Category Archives: Climate Change

1 Point 5

1 Point 5: The sad truth about our boldest climate target

We’ve waited too long. Practically speaking, we are heading past 1.5˚C as we speak and probably past 2˚C as well. This is not a “fact” in the same way climate science deals in facts — collective human behavior is not nearly so easy to predict as biophysical cycles — but nothing we know about human history, sociology, or politics suggests that vast, screeching changes in collective direction are likely.

All those problems are going to get worse. We need to grapple with that squarely, because the real threat is that these escalating impacts overwhelm our ability, not just to mitigate GHGs, but to even care or react to disasters when they happen elsewhere. Right now, much of Australia is on fire — half a billion animals have likely died since September — and it is barely breaking the news cycle in the US. As author David Wallace-Wells wrote in a recent piece, the world already seems to be heading toward a “system of disinterest defined instead by ever smaller circles of empathy.”

That shrinking of empathy is arguably the greatest danger facing the human species, the biggest barrier to the collective action necessary to save ourselves. I can’t help but think that the first step in defending and expanding that empathy is reckoning squarely with how much damage we’ve already done and are likely to do, working through the guilt and grief, and resolving to minimize the suffering to come.

Rural Cycling and Micromobility

My Journey to the e-bike

I’m a child of the suburbs. I grew up thinking that the bicycle was a toy rather than actual transportation. In Arnold Missouri cycling anywhere outside of our “subdivision” just wasn’t something anyone did. Though our neighborhood was only three miles from “town”, they were narrow. I don’t remember ever seeing a cyclist on the particular road that one would have taken to Arnold from our location.

When I went off to college in Kirksville I got my first taste of using a bicycle for transportation. Beginning in my third year I lived off campus and got an old Schwinn which I equipped with a pair of inexpensive metal baskets. I used it for riding a half mile to campus, a quarter mile to the laundromat, and a mile or so to the grocery store. That was the beginning of my love of the bicycle and my understanding of it as an inexpensive, efficient form of transport for humans. As a small college town, Kirksville had a diameter of maybe 5 miles and was surrounded by farms. As transport, a bicycle was almost the perfect form of transport on the small side streets that made up most of the town. For myself and many others in the town, the bicycle was all the transport we needed and at very low cost of ownership.

When I moved to Memphis that bike went with me and got regular use there too until it was stolen. I replaced it with my first mountain bike. My transport was a mix of walking, cycling and driving depending on the task, destination and distance. But without a doubt cycling and walking were my preferred and predominant forms of getting around. Cycling was my practical way of transport but also grew into something new as I realized it’s benefit to my personal health as well as the environmental and community benefits. I began riding for pleasure, and my 15 miles a week for transport turned into 100 miles a week for fun and transport. This was the case until a knee injury forced me off the bike in 2001.

I reluctantly went back to walking and tried my hand at using one of the very first electric scooters on the market. It was functional but was not a great experience. Instead of feeling in control of my body and vehicle as I cruised along at 15 mph I was suddenly not in control and moving something closer to 10mph. I could not easily maneuver from street to sidewalk and always felt a little less safe. Even worse, the scooter was limited to 3 to 4 miles per charge. It was usually just barely enough to get me to work. I used it for a year or so and then went back to a mix of walking and, reluctantly, driving. At 32 years old I was fairly healthy but generally resorted to a car for transport to work because of the knee injury was enough to keep me from cycling.

Then I left Memphis in 2004 and stayed with family for 4 years before settling into my tiny house at my current location which is about 6 miles from the outer boundary of the nearest town, Fredericktown. And while I’ve gotten in plenty of recreational walking over the past 15 years, I’ve relied on a car for all necessary transportation into town for shopping or any other required errands. Due to my concern about climate change I’ve limited my car trips to town to an average of about 6 trips per month which works out to 90 miles drive per month given a round-trip distance of 15 miles.

Over the years I’ve kept an eye on small electric vehicles, especially e-bikes. In the past couple of years the technology has been making some big gains. Batteries, motors, conversion kits, and fully assembled bikes are all becoming more readily available at lower prices. Probably the most important advancement has been improvements to the lithium-ion battery. In any case, I wasn’t sure that I’d have a use for one because of my rural location but this past summer my interest in the possibility began to take hold. In late summer I discovered a new electric bike by Lectric that fit with something I could afford and which might have the range I need to be useful. A week ago I ordered it. It is scheduled to arrive today.

How will this be useful in my rural location? I’ll admit, that a part of my reasoning for ordering the bike is simply to enjoy the pleasure of being back on a bike. Initially I expected that, at a minimum, it would be useful for visiting my parents who live a mile away. I regularly walk that distance with my dogs for their exercise and to get mail so in that regard, I typically cover that distance on foot so it would not be essential except for making the trip faster, more convenient and more frequent. More frequent and convenient trips to visit my parents was the other motivator. But then I started looking more closely at other possibilities for extended range use.

Rural transport by e-bike?

Like many others in rural areas, I have roads that would be fairly dangerous to use for cycling. The primary 2-lane road between my tiny house and town has a 55 mph speed limit and no shoulder. I’d never feel safe cycling on it. But there is another route, a county road which is only an additional half mile. Much of this road is paved, a large stretch of it is still gravel, but it will get me to the outer edge of town at about 6.7 miles. The ride to the grocery store is 8 miles, a round trip of 16 miles. This road has far less traffic than the 2 lane highway and should be very safe for cycling. It will bring me all the way to the safety Fredericktown which largely consists of low traffic side roads that have speed limits of 25 or less.

The e-bike I’ve ordered has a cruising speed of 20 and a range of 25 to 50 miles which varies with rider weight, terrain and the amount of pedaling the rider contributes. In short, it will easily handle the 16 miles I need with a good bit left over. I should have no problem with light-weight, low stress pedaling. Not only will this get me to the grocery store in about 25 minutes but also the library and all the main street shops if I need them. Also, Fredericktown has two, two, ice cream shops.

In other words, a $1,000 e-bike will make it possible for me to reduce my car-based trips to town to one a month rather than four. And if I were in a position where I needed to daily commute to town for work
I could do that with this bike. In considering this for myself I’ve also pondered the possible usefulness for this kind of device in the larger rural community, hence the title of the post. Is micromobility useful in a rural setting? Before I attempt an answer, perhaps some context would be useful.
From Micromobility.io:

The mobility world we know today is based on 100 years of technological development. From the Internal Combustion Engine enabled by Rockefeller’s refined Standard Oil to Ford’s innovative supply chain that allowed Model T’s to come off factory lines as easily as bottles of soda. From the mandates of President Eisenhower putting WWII US veterans to work building the most massive network of roads the world had ever seen to the rise of suburbia, malls and edge cities, a car in every driveway came to symbolize the American Dream.

But that car is a bundle. As a pre-paid option to go anywhere and at anytime, a car offers a bundle of trips whether short or long and whether used or not in a box weighing, on average, 20 times its payload. The externalities of this arrangement are becoming daunting. From more than 1 million fatalities every year, to climate change, to congestion that saps productivity and enrages, this object, carrying typically only one passenger, ceased being a liberator. The bundle became overbearing and over-serving crushing more value than it creates.

Where do we need to go?

An excerpt from the Micromobility Manifesto:

Micromobility is a big word for a small idea.

The idea is small in the sense that it represents machines that are small.

Machines that are sized to the job at hand: moving people. And not sized to the process that makes them move.

Machines made to fit us not their internal violent reactions.

That such machines are now possible is a testament to our inventiveness and we consider that inventiveness as our superpower.

This manifesto is a call to use our superpower to make moving better.

Better by getting there happier, healthier and more in harmony.

In harmony with our environment and with each other.

In the medium to long term, it’s not really an option. If we’re going to address the problem of climate change we’ll need a radically different system for moving people and goods. But, again, can e-bikes, be useful in rural areas? For some in rural areas, yes, absolutely. Right now it is possible given current roads. In my use-case, the e-bike I have coming will work perfectly for my location. Looking at a map of the area around Fredericktown tells me there there are many other people living close enough to Fredericktown with direct access to the same kind of lower speed, low traffic county roads that they also would likely be able to meet at least some of their transport needs in the same way.

But there are many who, just a few miles away, would not be able to safely ride to town due to the higher speed, higher traffic roads they are limited to. But the variables change over time and what might be unsafe now might be safe in 5 or 10 years. The changes might come culturally, technologically or in terms of infrastructure. Let me provide an example.

In the past three years our county has become home to a Mennonite community. Within this short time period the local 2 lane highway that I will not use for cycling has become a primary route for Mennonites using their traditional horse drawn wagons. Now people expect to see them on the road and it likely has an impact on the perception of what normal traffic is on this road. Just three years ago the expectation was that this road was only for cars driving at 50 mph.

The point here as that what a community considers to be traffic changes. Our community now expects and accepts horse drawn wagons in and around town. We are prepared to slow down for them on the 2-lane highway and drive around them safely as we are able just as we do for farmers on tractors.

Similarly, as other forms of vehicles, in this case, e-bikes, come into wider use, their presence will change what is perceived to be acceptable and normal traffic. Of course, it’s not the same as a person on an e-bike is much smaller and in some ways more vulnerable. Even more, e-bikes (and bikes generally) are not very common on the roads in this area.

But what would happen if the bicycle grew in popularity over the next decade? Given the poverty of this area, affordable, sub $1000 e-bikes would be a great benefit for many in town and in the surrounding rural countryside. A recent report looking at e-bike trends forecasts a remarkable jump in production based on current growth trends. From the millions we’ve seen per year in recent years the trend points to 130 million e-bikes in global production between 2020 and 2023. The Verge reports:

The next decade is going to be defined by a revolution of battery-powered transportation, and the vehicle that will lead the charge won’t be the Tesla Model 3 or even the wildly polarizing Cybertruck. And it definitely won’t be an electric scooter.

It will be an electric bike.

Of course most of these will be sold in urban areas that are often viewed as the ideal place for bicycling and the e-bike due to the close proximity of destinations. In an urban setting 10 miles or less will get one to anything they need.

What I suggest here is that rural areas are actually somewhat similar even though on the surface that might not be the case. At a glance rural areas are spread out. But again, many rural residents depend on towns within 10 miles of their residence and with access to low traffic, low speed roads similar to the county roads I’ll be using, they could likely reduce their use of automobiles by substituting modern and affordable e-bikes.

All that said I’ll end on a note about American culture that seems to be especially true of rural culture that generally is more conservative. Cars are sacred, cars rule, and in the countryside trucks rule. No matter how irrational combustion-based travel may be it is a solidly entrenched norm here. For most it is a part of their identity and how they define themselves. As I recently searched through YouTube reviews of my purchase I came across two reviews by farm families with YouTube channels. Both initially laughed at the idea of trying an e-bike. Men on farms use big tools, loud and smelling of gas! The idea of such a quiet form of transport was an affront to them. Too vulnerable, too weak. But then they and their family got on the bikes and the unexpected happened: They. Had. Fun.

The e-bikes of 2019 are not weakly powered bikes. Turn the throttle and you zoom off. They are fast enough to be scary at first and then they settle into fun once the rider is used to them. And some of them can be put to real work, even on a farm. Put a crate on an e-bike and you can carry up to 50lbs on the back which easily accommodates a chainsaw and some tools. And I’m just talking about the more popular e-bikes that are designed for general commuting. There are others that are heavier duty cargo bikes and more will come.

The e-bikes of today and tomorrow have far more power and range than people realize. The are fun to ride and quite capable of transporting a person as well as tools and goods. But at the moment they are an unknown. I suspect that as people interact with them and see them more often they will grow quickly in popularity. They are inexpensive when compared to the ownership of a traditional automobile and make a lot of sense as real transport. And in the small towns that dot the rural landscape riding an e-bike should generally be as safe or safer than riding in an urban setting.

So, to answer the question, can micromobility become a part of small towns and the surrounding rural areas? Absolutely.

Links of interest:

Denny

December 1, 2019

The Guardian Reports:

Climate emergency: world ‘may have crossed tipping points’
Warning of ‘existential threat to civilisation’ as impacts lead to cascade of unstoppable events

Sadly we’re making no progress at all. In the U.S. the political process is broken. Most people I know refuse to be bothered. Sure, they know. They know. But they won’t take any responsibility for their own lives as it relates to climate.

Climate Change, Corporations AND Us

I was reading my news feed this morning and hit upon this article about zero-waste which highlights the efforts of people and businesses to pre-cycle. Which is to say, eliminate trash via the re-use of containers for shopping. Excellent. That’s exactly what we need to be doing. But that’s actually not the point of the post.

Early in the article I hit upon this and it struck a nerve:

In response to these bleak realities, we’re often told that it’s all our fault. Because you didn’t bring your reusable tote bag to Trader Joe’s, that polar bear is now dead. This is a lie, of course — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a damning report that revealed just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions, most of them oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP. But it would also be a lie to claim that online shopping isn’t terrible for the environment — in 2016, transportation overtook power plants as the top producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, with a quarter of that coming from medium- and heavy-duty delivery trucks.

Are just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global climate emissions? Well, for fuck’s sake, no. One hundred companies might be the source but we are also responsible because those companies are selling their product to us. However you want to break this down, ultimately, the chicken comes home to roost on our porch. We drive. We purchase products that are sourced, manufactured, packaged and shipped to us. Then we throw away the packaging (or try to recycle it). Then we use it and throw it away (or try to recycle it).

Every aspect of our lives is currently based on fossil fuels. So, those 100 companies are no more or less responsible than we are. We’re all a part of this process. Headline and story writers should be more careful of writing text that helps readers absolve themselves of their participation in the cycle.

Climate Change Gloom

(Note: This was originally written to an extended family Apple Messages thread as I shared the video there. Once I started writing what was meant to be a couple sentences I just kept going. Seems shareable here too.)

Upon reading my news feed this morning I came upon this is an excellent video. Beautiful but sad. That said, I don’t think they hit on the title as hard as they should have. It get’s mentioned once but it should be more prominent in the story.

The point about adaption is that at this point, going forward, the carbon in the atmosphere cannot be removed. Even if we stopped all fossil fuel burning now (which we obviously won’t) the carbon in the atmosphere will remain for decades. So, the melting we see happening now will continue for decades. So, the effects of climate change that we see now will continue and become more intense for decades. Droughts, wildfires, melting, changes in food production capacity, flooding… basically, more intensity, less predictability, less stable. With the carbon already in the atmosphere we’ve committed.

The scenario, as dark as it is, turns much darker when you then consider: We’ve made no progress towards decreasing our carbon output. It’s growing not reversing and is likely to do so for the next few years. Best-case scenario (which is not likely given current politics) is we slow and reverse carbon output within 15 years. The reality is that our current output will remain steady and grow slightly for the next 15 or more years. Then consider, the human population is currently at 7.4 billion and growing. Projected to hit 8 billion by 2023.

Back to the title of that video… “The only thing we can do is adapt”. The sad truth is that every new release of information that comes out now always says the same thing, “This is all happening faster than we thought it was.” It used to be 150 out. Then 100. Then 50. What’s now being talked about is that it’s not 50 or 25. It’s happening around us. But most people just say, oh, it still snowed, it’s still cold here in the winter. Everything’s okay. See, look, brrr, so cold. But the truth is most people confuse weather and climate. Most people aren’t doing the science and most people aren’t seeing the changes with their eyes yet.

So, to the younger of you, sorry. We will all have to adapt. But you will have to adapt more. I feel very guilty. The only thing that softens it is that I know you too will continue to do the things we did. You’ll make the problem worse for yourselves and for your kids. So, in the end, though you’ll suffer more, you’ll likely end up being as guilty as the previous generations.

Of course, this was written as an American for Americans (see note above). The truth is that many others around the planet will suffer far more as a result of developed nations’ lifestyles. As I get older I realize that there is no actual justice in our world. Sure, we can have social and ecological justice as a goal but too few do and looking out toward the horizon I see no sign of that changing, certainly not in the U.S.

Much, much more to say but for now this will do.

More Quickly

More quickly than predicted. Over the past 20 years that has become a common statement in every serious article discussing climate change research. Here’s the latest and as usual, it is alarming. But, it’s to be expected and more of the same will continue to come.

Ice loss from Antarctica has sextupled since the 1970s, new research finds

Antarctic glaciers have been melting at an accelerating pace over the past four decades thanks to an influx of warm ocean water — a startling new finding that researchers say could mean sea levels are poised to rise more quickly than predicted in coming decades.

The Antarctic lost 40 billion tons of melting ice to the ocean each year from 1979 to 1989. That figure rose to 252 billion tons lost per year beginning in 2009, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That means the region is losing six times as much ice as it was four decades ago, an unprecedented pace in the era of modern measurements. (It takes about 360 billion tons of ice to produce one millimeter of global sea-level rise.)

Tasting Climate Change

James Temple writing for the MIT Technology Review:

In early November, gale-force winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno that nearly consumed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 86 people.

By the second morning, I could smell the fire from one foot outside my door in Berkeley, some 130 miles from the flames. Within a week, my eyes and throat stung even when I was indoors.

Air quality maps warned that the soot-filled air blanketing the Bay Area had reached “very unhealthy” levels. For days, nearly everyone wore masks as they walked their dogs, rode the train, and carried out errands. Most of those thin-paper respirators were of dubious value. Stores quickly ran out of the good ones—the “N-95s” that block 95% of fine particles—and sold out of air purifiers, too.

I’ve long understood that the dangers of global warming are real and rising. I’ve seen its power firsthand in the form of receding glaciers, dried lake beds, and Sierra tree stands taken down by bark beetles.

This is the first time, though, that I smelled and tasted it in my home.

There will be much more of this to come. This is, obviously, just the beginning.

Harvey is the new normal

David Grinspoon, writing for The Atlantic, Hurricane Harvey Lays Bare Our New Bargain With Nature

As I write this, the disaster of Hurricane Harvey is still unfolding. Buckets of rain are still falling in Houston and the waters are still rising. The flood damage, biblical in proportion, is frightening to behold. Even as the rescue efforts continue, many are wondering, “Is this the new normal for our coastal cities?”

As Earth’s climate changes we can expect more destructive hurricanes. As sea level and surface temperatures rise, more solar energy is trapped in the atmosphere, revving up the hydrological cycle of evaporation and precipitation, and sometimes manifesting in terrifying storms. Add to this the rapid and sometimes careless development of our urban areas in patterns which are, shall we say, not always strictly motivated by long-term planning for runoff management and neighborhood safety.

We’ve set ourselves for a lot of pain. Climate change is only getting worse and we’re doing little to change things.

Apple and the environment

If you’ve read this blog for long you may have picked up that I’m a bit of an Apple fan. But it’s also true that I have, since around 1990, I have oriented the way I live my life around the question, “Is this good for the health of the Earth?” Those that know me would probably agree with the suggestion that I’m a bit extreme in that regard. The way I look at it is that it is, fundamentally, a question lived ethics and survival. What we do everyday impacts not only our future survival but the survival of countless other species with which we share the planet. Our choices thus far have been leading us to the extinction of other species and quite possibly our own. Our time on this planet does have an expiration date. One day humans will no longer exist on this planet. That’s a given. But will we end our time here prematurely due to poor behavior? Increasingly it looks as though we will.

I have long argued (as many have) that capitalism is incompatible with the longterm health of the planet. As an economic system it is focused on profit and specifically short-term profit. Corporations have demonstrated time and time again that they don’t do well when it concerns the environment and questions of human social justice. In the past ten years Apple has begun to demonstrate that it is possible continue making a profit even as it undergoes a dramatic shift in it’s social and environmental impact from a negative to a positive. Apple isn’t just minimizing its negative impact but is attempting and succeeding at creating a significant positive impact.

In recent years as it makes these changes it has made an effort to communicate to the public what it is doing. On the face of it it’s pretty easy to dismiss as the usual greenwashing that many companies engage in when they care about that aspect of how they appear to the public. In other words, marketing. But here’s the thing, Apple has gone so far in changing the way it operates that it no longer appears to be trying to convince the public that it is a good corporate “citizen”. They have seemingly made it a part of their mission to set the bar of conduct at a new level. This is a sustained effort to shift the fundamentals of the company from one that prioritizes profit to one which puts environmental impact on an equal footing.

In the lead-up to Earth Day 2017 we’ve seen a push by Apple to share what it’s been doing in these areas. In past years they have done the same but with each passing year as the scope of their commitment deepens it seems to be a shift from corporate marketing to one in which Apple sees a “teachable moment” and is educating the public not for it’s own benefit but for the public good. They are setting an example not just for corporations but even for citizens and governments. They aren’t just meeting the too-low requirements and goals set out by governments. They are exceeding them and raising the bar and not just by a little. And then they are saying to the world, do better. Do much better.

A day or so ago John Gruber of Daring Fireball and The Talk Show published an interview with Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of Environmental Policy. I remember when Lisa Jackson moved over to Apple having served 4 years as head of the EPA under Obama. At the time I just figured, oh, the usual high-level corporate/government revolving door. I didn’t pay much attention to her. But listening to that interview I can only say that I am really impressed. She’s a fantastic asset to Apple as well as an excellent STEM role model who also addresses the connection between STEM and our social and ecological problems and needs. I’ve listened to it twice and might give it a third go. She offers some fascinating details about how Apple operates in relation to resources.

As an activist who protested Nike in the late 90s for it’s overseas labor policies I was keenly aware that Apple was having it’s own labor issues in the early 2000s (and probably before). I began paying attention then to both the labor and environmental practices of my favorite technology company with some hope that they would “Think Different” in their dealings with the world around them. They have not disappointed. While progress was made when Jobs was at the helm their move towards greater social and environmental responsibility really increased when Tim Cook took over. The focus on the social and environmental responsibility has intensified greatly over the past 5 years. This interview is an excellent summary of those changes. But what is truly breathtaking is the scope and depth to which they have gone.

It’s easy these days to become mired in a mix of hopelessness, despair, frustration and disgust. Our political system seems equal parts corrupt, inept, and circus. On the issue of climate change the U.S. has proven largely ineffectual and confused. From the public to government to business, we’ve made little progress at far too slow a rate. It seems very likely that we are past the point of no return and that all there is to do now is adapt and attempt to minimize what now seems to be inevitable. But I listen to this interview and not only am I inspired but I’m embarrassed that it is a company… a capitalist enterprise that is actually leading the way, that is setting the best possible example not only for other companies but for citizens. As someone who has long considered himself an activist (of sorts) I suddenly feel a bit ashamed of my despair. That might not be exactly it or quite the best way to put it but it’s close.

Also, Apple has put together four videos for Earth Day 2017. Good stuff.

And yet another bit of Apple and the environment bit of news, Macworld reports that Apple will return heat generated by data center to warm up homes:

Apple is building a new data center in Denmark, and it has some interesting ideas on how to power the data center with renewable energy, while also giving back to the community.

Excess heat generated by the data center will be captured and returned to the local district’s heating system, which will warm up homes in the community.

This is just one example of many that illustrates the scope of commitment that Apple is making to this effort. This is exactly the sort of project that Lisa Jackson is describing in the above linked interview with John Gruber.

Last but not least, Apple is set to move into it’s new headquarters, Apple Park. Much work is still being done but April was to be the month that employees started moving over. To say that I’m impressed with Apple Park would be a huge understatement. From native and edible landscaping to the heating and cooling to the local energy production, it is, by all accounts, the standard for large scale green architecture and landscaping.