Monday, March 31, 2014

Day of Reckoning

This last December, a definitive paper was published by James Hansen and his colleagues that effectively shows why carbon emissions must stop immediately in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, and that most likely even one degree of change in the global temperature is not safe, let alone the two degree change currently on the table for discussion by the UNFCCC for a climate agreement.

A review in a recent article of the urgency of the situation emerging from scientific study is sobering. The diagram developed in this article is based upon information published in Science magazine showing an assembled curve known as "the wheelchair", which is a temperature chart that tracks the historic carbon levels precisely. It's documented with lots of other science measurements in a Climate Change summary and update page being maintained by Guy McPherson.

In order to show the essence of the situation that we're in, and anticipating the decision that the world will need to come to in December of 2015 in Paris, I've appended the diagram to lay out the kind of future that we'll be effectively deciding on, just to clarify the issue. As you can see, human civilization emerged and flourished over 10,000 years during a time of very benign conditions consisting of a balanced ecosystem with abundant plant and animal life. This ecosystem was fairly self-regulating in that the carbon was balanced by living systems. That mechanism is nearly gone now, having been decimated by human habitation. We are now creating a new mass extinction, wiping out countless species. On top of that, the carbon spike we've created is pulling a massive trigger, and the system now has a minimal capacity to balance and is beginning to wobble. The Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine is now tracking these climate anomalies on a daily basis.

This spike in carbon that shows on the chart is unprecedented - its rate of increase is faster than anything in the total record of geological history. Before humanity existed, the carbon and temperature had periods where these conditions existed, but these changes ocurred over thousands of years, not in the extreme spike of the 200 years of our industrial age. The atmospheric carbon was absorbed and trapped by the ecosystem which ultimately balanced out after the last ice age.

The astronomically rapid release of heat and carbon by human activities, which this planet has never seen before except during extinction events (there have been five) is triggering catastrophic climate anomalies that are destabilizing a very weakened ecosystem that no longer has any reserve capacity to absorb the shock.

The IPCC's AR5 fifth assesssment report, Part 2, has just been released, and their consensus is that we're experiencing an already dangerous impact on the global climate. A summary of the high points is here. A video from this report - Working Group II - Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, goes into further depth on their perspective.

The responsibility for a solution lies ahead of us in Paris next year, and it simply consists of an equitable global agreement on emissions by all countries that rapidly cuts back on all fossil fuel use. As a strategy, all countries need to enact policies and laws that will enable them to arrive simultaneously at the agreed-on goal of zero emissions. Large and rich energy consumers will need to curb their energy use faster than the poorer countries. The poorer countries will not be asked initially to make large sacrifices but must agree that they will strive to reach zero carbon emissions at the same time as everyone else. Rich nations  will assist them so they do not have to sacrifice their social or environmental goals but poor countries need to understand that they will be held accountable and not exempt from the unified global effort. Without this concerted global effort the strategy will fail, and there won't be much left to do about it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Winds of Change

It feels like I'm no longer screaming into the wind. Last night 28 Senate Democrats held an all-night session presenting the myriad points about the need for climate action, livestreaming on C-span. These are the members of the Senate Climate Action Task Force, headed up by Bernie Sanders, and taking the policy cue from the President's Climate Change Action Plan, upon which he has based some executive actions.

The discussion basically went through the IPCC AR5 report point-by-point, establishing that there is a global emergency that must be addressed quickly and forcefully. These Senators have been working for months to craft a position that will allow legislation to be passed by the entire legislature in future sessions. It needs to be a bipartisan effort, and they spoke at length about that issue. They decried the partisanship that has arisen around climate change, which is a legacy of the collapse of the Democratic legislative efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

A significant plank in this legislation would be phasing out the fossil fuel subsidies, a point raised in the discussion. The International Energy Agency estimates that the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies – which amount to more than $500 billion every year globally – would lead to a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below business as usual by 2050. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.

The stakes for the entire world have never been higher. Rebecca Solnit describes the magnitude of global climate change, and how it now literally threatens our existence. Yet we continue to fiddle away...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Zero in 2050

Feldman Architecture
A 2005 Governor's Executive Order and 2006 statute establish GHG reduction goals and mandates for California. The Climate Action Initiative (Executive Order S-3-05, June 2005) set the following GHG emission reduction targets for California: by 2020, reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels, and by 2050, reduce GHG emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels.

This is in general alignment with the evolving global GHG emissions reductions currently being negotiated at the international level, with an agreement expected in January of 2015. In so doing this, California is at the forefront of dealing with US emissions reductions strategies and implementation.

California's new energy code - Title 24 - is requiring that all new residential buildings be net-zero in terms of emissions by 2020 and all new commercial buildings be net-zero by 2030. Fifty percent of existing state-owned buildings will be zero net energy by 2030. Other states are enacting tax credits to create incentives for similar building techniques. In coordination with these code revisions, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) is revising the financial incentives offered through utilities to encourage energy efficiency investments by building owners. The CPUC is reducing or eliminating past financial incentives for energy efficiency investments that are now mandated by Title 24. This year a new set of financial incentives will be launched that support comprehensive building solutions.

What is a net zero structure? Basically it's one that creates no emissions in its materials assembly and uses solar panels to offset electrical use. No natural gas is envisioned for new construction. California is aware that a steep increase in renewable energy must come with an investment in a smart electricity grid — and energy storage is a key part of the equation. Storage is intended to help address the intermittency of renewable energy generation, and can also improve the resilience of the electricity grid overall. This and other major impacts are anticipated on the physical infrastructure of our cities as well as industry codes and practices.

A case study and good example of the kind of things that will need to be done in residential construction, for example, are here at Treehugger. But the impact of these practices go far beyond simply designing in the traditional manner; this will radically change because of the real-time analysis in the design environment, enabling design decisions like form, orientation and facade design with real-time feedback using BIM program software. Integrated performance analysis lets designers understand the impacts of design options and allows for faster, more efficient design decisions with an audited design trail exported as clear reports. This represents a major shift for the architecture and construction fields, particularly since the construction product supply chain will be tracked in the design models as well, in order to comply with LEED-type standards.

This is the cutting edge of design and construction practice, being driven by the requirements of the GHG emissions reductions. Once in place, it will move rapidly on a technological learning curve which will outpace the old fossil fueled mechanics to embrace a flexible, dynamic and living environment.

Update: Emerging trends transforming the digital design and building production process. This is an approaching gamechanger for the built environment and compliance with extreme energy conservation design.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

With a Haiku

A wonderful presentation is online here

The reports released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can be daunting, even for science and policy insiders. The full Physical Science Assessment, the first installment of the Fifth Assessment Report, released in manuscript form earlier this year, is over 2,000 pages long. The series was released between September and November of 2013. It's a difficult and complex series of technical and science documentation, but comprised of absolutely critical assessments on the state of the planet.

I wanted to showcase a presentation created as a haiku by a US Pacific Northwest oceanographer, Gregory Johnson and sponsored by the Sightline Institute for a sustainable Northwest. This embraces the key public policy points in the form of haiku poetry and watercolor visuals.

The more people who can understand the nature of the crisis before us, the better to craft solutions that we can all fully participate in. It's the biggest single thing that has happened to this planet and human civilization that we've ever faced.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Little History

The structure of a piece such as this - Ave Maria - originally by Bach in The Well-Tempered Clavier, was adapted by Charles Gounod. It inspired Gounod to devise an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude (BWV 846) from the collection's first book. The structure of these pieces progress through the harmonics in different keys. Each set contains twenty-four pairs of preludes and fugues. The first pair is in C major, the second in C minor, the third in C-sharp major, the fourth in C-sharp minor, and so on. The rising chromatic pattern continues until every key has been represented, finishing with a B-minor fugue. It inspired Gounod to devise an improvisation of a melody over the C major Prelude (BWV 846) from the collection's first book. To this melody, in 1859, Gounod fitted the words of the Ave Maria, resulting in a setting that became world-famous. This exploration of musical structure is grounded in the fundamental scales generated from standing wave functions represented by relative string lengths.

Music has a unique capacity to move us, its harmonics resonating through our emotional centers and releasing the energies of the mind as well as the flesh. This kind of shared experience has the capacity to move us beyond our normal boundaries and engage us in a dynamic flow that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe this is the kind of experience that precedes and then builds the necessary synergy for reaching consensus on our human issues.

This idea was expressed long ago by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

Post script: Encore, July 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Fifth Year, Now Without Rain

We've entered a period of drought here in the Southwest; last year's record dry winter appears to be the new normal. This pattern has been predicted by the climate models, and so here we are. Planning is in place now with appointments at the State level for a drought management team:

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa (D-16) on Dec. 9 sent a joint letter to Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to declare a statewide drought emergency that would activate the state’s emergency plan and permit some relaxation of state regulations concerning water. Cowin hinted a drought declaration could be coming.

There's more to consider than just the economics and logistical problems of water scarcity. We have forests and an urban biosphere that are severely stressed already. The ecology of forests and their complexity rely upon sufficient water and soil humidity to maintain the forest structure and underground water and nutrients. During droughts, the resiliency of these forests and landscaping are greatly reduced, and the recovery is a slow and complex process, potentially threatening its viability. A video from the University of British Columbia examines the nature of this integration of the living forest.

In this real-life model of forest resilience and regeneration, Professor Suzanne Simard shows that all trees in a forest ecosystem are interconnected, with the largest, oldest, "mother trees" serving as hubs. The underground exchange of nutrients increases the survival of younger trees linked into the network of old trees. Amazingly, we find that in a forest, 1+1 equals more than 2.

Update Dec. 21, 2013: There's a reason for that.
The extraordinary California dry spell continues: 2013 will probably be the driest year on record (from California Weather Blog)