard, leaving devastation in its poisonous wastewater wake. Not only is our conscience thereby polluted, but you can’t build a pipeline long enough to escape its dirty legacy, unless you build it clear off the planet.[2] And for those who think they’re going to save a bundle using gas, use caution and look at independent financial reports. My dad warned me never to challenge the guy with quick hands and shiny shoes playing a shell game. It’s rigged.[3]

After the shiny-shoed multinational corporations based in Canada and New York, Gov. Peter Shumlin is the biggest champion of the new fracked gas pipeline. As long as he embraces the pipeline, he dithers on climate change. “Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences,” explains Hansen patiently, “would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.” The work many of us are doing, even the extraordinary Bernie Sanders, is probably not enough, but at least we don’t wittingly dither. To rephrase Jim Hansen, Mr. Governor, dithering is inexcusable — and unconscionable.

[1] See, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-kessler/harvard-study-blows-apart_b_4393599.html;

http://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/2013/methaneleaks.html;

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/06/07/238578/iea-golden-age-of-natural-gas-scenario-warming-climate-change/.

[2] See, e.g., http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=groundwater-contamination-may-end-the-gas-fracking-boom; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131002092621.htm.

[3] See, e.g., http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-big-fracking-bubble-the-scam-behind-the-gas-boom-20120301;  http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/Natural-Gas-Struggles-to-Rise-from-the-Ashes-of-its-Last-Bubble.html; http://www.wealthdaily.com/articles/why-natural-gas-prices-will-head-much-higher/4264; http://ecowatch.com/2013/08/23/fracking-false-promise-of-plenty-imperils-future/.

Comments

  1. Patrick Cashman :

    Got it, climate change bad.
    But let’s talk about this opinion piece. It illustrates well why many people find the climate crowd so distasteful; you can’t tell if it is about environmentalism or evangelism. This person’s arguments seem to consist entirely of “if you disagree with me in any way, then you are not knowledgeable or credible because people I believe told me so, so I don’t have to address your disagreement.” Phrases like “Anybody knowledgeable in the field knows…” or “irreversibly enlightened” to describe those who happen to agree with this person’s position demonstrate the author is interested more in promulgating dogma than balanced, practical, and commonly agreed upon solutions.

    • Jane Palmer :

      Patrick,
      Is that not the nature of an opinion piece?
      What I took from this piece is that the author is pointing out that climate change is NOT about an opinion…it is fact and it does seem as though many more people are being awakened to the way things are going. For you to spend your time trying to undermine the nature of Ms Foster’s message seems like a diversion tactic to me. Wake up and smell the coffee. Our planet is in peril and we don’t have time to argue about it.

      • patrick cashman :

        Jane,

        Is what not the nature of an opinion piece?  Evangelism?  I generally prefer reasoned argument and thought to blind faith.

        I don’t believe I stated climate change was an opinion, though I know there are those who would disagree with me.  What is very much an opinion however is what, if any, actions should be taken or policies enacted as a result of a changing climate.  And what the collective “we” are willing to give up in the areas of economic development, personal freedom, market opportunity, and personal financial impact in order to reach some as of yet un-agreed upon goal.   There are many who seem to believe that if you say “yep, the climate is changing” that automatically means you are then required to buy wholeheartedly into all their particular theories and issues.  We can choose to do anything from absolutely nothing (and live with the impacts) to reversion to a 12th Century lifestyle (and live with the impacts).  The collective “we” needs to decide what our course will be based on a rationale discussion and balancing of desired endstates and impacts, it isn’t a matter of having to choose between two extremist groups operating on blind adherence to dogma and their own personal prophets.  
        I would also argue that everyone needs to be very wary of those who try to rush decisions in order to avoid deliberation. To steal from Einstein:”If I had only one hour to save the planet I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and 1 minute resolving it.”

  2. Steve Comeau :

    “The best thing since air-source-heat-pumps.” This is an odd quote since it seems that air-source-heat-pumps are not a good choice for Vermont. According to the US Department of Energy, “An air-source heat pump can provide efficient heating and cooling for your home, especially if you live in a warm climate. When properly installed, an air-source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes.” That sound pretty good, but not great. The energy losses to produce and transmit the electricity cuts into that efficiency when considered on a large scale. Most new electricity generation right now is for natural gas, which defeats at least some of purpose of a switch from a furnace to a heat-pump. Also, if a home has a heat pump, it seems likely that it would then be used in the summer for cooling the whole house, where otherwise for many homes that are not in full sun, the windows would be opened for cooling.

    The point is, energy use and solutions for reducing fossil fuels is very complicated on a large scale. Even solutions that seem as though they are the “best thing” can have unintended consequences. A carbon tax, applied at the source, could work to reduce use of all fossil fuels. If it worked really well, the result of that tax may be the next generation nuclear power plants across the country, many more wind turbines, many more solar panels, and more biofuel. That is either good or bad, depending on your perpective.

    • George Gross :

      Hi,
      The above post about Air Source Heat Pumps does *not* accurately portray what is possible with today’s ASHP products. The state of the art in the ASHP technology has advanced dramatically over the last decade. In Vermont, it is now cost-effective to run an ASHP for when temperatures are at or above the mid-20s and use your existing heating system for the lower temperatures. In this “dual fuel” scenario, the exact temperature at which you switch over between the two heating systems depends their respective energy costs: the electricity cost adjusted by the ASHP heating efficiency factor for the temperature outside versus the cost of your existing heating fuel.
      For example, as I write this, I am heating our house with a Daikin ductless mini-split ASHP unit having a Heating Season Performance Factor (HSPF) of 10.6. The current outside temperature is 32 degrees, which is well within the temperature range where the ASHP is cheaper to operate than our masonry heater that burns purchased sawdust bricks.

      For someone already operating a heating-oil fired boiler, installing an ASHP could save in range of 30% to 40% of their heating season costs. This result is based on a REM/Design home energy model I have developed for a “typical” VT household, and which had assumed heating oil at $3.74/G and electricity at $0.149/Kilo-watt-hour.

      As for discerning what electric generation facility produced the Kilo-watts for the ASHP, that is dependent on where GMP is sourcing its power at any given moment of the day. To the extent that Hydro Quebec, solar, or wind power is available, the energy source is renewable. Over the lifespan of the ASHP, the GMP power portfolio will be trending towards these sources.

      Even better cost reduction benefit from the dual fuel heating system can be achieved by participating in a solar PV group net-metering project. Or better yet, doing a whole house weatherization project, which will reduce both the heating and cooling loads. That would allow you to reduce the capacity and first cost of the ASHP you would be buying.

      As you might gather, I view investing in a fracked gas-fired boiler as a poor choice. It commits you to an environmentally hostile fossil fuel at a time when every person could make economically and environmentally sound choices that leave that fracked gas in the ground.

  3. Dave Stevens :

    Hey Patrick, congratulations. I’m glad you’ve been anointed and can speak on behalf of the many and label the “climate crowd” so distasteful. Love your balanced approach.

    • patrick cashman :

      Dave,

      Hmm.  Fair point I guess.  I am assuming based on objections I have seen on this and other sites that others share my reasons for finding the climate crowd distasteful.  However I have no proof that my reasons are their reasons.  It may be that particular group’s claim to authority to dictate public policy and personal behavior in minute detail based on rigid adherence to their particular beliefs, or it may be something completely different such as the alarming number of single issue thinkers in that particular group.  Or it may be the rather strident and dictatorial nature of the more frequent commenters on these issues from that group.   But you are absolutely correct; I can only accurately say “why I find the climate crowd so distasteful…”

      • Walt James :

        The climate change challenge is, yes, a single issue. Unfortunately it is fairly all-encompassing one, unlike any other issue we’ve faced. So we are breaking new ground with it, right now, with this generation. This beef you have with distasteful environmentalists, their strident tone, their intransigence, might well better be understood by you rather than as a personal affront, as a reflection of the importance of the reality it describes and warns against. A finer example of “dithering” I could not adduce than your personal feathers getting ruffled. Nowhere, I believe, has Ms. Foster asserted here that there are not unscrupulous promoters of power, of any sort, nor are any power sources immune to predation. But yes, climate change is a really big, pressing, urgent issue not properly shanghaied by calls for “balance” between those who want to do nothing, and those who want to talk about doing nothing. Yes, it’s a strident issue, but it’s not one any longer open to interpretation. Science (at least on this issue) is not equivocal. There are no longer two sides. Building out infrastructure that perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels is at odds with and demonstrably destructive of alternatives to solve the problem. And of course nuclear energy (while it does have its adherents among some enviros, most decry it) does not have to be part of the mix.

        • Steve Comeau :

          Walt,
          Any serious proposal to eliminate or drastically reduce fossil fuel use needs to include nuclear power as part of the mix. The refusal of most environmentalists to recognize the need for nuclear power as a replacement for fossil fuels is at the core of the energy debate. Consider Vermont Yankee. After the plant shuts down next year it will not be replaced with a safer nuclear plant. The electricity that it generates will be replaced with some other base-load like natural gas generation. Without popular support for new and safer nuclear power plants, more electricity will be generated with fossil fuels. Solar and wind are increasing quickly it is true, but without real storage technology, these renewables will remain supplementary.

          • Walt James :

            Steve,

            It’s just not correct to say nuclear is critical to the mix. That betrays a knowledge deficit about what solar, wind ( both grid based) biofuels and fuel efficiency can achieve. Read up. Visit Germany. You’ll be glad you did.

  4. Maurice Morey :

    Yea Bernie, Vermont will lead the world and the Chinese are waiting for our next big move. Meanwhile, VT already has one of the lowest carbon footprints in a energy sensitive nation, and the highest energy cost, and a declining economy but let’s not hop off the cliff of green mania, lets launch off. We have to have some form of “on demand” energy, and natural gas is the cleanest and most cost effective, unless you want more nuclear plants? What about the shiny shoed multinational wind developers like Iberdrola who are not only
    destroying high elevation ecosystems in other states, but right here. OH, but that is renewable, so the blinders go on. Our Green Mountains are not renewable. Our tourism and recreational home owner job creation is one of the most “green” industries but let’s toss that down the drain. Lets save our wildlife from climate change while we chop up thousands of bats and birds with a few Bald Eagles thrown in. We need real answers, real fast for the real world. I hear all the problems, I don’t hear the answers. Bernie is still supporting the outrageouly wasteful Production Tax Credits for the shiny shoed wind industry. Sorry if I don’t agree with you Rebecca.

    • Kathy Nelson :

      Maurice, you said, “Yea Bernie, Vermont will lead the world and the Chinese are waiting for our next big move.” Well, would you count this as the next big move?

      “The United States and China have agreed an unprecedented partnership on fracking to accelerate the energy revolution promised by previously unreachable gas reserves. Under the terms of the deal, agreed after Joe Biden, the US Vice President, visited Asia this month, America will share its expertise to help to promote “sound and rapid” development of Chinese exploration for shale gas. –David Taylor, The Times, 19 December 2013″

      Should we call this America’s call to destroy aquifers all over the planet – to save the planet of course? But we need the gas, which is exhausting methane in the atmosphere, to run the back up generators for the heavily subsidized industrial wind turbines and commercial solar fields which only produce intermittent power. But we need the wind turbines because we think they reduce CO2 emissions (which they don’t) and if we build more of them we can save the birds and bats they chop up (now the logic of that really escapes me). Massive solar arrays steal agricultural land and also kill wildlife but the taxpayer subsidies given to big corporations for doing that are more important that getting homes insulated and offering discounts for energy efficient appliances.
      Rebecca, I have to agree with Patrick Cashman. The proponents of the climate change fearmongering are not doing this planet any good. Now if you want to comment on our human population problem and how that is affecting climate change that is a conversation worth having.

  5. Jane Palmer :

    The answers will not arrive in a neatly wrapped package under the Christmas tree, Maurice. Our energy needs are diverse and so will our energy sources need to be. Air sourced heat pumps do work in VT. Do some research. They may need to be augmented with other energy sources during really cold snaps, but I don’t think that should exclude them from the possibilities. I see the biggest problem with energy being that we are all so spoiled by fossil fuels that we refuse to consider anything that takes more effort or attention. Everyone wants a cheap, clean, easy answer and those options are turning out to not be so cheap or clean and they are causing the destruction of the planet. There are alternatives…such as community based systems, biomass and yes, air and thermal source heat pumps, solar and wind. But there will need to be some concessions and we need to be open minded to the alternatives.

    Vermont does have a low carbon footprint..so why should we be trying to catch up with all the other states in terms of burning “natural” gas? We don’t need it in our energy mix. That is my opinion.

    • Yes Jane, Please be open minded to the alternatives, even if they`re found outside the box. The world beckons involvement in her evolution

  6. There is an on demand energy source.
    The following I posted on FPF responding to a post promoting the energy and climate action conference.
    Since “climate change is a critical issue facing our children and future generations”, is it not incumbent upon us to forfeit our paralyzing fears,prejudices and apathy that blocks us from discovering the quantifiable truth?

    What we need to do Mr (no malice intent to limit honest, well meaning and hardworking individuals earning a living from renewables and weatherization) is to remove the blinders, weather externally or self imposed, in not wanting to believe there could be, and therefore not investigate the reality, that is the cabal between the shadow government, the military industrial complex, big pharma, big fossil fuels, big academia the nonprofit industrial complex…and the sequestration, by any means necessary, of the technologies that will free us from the grips of the petrofascist`s kleptocracy, Kunstler`s “reality mandated economic contraction” and the dog and pony show that is solar panels and windmills. (except perhaps for the very short term and windmills already in place)

  7. “A dithering attack on climate change”, Rebecca, I couldn’t agree more.

    But who’s doing the dithering? Is the Bill McKibben show traveling around to college campuses beating the drum to divest fossil fuel equities really anything other than dithering? (McKibben book promotions and sales do not count as non-dithering events.) Is putting a few environment destroying wind turbines on Vermont’s mountain ridges anything more that dithering? Is Bernie’s call for a carbon tax anything more than dithering? How much CO2 to you think will be removed from our air based on these sorts of ditherings?

    As you say in your piece: “At the conference I learned that it’s easier to motivate people by asking for a big, exciting change rather than something small that’s just ho-hum.” If you really believe this, then you have to get the champions of ending the use of fossil fuels to stop dithering and think big.

    Isn’t the name of the McKibben inspired organization, 350Vermont, derived from its mission, which is to reduce current CO2 levels from 400 parts per million (ppm) to 350ppm or about 15%?

    If you really want to think big and really believe the urgency of the CO2 problem is the equivalent of an earth destroying asteroid heading toward us, here’s a way to move a lot closer to 350 Vermont’s goal of a 15% reduction in CO2 levels.

    Lobby the legislature now to pass a law requiring that all Vermont motor vehicles be parked and not driven one day per week. This alone will reduce the largest source of Vermont CO2 emissions by just about 15%.

    Measurably reducing the amount of vehicle driving is a big and bold idea. It will get immediate results. It will send a message to the rest of the world. It will end the desecration of the environment caused by wind turbines on mountain ridges. It will allow President Obama to grant a reprieve for bald eagles, which he now says can be killed by wind turbine developers as they work to save the environment.

    This is more than tongue in cheek, its a serious thought given the level of alarm being raised about global warming threats.

    So, Rebecca, do you think its time to stop the dithering, think big and get the legislature to require all Vermont vehicles to be parked and not driven one day per week?

    • Laurie Smith :

      Go Peter! How about 2 days per week! Any other BIG ideas? We need them all!

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