Thursday, November 10, 2011

Climate Change Is Real--And We Can Do Something About It

Peter Sinclair at Kalamazoo Nature Center, Nov. 9
Here we are in the middle of what could be a catastrophe for all life on earth, and there is debate over whether climate change is a hoax or not.

Peter Sinclair, an award winning graphic artist, illustrator, animator and long-time environmentalist, decided to do something about it.  He approached climate scientists from NASA, the U.S. military, the U.S. Geological Survey, Scripps Research Institute and the like to help him understand the issue so that he could inform the public. 

Through the use of video clips, charts, graphs and short articles, he shares what he has learned on his blog, Climate Crocks. He also features the “Climate Denial Crock of the Week.”.

“There is a very organized, well-funded counter-attack by fossil fuel companies and extremist think tanks in the United States who have modeled their campaign to keep people in the dark,” he said.

Some of these same people worked for the tobacco industry to cover up health information about the effects of smoking.

“They are providing crunchy, little nuggets of disinformation that is put together by marketers,” he said.  “This allows media pundits like Rush Limbaugh to discuss the topic in 15 seconds while it takes climate scientists 90 minutes.”

During his two-hour talk last night at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, he held the rapt attention of 80 local environmentalists by graphically showing the effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) on the natural cycles of the earth.  His information is based on scientists’ measurements by satellites, submarines and on-the-ground observations. 

“The earth is in an energy imbalance,” he said.  “There is not as much GHG going out as there is coming in.”

Add that to the earth’s wobble (a 22,000-year cycle), tilt change (from 22-24.5 degrees in a 43,000-year cycle) and its egg-shaped orbit around the sun, and you get the melting of glaciers that have been forming over the past 3 million years. 

This melting is not caused by the sun but rather by a shrinkage of the polar ice caps.  Through remote sensing, scientists have determined that “perennial ice,” the thick ice sheet lying in the center of the northern pole, is disappearing in an “Arctic death spiral.”  The most dramatic effects took place in 2007. 

The U.S. Navy as well as Exxon, Mobil and Shell are looking at the same data and they are already planning for the time when a whole ocean will open up around the northern pole sometime between 2030 and 2040.  The Russians are also preparing a major pathway for shipping traffic that would be comparable to the Suez Canal. 

Admiral David Titley, chief oceanographer for the U.S. Navy and a former skeptic of climate change, is now telling his superiors that the ice melt is “a huge issue” where sea level could rise 3 to 6 feet in the 21st century.  This is essential information for the Navy, whose 57 worldwide bases have been built at sea level. 

Ice sheets have collapsed in the past and they usually take several centuries.  The concern with today’s melting is that if momentum takes hold together with GHG, the seas can rise as much as 200 feet, said Sinclair.

Many people confuse the cold winter they experience in their area with what’s going on in the rest of the world, he said.  For example, last December when temperatures were uncharacteristically low in the East Coast, temperatures in Greenland, Hudson Bay and the Arctic were 15 to 20 percent warmer than normal. 

More intense and extreme weather events like blizzards, floods, drought and hurricanes are also occurring, he said.  This summer’s average temperature and rainfall in Texas (87 degrees with 2 inches of rain) was more severe than it was during the 1934 Dust Bowl (84 degrees with 3 inches of rain). 

Sinclair spends his summers at Lake Superior where he has seen changes in the lake’s temperature.  While he could only spend 10 minutes in the water 35 years ago, he is now able to stay in for hours.  Scientists measure the lake to be 4 degrees warmer since 1980 with summer coming two weeks earlier.

Methane bursts released in melting tundra areas are also occurring as microbes break down organic debris, he said.  A “runaway effect” once started, can warm up the earth more than human emissions.

“If this happens, then, we are completely out of control,” said Sinclair who noted that Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu fully understands the radioactive properties of GHS.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Katey Walter Anthony takes us onto a frozen lake in Fairbanks, AK to demonstrate why methane gas has "exploded" onto the climate change scene.

NASA has also pulled together 29,000 sets of physical and biological on-the-ground observable data that shows a 90 percent change in a direction consistent with global warming.

“These things are what the planet itself is telling us in thousands of ways,” said Sinclair.

However, as grim as the situation is, Sinclair remains optimistic that something can be done about climate change.

“Michigan is one of the key places on earth where we can turn this around,” he said.  “It can become the spear point of a major industrial revolution more impacting than the computer revolution.” 

Millions of young people prepared for green technology jobs could make a huge difference on our world in the same way future scientists and engineers were inspired by President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon by 1970, he said, pointing out that the average age of the NASA control room was 26. 

“We need that kind of national mission now!” said Sinclair who contends that green technology can help the planet and be an incentive for companies to make money simultaneously. 

However, many people fear that any change from our current fossil fuel economy will mean that we will have to live in caves, candlelight and be without cars.  Many detractors and non-believers in climate change play on that fear, too.  Here, too, the reality differs from the rhetoric.

“Climate change is real and the most urgent environmental issue our society faces,” said Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical. 

Another development, “solar shingles,” can be put on the roofs of new “zero-energy houses.” They use 70 percent less energy than today’s houses—and then generate enough energy to be sold to other users.  These shingles are made in Saginaw and they have attracted other solar fabrication companies to move into Michigan.

Upgrading the insulation of old houses is another option, and although the cost is still high, it is declining precipitously.  Part of the reason why is that some companies like Sungevity are adopting a “solar leasing model” where panels are installed for free, the homeowner rents them and the unused energy goes back into the grid to be used by the utility company.

Actually, the price of solar energy has fallen 5 percent every year since 1970 while the cost of electricity has risen by 5 percent every year in the same period, according to Andrew Birch, CEO of Sungevity on the company website.

Sinclair called solar technology a definite paradigm shift where we can generate more energy than we use. This is possible because it takes 15 terawatts to supply the earth’s power needs for one year while the sun provides 6,000 times more energy (8,600 terawatts) every day—for free, according to Sungevity.  Today, there are 1 million solar roofs operating in America and there is a lot of potential for growth.

Example of a living building
While Sinclair admitted that the zero-energy house is not the total answer to our climate change problems, green buildings are the direction we need to go.  For more than a decade, Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) has been the standard to which green builders aspired. Now, a new standard has emerged called the "living building."  It generates all of its own energy with renewable non-toxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty. 

The Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn has a “living roof” where several varieties of sebum (a mossy-looking plant) are trained to grow up the factory’s sides to keep the factory warm in the winter and cool in the summer. 

This came about when Ford called in acclaimed "eco" architect Bill McDonough in 2004 to help with the redesign of their Rouge plant in Dearborn where the F150 pick-up truck is made.  As a result, the factory now has one of the biggest green roofs in the world.  

The video below features Roger Gaudette of Ford Land who talks about the idea behind the factory and gives viewers a look at the roof.

Wind turbines provide yet another energy-producing alternative and Michigan once again is well-positioned to take advantage of this technology.  Pigeon (in the Thumb area) is a leader in generating wind power while hundreds of turbines are going up in Gratiot County (south of Mt. Pleasant) with plans for more in Montcalm County (east of Gratiot County). 

Sinclair said that there is enormous potential for the Great Lakes region to equal the wind generation of the Great Plains, often dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”  The East Coast alone has enough wind to power the whole country.

However, skeptics ask what happens when the wind stops blowing.

“This is a non-problem,” said Sinclair who explained that every energy source is intermittent and that they are designed to store energy for those down times.  The same thing can happen with wind. 

He added that Michigan has excellent geology for underground caverns where energy may be stored. 

Community colleges, including Kalamazoo Valley Community College, have created educational training programs for wind energy technicians.  They can make $22 to $33 per hour, which comes out to $40,000 to $60,000 per year. 

The need for people who can build, design and transport windmills will also emerge. 

“This is good for Michigan and it could create 30,000+ new jobs—if we want them,” said Sinclair.  “The window is now open but it can close.  Right now, we are dithering.”

The audience expressed some concern that wind turbines will attract and kill birds.  According to the National Academy of Science about 35,000 birds have been killed with 25 percent of them at one site in California constructed in the 1980s because of improper siting.  Now, sponsors of any turbine project must file an environmental impact statement.  Sinclair added that urban life and house cats kill hundreds of millions of birds.

The real threat of GHG is that all species are in danger because of climate change, said Sinclair.  Within the next 200 years species loss is estimated at 20 to 70 percent of all living things on earth now. 

“We human beings are creating impacts the planet hasn’t seen since 65 million years ago when an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.”  

Sinclair also demurred over the use of biofuels because converting corn to ethanol is more a political issue for presidential primaries in Iowa than a practical solution to our energy needs.  

He reported, however, that certain biofuel applications have been used on commercial and military jets.  The Green Hornet, an F/A-18 Super Hornet, is fueled with a 50/50 mixture of biofuel made from camelina oil.  It was showcased on Earth Day, April 22, 2010, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.  Last month, Virgin Atlantic announced plans to make jet fuel from industrial waste. 

While Sinclair focuses on green technology he said there are some non-technological things people can do to help save the planet. 

“Buying local food at the farmers market is one of the most powerful things you can do,” said Sinclair.  “What you eat is impactful on the system--and it has more impact than the car.” 

He also pointed out that we need to see cities as “living systems” rather than just subdivisions. 

“People feel a loss of culture and communication but don’t know it.”  Living neighborhoods are what people want and they are seeing their property values go up as a result, he said. 

Finally, Sinclair emphasized that not everyone has to do all the things he suggests but that there will come a time, a tipping point, when our cities will change for the better.

“And, that’s starting to happen,” he said. 
Sinclair’s talk was sponsored by the Kalamazoo Environmental Council, a coalition of the area’s environmental organizations including:  Asylum Lake Preservation Association, Audubon Society of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo nature Center, Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, League of Women Voters of the Kalamazoo Area, Wild Ones, Natural Landscapers-Kalamazoo Area, Kalamazoo River Protection Association, Sierra Club-Southwest Michigan Group, Students for a Sustainable Earth.   


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